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December 8, 2003
Volume 81, Number 49
CENEAR 81 49 pp. 49-56
ISSN 0009-2347

Success in biotech involves difficult choices and a good sense of emerging technologies


Despite recent economic ups and downs, career growth opportunities in biotechnology for chemists remain promising. Chemistry is an excellent training ground for biotech careers such as quality assurance, quality control, process development, regulatory affairs, and clinical development. Strategic alliances, joint ventures, mergers, and acquisitions between big pharma and biotech and between biotechs, have also opened windows of opportunities for chemists and chemical engineers to make a transition into the biotech sector.

For biotech employment--particularly in the areas of genomics, proteomics, and bioinformatics--the question of whether to work in industry or academia presents a choice unlike any other. Should you go into the public (academic, government-supported) or private (large corporation or you-own-a-piece-of-it start-up) sector? The success of your career may hinge on an ability to identify what the "next big thing" will be; to predict which advances will get bogged down (like stem cell research, cloning, and genetically modified organisms); and to size up the social, intellectual, and--most important--financial capabilities of a given workplace to get the job done. If you manage to hit this trifecta, you can find yourself on a Nobel team or with millions in the bank before you're 35. Guess wrong, and the company may fold around you.

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Smaller companies may offer more breadth than depth, especially for someone right out of school. Larger companies provide an intense introduction to industrial research and other career options away from the bench. Academia offers freedom and flexibility to do the research you want, whereas in industry, you won't always choose the projects you work on.

"These issues are very much on the minds of job seekers, be they recent Ph.D. graduates or seasoned postdoctoral fellows," says Michael Owens, a cancer biology graduate student at Harvard Medical School and managing director of the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences Harvard Biotechnology Club. "I think deciding which path to take really depends on the personality of the individual and his or her own aspirations."

So how should the biotech-bound evaluate their options? Owens says, "Academia has always been the safer path because it's not usually tied to the economy, as industry is. In addition, most, if not all, research scientists were trained to be academic researchers, so making the transition to industry can seem daunting.

"Of course, industry always seems more lucrative than academia, but academia has a 'publish-or-perish' mentality with no horizontal career development in place, whereas industrial scientists can move into business development or other pathways tied to their Ph.D.s."

John Greene, principal bioinformatics scientist and director of bioinformatics at SRA International, Rockville, Md., which provides high-level information technology work for the U.S. government, concurs. Greene's experience ranges from academe to industry to government. He received a B.S. degree in life sciences from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1983, where he worked in the lab of 1993 Nobel Laureate Phillip A. Sharp. He then earned a Ph.D. in genetics from Harvard in 1989. He started out as a postdoc at the National Institutes of Health but decided to look for work in industry because, he says, "the academic job market at the time wasn't very good, and grant funding was tight."

HIS FIRST industrial job was with an antisense company, which he describes as "having more good ideas than money." One day, Greene read a story about Human Genome Sciences (HGS) and lobbied hard for a job--"I was employee number 15 when I started," he says. Greene was hired as a bench scientist in the molecular biology group, where he looked at DNA sequences to find what was interesting and then pulled out full-length clones for further study.

Greene became interested in bioinformatics when HGS hired computer consultants in 1993. He became HGS's first bioinformatics scientist when he applied for and got an internal position within the programming group as a liaison between the programmers and the other scientists. He spent two years in the bioinformatics group before moving on to a senior staff scientist job at Gene Logic, a contract service provider located in Gaithersburg, Md. In 1999, he joined SRA. His current project is a collaboration between the NIH Center for Information Technology and the National Cancer Institute to develop a microarray database. With 31,000 separate arrays, it's one of the largest Web-based databases in the world, Greene says.

"It's exciting to work in biotech, but it's also risky," he says. "The first company I worked for went down to two people but took five years before it folded. I was an early employee at HGS, and now they have around 1,000 employees. SRA has been around for 25 years, and I never thought I'd be so happy as a government contractor."

Still, Greene keeps one foot in academia. For the past five years, he's taught UNIX, databases, and Perl programming for life sciences at Johns Hopkins University. He will also be teaching in a new master's degree program in bioinformatics that begins at Hopkins in spring 2004.

Some cities are much better than others for finding biotech jobs. A 2002 Brookings Institution report notes that the U.S. biotech industry is largely concentrated within nine metropolitan areas--Boston, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, Raleigh-Durham, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, D.C./Baltimore--because these areas have strong research activity and the ability to commercialize that research.

Academia has always been the safer path because it's not usually tied to the economy, as industry is.

BIOTECH WORKERS often move between these locales, says Michael C. Pirrung, professor of chemistry at Duke University, who also serves as director of Duke's Biotech for Business program. "In biotech, I've noticed it's common for people to go work in big companies and get steeped in industrial research. They then take that background and experience to the West Coast, which has the lifestyle they want."

And there may be good news for those who wish to work elsewhere. Biotech investing has rebounded this year (C&EN, Nov. 17, page 30), and many states are looking to biotech to rev up their economic engines. According to the Brookings Institution, 41 states have programs and activities to stimulate biotechnology development.

Many Ph.D.s pursuing a biotech career outside of academia have done so because they've gotten discouraged by the career ladder in academia, Owens says. "There is more competition for faculty positions, so you tend to see people take two or three postdoc fellowships, equating to about five to seven years as a junior scientist making junior scientist pay. It's hard to start a family on a postdoc's salary.

"Industry scientists with the same experience can make two to three times as much, so financial security is a big draw for leaving academia," he adds. "In some cases, you do lose the freedom that academic scientists enjoy, as the bottom line is always the governing factor in industry. But some of the smaller biotech start-ups are more academic-friendly, as they are just offshoots from university labs. Once you add outside funding to the equation, even start-ups fall victim to quotas and milestones. 'Publish or perish' becomes 'IPO or perish.' "

Most, if not all, biotech companies could probably trace their histories back to their start in a university lab, but anecdotal evidence suggests that, rather than joining academia, younger scientists are joining small companies to conduct research and publish without the time-consuming tasks of grant writing, administrative responsibilities, and teaching duties. "If you want to be a scientist/entrepreneur, the academic environment" is too distracting, Pirrung says. He tells C&EN that some distinguished academic researchers share their career-related discoveries and expertise with start-ups. They can provide advice on what will be the next best thing for people who are finishing their degrees and trying to identify where they're going.

Despite the distractions of academe, Pirrung believes that those who want to do more applied work will find a fair amount of support in current grant programs. "There's a significant number of programs specifically involving academic-industrial interactions," he says, drawing on his own experience serving on review panels for bioterrorism grants.

"There has to be an industrial partner" because an academic researcher could make a discovery that has no commercial application and would need guidance, Pirrung explains. "The burden is that you can do applied research, but often it may not be appreciated in academia. Sometimes, we are the ivory tower, and there is a limit to how practical you want to be. We're here to train students and create knowledge; that doesn't take your research in a new direction like developing a novel treatment for a new disease."

Pirrung also says it's a myth that small companies aren't interested in having their workers publish. Scientists are encouraged to publish as well as present at scientific conferences because small companies have a drive to develop a reputation. Work that is novel enough for a patent application is novel enough for publishing, he says. And the patent application process doesn't necessarily slow down the publishing process. "People in small companies are out there to build a reputation, and they are very aggressive about getting research done and filing patents so they can get out and talk about their work," Pirrung says.


NONSCIENTIFIC BUSINESS skills are a big plus in biotech. Greene believes that developing entrepreneurial skills will also enhance your value to employers. M.B.A. programs may contain an entrepreneurship component. And participating in an entrepreneurship challenge where teams submit business plans and compete for seed money to start a new business is especially helpful. These competitions help students hone their business skills and refine their business plans, which are evaluated by experienced entrepreneurs and venture capitalists. For example, Pirrung plans to participate in this year's Duke Start-Up Challenge, where he'll contribute scientific expertise to a multidisciplinary team.

In industry, getting a job is only half the battle: Making sure the company is still operating after you start is equally important. Developing an "inner M.B.A." is key to learning how financially healthy a company is.

Jonathan MacQuitty, president of Abingworth Management, a venture-capital firm in Palo Alto, Calif., offers this perspective: "I think it is useful working for large--and financially stable--commercial companies where the salaries are likely to be higher. There is some risk in [small] pharmaceutical firms because the entire company can be acquired and your job is lost. The trade-off is that you have the advantage of the better salary but less control over the work you do."

According to MacQuitty, with the exception of tenured academic positions, all positions have risks of one kind or another. "Soft-money jobs are every bit as risky as working for a small biotech company," he says. "There is a much wider range of opportunities in a smaller company than in a large one and certainly in academia, where you can be tied to a specific grant.

"If I want to establish a scientific career by publishing, I can do that just as well in a small company as in academia," he says. "I can do a lot more research, I'm not obligated to publish at inconvenient times, and I have potentially more academic freedom in a small company."

MacQuitty offers hints for determining the financial health of a firm:

First, a venture-capital-backed company is always going to be better off financially than one that is not, he says. "Venture capitalists have access to more money than the average angel [individual] investor. You want to make certain that you're working with a venture-capital organization that is well regarded in the venture-capital community. Look at who the backers are and how much money they're investing."

According to a recent survey from the Department of Commerce, firms with 500 or fewer employees obtained their R&D financing in 2001 from different sources than those of larger firms. These smaller companies were more likely to depend on venture capital, angel investors, and initial public offerings, whereas larger firms relied more on in-house resources or parent-firm funding.

Another piece of information to get before accepting a job offer is the company's "burn rate": the company's average monthly expense. If you divide the cash balance by the monthly cash expenses, the result is the number of months the company is going to survive. MacQuitty also recommends asking exactly what is the "dry well" date; for example, three years of cash in the bank is better than three months' cash. How do you get this information? Just ask for it, he advises.

Go to the company website and look at the most recent set of press releases. Even though the Securities & Exchange Commission does not regulate private companies, it would be very unusual for firms to put out erroneous information, MacQuitty notes.

Despite the risks, it is possible to have an enjoyable career. The oldest advice is still the best advice. Know yourself: your skills, abilities, values, and needs. Do your research. If you're interested in an academic career, talk to people who are doing the research you want to do. If you're attracted to an industrial career, find out all you can about the companies you're interested in. Recognize that you may hold many jobs in your lifetime. Stay flexible, update your knowledge continually, and assess the opportunities that come your way.


Chemical & Engineering News
Copyright © 2003 American Chemical Society

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