It has been a transformational year for Sygnature Discovery. The Nottingham-based drug discovery services provider recently accelerated its global growth with the acquisition of Canadian company NuChem Sciences, a 300-strong contract research organisation (CRO) based in Montreal and Quebec City.

Scale is important, particularly for our big pharmaceutical clients; they don’t want to outsource to scores of different providers, so you have to be large enough to meet their needs. A lot of our business is in the US so this means that we can stay close to our customers. And we will now have more than 900 scientists with high-level skill sets; we scour the world for talent and around Montreal and Quebec there is a strong and growing biotech ecosystem.

At the start of 2023, it bought a specialist Scottish firm SB Drug Discovery. As founder and CEO Simon Hirst explains, “Strategically, we had kept away from their area because it is very specialist biology and recruitment is difficult but SB had built a really good reputation and there was very little overlap in our customer base.” However it’s the acquisition of NuChem that marks a big step up for Sygnature Discovery. It is a much larger deal than previous transactions, turning the company into a more than 1,000-employee business.

Hirst outlines the three reasons for the deal: scale, customers and talent.

This global approach is reflected in the almost 60 nationalities that are presented by people across the business.

The transaction marks an inflection point for Sygnature Discovery. “We were evolving but this is a step up in the rate of our evolution,” he says. In terms of recruitment of talent, Hirst observes that things have got better since 12 months ago. “The processes did get streamlined and we have now got a fairly slick process for recruiting overseas and we have brought in a lot of talent from India and the Far East.” In addition, competition for people cooled quite rapidly at the end of last year but he thinks it will warm up again in the autumn.

The same speeding up has also been occurring in Canada, he notes.

It was taking NuChem 50 to 60 weeks to bring in someone from India and now they can do it in a couple of months.

As the company grows and hires a new generation of scientific talent, the workplace culture is evolving. The Covid pandemic forced some changes but there have been wider repercussions which have made people look at the workplace in different ways.

For Sygnature Discovery, there is a tricky balance to strike because a large proportion of employees work in laboratories so cannot work from home. 

The UK’s rejoining the Horizon Europe programme is something that Hirst greatly welcomes.

You have to try and meet your people’s expectations around flexibility and benefits,” says Hirst. “Younger generations coming into the workplace have different expectations of work-life balance. Our employee value proposition is something we’ve always been very focused on but it has taken on greater emphasis in the last year. We are spending a good deal of energy on this, trying to accommodate the many different individual requirements for work flexibility while balancing those with the needs of the business. It is a difficult balancing act for companies to get right – but if you don’t get it right, you won’t be able to retain people.

It’s not just about the funding of research. The real benefits flow from being part of a network with broader interactions between academia and industry. Money alone can’t make that work. Getting back into the programme is a big plus.

“Fundamentally we are a people business so access to talent is everything. If we can’t recruit good people, we can’t grow – it’s as simple as that. Our rate of growth is pretty much the rate at which we can find the right talent.”

Simon Hirst. Founder and CEO