When you're first starting out, safety consultants are often a great solution to manage risk and compliance while still operating on lean margins.
Offloading these tasks can allow you to focus your resources on progressing research and securing funding without sacrificing safety.
But for many biotech companies, there comes a point where entirely outsourcing safety no longer makes sense. The big question: when does this point occur? In this article, we’ll provide you with some guiding thoughts to help you find an answer. In Part 2, we discuss sustainable solutions for scaling.
If your organization has experienced significant growth, it’s worth a second look to make sure these relationships (and the tools you’re using) are still the smartest solution for your company, your researchers, and your bottom line.
Growing pains: Common challenges of scaling up
All startups experience growing pains, but biotech companies face a number of unique challenges.
For one, there’s the sheer pace of growth. Biotechnology is the second fastest growing industry in the U.S, according to a Fundera analysis of data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), market research firms, and investment firms.
Growth is a good thing, but it also means your safety responsibilities grow too (in many cases, just as quickly as your research grows). Seemingly overnight, you might find yourself with additional employees to manage, regulatory hurdles to clear, and reporting requirements to meet.
At the same time, you may outgrow your research space or need to set up additional labs and work areas. Not only do you need to make sure the new space can accommodate all of your employees, but you also have to think about the kinds of equipment and chemicals the building will need to support (in many cases, without clear answers to these questions, a building won’t allow you to move in).
If you’re not organized, that can be a painful process. Fire code restrictions on the quantities of hazardous materials that can be used and stored in your new facility can be especially problematic. It’s not uncommon for companies to get deep into the process of a move and then find out the space can’t accommodate all the chemicals you needed to carry out your research.
Despite the breakneck pace of growth, the safety management systems you’re using probably haven’t evolved as quickly. Many organizations still use a hodgepodge of ad hoc tools and informal processes from the early days. Unfortunately, a system that worked well when you had 10 employees is a nightmare with 100. It can even seem like implementing a new system is an overwhelming prospect in the face of all the work that still needs to be done.
The net result is that consultants and researchers alike spend far too much time on safety-related administrative tasks. Many organizations at this stage spend quite a bit of time hemorrhaging resources trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. Can anyone really be surprised when your research suffers?
5 signs you’ve outgrown your safety consultant
By now, you may be seeing some of your own struggles described in the scenario above. If you’re experiencing some of these challenges already, how do you know when you’ve reached a point where consultants are no longer a good sole solution?
Here are some of the most common symptoms:
1) Billable hours are increasing
The most obvious sign that you’ve outgrown your consultant is that billable hours are increasing and still don’t cover your safety compliance needs. Alternatively, your needs may be met, but the price tag is starting to reach unsustainable levels.
There are a few reasons this could be happening. It may be that your requirements have grown beyond the original scope of your consulting agreement. Or, it could be that the systems your consultant is using have hit their upper limits. If your consultant can’t work efficiently, this will result in a great deal of otherwise-avoidable billable hours.
This might be the time to consider ways to supplement your consulting services with a new software solution (which we’ll discuss in part 2 of this series).
2) People are cutting corners or only doing the bare minimum for safety
This one is usually much more subtle. You might notice researchers skipping safety practices like donning protective gear or completing a risk assessment. Or, you might start to see people tuning out or rolling their eyes during your safety meetings.
It’s not that your researchers don’t care about safety. More often, these shortcuts are an indication of a broader system problem — one that can’t simply be outsourced to a consultant. When researchers avoid safety tasks they know they “should” be doing, it’s frequently because they aren’t bought into the idea that the safety processes in place are there to actually protect them.
The biggest cause for this feeling? Simple administrative burden. The more researchers feel like safety is there as a protection for the company, and not a protection for them, the more they will avoid it. Make safety clear and simple, and researchers are much more likely to engage.
3) Answering simple questions is difficult
Want to know whether inspections are overdue or stalled out? Or where flammable liquids are stored in your lab? Good luck. (No, we mean it – good luck). When you begin outgrowing your current consultants, it may take days for them to get back to you. What’s more, it’s not enough to have an answer, you have to ask yourself how confident you are in the data you are receiving and whether it is out of date.
You might think your consultant is too busy, or simply not prioritizing your work. From a different perspective, these problems are often the result of an overstressed system for tracking and managing safety needs. Your consultants are likely doing their best, but they often shy away from digitizing data due to the nature of their service model.
When your researchers and consultants don’t have the right systems in place to collect and share information, you’re going to have trouble answering even the simplest questions — and the problem will only get worse with time. Especially for all of the specific needs of chemical inventory, it's critical to make sure you're getting a good system that will serve your needs as you scale.
4) Errors are becoming more common (and more costly)
It may have started out with your noticing the occasional mistake on your chemical inventory (or, if we’re being honest, it may have always been that way). But after growing, these types of errors start feeling like the expected norm rather than the exception. It may even be harder to dismiss that little knot in the back of your mind that there exists the possibility for a serious incident.
Inaccurate inventory, missing training, overdue inspections, out-of-date equipment are more than an annoyance — they’re an early warning that the systems you’re using to manage safety are failing or are too manual.
It is critical to act at this stage, as these issues will quickly compound and leave you with a seemingly overwhelming amount of administrative debt. If left unchecked, these seemingly small mistakes can also lead to serious accidents and costly fines down the road. The longer you wait to address these issues, the more time and more expense it will take to fix them.
If you’re working in a shared space or an incubator, an incident may cause you to lose the right to operate there, depending on how the ensuing investigation goes.
5) Safety feels like a burden
The whole point of outsourcing safety tasks is to ease the burden of administrative tasks on yourself and your researchers. With these tasks off their plate, they’re able to focus on the activities that make your company profitable and allow you to scale.
But when you start outgrowing your consulting relationship, your team ends up taking on tasks that your consultant doesn’t have the allocated time (or budget) to do. Instead of focusing on their research, they spend their time hunched over paperwork.
If you're starting to hear grumbles about safety tasks from your researchers, it's usually a sign that your consultant can no longer keep up with the demands of your growing company for the scope of work you have agreed to. And if you don't address these complaints quickly (with more money), it can breed resentment about safety, which will only make things worse and harder to scale.
Your next steps
If you’ve started to notice any of these signs, it probably means you’re outgrowing your safety consultant. That doesn’t mean he or she doesn’t still play a valuable role in your organization, but it does mean you need to change your approach.
Before you pull the plug, you might consider talking to your consultant about the challenges you’re experiencing. Chances are they’ve witnessed similar situations at other startups, and may be able to suggest potential solutions.
Our next post addresses some of these solutions and provides you with ideas to help you effectively manage safety, keep costs down, and prevent administrative burden from hindering your growth.