The life sciences industry in Charleston is growing fast. As more and more businesses and professionals are drawn towards the area, there is high demand for accomplished leaders to spearhead the sector’s growth.

Executive search consultant Joyce De Leo is doing her part to find these individuals. She spent a 25-year career researching and teaching medicine at esteemed institutions in the north-eastern US, earning a PhD in neuropharmacology, and establishing a start-up pharmaceuticals company focused on treating chronic pain. She now works for executive search company WittKieffer, where she recruits talent for high-level leadership roles in healthcare and academic medicine. Last year, De Leo relocated from Boston to Charleston after falling in love with the region and recognising its rich opportunities for market growth.

De Leo is not the only professional moving to Charleston from the US’s more well-known hubs of life sciences activity like Boston, San Francisco and San Diego – as well as from numerous international locations. An increasing number of people are recognising the growth opportunities for life sciences in Charleston, and the talent pool and job market are growing rapidly. In the past couple of years, De Leo believes it has “really exploded”.

“What we find now with Covid-19, and in the US especially, there is a gravitation away from these big cities,” she explains. She cites her own reasoning as a combination of social isolation in the cold of Boston with the realisation that new ways of working have given businesses many more options when it comes to location. As a result, companies are no longer restrained by outdated views that inextricably link a city or region with a specific sector due to historic reasons.

As many other life science professionals come to similar revelations, De Leo believes it is a key reason why a charming smaller metro area like Charleston – where quality of life is high    – is poised to become the next epicentre for life sciences on the US map.

“It is becoming a draw from the north to bring talent,” says De Leo. “Charleston is also becoming more international; I am talking to European companies and they are seeing this area as a place to build divisions.”

Changing relationships between industry and academia

Behind every healthy life sciences market is a strong academic community founded on a prominent health system. De Leo has recruited multiple leaders within Charleston’s Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC), the oldest medical school in the south and the powerhouse behind much of the area’s appeal.

“What I see in my work as a search consultant is a shift from industry doing it all to more partnerships with academia, to leverage their discoveries and build companies around them,” she observes. “Because of this ability to collaborate with excellent scientists and researchers at MUSC and other area universities, Charleston has become a major strategic market for life sciences.”

Another shift De Leo has noted in recent years is the number of academic leaders and scientific researchers eager to translate their discoveries by moving into industry. For many, Covid-19 is once again catalysing this big life decision. What is more, many pharmaceutical, biotech and medical device companies are eager to recruit them. Certain skills of adaptation and the ability to work in a fast-paced environment are important requirements in the academics making this transition.

In Charleston, the industry’s collective drive for innovation and collaboration provides the perfect space for these skills to flourish. Meanwhile, a supportive network of funding and commercialisation resources helps local entrepreneurs turn business aspirations into reality. In addition, the positive impact of groups like Charleston Regional Development Alliance (CRDA) offers the bridge needed to ensure companies are collaborating and partnering, says De Leo.

“Before Covid, CRDA organised a lot of dinners and social events,” she explains. “As soon as we can get back to that on a more regular basis, I think it will help build this area even more. There is just such an amazing feel to Charleston. People are friendly. A lot has to do with the weather. People are outside more; they are happier, they smile. I think that produces a nice collaboration in this field.”

“I have never had trouble recruiting to this area”

Perhaps it is this sense of southern hospitality that makes a lot of people visiting Charleston simply not want to leave. For De Leo, the ability to recruit people into a new area has never been easier.

“I have done many searches for MUSC and I have never had any trouble recruiting to this area,” she confirms. “The attraction of Charleston is the quality of life and the climate, all combined with a thriving life science sector. My husband and I live in Mount Pleasant – the town right next to downtown Charleston. We are ten minutes away from the ocean and the beautiful beach. We live on a marsh and at high tides we go out with our kayaks into a sound that eventually goes out to the ocean. There are many walking and bike trails; the outdoor life is fantastic and so healthy for you.”

Listing additional pull factors such as the area’s rich cultural aspects, historic architecture, excellent international airport and outstanding schools, it is safe to say Joyce De Leo is proud to be among the growing number of happy life science professionals calling Charleston home.

Discover why global life sciences businesses are choosing this thriving region. Download the white paper ‘Charleston, USA: A life sciences hub’ here.