Pharma’s traditional R&D path is a business model under pressure. The ever-increasing demand for talented leadership in oncology is driving a need for collaboration

Rapid progress in the field of oncology is creating a skills shortage in the sector. As fast-growing companies search for experienced people, the talent pipeline is struggling to keep up with demand.

The current pace of innovation in oncology research and therapeutic development is unprecedented. During the past five years, 78 oncology drugs have been launched globally, covering 24 different types of cancer. By December 2017, there were more than 2,000 immuno-oncology treatments in some stage of development.

Industry is concerned there may not be enough patients ready and willing to take part in these trials. Similarly, a large and growing number of separate organisations working in oncology are all looking for talented leadership from a pool of individuals that simply isn’t growing at the same rate.

As we look to the future, key questions include: Where is the next generation of talent going to come from? And what skills will future leaders of oncology need?

Collaboration is key

RSA’s latest Talent Equity report shows that the traditional R&D path in the pharma industry is a business model under pressure. The ever-increasing demand for talented leadership in oncology is driving a need for collaboration.

Big pharma is choosing to collaborate increasingly with universities, medical research centres, research charities, CROs, diagnostic companies and biotech, often with powerful results. Collaboration is being driven by multiple factors, including the growth of combination therapies and changing business models, with big pharma now much more willing to bring in external innovation.

Academics are the driving force in Oncology R&D

Academia is fast becoming a key player in the collaborative model. Breakthrough academic research is fuelling drug discovery and clinical development and the need to innovate and move quickly has encouraged academics to play a bigger role in biotech than previously.

Academia is an important source of talent in biotech’s fast-moving oncology sector, with almost half of the scientific leadership in the sector coming from academic research. While some academics will naturally continue to work in academia and forge collaborations with industry, many others are seeking capital and spinning out their own companies. A third group is joining industry and facilitating the translation of science to clinical programmes, often in senior leadership positions in larger pharma and biotech companies.

Transitions from academia/the not-for-profit sector to industry are a sign of the intense competition for talent in this space. These transitions and the growth in collaborations are acting as a catalyst and are helping to solve the problem of talent shortages. Academic leaders who make the move from scientific and medical academia to industry often bring connections to a significant and extended network, adding to a company’s reach and acting as a magnet for future talent.

Academia is clearly a strong source of talent for oncology. However, this transition creates new challenges as academics have strong research skills but may be unfamiliar with the regulatory and commercial paths for drug discovery and development. Clinician scientists are particularly highly sought after as they can play a key role in early stage clinical work where industry experience is not an absolute priority. For other roles, successful employers are adopting more flexible approaches to finding new people, often looking for transferable skills and a willingness to take a hands-on approach.

Charities are a key source of funding and skills

Charities are another valuable source of talent. They are unique in that they often work in areas where no one else is operating. Cancer research charities often invest with a long-term vision and can take bigger risks in areas that haven’t been previously explored. As their funding comes from donations, they aren’t under tough commercial pressures and they have the flexibility to carry out more blue-sky research. These charities are more committed than ever to growing the skills pipeline to deliver future generations of researchers equipped to work in oncology innovation.

Medical research charities also play a key part in the uniquely diverse funding base for oncology research. This base, comprising funding from public sector, industry, charity, philanthropic and venture sources is a powerful driver of progress in the field.

Essential skills for future leaders in oncology

Given the scarcity of talent, it is essential to be creative and assess how individuals with a diverse range of backgrounds can apply their expertise on specific technology platforms to new diseases. Rather than searching for experience in specific techniques, it is better to ask: how agile is he/she? Can they come in and utilise the skills they have gained from other fields to make a valuable contribution to oncology?

While there are many people with product development experience, there are far fewer people who can translate ideas from research to early stage clinical development. Because of this, industry is beginning to have to think more laterally and bring in people who have experience in therapy areas that are closely aligned to oncology in terms of complexity or other key criteria. HIV is a good example of this – a disease that was initially very complex but where patients can now live an almost normal life.

The complexity of the new oncology ecosystem needs people who are much more collaborative and creative, able to value the contribution of all sides, see the big picture and be a credible, recognised leader in their field. A key quality for future oncology leaders is a willingness to roll up their sleeves, moving away from the old delegation behaviours of big pharma. Leaders will need to be open-minded and willing to really challenge the way things are done. Those individuals moving to commercial roles will also need good communication skills in order to be able to work with regulators and healthcare providers to deliver innovative but currently expensive therapies.

The transition from academia to industry isn’t for everyone. Commercial careers offer little of the security of academic roles and to some extent a loss of status. Then there is the move from large, structured organisations to the multitasking needed in an SME or start-up. However, for those excited by the scientific opportunity, there is no better place than a well-funded and highly focused biotech company, so long as you accept the potential risk, are able to adapt and have the energy and passion to move at pace.

Big pharma companies have been developing therapeutics for over 100 years. But as increasing competition and talent shortages are putting the business model under pressure, companies are having to be creative when it comes to accessing and hiring talent. We’re already seeing cross-pollination and collaboration between industry, academia, charities and government, and this is likely to increase over time.

Nick Stephens is executive chairman and Dr Andy Theodorou senior consultant at The RSA Group (