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Small Business Spotlight: Wolfe Laboratories

This small biotech company successfully attracts great hires

by Doug Hardy
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Pick up the childproof container that holds a prescription or an over-the-counter remedy and notice the ingredients on the label. Those one or two ‘active ingredients?’ That’s the drug that treats what’s ailing you. Now, what about those ‘inactive ingredients?’ If those ingredients are inactive, what are they doing?

Turns out they’re doing a lot. In the chemistry of pharmaceuticals, inactive ingredients hold tablets together, extend the remedy’s shelf life, regulate how active compounds are absorbed by the body, or mitigate side effects. They make it possible for the drug to do its job. (So much for the term “inactive”!)

Drug makers perform rigorous testing before a drug is considered safe and effective. Inactive ingredients must be tested as well, and while it’s easy for a large drug company to have staff on hand to test ingredients, hundreds of smaller biotech firms can’t support such specialized staff. They need to hire specialists.

In the biotech-heavy market around Boston, small firms with a promising new compound often engage Janet Wolfe, Ph.D. and her 25-employee company, Wolfe Laboratories, Inc. (WLI) to perform tests on a drug’s active and inactive ingredients. Most of WLI’s employees are chemists and medical technicians, who are in demand by the big firms. Here’s how Janet and her team manage to hire great people in a competitive market.

They Know Exactly Who They Want

Rick Eastwick, WLI’s Human Resources Director, says, “The important thing is to find people who are passionate scientists. There are protocols and methods of doing science that our senior people here in the organization are passionate about, and they pass that on to the junior people."

“We’re also passionate about understanding the client’s overall framework,” continues Rick. “We need scientists who tell a client, ‘Sure we’ll do that test for you, but that’s probably not going to give you the whole answer,’ and then suggest a different test.”

That consultative method requires a quality less typically found in research scientists: communication skills. 

“Our lab reports are our products,” says Rick. “We have to hire scientists who can communicate effectively both in written form and in discussions. Sooner or later every person at WLI –– even very junior scientists –– must explain their work to a client in a conference call or presentation. From the beginning, Janet’s been a stickler about hiring people who write and speak well.”

They Play to Their Strengths

Scientists with that combination of talents are rare enough, and the recruiters at big pharmaceutical firms want them too. WLI competes for talent with a recruiting message focused on four unique strengths:

1) The advantages of working in a smaller organization:

Head of Marketing Margarita Hunter summarizes her message to candidates –– “As you mature, we can bring you along more rapidly. In a big pharma firm, you might wait in line to work on the next juicy project. At WLI, you’ll take on as much responsibility as you can handle. You’ll know your personal impact on the bottom line. You’ll meet clients personally, and you’ll work on many different projects in a year. It’s a collegial environment where you’ll get to see most of the operations as a whole, rather than solely from one department.”

2) The stability of a diverse revenue base:

Biotech is a notoriously high-risk, high-reward business: The discoverers of a blockbuster drug prosper, but small research firms (the majority of Wolfe’s clients) depend on the success of just one or two drugs. They must focus all their resources on discovery, and place big bets. If a drug doesn’t come to market, the company might fail. Wolfe partners with many companies, and thus diversifies its risk. Just as one might run into difficulties with its clinical trials, or even go out of business, others are moving forward, and paying WLI for its services. To the laboratory scientist looking for stability in biotech, it’s an attractive position.

3) The promise of a compelling business story

Rick tells candidates this 160-year-old story: “Gold was discovered in California in 1849. Thousands of wannabe miners rushed to California to dig gold and get rich. Maybe one in a thousand really struck it rich. Who were the people that consistently made money? It was the merchants who were selling the pans, the shovels … it was Levi Strauss, selling work clothes."

“Biotech work can be a gold mine, but it’s just as risky,” Rick continues. “We are the merchants in this story. We’re cheering the pharmaceutical companies on saying, ‘Go get ‘em, this is great, fantastic –– give it another try!’ And every time they try again, we’re happy to be there selling them what they need to get from point A to point B. That’s our market position.” 

4) A growing public reputation

Natalie Dell, a Marketing Specialist at WLI, picks up the analogy: “An entrepreneurial spirit trickles down from the top to everybody else here. Maybe it’s just a hint of competitiveness that drives employees here." 

“President and founder Janet Wolfe was named Entrepreneur of the Year by the Boston Chamber of Commerce; the application process was grueling. We wrote essays, we had a site visit –– when you have 25 employees at your company, having 25 outsiders come in… it was a company wide effort. We had employees setting up coffee and ordering flowers and cleaning the lab and getting the presentation ready. Everybody was into this, and the driver behind that was the entrepreneurial spirit. And we got that award."

Opportunity, stability, a compelling story and a strong reputation –– at any time this is a full and promising message to candidates. During times of economic uncertainty, it’s impossible to ignore.

They Have High Expectations of Everyone

Great hiring goes beyond attracting strong resume submissions. Good candidates expect to have good interviews, so Wolfe demands that its hiring managers prepare for a rigorous interview process.

“If you come for an interview at a company like Wolfe,” says Rick, "the interviewers ask very challenging questions. The strong candidate gets a chance to show off his or her knowledge. Result -- those candidates think, ‘These Wolfe people know what they’re doing –– I want to be part of this.’” 

Janet Wolfe still meets everyone before an offer is made. That includes interns, who are required to give a presentation of their best work, giving the hiring staff a chance to test their entrepreneurial spirit and their communication skills. 

“Janet is a believer in interns," says Natalie. "I worked for half a year as an intern while studying for a master's degree, and after six months I was asked to create my own full-time job description. That’s the entrepreneurial spirit at work.”