Embracing diversity to spur innovation

Story originally published in BioTalent Canada’s Close-up on the bio-economy: Demand and Supply Outlook

For Zymeworks, culture is key to innovation. With an HR strategy focused on diversity and rooted in the neuroscience of collaboration, the Vancouver-based pharmaceutical company is demonstrating how businesses can address important social issues in the workplace and generate innovative ideas at the same time.

Q: Tell us about your business: What’s the focus of your work?

KATHRYN O’DRISCOLL, CHIEF PEOPLE OFFICER: Zymeworks is a clinical-stage biopharmaceutical company that engineers and develops antibody-based therapies. Our goal is to develop powerful new solutions to treat cancer and other serious illnesses. We currently have two therapies in clinical development for the treatment of HER2-expressing cancers, including biliary tract, gastric and breast cancer. Zymeworks’ mission is to enable patients to return home to their loved ones, disease-free. We also want to provide a fantastic workplace for our people. Our culture is the soul of our company. It inspires us to be better people in our lives and work.

Q: What HR challenges do you face in operating?

KO: There’s so much investment in biotechnology medicine today that the competition for talent is extreme. And when you’re scaling up in preparation for commercialization of your first medicine, like we are, every skill set is necessary – IT, project management, even hiring recruiters. We also need people for scientific positions — medical directors and experts in clinical trials management and regulatory affairs. It’s a challenge to integrate new functions into our culture, partly because people in different roles and from different backgrounds are motivated by different things. Our culture and mission bring us together.

Q: How important is diversity to your people strategy and culture?

KO: It’s vital. We’re really focused on finding people who are going to thrive in our culture and resonate with our values. We build our values into everything we do — how we interview and onboard people and how we make decisions. Culture is the way things get done. So when we’re hiring, we ask ourselves, is this someone who’s going to enhance our culture?

Q: How do you operationalize that commitment to diversity?

KO: In numerous ways. Last year we launched a Culture Team to carry our values forward. Our initial goal was to have eight people. We had more than 20 applicants and decided to welcome them all to the team. Our commitment to values helps us surface issues in our community and industry that need attention. We launched an event on Juneteenth 2020 as a day of Reflection and Learning, for example. We brought in a speaker who focuses on cancer in the Black community to discuss the limited clinical trial data available on Black individuals. That sparked people to come forward to find ways to diversify our own clinical trials; we now have a team working on that.

Q: Do you see momentum building around those kinds of initiatives?

KO: We’ve since launched three different groups – a Women’s Initiative at Zymeworks (WIZ), which curates speakers and sponsored a viewing of the film Black Men in White Coats, which deals with the dearth of Black physicians. There’s ZAPI – the Zymeworks’ Asia-Pacific Islanders employee group, that formed in response to the anti-Asian hate that arose during the pandemic. Our ZymeHope group meets once a month and brings in a therapist to talk about managing grief and loss, which is an unusual offering for a company. It’s been amazing to see the impact of these three new employee-driven groups.

Q: What’s your growth plan? Where are the areas of opportunity for your business?

KO: We’re focusing on growth and scale. We grew 35% last year and expect to continue a similar trajectory into the foreseeable future. The processes we had when we were smaller don’t work as well anymore. We need to build for the future we envision. We’re standing up entirely new functions, including sales and marketing and building out our medical science liaison teams. We expect to hire 100 people this year. We must nurture our culture as we grow. We embrace scientific inquiry. We’re innovating with our people like we do in our labs. And we’re grounding that innovation in research to ensure that what we do scales and makes sense for people and our mission.


Company profile: Zymeworks

Location: Vancouver
Employees: 460
Bio-economy sub-sector: Bio-pharmaceutical

Zymeworks (NYSE: ZYME) is a clinical-stage biopharmaceutical company dedicated to developing next-generation multifunctional biotherapeutics. Its suite of therapeutic platforms and its fully integrated drug development engine enable precise engineering of highly differentiated product candidates.