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For the companies identified in the 2014 Science Careers Top Employer Survey, innovation and keeping employees engaged and excited about their research are top priorities.
First-in-class drugs and drought-resistant seeds may not seem to have much in common but the transformative technologies being developed to produce these game-changing products do. At the heart of those discoveries are the companies, identified by the 2014 Science Careers Top Employer Survey, that foster a spirit of innovation. These 20 biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies have their eyes on transformative prizes and invest in the intellectual capital needed to get there. From encouraging risky research to bolstering academic collaborations, keeping employees engaged and excited about their research is priority number one.
If there is one budding sentiment in the life sciences these days, it’s this: The divide between biotech and pharma is crumbling. Not only are biotech companies loosening pharma’s stronghold on small molecules, but pharma is, increasingly, forging biotech research alliances. In fact, pharma companies are setting up shop in biotech-bastions such as Boston, Massachusetts.
A more collaborative era of data-driven discovery—one in which scientists can deftly navigate the regulatory hurdles and development costs necessary to create novel products—is emerging. Adoption of agricultural biotech is at an all-time high. According to a 2013 report by Transparency Market Research, the genetically modified (GM) seed sector is growing at a 9.9% compound annual growth rate, a clear sign of unmet needs in agriculture. And, according to the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, first-in-class therapeutics make up an astounding 70% of the global drug development pipeline.
From new cures to new crops, this year’s top employers know that design and diligence go hand in hand. Regeneron Pharmaceutical, Inc.—the top company for the 3rd year in a row—is a biotech bucking to be the next Apple. At the company’s 25th anniversary celebration this year, Founding Scientist and Chief Scientific Officer George Yancopoulos sought inspirational words to share with his staff. He researched Apple, often cited as the world’s most innovative company, at its 25th year mark. He found that, while Apple was considered a solid company, they had yet to invent the iPad or the iPhone. He shared the story at the Regeneron party. “That’s our challenge,” Yancopoulos told the crowd, “I want us, in 10 years, to be known for the technology we have yet to invent.”
There were two fresh names on the 2014 list: the largest U.S. pharma, Johnson & Johnson (J&J), which raked in $28 billion in worldwide pharmaceutical sales last year, reappeared at #19 after a four-year absence, and a newcomer to the list Actelion (#14), a Basel-based biotech currently working on 25 small molecules. “We’re the biotech without the large molecules,” says Roland Haefeli, head of investor relations and public affairs at Actelion.
Perhaps not surprisingly, many of the top 20 companies boast unbelievably low turnover rates, typically lower than 8%. The agricultural-focused biotechs are even lower with roughly 3% of employees at both the #6 top employer, Monsanto Company (up from #14 in 2013), and #9, Syngenta (up from #13 in 2013), voluntarily leaving each year. That’s a sharp contrast to a July report from the human resources services company Randstad Pharma that states over 50% of biotech and pharma employees expect to search for a job in the next year.
A common thread runs through the top 20 list: Give employees the intellectual freedom and support necessary to pursue high-risk/high-reward goals—and they’ll deliver. Add to this a noble mission, such as increasing food security or decreasing disease suffering, and employers can create a positive feedback loop that maximizes employees’ drive and dedication as well as company profits.
Once again, respondents ranked “is an innovative leader in the industry” as the most important driver in choosing the best companies. The remaining drivers: “is socially responsible,” “has top leadership that successfully makes changes needed to keep the organization moving in the right direction,” “has loyal employees,” “treats its employees with respect,” and “has work culture values that are aligned with employees’ personal values”—suggest today’s employees are an idealistic lot.
Novo Nordisk, Monsanto, Roche (excluding Genentech and up 8 places to #8), and Syngenta all made impressive leaps to reclaim spots on the top 10 list.
Genentech (#3), Vertex Pharmaceuticals Incorporated (#4), Eli Lilly and Company (#5), AbbVie (#7), and Biogen Idec (#10) round out the top 10 employers (see chart above).
In the last 10 years, Novo Nordisk has developed more of a risk-taking culture to match their grand goal of defeating the growing epidemic of diabetes. “Originally we were not so much into risk taking,” says Krogsgaard Thomsen. Now, they are using stem cell research to create insulin-producing cells. “I get questions from research directors at other companies asking if we’re serious, and I always answer ‘yes,'” he adds. “If we can surpass a barrier to improve the power and convenience of our medicines, we’ve got to do it.” To inspire that spirit of innovation, the new Novo Nordisk headquarters was designed to resemble the hexomer structure of insulin. “Even in our architecture, we’re trying to mimic things that exist in the human body,” he says.
At Regeneron, critical breakthroughs are tackled by bringing the intellectual firepower under one roof. They call it the “think tank.” It’s just an ordinary meeting room, except the 10–30 invitees expect marathon meetings, sometimes reassembling over the course of several days to kick around new ideas. “We have great stamina here,” says Neil Stahl, Regeneron’s senior vice president for research and development. Their Veloc-Immune mouse model was an idea which evolved during a “think tank” meeting. The model has been used to produce fully human monoclonal antibodies and was key to creating the 15 antibodies the company currently has in the clinic—among them a cholesterol reducer and a pain reliever. Even though Regeneron now has external scientists bringing innovative ideas to their doorstep, it doesn’t change their approach. “A lot of these ideas are clever, but not useful or applicable to the bottlenecks in the drug discovery world,” says Yancopoulos. “We understand where innovations are needed to speed drug development and pursue those ideas.”
In keeping with the Apple analogy, the most inventive design is often the game-changing idea. For example, they are excited about their new “bi-specific” technology—essentially one antibody, two actions. One arm of the antibody activates T cells and another arm binds to a tumor target. “It’s an elegant design—an antibody hybrid, made cleanly, with no artificial pieces unlike other bi-specifics that have more of a ‘Rube Goldberg’ design,” says Stahl. It is Regeneron’s first drug candidate that will harness the immune system to attack cancer cells, he says. “That’s the kind of stuff that our employees see coming up, and keeps them excited about in the future.”
When Janssen Pharmaceuticals, the R&D arm of pharma giant J&J, decided they were going to focus on novel therapeutics of big impact, rather than follow the competition’s focus on branded generics or biosimilars, they completely redesigned how they could tackle that goal by opening five so-called innovation centers. The aim is to bring expertise together, rather than reinvent the wheel. Once academic and small company researchers make discoveries, pharma executives can contribute their scientific expertise to help turn those discovery into products. “We want to find the best partners and the best science to develop innovative products,” says Jeffrey Nye, head of neuroscience innovation and partnership strategy at Janssen R&D and the J&J Innovation Centers. “And it’s working.” For example, their Boston-based innovation center launched with news of a $12.9 million deal to back Rodin Therapeutics, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based biotech using epigenetics to develop novel therapeutics for neurological disorders, notably Alzheimer’s disease.
It may sound like giving academics money to do a research job, but Peter Lebowitz, global head of oncology R&D at Janssen, says that couldn’t be further from the truth. “We build a close tie to what these researchers are doing and provide our own expertise,” he says. In fact, his neuroscience colleagues are dreaming up unprecedented drug delivery strategies. “We think, in the near future, it will be possible to treat schizophrenia with four injections per year instead of [patients] having to take pills three times a day,” says Husseini Manji, global head of neuroscience R&D at Janssen. But that’s an approach that only one of the largest pharma companies in the world can take.
In contrast, small, young biopharmaceutical companies, like Actelion, carve out their niche through discovery. Actelion is only 15 years old—and their first internally-discovered compound, macitentan, was approved to treat pulmonary arterial hypertension—making 2013 a big year for them. “Science is all about overcoming obstacles and staying excited to do it,” says Oliver Nayler, Actelion’s head of cardiovascular and fibrosis biology. At Actelion, employees are increasingly motivated by visualization technologies, such as automated live-cell imaging and high content screening, that offer new means to view and quantify cellular, even subcellular, processes. “It opens up a whole new world, by letting us see what impact our compounds have on cells, which stimulates our creativity to explore new experimental approaches,” says Nayler.
Developing cutting-edge products in the agricultural seed sector, where a constant need to protect crops from drought and disease requires multi-prong strategies, takes on a number of different flavors. For example, both Monsanto and Syngenta have released drought-tolerant seeds. Genomics-based discovery is key for identifying genes of potential interest to plant breeders and biotech seed developers. Monsanto’s newest drought-tolerant product, Drought Guard, relies on a gene that creates a chaperone protein to coat a plant’s RNA during stressful conditions and maintain the plant’s normal cell functions, while Syngenta’s hybrid contains novel drought-tolerant gene combinations. Both companies are also exploring RNA interference (RNAi) technology—the use of RNA molecules to inhibit gene expression—to prevent plant diseases. And while Monsanto is digging into which soil microbes might help grow seeds better, Syngenta is hot on uncovering what metabolites can reveal about maximizing plant growth.
Something to believe in
This year’s survey responses revealed that employees want to work for a company that holds itself to a high ethic—and walks the walk to prove it. Syngenta employees have long enjoyed a community garden on campus where green thumbs could raise potatoes and carrots from company seeds to donate to a local food bank. In addition, last fall, Syngenta put forward a more global strategy called The Good Growth Plan which makes six commitments to improve resource use efficiency, including finding ways to produce more food with less waste, degradation, and poverty.
For Hope Hart, Syngenta’s product safety team leader, the company’s commitment to social responsibility reinforces her volunteer work at local schools or community groups where she discusses the safety of GM crops or how they help increase small-farm–holders’ profits. “I’ll go wherever we are invited to share how we know that GM crops are safe because it’s an issue that is close to my heart,” says Hart.
Monsanto, too, is facing the controversy surrounding genetic engineering head on. A couple of years ago, the company assessed the challenges of, and criticisms against, genetic modification research and realized that they needed to have a more proactive voice on the issue. “We have really started to create a path for employees to engage more in social media or participate in science-based interactions with the public on the questions about the role of science and innovation in agriculture,” says Robb Fraley, Monsanto’s chief technology officer. Their solution, an ambassador program, generated a huge amount of interest. Over 1,000 employees signed up to receive training to be an ambassador and reach out directly to consumers to address question and concerns about science. “You can tell there was a pent-up, innate desire to get more involved. It’s been a great employee motivator,” adds Fraley. “People really are making a difference in farmer’s lives and they want that to continue,” he adds.
Fraley says the company’s core mission is a critical part of its attraction to potential employees. Internal Monsanto surveys reveal that employee engagement scores are 80%–90%. “That is extraordinary,” says Fraley. “We’re competing for talent all around the world to expand breeding efforts and having an engaged, diverse workforce is key,” he adds.
It’s not just the agricultural biotech companies that want to do right by the environment. Actelion has incorporated green building standards in all new construction projects, including the use of solar panels and electric car charging stations, and continues to increase waste recycling efforts. “The young scientists we hire care about these things,” says Tina Kitt, communications specialist at Actelion. That sentiment is reflected in the survey results as well. Employees are happiest when their work values align with their employer.
But it goes beyond corporate social responsibility. “We are passionate about doing research that helps the patient,” says Krogsgaard Thomsen. In fact, Novo Nordisk routinely invites patients to the research facilities to share their experiences. “When we heard that patient outcomes are held back by fear of hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), we created drugs that result in a reduced risk of hypoglycemia,” he says.
Novo Nordisk adheres to what they describe as a triple bottom line: doing business that focuses on public health, society, and the shareholders. “Novo Nordisk is consistently one of the top two health care companies in the Dow Jones Sustainability Index, which tracks the sustainability performance of the largest 2,500 companies listed on the Dow Jones Global Total Stock Market Index. When employees can identify with a company’s vision, and it goes beyond making a profit, they feel they can really align with shared goals,” says Krogsgaard Thomsen.
Not surprisingly, several of these top employers, including Actelion, Syngenta, and Regeneron, also make science education a focus of their social responsibility efforts. Actelion supports the Mobile Bus, a rambling lab equipped with basic science experiments. Yancopoulos says Regeneron sponsors the Westchester Science and Engineering Fair owing largely to two persistent high school science teachers who made him realize that most scientists had, at some point, a science teacher who helped make a difference. “We have to do this for the next generation,” he says.
The survey data reveals that employee appreciation creates a positive feedback with company loyalty. The company rated highest on “treats employees with respect,” Novo Nordisk, also had the highest “loyal employee” rating. “Our international colleagues often comment on how much they appreciate the trust we show in our employees, that it’s a sign of respect,” says Ann-Charlotte Hasselager, corporate vice president of R&D Human Resources at Novo Nordisk. That trust goes both ways. “Every now and then while turmoil surrounds our company, employees support the company and management. There’s not a them [versus] us thing,” says Krogsgaard Thomsen. Flexible work policies, especially those that bolster work-life balance, are a way the company demonstrates its respect for employees.
Rewarding top work is perhaps the best employee motivator. Monsanto’s strong focus on employee recognition includes quarterly recognition events, as well as an annual “Above and Beyond” awards ceremony, with the highest awards going to scientists who have discovered products. They also have sustainable yield pledge awards for actions, such as improving water availability or increasing crop productivity, that conserve more or improve lives.
Monsanto has also taken a broad view of employee well-being. To better understand employee needs and feedback, Monsanto has opened several lines of communication between employees and management. In addition to a biannual internal survey, they also conduct “pulse” surveys on specific employee populations each quarter.
The goal is to provide an inclusive environment in which employees can thrive. Melissa Harper, Monsanto’s head of diversity, can rattle off a dozen resource groups designed to support employees—the focus can range from adoption assistance to a lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered network. “We take the time not only to listen but to act on what we’re hearing from our employees,” says Harper. Similarly, Janssen Pharmaceuticals offers adoption assistance and health care advocacy and support.
During the World Cup, there’s one surefire way to acknowledge and appreciate that diversity: televise the soccer matches. In fact, World Cup viewing was a common theme among the top employers. “Our company recognizes that its employees are passionate about sports, and playing the World Cup shows they appreciate our passions as much as they trust us to get our work done,” says Hart. Actelion employees are so soccer-crazed, they hold their own tournament each year. “We all get a bit worried because the teams play so hard,” says Haefeli. “We keep our medical services nearby—just in case.”
The teams that play hard together, work hard together. “When people come together and play on teams, it feels like a family,” says Gaby Scherer, Actelion director of human resources. Appreciative of that family feel, Actelion recently built an on-site day care because Basel, in particular, has a tight childcare market. They also accommodate employees who choose to work less than full-time, often after having children. In fact, 17% of their workforce is part-time.
Still, most of the top employers cast aside any form of a caste system. “There’s not the stereotypical hierarchy at Syngenta,” says Hart. “Of course we have levels of management, but everyone’s ideas matter.” Syngenta’s collaborative nature initially unnerved Michiel van Lookeren Campagne, Syngenta’s head of biotechnology “My first meeting at the company, we sat in a round circle of chairs,” he says, “and I wondered ‘where did I land?'” But, he found, it’s just the company’s culture. “When we are meeting, we are all present—no one is typing on a computer.”
For scientists, a collaborative culture can matter most. Regeneron was formed, in part, because Yancopoulos, who was discouraged from collaborating during his days in academia, thought that was the wrong way to do science. “Science is interactive and that was one of our core values from day one,” says Stahl. Yancopoulos says successful collaborations are all about finding synergies. “Most companies exchange dollars for brains, but we don’t work that way,” says Yancopoulos. “We have a lot of biologics and antibodies that we want to test in collaborators’ systems, but we exchange things of respected value like our technologies, reagents, and know-how.” As a result, they are building a company, like Merck KGaA and Genentech (a member of the Roche group) before them, on a foundation of science and technology. “We’re not going to just come up with one drug, we’re going to build a company that’s able to go from basic science into the clinic over and over again.”
But, as Janssen’s Manji points out, the only way to set up outstanding collaborations is to have a lot of strength on the inside. “When I came here over five years ago, one thing I noted is that we’re trying to do things that are so complex, and there is a lot of good science going on outside our walls—we should find ways to work together,” he says. “It is not just ‘us or them’ anymore.