The life sciences industry is booming. In the first six months of this year, U.S. venture capital investments in the space reached $26.7 billion. That’s just $6.4 billion off the total for all of 2020, according to research by Newmark.

It takes talented people to put all that capital to good use. And that’s why recruiting and retaining talent is the top concern for the leaders of life sciences companies, according to a panel of four Chicago-based experts who spoke at a concurrent session during ULI’s 2021 Fall Meeting.

“Talent is our biggest opportunity and our biggest challenge,” says Tim Walbert, chairman, president, and CEO of Horizon Therapeutics. “The people are the base. The science is developed by the people.”

Attracting and retaining scientists requires top-notch research and lab space. Universities and philanthropists in markets with thriving biotech scenes, such as Boston and San Francisco, made many of those initial investments in the necessary infrastructure.

“When institutions are recruiting new junior faculty, there’s a startup package,” says Dr. Tom Gajewski, a professor at the University of Chicago and founder of two startups focused on cancer therapeutics. “How much money can that institution give to bring that new faculty, and what’s their lab space? Is it new space or old space?”

John Flavin, the founder and CEO of Portal Innovations, a venture development engine in Chicago, says that a density of talent was crucial to commercializing the promising ideas that academic labs generate.

“Going from discovery to market is more often now a relay race. It’s not done by one organization,” Flavin says. “The scientists pass the baton to a founding entrepreneur and a venture capitalist, who raise the capital needed to de-risk the opportunity, demonstrate proof of concept, and maybe enter clinical trials and show efficacy.”

Bringing about that density of talent can be a challenge. But having top-notch facilities is a requirement, even after months of remote or hybrid work.

“I looked at space as a key part of our strategy, culture, and allowing innovation to occur,” Walbert says. “You lose so much when you’re not together. It has to be a destination.”

Meghan Webster, a principal at design and architecture firm Gensler, argued that in-person work was especially important in the life sciences. “Research is a creative field,” she says. “A lot of that creativity was stymied during COVID.”

Webster says that survey data from her firm showed that 65 percent of people working in the sciences want to spend three to five days per week in the office—double the share of workers in other industries.

“If you’re collaborating, then you’re more likely to generate ideas and continue to work together over the long term,” Webster says. “And in terms of talent and retention, you have a connection to the organization because you have those interpersonal relationships.”

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