Top employers embrace change based on a stable foundation


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Like the biotech and pharma industry itself, the annual Science Careers Top Employers Survey continues to change and grow. This year, more than 8,000 responded, the most in the history of the survey, up from 6,950 last year. Of more than 180 companies mentioned frequently by survey participants, 20 emerged as top employers.

Innovation was the leading driver for top employers. Work culture, respect for employees, and social responsibility were also highly valued. An unusual feature in this year’s survey compared to recent years was the emergence of “top leadership that successfully makes changes needed to keep the organization moving in the right direction” as a characteristic of top employers.

Comments from respondents reflected a year of prominent political news, impactful elections worldwide, and heated public discussions about health care reform, drug pricing, and industry regulations. The announcement by Amazon, JPMorgan Chase, and Berkshire Hathaway of a joint venture to create a technology-based health care company may have been on survey respondents’ minds when they noted new data sources, analytic methods, and automation as industry changes. Other comments covered market trends, including mergers and acquisitions and the rise of biosimilars and generic drugs, and new R&D avenues such as gene editing.

Against that backdrop, representatives from top companies explain how their organizations respond to an ever-changing industry while holding to “true north.” A common theme was making rational, data-driven decisions and taking actions that reflect their company’s location, employee base, and foundational values.

Stability at the top

For the third straight year and the sixth time since 2011, Regeneron Pharmaceuticals in Tarrytown, New York, was chosen as the No. 1 employer. Chief Scientific Officer and President George Yancopoulos is enthusiastic about the top ranking, saying, “It never gets old.” He attributes the continuing recognition to two major factors: “We’re the only major biopharma company started by and still run by scientists after 30 years, and we continue to build on our innovation, particularly in genetics.” 

Citing the company principle of “doing well by doing good,” Yancopoulos adds, “We believe that if we do the right thing based on our science, then we’ll do fine from the business standpoint.” He names Dupixent, an atopic dermatitis drug from Regeneron and developmental partner Sanofi, based in Paris, France, as an example. It wasn’t initially predicted to be profitable, but is becoming a success, and its clinical trial data shows promise for asthma and other allergic diseases as well.

Moreover, Regeneron’s leadership is not averse to change. “One of our strengths,” Yancopoulos says, “is that we’re willing to adapt or die. That’s how we survived for 20 years before our first product approval.” The company previously focused on in-house discoveries, many of which were later developed or commercialized with other companies, but is now increasingly engaged in external partnerships.

Company leaders expect future discoveries from the Regeneron Genetics Center (RGC), a company subsidiary focused on genotype–phenotype data, which Yancopoulos describes as “taking human genetics to the space-age level.” RGC partners with health organizations that use clinical data or biobanks with tissue samples. 

RGC’s activities align with survey respondents’ comments about automation and industry trends in artificial intelligence and machine learning. These methods require big data in order to train algorithms to detect patterns, Yancopoulos says, and generating those large datasets is an RGC goal. To expand RGC’s database of exome sequences linked to over 300,000 individual health records, the center is leading a consortium of pharmaceutical companies, including AbbVie, AstraZeneca, Biogen, and Pfizer, to perform exome sequencing on half a million samples from UK Biobank by 2019. Each company provides USD 10 million to sequence samples linked to clinical and imaging data from study participants. Consortium members will have access to the data six to 12 months before public release.

At the No. 2 spot is a newcomer to the top employer rankings—Delaware-based pharmaceutical company Incyte, which also earned high marks for innovation. To CEO Hervé Hoppenot, the company’s main innovation is its model: “We’re a large research center with a small company on top of it. We do discovery and basic science and have a track record of developing our own medicines.” Incyte’s drugs focus on unmet patient needs in cancer and other conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis. The company is unique, Hoppenot says, because of its large, diverse portfolio of projects addressing different diseases, stages, mechanisms, targets, and therapeutic areas. “We have multiple ways to get to where we want to go. We don’t rely on one idea about what Incyte will be in the future.”

Incyte’s leaders say its business decisions are rooted in scientific results. “The foundation of Incyte is medicinal chemistry and biology,” says Group Vice President for U.S. Medical Affairs Peg Squier. Adds Hoppenot, “We love our chemists and biologists. They make the difference at our company. At our town halls, we have chemists give presentations, and while it’s sometimes outside of some people’s expertise, we think it’s important that everybody knows how our projects begin.” 

Another unique aspect of Incyte is its collaborations, says Squier. For example, it offers drugs for investigator-initiated clinical trials earlier than other companies—right after a molecule has undergone preliminary safety profiling rather than at first regulatory approval. Squier also cites single-trial collaborations with other companies that test the effectiveness of combined treatments. “The biology is telling us we need to look at combining therapies,” she says, “so we open partnerships with other companies, sometimes just for one clinical trial to test combining our molecules.” 

Incyte is followed in the survey by No. 3 Novozymes, a global biotechnology company headquartered in Bagsværd outside of Copenhagen, Denmark. Moving from sixth place in 2017 to fourth in 2018 is Massachusetts-based Moderna Therapeutics, which also scored high in innovation. Moderna is developing a new class of medicines using messenger RNAs (mRNAs) instead of proteins, peptides, or small molecules—so the anticipated products themselves are the innovation. “Our science is inherently novel,” says President Stephen Hoge. “There’s no roadmap for how to build an mRNA company. We have to invent as we go.”

Innovation is in the eye of the beholder and doesn’t necessarily equate with drug discovery. A notable contrast to what other companies feel makes them innovative is found at Biocon in Bangalore, India, which was No. 7 after Merck KGaA and Vertex Pharmaceuticals. Biocon is known for success in generic drugs and biosimilars. 

“Innovation means many things to many people,” says Head of R&D Narendra Chirmule. “For mature companies, it means new targets and new therapies. But it can also mean finding new ways to do drug development and be efficient.” Biocon focuses on process innovation, he says, and is moving into molecule discovery. 

Process innovation at Biocon stems from its employees’ broad knowledge. “If a process requires cells to increase yield,” Chirmule says, “then our chemical engineers know enough cell biology to make changes through biological processes.” 

Culture: Context matters

Respect for employees and a work culture aligned with employee values are consistently endorsed characteristics in the top employer surveys. Comparing companies illustrates how these features are intertwined and how company culture influences the workforce and vice versa.

Chirmule describes Biocon as having “a culture of youth,” with many R&D employees under 35. In addition, he says, “India’s culture is about diversity.” In that environment, Biocon encourages individual expression. At an annual company talent show, 80% of employees participate. “It invigorates the company and emphasizes our diversity,” Chirmule says. “It shows that people have ability in both science and arts, and have diverse experiences, and it encourages a culture of innovation.”

At Biocon, work–life balance means “the intermixing of science and creative arts and work and life,” Chirmule says. “That’s what a human being is, so we’re creating a culture that lets people express all aspects of themselves.” He adds, “In this day and age it’s not about working from 9 to 5 and going home. Work–life balance mixes throughout the day.” To stay inspired and add some fun to the workday, Chirmule keeps band equipment, including a drum set, in his office. 

At Incyte, respect for individuals and work–life balance is tailored to a different employee population. Executive Vice President of Human Resources Paula Swain is not surprised that the 2018 survey found only 17% of respondents planning to seek a new job in the next year. Incyte tends to hire mid-career employees and has a stable workforce, she says. Of about 60 people who started the company in 2002, including Swain, more than 50 are still there.

Like Biocon, Incyte strives for a work culture that treats employees as individuals. At Incyte, work–life balance translates into good pay, benefits, and flexibility in accommodating individual needs. The company covers 100% of medical insurance for employees. Based on employee input, Incyte initiated paid maternity and paternity leave, including for adoption. It subsidizes a concierge service for employees for tasks such as running errands, planning vacations, and walking dogs. 

“We have guidelines instead of being driven by strict rules, regulations, and policies that restrict how we handle situations,” Swain says. “We focus on people as individuals.” An example is offering part-time employment to people approaching retirement who aren’t ready to stop working altogether. One way that Swain and Hoppenot keep in touch with employee needs is having lunch with all new employees six months after they are hired, to hear what they like and don’t like about their jobs. “We’re responsive to employee needs about what would make their work more pleasant, but sometimes we say no,” Swain says. “We buck the trend on working from home. We want people to have flexibility but like having them interact.”

Moderna’s 2018 survey findings indicate that innovation unquestionably drove its employer ranking. This emphasis shapes the corporate culture. Hoge names four core company values as “bold, curious, relentless, and collaborative,” and sees some combination of these traits in every employee. Being located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, also shapes Moderna’s work culture. “We’re pioneering something,” Hoge says. “There’s a bit of self-selection for people who are drawn to that kind of challenge, for which there’s no guarantee of success—people who want to do things that have never been done before.” 

Social responsibility: An expectation

A consistent message from the survey is that employees value and expect social responsibility at their workplace. This trait has driven selection as a top employer for more than 10 years. As with work culture and innovation, corporate responsibility programs reflect a company’s location, employee characteristics, and ethos. 

Social responsibility was one factor that made Regeneron the most highly regarded employer in 2018. Vice President of Corporate Communications and Citizenship Hala Mirza says corporate responsibility needs to be an authentic extension of how a company operates. “Companies can’t run the commercial side of their business unethically and tack on social responsibility as a mitigating factor,” she says. In other words, “You can’t behave one way in business and another in corporate citizenship.” 

Regeneron integrates citizenship with its business and science, for example, applying its VelociSuite technologies for generating human antibodies to develop medicines for infectious diseases, including Zika and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, with support from U.S. government agencies. On the business side, Regeneron’s Ebola drug, developed using VelociSuite, earned orphan drug designation from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. 

The Regeneron priorities for corporate citizenship are supporting STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education by developing top scientific talent, improving scientific teaching, and building awareness of scientific careers at all levels, Mirza says. “Our overall goal is elevating science in society. We envision a world in which scientists are heroes. We believe if we support them, they will solve the great problems of our time.”

A keystone project is the national Regeneron Science Talent Search, which honors 300 top high school students every year, supported by an annual USD 10 million contribution from the company. Nationally and regionally, Regeneron promotes science education, especially in underprivileged communities, with mentorship, teacher training, and programs for hands-on science exploration. In 2017, Regeneron launched a company-wide Day for Doing Good, on which more than 50% of employees used their workday to participate in corporate service projects “from STEM programs to rebuilding bridges,” says Mirza. Part of the employee benefit package, she adds, is paid leave for volunteering.

In addition to a paid volunteer day every year, Incyte gives employees a matching gift account, Swain says. The company matches employee donations to a charity dollar-for-dollar, up to USD 1,000 a year. Corporate giving through the Incyte Charitable Giving Foundation supports organizations in Delaware, Incyte’s home state. 

Biocon’s corporate responsibility policies also stem from the company’s vision and location, says Head of Human Resources Amitava Saha. “The cost of long-term therapy is incredibly high in most countries,” he says, “particularly in a third-world economy where government support is limited. It’s almost prohibitive for some patients. If you can make it affordable, it can save a lot of lives.” 

The Biocon Foundation helps people in remote areas by providing free or low-cost medical care, primary education, and community-infrastructure building. Employees are encouraged to take part in foundation initiatives and can use a workday for community service.

Biocon social responsibility efforts focus on education to build the talent pool in India for the biotech industry, Saha says. The company trains university graduates at the Biocon Academy, which he calls “a finishing school for biotech grads.” They get classroom training and experiential learning in an industry setting. More than 300 students have been through the program, with fees subsidized up to 75% by Biocon. The academy has a 100% placement record, with graduates employed at Biocon and across the industry, Saha says. To reach a larger population of students, the academy also has refresher courses for instructors at biotech colleges.

Social responsibility boosted Boehringer Ingelheim to No. 15, above other organizations with similar survey rankings. Karen Iannella, president of the BI Cares Foundation, the company’s philanthropic arm, says the foundation’s programs focus on underserved communities. Two programs provide company medicines to people in need. A patient-assistance program gives Boehringer Ingelheim medicines for free to uninsured and underinsured U.S. patients. A product donation program does the same internationally through nonprofit partners, as part of disaster relief, for example. The foundation also contributes to community STEM education programs.

Change: A constant

The 2018 survey results represent an important cultural moment. One of the top five criteria for employers was “has top leadership that successfully makes changes.” This has not been a top priority in recent years. Chirmule understands why this feature might be valued by Biocon’s employees. “I interact with a lot of younger and junior staff whose role models are creators of disruptive technologies like Facebook, Tesla, or Uber,” he says. “Maybe an element of the younger staff is asking, ‘What is our company doing to become that innovative?’”

At Moderna, Chief Digital Officer Marcello Damiani heads a team that is digitizing all company operations. He started from scratch about three years ago with an executive-level mandate to make digitization “part and parcel of our strategy,” he says. His team developed a cloud-based platform that integrates purchased software with in-house programs and links all departments, from finances to legal to R&D. 

“Data entered in one system flows to all others,” Damiani says, which creates efficiency. Users don’t need to manage their data in individual spreadsheets. Fewer people are needed to oversee a centralized database compared to a siloed information system, he says, and researchers can easily access data across projects or clinical trials. His team has responsibility for all informatics, automation, and traditional information technology services. 

The company’s digitized operations include the Moderna Drug Design Studio, which supports company scientists in designing and ordering mRNA for their research. The studio suggests the best mRNA to make desired proteins, and a fully automated central lab generates the mRNA, Damiani explains. “We collect data at each step,” he says, “to learn the best way to design mRNA so the next iteration learns from the previous one.” His team is now working at the company’s recently opened manufacturing facility on developing digital and technical innovations that will help advance clinical programs.

One reason that survey respondents commented on mergers and acquisitions, biosimilars and generics, and big data, may be high-profile recent news—much of it involving Roche, this year at No. 12. Patents on three of the company’s highest-earning drugs expire in the next few years, and earlier this year the company acquired Flatiron Health and Foundation Medicine.

Flatiron Health’s comprehensive cancer-care software services, including electronic health records, collect patient data from hundreds of U.S. cancer-care practices. Foundation Medicine focuses on cancer gene profiling. A partnership between the two companies created the Clinico-Genomic Database, holding anonymized longitudinal clinical data on more than 20,000 cancer patients linked to their genomic profiles.

William Pao, Roche’s Head of Pharma Research and Early Development and a member of its executive committee, says the company will use Flatiron Health and Foundation Medicine data in multiple ways. Applications include analyzing treatments that patients are currently getting and the resulting clinical outcomes. Roche scientists are testing how their R&D analyses compare to results using real-world clinical data from patients getting standard care.

Researchers in Pao’s unit are developing digital biomarkers via a smartphone app, for patients with neuromuscular disorders such as Parkinson’s disease. The app tracks symptoms over time, including development of tremors and changes in gait and voice, to gather quantitative data on how patients respond to experimental treatments, says Pao. 

The focus on digital development is part of continuous learning by Roche, notes Pao. The company is 120 years old, still family owned, and has a reputation for traditional drug-and-diagnostics development. Although Roche strives for a friendly work environment and has low employee turnover, says Pao, he emphasizes that “change is our only constant.” 

In these turbulent times, employees seem to value companies that address uncertainties head-on. Regeneron’s answer to rising drug prices was a deal with a pharmacy benefit manager to reduce the prices of its cholesterol-lowering drug in exchange for simplified patient access and physician reimbursement processes. As long as high-level decisions are consistent with a company’s stated mission and its work culture, employees will understand, says Zambrowicz. Regeneron founders Yancopoulos and Len Schleifer “set the scientific focus and ethical standards and are outspoken about doing the right thing and leading by example. They set the course long ago and maintain it, so people have confidence in their leadership,” he says.

Communicating decisions quickly and effectively is arguably as important to employees as making needed changes. Top employers will try to present the data and reasoning behind tough executive decisions. Especially in a science-driven industry, employees can appreciate that approach. “Focusing on science and data eliminates a lot of politics,” Zambrowicz says. “If decisions are made in a rational way and driven by science, it’s clear why they’re made. People are comfortable with decisions based on data.” 

Incyte was highly rated as an employer with a work culture that respects employees, despite a setback with a melanoma drug that happened while the survey was in the field. Hoppenot attributes this outcome to the company’s long-term view. “The sequence of success and failure is inherently part of the scientific process,” he says. “We create a culture that accepts a level of uncertainty and organize our activities knowing that some of our projects will not work as we hoped, but that others will succeed.” The strategy of running multiple, varied projects simultaneously is a way to increase the chances of success, adds Hoppenot.

Squier notes that as Incyte monitors their data, its leaders are thinking of how to respond. They aim to keep organizational bureaucracy low, to facilitate efficient decision-making. “We have contingency plans,” Squier says, “so when we get a result, we don’t slow down, but can change lanes if we need to. People feel that we are ready to handle whatever results come.” The goal, she says, is for leaders to be straightforward with employees, so they feel like they are part of whatever decisions are made.

Yancopoulos acknowledges the uniqueness of this particular time in history: “I understand why people are concerned,” he says, “We live in an uncertain time regarding political, business, and other points of view. Our answer is to continue to do the right thing, operating our business as ethically as possible and knowing the system should appropriately reward innovative companies like us.”

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