Careers in biotech and pharma: The right fit


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For scientists considering careers in the life science industry, the choice between biotech and pharma has sometimes been a difficult one. However, as both industries change, the question may be moot.

To work in biotech or pharma? For newly minted Ph.D.s as well as postdocs considering jobs in industry, that frequently may be the question. The answer, however, may be that it does not matter. Pharmaceutical companies are increasingly acquiring biotech companies to broaden their portfolios, and some biotech companies have grown so diverse that they resemble pharmaceutical companies. “The line between biotech and pharma has been blurring for years,” says Thomas Boehm, director of clinical development at Jerini, a biopharmaceutical company in Berlin, Germany.

As little as 15 years ago, the two industries were clearly distinct. Pharmaceutical companies generally focused on developing small-molecule drugs. They were large, structured environments that supported the bulk of research and development via sales and private or public investment. By contrast, biotechnology companies focused on biological drugs—those made from human or animal proteins, or created recombinantly. They offered tight-knit and relatively unstructured work environments and supported their research through venture capital funding, government seed money, or private and/or public investment.

The disparate industries made for distinct work environments. Pharma promised predictability, stable incomes, and defined roles. Biotechnology companies offered volatility, unpredictability, and the opportunity or necessity, depending on one’s point of view, to muddy one’s hands with all aspects of the business.

But while the general distinction between the two industries still exists, a company’s size and management style are better predictors of the type of work environment a scientist is likely to encounter as both industries continue to evolve, say experts. For Ph.D.s weighing a decision to work in one field over another, individual company qualities and personality are important characteristics to consider when deciding which job would provide the best fit.

Stories from the industry

Jean Yves Bonnefoy certainly experienced a nonstereotypical environment during his decade working for Glaxo in Geneva during the ’90s. Bonnefoy was hired as a research scientist in immunology. But he was always interested in other aspects of drug development. The company took notice and offered to send him to the London School of Business to attend a senior management program.

“I took the opportunity and it’s been very useful,” Bonnefoy says. “Not turning research into something that was useful for patients was unacceptable to me. To achieve that you need to understand more than just basic research.”

Today Bonnefoy is vice president of research and development at Transgene, a biotechnology company based in Strasbourg, France, that is focusing on immunotherapy to treat cancer and infectious disease. The company has four products in clinical development to treat small-cell lung cancer, cervical intraneoplasia, B-cell lymphoma, and hepatitis C.

His job is largely managerial, but that doesn’t mean paper pushing. “It’s a lot of management coordination to make the company as efficient as possible,” Bonnefoy explains. “I really like the proximity between research and development, especially in this field [immunotherapy]. There are no marketed products yet, but there’s a huge need.”

Of his experience at Glaxo, Bonnefoy says he was lucky. At the time the company had acquired biotech company Biogen’s Geneva-based facility. Glaxo’s Geneva research center was small and the addition of Biogen employees contributed to a laid-back culture. The company not only trained him in business management, but also in project and staff management. In his role as researcher, he developed a potential drug to treat different types of immune diseases and was able to accompany the molecule through the next stages?something most scientists at pharmaceutical companies are not able to do. However, “Someone’s experience at another pharma company might be completely different,” he adds.

Indeed, Andrew Garner’s experience in big pharma is closer to the norm. Garner has worked at AstraZeneca in Alderley Park, UK, for six years where he presently leads a team of eight people responsible for finding compounds that target cancer. After the team establishes that a compound is effective against a particular target, they pass the project on to other teams. But even though he is limited to early drug research, Garner is satisfied. “I like working on the early stages such as figuring out what a drug should look like,” he says.

Pharma changes face

As the industry is changing, so too is the tendency to compartmentalize tasks. In recent years the flow of drugs hitting the market has slowed to a trickle and the pipeline of compounds in development has narrowed. In response, companies are restructuring their R&D. Pfizer, for example, recently announced plans to cut 10,000 jobs over two years, many in management and marketing.

Those moves represent a shift by Pfizer toward a more specialized approach to drug discovery and follow another trend in the industry: streamlining R&D by focusing on specific disease areas—a strategy biotechs already employ albeit on a smaller scale. Oncology, immunology, and neurodegenerative diseases top the list at most companies as these are areas in which very few effective drugs already exist. This has meant internal restructuring to place scientists with varied backgrounds into small groups to promote interdisciplinary collaboration and spur innovative ideas.

“The research is evolving in that direction,” says Ginger Gregory, global head of human resources for Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research. Diseases were not usually studied as related disorders. But as science has revealed the links between cancer and the immune system, for example, or heart disease and diabetes, industry has needed to respond. “Traditionally you would have silos of thinking,” Gregory adds. “But those days are over.”

Another force drawing the two industries closer is the growing number of pharmaceutical companies acquiring biotechs to broaden their portfolios to include biological drugs. In 2006, AstraZeneca bought Cambridge Antibody Technology Group. The move followed the company’s acquisition of another biotech, KuDOS Pharmacetuicals, in 2005 and several agreements with small biotechs to co-develop drugs. The company expects that by 2010 up to a quarter of drug candidates will be biological therapeutic agents, said AstraZeneca’s chief executive officer David Brennan in a statement. In 2006, Merck also bought two small biotech firms with which it had been partnering, GlycoFi of Lebanon, New Hampshire, and Abmaxis of Santa Clara, California.

Some companies are even restructuring to include internal research on biological drugs. Schering-Plough, for example, merged two of its California research facilities in 2005 to create a new unit in Palo Alto that focuses on monoclonal antibodies and other therapeutic proteins.

Biotechs still more dynamic

Despite pharma’s revamp, biotech companies generally remain more dynamic work environments because of their relatively small size, says Indu Parikh, president of BioMarck Pharmaceuticals, a biotech in Durham, North Carolina.

Parikh, a 30-year veteran of the pharmaceutical industry, co-founded a biotech company in 1991 simply because he craved a change of pace. “It was a pioneer experience,” Parikh says. “We started from the ground up and after five years had hired 450 people.” It wasn’t easy nor was it stress-free. He recalls days when he would don work overalls to mop and clean glassware and then later switch into a tie and suit to meet potential investors.

“In some respects, working in a small biotech is like climbing a steep ladder. It’s difficult to climb and there are a lot of places you might fall down,” Parikh says. “By contrast, in a large company environment that ladder wouldn’t be so steep,… but you might prefer the excitement of climbing the steeper ladder.”

But biotech doesn’t necessarily offer the freewheeling environment that people assume. “Suppose a scientist at a biotech wants to study a drug’s mechanism of action,” Parikh explains. “The company may not allow him to do that because it isn’t in line with their goals.” By contrast, a pharmaceutical company with more funds and a bigger staff may allow it.

Boehm agrees. “People have the impression that biotechs only do cutting edge research. But I’m not sure we can take more risks than pharma. If our late-stage clinical development fails, we are in trouble. If a pharma company drug fails in the clinic, it’s one project out of many.” So both industries tend to take a similarly cautious approach to risk.

People who work in biotech, however, do tend to be more adventurous by nature. That’s because the industry may self-select for risk takers, says Boehm. A biotech’s finances are precarious. Venture capital funding rarely extends beyond five years. Meanwhile, a drug takes 10 to 15 years to develop. Employees know that the company can quickly go bust. So a person who has a family and debts may be more likely to seek out a stable job.

That might explain Boehm’s decision to stick to biotech over the past decade. The pace and the environment of biotechnology simply suited his personality, he says. “Pharma has many layers of management,” he explains. “There’s usually a long decision-making process and things can take too long to get done.” By contrast, most biotechs are bare bones operations. “Here people just jump in and learn as they go along.” That carries some disadvantages, he admits, because people make mistakes, which makes the process inefficient. Nevertheless, he prefers learning by doing.

Other models

Still other companies have evolved a culture of their own. San Francisco-based Genentech, for example, started out as a small biotech in 1976. The company has since grown to 10,500 employees. Despite its size, “We still consider ourselves a biotech company,” says Holly Butler, principal staffing consultant for research. That’s because the company maintains a flat management style. Butler likens the work environment to academia. Scientists work in interdisciplinary teams and participate in drug research from start to finish.

“So if you imagine drug development as a biochemical pathway, each scientist is part of a development team that follows the drug along the pathway,” she explains. A basic scientist is expected to participate in his or her drug’s development from start to finish. Genentech also allows its scientists discretionary research time to pursue science that may not be related to the company’s goals. Avastin, a drug to treat colorectal cancer, for example, grew out of a scientist’s discretionary research that was only peripherally related to the main project.

Companies are hiring

Like other companies interviewed for this article, Genentech is hiring. But finding talent is easier said than done. “Baby boomers are retiring, the government has placed a cap on H1-B visas [for foreign researchers], and there has been a surge in biotechs. The demands have increased but the supply hasn’t, so our pool of top talent is very limited,” says Chris Hong, senior director of recruiting and staffing for Merck. And everyone is looking for similar characteristics.

Merck is, however, aggressively hiring, says Hong. Many of the new hires are to support research in areas on which the company has chosen to focus its R&D such as metabolic disorders and infectious disease. But the limited pool from which to choose has prompted some companies to shift their strategy: Instead of drawing people to them, some have opted to move nearer to the talent.

Novartis, the giant Swiss drug maker, made waves in the pharmaceutical industry three years ago when it relocated its global research headquarters to Cambridge, Massachusetts. Novartis’s chief executive Daniel Vasella made the decision after company executives analyzed potential places to expand, and concluded “that the single most important factor was access to talent.”

Novartis currently employs over 1,200 people in Cambridge and plans to continue expanding albeit only in specific areas such as biologic drugs like monoclonal antibodies and RNA interference molecules.

Last year both Amgen and Schering-Plough also announced plans to expand R&D operations in Cambridge. Amgen plans to increase its total staff of scientists to 400 and Schering-Plough expects to bump up scientific staff from 80 to about 200 people.

The pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca, which already runs one of the largest drug-company labs in Massachusetts, plans to expand its Waltham complex and add up to 100 jobs.

Genentech, on the other hand, has an easier time finding qualified people. This year, the company topped the charts of Fortune magazine’s “100 best companies to work for. ” Genentech has also consistently ranked at the top in AAAS’s annual survey of scientists. “We’re lucky, people come to us,” says Butler. The company does, however, actively recruit by attending conferences and other events where recruiters are likely to meet scientists. “We are looking for the best,” she adds, “and the word ‘settle’ is just not in our vocabulary.”

Other companies employ similar tactics but also advertise and use external recruiting agencies. But very often, potential employees are recommended by existing ones, say recruiters.

A search on company websites shows open positions for chemists, immunologists, oncologists—positions across a range of disciplines. One difficult niche to fill is people who have experience in animal research and who also have an M.D.-Ph.D., says Hong. There is also considerable competition for experienced chemists, Novartis’s Gregory adds.

Academic pedigree aside, companies also look for team players who have an ability to think innovatively and flexibly. AstraZeneca, in fact, puts candidates through exercises to judge their ability to work in a team. Integrity and self-discipline are also important traits, says Butler.

“We really want people who want to make an impact,” says Gregory. “We want basic researchers who also think about patients and curing disease. We don’t want somebody who likes doing the same thing over and over again. We don’t like complacency.”

Biotech recruiters largely echoed those criteria. Consequently, a job in biotech or pharma may offer similar benefits and costs. And as Bonnefoy and Parikh demonstrate, anyone who is dissatisfied can always change jobs.

MiSciNet Profile: Wilfredo Colón

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