Talking Biotech Talent with IVIVA Medical's Dr. Harald Ott
Hiring is changing. Candidates are looking beyond salary and stability to find work that is meaningful, flexible, challenging, and supportive. Scismic helps companies navigate the changing landscape by applying scientific thinking to finding talent. Since the scientific process begins with observation, over the next few months, we will be talking with hiring managers in the biotech space to understand the challenges they are facing and what they have found to work well.
Dr. Harald Ott is a Thoracic Surgeon with special interests in Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Therapy. He founded IVIVA Medical, a Biotech Company with the goal of developing autologous tissue constructs as a solution to end-stage renal disease. Over the last 7 years, he has shaped the growth of IVIVA, initially as the Chief Scientific Officer, and now as the Chief Executive Officer. Growing the right team has been top of mind for Dr. Ott.
Knowing when to hire
How do you know when it’s time to hire and what to hire for?
How do we decide when it's time? It declares itself a little bit. We map our operations to understand our processes and to identify bottlenecks. Let’s say sterilization is a real issue now. We calculate how many full time equivalents it takes to do sterilization for all our supplies? Turns out it's one full time equivalent. We then look at the task characteristics to make sure we don’t create a very monotonous job. If that is the case, we divide up tasks, for example make sterilization a third of the job responsibilities for each person.
On the science side there's always a bit of opportunism. If we find a perfect athlete that falls into your lap one way or the other, we might make a decision to hire that person even if we don't necessarily have a job open at that moment. We are always on the lookout for developmental biologists that have an engineering angle or a translational angle who can decipher development and apply that to treat people. That's a very small group of biologists so if somebody happens to surface with that background, we try to see if we can add them to our team even if that specific skill set wasn't what we were looking for at that moment.
When you do find those gems that you really want to want to hire, what are the things that entice them? Is it about the job itself, is about what you're doing with organs and tissues that's exciting to them? Or is it the compensation and benefits? Or some combination?
We should ask that question of our team. I can tell you what I think it is, but please take it with a grain of salt because I might be making assumptions and can’t speak for everyone. I think there are two main draws. First, the topic we're working on has an enormous possible impact on humanity. There's a certain group of scientists and engineers that want to work to improve people's lives. At IVIVA, we are working on cutting edge lifesaving technology where we try to leverage developments from the last five years to help people survive with end stage organ disease. I think you either are or are not touched by that sort of idea and can get behind that. And then if so, that's a huge motivator and that's a huge advantage for us, right? That the person that runs a particular program is personally very invested in solving diabetes.
The second driver that I think really matters is the opportunity to create something new. Our line of work requires us to solve a new problem pretty much every day. I think a lot of people find this challenge appealing because there's no monotony, it is all about finding solutions. There is the Friday five p.m. total disaster that will eat your weekend. But there's also a breakthrough to take home at least once a week. That I think is an important motivator.
Finally, there is the culture that we build, I think it's really important to pay very close attention to that, to make it inclusive, to make it an open communication supportive culture where there's no shaming for mistakes. All these things factor into creating this very carefully formed, yet formed-by-itself bubble of a great group that people look forward to coming to work, and that's what it is. Yes, you have to keep people financially secure and happy, but these are priceless features of a startup company I think that we have to understand, value, and actively maintain.
So what are some ways that you are consciously working towards building that kind of culture?
Interesting question. What helped me was my own experiences from running lab meetings for a decade, and sitting in lab meetings before that, not running them and seeing the good ones and bad ones and learning from this experience. I think culture does not just form by itself. I think it's a conscious process and we have to be constantly on the lookout for things that could potentially hurt our culture.
For example, if a junior member joins and they're quiet for three weeks, it's really important to say, “Okay, how can we pull them out of their shell and bring their ideas out in the open?” and then when they do start sharing, not to say, “Well, we thought about this two years ago.” Having a culture that makes people comfortable and confident in contributing is key.
We are also aiming to be really thoughtful about creating working meetings. Which means, we share the data the night before, so then our lab meeting becomes a working meeting instead of everybody simply reporting what they did. In my experience, the typical lab meeting is that everybody goes around the room and tries to impress the group and the P. I. In my view, the ideal is to instead create working meetings where people work together on each other's problems.
The other structure we introduced organizes our team into independent work groups. We have a flat landscape but everybody has a core competency and has a work group they run. This is highly collaborative, and most team members are in each other's work groups. The effect is that you lead in some projects and you contribute in others.
Structures like this can seem somewhat rigid, but these workflows allow team members to work together and interact in a controlled way and that ultimately builds a collaborative and supportive culture. So the rigidity actually leads to more flexibility and more opportunities for more people to be leaders even within such a small team.
Diversity and Inclusion
Do you think these structures you’ve put in place to build culture also contribute to your diversity and Inclusion, or do you see that as a separate effort?
I think diversity and inclusion are topics that you, leading a team, need to think about and intentionally work on. I'm a thoracic surgeon and when I was in training, the percentage of female thoracic surgeons was less than 5% I would say. Luckily over the last 10 years that has changed dramatically, so that now in some programs over 50% of the trainees are female, and that is due to recognizing the issue and actively working on it. I am convinced that a passive approach to this doesn't really work. So yes, we pay close attention to diversity and inclusion and try to be absolutely balanced both on our teams and also in our recruitment process.
What are some ways that you try to get more balanced through the recruitment process?
What we learned in surgical trainee interviews for example, is that, if you do a job interview with somebody and there's not a single female interviewer – if it's a man-el (man panel) interviewing them – how are they going to feel comfortable joining your team?
A lot of this process is out of your control, right? You can't really make a candidate decide to join you or not, but you can certainly make sure you pay attention to the interview process. You want to make candidates comfortable that you and your team provide a workplace where they will be welcome and understood and find peers that are alike. So we make sure that people interact with their future coworkers both at their experience level and also their gender and ethnicity as much as possible during the interview process.
The hiring process
Where do you see the bottlenecks in the hiring process for you right now?
I think we've learned a lot over the past few years and improved our recruitment and hiring process. Currently our process is very structured. For each position, we review 50 to 100 resumes and then select 10 candidates for interviews and reference checks. That process is time consuming but absolutely essential. Scismic helped a lot to create that process for us and also keep us on track. We were a very lean startup and so in the end, sometimes things fall through the cracks and guess what? There's Helen from Scismic emailing me saying, “Hey, by the way have you followed up with…” Aside from an incredibly efficient pipeline, that proactive help keeps us on track and really helps us not to get in our own way because we ran out of time.
Do you have a favorite Interview question?
I do a lot of reference checks and aim to have deep conversations with a candidate's prior mentors. One of the things I always ask is, what's the ideal job for that person, what do they need to succeed? This may stem from my academic background where our primary job aside from innovation is really to educate and move careers forward.
How much do you attribute your hiring success to your team's on-boarding and training processes versus your recruitment and hiring process?
I think there's good data to show that good onboarding is essential. Bad and botched onboarding leads to downstream ripple effects that will impact the person's ability to integrate with the team, will impact their ability to perform and ultimately will seriously affect retention.
Our onboarding process was not ideal in the beginning or not as good as it should have been and got a lot better with time. Although we recognized the need for it in the beginning, that doesn't necessarily mean you can fix it right away. I very much believe in maintaining a flat landscape, but then at the same time you do have to create organizational structures that help people perform, especially when you hire junior people. So we took a lot of the feedback from team members who came on board to say, "we do need clear reporting structures." Our process is much improved now compared to a year ago, but there's still room for improvement.
How would you weigh the pros and cons of hiring quickly versus hiring more slowly but finding the perfect candidate.
So I think it's a very unique experience with a small startup because if you add the wrong person to a very small team, it can really hurt the dynamic of the team and be quite disruptive. I'd be extremely cautious about hiring the wrong person. For that reason we do group interviews so our team members have an opportunity to weigh in on a candidate. Usually, red flags don't go away and It's interesting that most often there's a consensus on the candidates. I think picking the right fit is key and there’s this idea that skill is trainable, but fit isn’t. Compromising for speed is not the right approach in my opinion.
Advice to beginners
What is something you wish somebody had told you about hiring, particularly in biotech, before you got started?
Starting out in industry I was used to project management and team management from an academic side. What happens in academia is, your lab publishes a high level paper and then interested candidates start knocking on your door to come to work with you.
I wish somebody would have told me that recruitment and hiring are one of the most important and possibly majorly limiting factors in establishing a startup lab. What I see now in the startup world is that access to human capital, to knowledge workers and team members that are motivated, creative, innovative and able to put themselves behind something like what we're trying to do - build artificial organs - is key to success. It's the one limiting factor - you might be looking for the right person for six months or more.
That being said, our experience with Scismic and your team has been amazing. The talent that we were able to recruit to come join our team are a fantastic bunch of individuals. It makes my day bright every time I walk in here and realize, wow, our team produces data and innovates at an incredible pace and continues to solve problems in a fully integrated multidisciplinary fashion.
Any final thoughts or advice you would give to somebody starting out in your position?
Just that being grateful when you find the right mix of people and understanding how precious a phenomenon that is and how to then pay close attention to maintain that is really key.
Hiring hacks from Dr. Harald Ott
Operational Mapping. Look for bottlenecks and design jobs around those needs.
Job Design. It’s not just what needs doing, but if it makes sense for one person to do that and only that and still feel the job is interesting and has growth potential.
Group Interviews. Consensus on a candidate can lend confidence to a hiring decision.
Talk to References and Mentors. Past mentors will often have insights about the types of roles a candidate will be most successful in.
Onboarding matters. Set your team up for success by introducing them to team norms and cultures up front.
Maximize meetings. Share information ahead of a meeting so the meetings can be used for collaboration and problem solving rather than reporting.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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