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Sterling News

Asian life sciences boom spurs talent hunt

November 2006

Demand for research, clinical specialists brings business to Spore recruitment firms By Chen Huifen


(Singapore) The burgeoning life sciences industry in Asia is heating up the hunt for research and clinical professionals, spelling good news for recruitment firms with specialized practices in the area.

Executive search firm Sterling Human Resources Pte Ltd is among those that are benefiting from the rise in demand for such professionals. Its Sterling Life Sciences arm, which focuses on clinical research recruitment, has seen its share of revenue contribution jump to 37.5 percent last year, from 13.1 percent in 2003.

On hand now, we have about 19 openings at various levels, says Sterling Human Resources director Robin Tan. Three years ago, it used to be six to seven at any one point in time.

The trend is driven in part by a surge in clinical trials in the region. With Asia promising a larger patient population, drug discovery companies as well as contract research organizations, or CROs, are carrying out more clinical trials in the region.

The US Food and Drug Administration is also starting to recognize Asian data as part of their regulatory requirements, says Mr. Tan. So now that Asian data is being recognized, there is more demand for Asian trials, and hence CROs from Europe to the US are starting to grow in Asia.

Most of the positions are for placements in Singapore, although there are also pockets of demand in Thailand, Taiwan and South Korea, according to Mr. Tan. The three groups of professionals most sought after by his clients are clinical research associates, project managers and clinical research physicians.

In response to the demand, Kelly Services and Hudson Singapore have also set up dedicated life sciences practices in Singapore over the past two years. Kelly Scientific Resources, set up in August last year, attributes the growth to the influx of multinational companies here.

Supply, too, has become very mobile, says Kelly Services vice-president and regional general manager Dhirenda Shantilal. Over the past five years, Singapore has become a pole of attraction for investment, with over 50 multinational pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies.

The talent crunch is also driven by companies need for experienced professionals.

If you think about it, its a relatively new and fast-growing sector in Asia, says Hudsons director in industrial and life sciences Georgie Chong. So we have a limited pool of local talent, compared to the other sectors that we have here.

While not able to provide details, Ms Chong says her practice has been seeing significant growth in annual revenue in the past two years. On many occasions, she has had to look to India, the United States and Europe to fill the Singapore positions for her clients.

And despite intellectual property issues, ScienTec Search director Karen Tok also sees China and India as up-and-coming hot spots for scientific talent demand. Pharmaceutical companies are finding that they cannot afford to ignore the two huge markets and most have setup sales and marketing offices there, at the very least.

We also have clients who do cosmetic testing, says Ms Tok, who founded homegrown ScienTec four years ago. And recently a lot of big brands are setting up clinical trials to test on Asia skin as they develop more and more Asian-centric products whether they are drugs, cosmetics or devices. They customize for Asia as a whole is growing and has more money to Spend.

Currently, her firm has about 25 life sciences placements waiting to be filled, compared with about 15 at any time three years ago. The sector accounts for about 80 percent of ScienTecs business. Ms Tok noted that, where talent is short in supply and high in demand, salaries have also gone up 15 to 30 percent over the past three years. The positions are typically in clinical research, regulatory affairs, instrumentation, bio-informatics, as well as for PhDs with commercial experience, product specialists and regional managers with science backgrounds.

I think demand (for life sciences talent) will go on for much longer than the dot.com cycle, she adds. It may stabilize after 10 years, because of fewer new companies entering. Because life sciences investments take a long time to ROI (return on investment), whereas a dot.com can ROI within a shorter time the ones that come into life sciences research must have enough funding to last them longer, beyond five, 10 years, in order for them to come in. So then you dont see the bubble bursting so quickly.

Getting the right people to fill the openings is a challenge these days, but as Sterling Human Resources Mr. Tan says, Its a happy problem.