Local headhunters recruiting for Tennessee's embryonic life-sciences sector realize their prospects lie mainly outside Nashville.
Nonetheless, within the Brentwood-based Human Capital Group, a retained executive-search firm, Senior Consultant Dan Ryan recently told VNC he's working hard to position himself in biotech, pharmaceutical, and other scientific and technical fields.
Still, Ryan is realistic: He said that while "there are some exciting things going on in Nashville," life sciences remains "kind of overshadowed here by other industries, mostly healthcare services."
He added, "Life sciences just doesn't have that much of a critical mass here, yet," adding that Memphis and Huntsville have "bigger critical mass," and he thus spends considerable time prospecting in both cities.
Ryan (at left) said he's reluctant to describe the local Bio sector as being still in its "infancy." However, he said he believes the sector's development is being hampered by the fact that, in his view, "the vast majority of business people locally still don't understand what life-sciences is.
"I think that affects every aspect of the whole [Bio] business cycle," Ryan continued, explaining that uninformed leaders from any sector are less likely to do – or, support others who are doing the things necessary to strengthen the local Bio ecosystem.
The tide can turn, Ryan stressed, citing as evidence earlier Middle Tennessee successes in automotive manufacturing, insurance and banking, as well as in healthcare services and related information technology.
While acknowledging he might be "too early" in his push for leadership in life-science recruiting, Ryan nonetheless said, "I think I see something, and I may be wrong – but, I may be right."
Ryan explained his instinct-driven persistence in Bio, noting that even if he's early or dead-wrong, focusing on the sector allows him to pursue something he loves – in one of the few sectors that he believes can enable the United States to "grow new jobs" in coming years. In addition, he said his focus on Bio complements his other more traditional practice areas, such as higher education and engineering.
Ryan indicated he is encouraged by the fact that in the past three weeks he has completed two placements for a molecular-diagnostics firm based in the Nashville area, which he declined to identify.
In attempting to grow his life-sciences practice, Ryan is traveling to industry trade shows, and frequently visiting more highly developed life-sciences communities. Such travel expenses come out of his own pocket, he said.
Ryan is also leveraging HCG's previous experience supporting such Bio companies as AmGen Inc. (NASDAQ:AMGN), the Thousand Oaks, Calif.-based pioneer in recombinant DNA and molecular biology. The HCG portfolio also includes recent assignments for the Duke University Clinical Research Institute; an assignment from Transnetyx Inc., in Memphis; and, a chief financial officer search now underway for the Sarah Cannon Research Center.
Ryan, 50, stresses that science-technology is a natural focus for him, given he earned a bachelor's in engineering physics at Murray State University, a master's in business at Tennessee State University and a master's in education at Peabody College of Vanderbilt University.
Ryan is not alone among Middle Tennessee-based recruiters who are making a living on biotech, pharma or med devices, despite the sector's underdevelopment locally.
For example, Brentwood-based Paul Sanderson (at left) provides similar executive-search services through his firm, Sanderson McLeod LLC.
Sanderson told VNC his recent search clients and employers have included Oncothyreon Inc., a NASDAQ firm producing cancer-related products, based in Seattle; Purfresh Inc., Fremont, Calif.-based producer of technologies that help clean and protect food and water purity; HemaQuest Pharmaceuticals Inc., Seattle; Calypso Medical Technologies, a medical-devices manufacturer in Seattle; and, Heartware International, a device-maker in Framingham, Mass.
Sanderson, 52, stressed that thanks to telecomputing he can conduct his business from anywhere, and chose Nashville because of his long-standing interest in performing and songwriting, as well as for opportunities to collaborate in other business ventures here.
Yet, Sanderson is skeptical regarding the notion Nashville might attain critical mass in life-sciences, anytime soon.
Choosing his words with obvious caution, Sanderson said, "To say that you 're going to build a big Bio center here is...well, it's an interesting idea...but, there's just quite a bit more work to be done."
Budding local bio-entrepreneurs will be forced to recruit from outside Tennessee, Sanderson said flatly. "Unless you live in the Bay Area or in Boston, you're not going to be able to rely on your local candidates here, period." Anyone who doesn't understand that reality, he said, has been "drinking the wrong Kool-Aid."
Moreover, said Sanderson, candidates are going to be resistant to jobs in a non-bio center like Nashville, because "the people you bring in have to think about where they're going to land if your venture doesn't succeed." He said selling Nashville's qualify-of-life advantages can help overcome some candidates' objections.
There are other potential constraints for some firms: In an interview with VNC, Human Capital Group Founder and Senior Partner Steve Hayes (at left) explained his firm's Christian culture, and guided his visitor through a work environment that is reinforced by religious artwork in HCG offices, reflected in the company's logo, and bolstered by personal Christian network, worship and service affiliations.
Hayes told VNC that prominent display of Christian symbols and beliefs in HCG offices, as well as such practices as beginning internal meetings with prayer, serve not only to strengthen the faith and discernment of the participants, but also help to reinforce the company's commitment toward ethical business conduct.
Underscoring the intentionality of the firm's culture, Hayes noted that though he is founder of the firm, he has taken only the title Senior Partner, rather than CEO, because the CEO role is rightly accorded Jesus Christ.
Hayes, who refers to his Catholicism on his LinkedIn site and in other venues, responded promptly to a VNC question regarding whether or not his religious views, which he says are shared by all who work with HCG, would preclude HCG's working for a client engaged in work related to abortions, genetic engineering or other sometimes controversial matters.
Hayes responded that HCG's written principles call for the firm's employees to "'Respect, love and serve life...every human life!'
So," Hayes continued, "this commitment would guide our response to the situation ... and we would need to understand the details of each situation before making a blanket decision. Specifically, however, if a client or position that we were approached to serve did not respect the value of life (i.e., promoted ending human life through abortion), then we would choose not to participate in supporting or serving that situation because it is in direct conflict to what we believe is right. This does not mean we are passing judgment on anyone who believes differently, we would just choose not to support the belief and practice through the investment of our time, talent and services."
Meanwhile, Hayes told VNC that while he doubts 2009 revenue will equal the $2.3 million his firm earned in 2008, "we definitely see the clouds lifting."
Hayes said HCG has 17 searches underway, with Hayes personally leading eight of those. "Things are definitely on the upswing," he said. ♦