Dr. Leen Kawas Explains How AI Can Transform Biotechnology Companies’ Recruiting and Hiring Practices

August 10, 2023, 4 months ago


Dr. Leen Kawas Explains How AI Can Transform Biotechnology Companies’ Recruiting and Hiring Practices

Biotechnology companies’ continued growth is dependent on multiple factors. Every biotech business needs a promising concept, the founder’s expertise and determination, and sufficient financial resources. Talented team members, typically with highly specialized skill sets, are also key to the organization’s forward progress.

Leen Kawas, Ph.D. is Propel Bio Partners’ Managing General Partner and an accomplished biotechnologist. Dr. Kawas understands the challenges of finding qualified candidates for highly specialized biotech positions. She is confident that AI can streamline the recruitment cycle and help deliver top-tier applicants who meet hiring managers’ needs.

Biotech Firms Face 4 Recruitment Challenges in 2023

In 2020 and 2021, the COVID-19 pandemic led to unprecedented global lockdowns and economic disruptions. The United States biotech industry was not immune to these challenges. In 2023, the pandemic’s effects have diminished, and biotech businesses have again turned their attention to growth. Companies continue to monitor the competitive landscape to identify all potentially lucrative opportunities. 

However, the biotech industry’s sustained expansion has far outperformed recruiters’ ability to find qualified technical talent to support these efforts. Without enough skilled biotech employees, the pace of innovation will likely slow down. New medications, therapies, vaccines, and medical devices may take longer to get to the marketplace. Biotech recruiters currently face four roadblocks in the quest to resolve this significant issue.

Intense Competition for Highly Qualified Talent

A significant rise in startup biotech companies means a greater number of businesses are competing for the same talent. In addition, biotech and technology companies (such as Google and Apple) are both seeking employees with data analytics and artificial intelligence (or AI) knowledge.

A Shortage of Multifaceted Candidates

Biotechnology companies are also having difficulty sourcing candidates possessing the desirable combination of life sciences, computing, and mathematical skills. These multifaceted employees are needed for roles combining AI, machine learning, big data, and data science.

Ian Marison, Biofactory Competence Center CEO, and Peter Levison, Pall Biotech’s Executive Director of Business Development, noted that this worker shortage may not be resolved in the short term. “When you look at the skill sets required to manage biopharmaceutical manufacturing processes — in particular around engineering, data analytics and process development — the skill set shortage challenge persists,” they remarked.

One key skills gap determinant is insufficient university-level training. Because higher learning institutions evolve much more slowly than private industry, the universities cannot turn out highly qualified candidates fast enough.

Extended Recruitment-to-Hire Time Frame

When a biotech company does find a qualified candidate, it typically takes several months to hire and onboard the employee. Interviewing takes 28.1 days (on average), one of the longest interviewing cycles in any industry. This extended timeframe causes many biotech candidates to abandon the hiring process. Therefore, the biotech firm must begin another laborious search for the right candidate.

Steadily Increasing Operating Costs

Biotech and life sciences companies continue to experience higher operating costs. With substantial research and development investments for a drug or medical device, and no short-term return on the horizon, companies must look for ways to minimize expenses elsewhere. Concurrently, the biotech businesses are under government pressure to lower prices, which further reduces profits.

To attract top-tier candidates, a biotech company’s recruitment program must offer competitive salaries and benefits packages. Inflation continues to drive these offers higher, putting another damper on the company’s profit picture. Clearly, finding ways to reduce recruitment and hiring expenses and roadblocks is a top priority.

Artificial Intelligence is a Biotech Game-Changer

In 2023, biotech firms’ human resources departments have begun to integrate artificial intelligence (or AI) tools into recruitment and hiring functions. These digital tools handle laborious tasks that previously bogged down hiring managers, who can now turn their attention to higher-value tasks. In turn, AI can improve the company’s operating results and competitive position.

Initial Candidate Identification

An AI tool can perform lightning-fast resume and social profile scans. The AI algorithm can also integrate previous applicants into the mix, searching for the best overall candidate for each position. Concurrently, the AI eliminates unconscious bias factors that could artificially skew the search.
Finally, the AI algorithm identifies each position’s talent pool. Now, the AI routes candidates through the recruitment process, again eliminating bottlenecks that could occur with human intervention.

In-Person Interview Candidate Selection

Now, the hiring manager must identify candidates who merit an in-person interview. The AI tool seamlessly handles this function as it conducts personality testing, job simulations, and virtual interviews. A candidate who emerges from this process is more likely to fulfill the position’s requirements and blend with the corporate culture.

Smoother Employee Onboarding Process

After a candidate accepts an offered position, the AI tool can handle background checks, required documentation collection, and other repetitive tasks. This accelerates the onboarding process while human resources employees focus on higher-level priorities.

AI in Recruitment and Hiring: Two Real-World Examples

Carefully integrated AI tools can streamline specific hiring functions. This technology can also remove roadblocks to completion for others. Taken together, AI can create a more efficient hiring cycle that also addresses nuanced issues that could escape hiring managers’ attention.

Takeda Pharmaceutical Company

In November 2021, Amy Wright, IBM Global Business Services’ Managing Partner of Talent and Transformation, participated in a Workplace from a Facebook panel discussion on “New Use Cases of AI for HR.”

Amy Wright clarified AI tools’ role in helping hiring managers make higher-quality decisions. "What AI is able to do is use pattern recognition to help with insights so we can make better decisions…It does not make decisions for us. It uses this massive computing power to use historical data,” she emphasized.

In addition, Amy Wright noted that an AI tool can play a role in removing hiring bias. Specifically, the technology can pinpoint bias-based text "to identify where there potentially could be an issue with diversity, age, or ethnicity.” Equipped with this insight, a human resources associate can rectify this issue.

Takeda Pharmaceutical Company’s AI Tool Applications

Identifying employee skills gaps, and determining whether workers are suited to specific roles, can help to reduce the number of employee resignations. Amy Wright employed an AI tool to assist Takeda Pharmaceutical Company in obtaining this information.

"Once you have a skills profile, then you're able to identify the gap," Wright explained. "It suggests education and experiences for each of our employees so that they can build their skills for the future as they have their current job,” she noted. 

Amy Wright also said an AI tool can be effective in “predictive attention” that pinpoints the factors that spurred employees to leave their jobs. "It's not typically one factor but a combination of factors," she said.

The AI tool can also view historical data stating why other employees have departed or remained with the company. Equipped with this information, Amy Wright said a hiring manager can determine how this trend could affect current workers. "You're able to correlate that to your existing employees," she concluded.

Magellan Health

Scottsdale, Arizona-based Magellan Health sought to improve applicants’ engagement and conversion using measurable criteria. This 10,000-employee managed healthcare firm used an AI-enabled recruiting platform to enhance candidate experiences.

Specifically, the AI tool enabled seamless career site navigation, tailored job recommendations, a friendly chatbot, and customer relationship management (or CRM) software that routed top-tier candidates directly to recruiters.

Heidi Chapeau, Magellan Health’s former Recruitment Marketing Director, emphasized the AI tool’s benefits during the recruitment cycle. “Why do we care about AI? Because it delivers candidates an exceptional experience. A poor experience can really damage your brand if a candidate hits your site and they don’t know how to move forward,” she explained.

As might be expected, the AI tool’s implementation has produced measurable (and positive) results. Candidates’ average time on the Magellan Health site increased from 3 to 6 minutes.

Perhaps most importantly, candidates who remained on the site demonstrated an 86 percent application conversion rate. Finally, 81 percent of candidates gave the site a 4- or 5-star rating, reflecting the quality of their experience.

About Dr. Leen Kawas

Leen Kawas, Ph.D. serves as Los Angeles-based Propel Bio Partners’ Managing General Partner. Founded in 2022, this specialized venture capital firm offers start-up and early-stage biotech entrepreneurs a mix of financial support and technical knowledge.

Before Dr. Leen Kawas co-founded Propel Bio Partners, she served as Athira Pharma, Inc.’s Chief Executive Officer. During her tenure, she excelled in moving drug candidates through the complex development cycle. Dr. Kawas also managed Athira Pharma’s Initial Public Offering in September 2020. Her accomplishments earned her multiple industry awards.

Like many skilled technical professionals, Dr. Leen Kawas’ education provided the foundation for her career accomplishments. In 2008, this Jordanian native earned a Pharmacy degree before coming to the United States to complete her graduate education.

Attending the University of Washington, Dr. Leen Kawas earned a Doctorate in Molecular Pharmacology in 2011. To take her business leadership skills to the next level, she completed the intensive Foster School of Business Executive Training Program. Taken together, Dr. Leen Kawas’ significant educational achievements positioned her well for a successful biotechnology career.

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