To win the race to get first-in-class medications to market, pharma leaders must focus on acquiring these top skills for their organization.
If you're the founder, president or global head of HR of a pharma or biotech company, you already know that you’re either first in class, best in class – or irrelevant.
The first three products to market within a certain category get the best pricing. While the first in class still captures the most value, it has to prove that its value is superior over existing therapies. The best-in-class captures 88% of the value of the first and must still work harder to show superior value to the first and other in-class therapies.
Winning the first-in-class race is about more than strategy and great R&D. Strategy simply gives you the starting point; you also need the right talent that can problem-solve as the strategy encounters inevitable resistance. This is easier said than done, particularly in a market like Japan.
As such, given R&D takes over 10 years and often over $1 Billion, you want to capitalize on every product launch to maximize its value-capture. To do this, you need leaders with the social agility to work across functions and borders, and the professional agility to embrace the inevitable challenges and pivot to innovate solutions.
Did you know that mis-hiring is very common in Japan? According to a recent report by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Japan faces a high mismatch of skills and qualifications against job positions compared to the global average. Furthermore, Japan has a higher percentage of adults that lack basic ICT skills to solve problems compared to the average among OECD countries.
A survey by PriceWaterhouseCoopers shows that Japan seems to be falling behind the race for upskilling, too. Only 29% of Japanese respondents say they are learning new skills, particularly technology skills, compared to 85% of the global respondents. These are worrying indicators for hiring among pharmaceutical companies engaged in a highly competitive innovation race.
What can pharma leaders do to address the challenges?
“Strategy is just a starting point,” says Russell Potter, Principal Consultant at RGF Executive Search Japan. “Any strategy in any industry will come up against friction as soon as it is implemented in a real-world setting. In pharma this can be from regulators, alliance partners, suppliers, patients, and in trials. Things will never go according to plan. You need people who can quickly act, course-correct, and adjust the strategy accordingly.”
According to Potter, pharmaceutical companies need the right mix of talent that possess not just highly specialized therapeutic expertise, but also the flexibility, agility, creative problem-solving, critical thinking, and entrepreneurial mindset needed to get ahead in the race.
However, finding people with such skill sets is extremely difficult in Japan because of cultural factors and an educational system that places great emphasis on structure and standardization. Besides, it’s difficult to identify and assess these skills in a job candidate’s CV.
Of course, you can find a trusted referral who's already in the industry and know who’s who, but this is tough to do in a country that values privacy and discretion.
Potter says that many pharmaceutical companies are also seeing the value of working with executive recruiters who meet people in their industry day in and day out, year in and year out.
“We don’t just know who the candidates are,” he said, “but also understand all the intangibles, such as their personalities, work styles, how they respond to challenges, how they fit into our client’s company culture. These are things you won't see on a resume, but which recruiters encounter daily.”
In terms of where the demand is, pharmaceutical companies are focused on hiring three main categories of talent in the Japanese market today:
1) Social and professional agility
“That’s the number one skill that’s needed in pharma for leaders,” says Ryan Sheppard, Associate Director of RGF, who covers senior management to executive assignments in Pharmaceutical Commercial Leadership, Life Sciences and Diagnostics sectors.
As R&D takes over ten years and often costs over $1 billion, you want to capitalize on every product launch to maximize its value capture. To do this, you need leaders with the social agility to work across functions and borders, and the professional agility to embrace the inevitable challenges and pivot to innovate solutions.
“The number of product launches is the best measuring stick for this,” Sheppard adds. “With launch experience, it means they know what the challenges are to get something launched and they have the means to find solutions. They can help pharma companies navigate illogical pricing laws, how to brand a certain product within a country, be able to launch events and pivot during a crisis like the pandemic and find solutions quickly. Those are the next generation of leaders our clients want.”
Candidates who’ve held brand manager, product manager or marketing director positions are typically tapped, particularly if they’ve achieved number one market share for a product they launched.
2) Market access and Regional Health Policy
Other functions that Sheppard sees that will continue to rise in demand in pharmaceutical companies in the next few years, include market access, regional health policies, and health technology assessments (HTA).
“The market access concept extends to how do we get the best pricing? It extends to, how do you launch this drug in the most cost-efficient manner, partnering with government and healthcare systems to identify eligible patients, instead of having sales reps going to hospitals, for example,” explains Sheppard.
In Japan, wherein the hospital systems owned by the government have a lot of data, the trend now for market access and HTA is to partner with them. We’re seeing data is used to empower the healthcare system and provide both market access and HTA with crucial information that can also lower the cost of launching the drug.
A candidate with experience on both market access and HTA can navigate the drug pricing challenges in Japan. We’ve seen it done with CAR T-cell therapy Kymriah by Novartis, one of the first products in Japan to go through HTA that’s been approved.
3) Data science
Life sciences have reported large relative efforts to make data usable—that is with the exception of pharmaceuticals back in 2018, according to a report. But the trend going into 2023 is that as the global market further opens up, 38% of pharmaceutical global industrial respondents expect the greatest technology impact will come from big data.
According to Chase VanDuzer, Senior Consultant in RGF, data science engineers have been in pharma in the last five years optimizing sales routes so the sales reps can get the most value of their time. “Now, it’s becoming a lot more on the optimization of internal structures and how different teams are organized. Some of the bigger pharma companies with 3000 or 4000 employees are using data.” And it will continue to grow.
“The data scientists mostly come from the tech industry, which is where data science was really utilized the most. Its function in the organization can explode in the next 10 years,” adds VanDuzer ,who specializes in healthcare industry recruitment and focuses on management to executive level roles. He’s seen companies compete for candidates with this qualification.
Not only can data science optimize big pharma’s internal structures, but it can also help accelerate drug discovery and development. Being able to search and analyze vast data on patents, scientific publications, clinical trials can help companies focus on which areas will likely yield best results at an accelerated timeline.
Both Sheppard and VanDuzer confirm that for professionals with such experience, the pool is quite limited in Japan. For Sheppard, “the good ones are very focused on launching products so they’re not thinking about changing jobs. They’re the most difficult ones to access because they’re just 100% consumed in making that product launch a success.”
According to VanDuzer, it can get even more difficult as the industry likes to hire people within the same industry. For data science, “I don’t think they’ll require much healthcare experience for these roles.” Otherwise, the pool gets even more and more limited and he likens it to a Matryoshka Doll. “It gets smaller and smaller.”
This is where RGF Executive Search Japan steps in. Sheppard, VanDuzer, Potter and other recruiters focused on Healthcare and Life Sciences have built relationships with these top talent for years.
“You watch them grow, these top talent, until they might be open to opportunities. We are thus best positioned to come in at the best time to introduce them to the client,” Sheppard explains.
Tapping executive recruiters means working with professionals who know not just what’s needed in terms of technical expertise in the pharmaceutical industry, but also understand the intangibles that make a candidate a real asset to have in the race to be first in class.