Stepping Out of Big Pharma’s Shadow

The pharmaceutical industry has shed some 300,000 workers — many of them chemists and other scientists — over the past decade. Mergers and consolidations among large drug development companies such as Pfizer, Novartis, Merck, and GlaxoSmithKline are responsible for the majority of these job losses, forcing many scientists to look beyond the industry heavyweights in seeking new work.

“What we’re really noticing nowadays is that scientists are moving more from the large pharma into the small and midsize pharmaceutical companies.” — David Mitchell

So where have these thousands of scientists landed? Science Careers spoke to industry insiders and life sciences job placement agencies and determined that many of them have found work in the small-biotech sector, which does much of the early-stage research for emerging biomedicines. Some former big-pharma employees have started companies of their own. Others have gone into consulting or patent law. Still others have accepted positions in academia. Laid-off pharmaceutical scientists, it seems, can almost always find work, but need to temper their expectations.

Going small

How many scientists laid off by big pharma companies are working in each of these areas? Numbers are hard to come by, says David Mitchell, president and owner of Mitchell Pharmaceutical Consulting, LLC, and president of the American Association of Pharmaceutical Scientists (AAPS). But changes in the employment of AAPS’s membership over the last few years provide some insight.

The trends are dramatic. “It used to be that around 50% of our members were part of a large pharmaceutical company, just a few years ago,” Mitchell says. A survey conducted last year among AAPS members — 11,474 participated — showed that today only 19% work for large pharmaceutical companies, which are defined for the survey’s purposes as the 22 companies with more than $5 billion in annual sales. Nearly 48% of AAPS’s members work for smaller drug-development and biotech companies. Rounding out its employment figures, the survey shows that 30% of AAPS members work for universities or other academic institutions and 3% work for government agencies. The survey is a new initiative for AAPS, Mitchell says, so exact numbers from earlier years aren’t available, but he estimates that 10 years ago, some 70% of its membership worked for large pharmaceutical companies, 20% worked in academia, and the remaining 10% worked for smaller biotech companies, contract research organizations, or in the regulatory industry.

“What we’re really noticing nowadays is that scientists are moving more from the large pharma into the small and midsize pharmaceutical companies,” as well as into contract research organizations, Mitchell says.

Roy J. Blitzer, whose business Roy Blitzer Consulting in Palo Alto, California, specializes in life sciences job placement, agrees with Mitchell’s assessment but with a caveat: It’s only possible to find employment in smaller companies in areas that host a lot of smaller companies — and that’s not everywhere. “Most of the young start-ups want someone with good pharmaceutical experience,” and are happy to snap up scientists recently laid off from the likes of a Pfizer or a Merck, he says. “At least in the Bay Area, the market is quite robust. There are lots of start-up biotech firms, there are medical device firms, there is all this money being put into stem cell research in the San Francisco area, and there aren’t … a ton of jobs,” he says, but finding a job there is not as difficult as it is in other parts of the country.

Data from the investment tracking Web site PricewaterhouseCoopers MoneyTree appear to corroborate Blitzer’s claim. For the fourth quarter of fiscal year 2011, according to companies tracked by MoneyTree, Silicon Valley — which in their analysis includes the whole San Francisco Bay Area — and New England towered above other regions in the amount of money invested in biotech. Funders invested $394 million in 18 companies in Silicon Valley and $386 million in 28 companies in New England. The next closest region tracked was San Diego, which had $142 million invested in 10 companies. After those three regions, biotech funding drops off sharply, with no other regions receiving more than $70 million in investment.

The cost of opportunity

If you don’t live in a region that hosts a lot of new start-ups and tech companies, you may have to move to one. Once you’re there, salaries are typically lower than at the large companies, benefit packages are less generous, and the job market is even more volatile, Mitchell and Blitzer both say. And small-biotech company funding is usually tied to very specific goals and milestones. If a company fails to meet its goals, the company and your job could disappear overnight. “If your personality type requires structure and stability, you could find it very difficult,” Blitzer says.

That instability drove Mitchell away from chasing small-biotech jobs and into consulting work. He worked at Pfizer’s Ann Arbor, Michigan–based neuroscience drug development lab for 7 years, but when Pfizer announced it planned to close the lab in 2007, Mitchell wasn’t sure whether he’d be offered another job with the company. Instead of waiting to find out, he moved with his family to his home state of Colorado to work for a small Boulder-based biotech company called OSI Pharmaceuticals. Unfortunately, like many such companies, it ran into financial problems and his lab went belly-up within a year.

Interested in going out on your own in the biotech/pharmaceuticals sector? Readwith a laid-off pharma worker: a specialist in outsourcing, who struck out on his own with, eventually, 35 or so other post-pharma scientists.

Mitchell moved to another Boulder biotech company, Array BioPharma. Two years later, his division folded. Tired of bouncing around and unwilling to uproot his family again, Mitchell opened his consulting firm in 2009. He hasn’t regretted the decision. “I felt that I did have a set of skills that would be marketable and I went out on my own, and it’s worked out very well for me.”

Helping others, helping themselves

Consulting is working out for many scientists who’ve lost their jobs in big pharma, says Vince Anicetti, a professor of biopharmaceutical science at Keck Graduate Institute in Claremont, California, and a science and regulatory affairs fellow at the Parenteral Drug Association. Anicetti says that approximately half of the scientists he knows who’ve lost their jobs at large pharmaceutical companies have found work in consulting, either joining existing consulting firms or starting their own. This boom in consulting jobs is tied directly to the growth in small biotech, he says, because these companies often need guidance in navigating federal safety protocols and moving drugs through the research pipeline and into clinical trials.

“The job market for consultants with quality assurance skills is really good right now because there are so many firms that have compliance problems with the FDA [Food and Drug Administration],” Anicetti says.

Other scientists are finding work adjudicating patent filings, drug quality, and clinical trial results for the federal government, says Dorothea Howard, president and CEO of McGuire Global Recruitment, which specializes in pharmaceutical job recruiting. “Right now, the trend that I’m seeing with scientists who are being downsized from pharmaceutical companies … is that many of them are going into the government sector, patent law, things of that nature,” she says. These jobs are attractive to many scientists, Howard says, because they frequently don’t require relocation and they offer a fair amount of job security.

Back to school

Finally, many scientists who’ve lost their jobs in big pharma are starting to work in academia. Howard says many scientists are pursuing jobs at academic institutions because, like federal work, they offer job security, and often scientists don’t have to uproot their families to take those positions.

In the past, academics have frowned upon hiring people with extensive industry experience, Anicetti says, preferring instead researchers who follow the traditional tenure-track path from academic postdoc to professorship. But as more academic institutions develop their own drug research and development programs, license their research products, and partner with pharmaceutical companies to push those drugs through the pipeline, institutions are realizing that they could benefit from researchers who have experience with those processes.

Though the number of these opportunities appears to be rising, the numbers aren’t large, Anicetti says. “More and more universities are trying to do their own development programs with molecules that have come through in-house discovery programs, so they’re looking for people who know how to do that,” he says. “It’s definitely a growing trend, and I think it will increase, though I don’t know that it will be a tidal wave.”

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