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Career & Employment

May 22, 2006
Volume 84, Number 21
pp. 43-48

Finding A Niche In New England

Outside Boston's biotech hub, New England pitches specialized positions and a slower pace of life

Linda Wang

From the rocky coastline of Maine to the rolling hills of Connecticut; from the White Mountains of New Hampshire to the Green Mountains of Vermont; from the richness of Rhode Island to the eclectic buzz of Boston, New England's charm is its diversity.

As far as employment opportunities go, Boston is saturated with biotech jobs, but the fast-paced lifestyle and high cost of living are prompting some jobseekers to consider the other New England states, where life is quieter and opportunities abound.

But Boston is a big draw. In the Boston area, world-class institutions turn out some of the brightest scientists each year. Yet the city is starved for talent, says Bruce Wideberg, president of staffing firm Vedior North America.

He explains that the biotech boom in Boston in recent years has lured hundreds of companies that are all vying for this finite pool of talent, and supply just isn't keeping up with demand. "Companies in the past several years have been ramping up, and the pool has gone dry," Wideberg says.

Big Boss Pfizer is one of many large pharmaceutical companies scattered throughout Connecticut. Shown here is the firm's new Clinical Research Unit, in New Haven.

This translates into good news for jobseekers. "It's a seller's market," he continues. "If you have a life sciences degree, there couldn't be a better time to be in Boston." A search of the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council's website yielded more than 250 companies, from small start-ups like Acceleron Pharma with fewer than 10 employees to large companies like Genzyme, which employs thousands of people.

Wideberg points out that over the next several years, patents for several blockbuster drugs will expire, and generics will offer many more opportunities for jobseekers. "You're talking about possibly hundreds of billions of dollars' worth of drugs coming off patent," he says.

Moreover, large pharmaceutical companies are setting up shop to partner on products developed by small biotech companies. Companies such as Merck, Pfizer, Novartis, and Abbott have all begun multi-million-dollar operations in the Boston area.

All this hustle and bustle is not for everyone. Some jobseekers may be attracted to the slower pace of life characterized by the rest of New England. After Massachusetts, Connecticut has the highest concentration of life sciences jobs in New England, employing some 18,000 people in the bioscience industry in 2004, according to biotech industry group Connecticut United for Research Excellence (CURE).

Paul Pescatello, president of CURE, believes that people are first drawn to Connecticut by the job opportunities that exist; the quality of life then "seals the deal."

Large pharmaceutical companies, such as Pfizer, Bristol-Myers Squibb, and Boehringer Ingelheim dot the state, while biotech companies are clustered in and around the corridor between New Haven and Hartford, where they capitalize on technologies coming out of Yale University and the University of Connecticut.

Just one block from the Yale medical school, spin-off Achillion Pharmaceuticals is developing antiviral drugs to treat infections caused by hepatitis B and C viruses, herpes viruses, and HIV. Rib-X Pharmaceuticals, located in the same state-of-the-art facility, is developing new classes of antibiotics to combat antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

In nearby Branford, Marinus Pharmaceuticals is developing drugs to treat serious central nervous system disorders. And about 30 miles north, in the suburb of Cheshire, researchers at Alexion Pharmaceuticals are developing a drug called eculizumab to treat the rare blood disorder paroxysmal nocturnal hemoglobinuria.

Job opportunities abound as this cluster of companies continues to grow. CuraGen, which employs more than 400 people in Branford, recently spun off gene-sequencing company 454 Life Sciences. And a director of CuraGen recently founded nanoreactor company RainDance Technologies, in Guilford. "We have a pretty good cluster of companies in Connecticut, but it would certainly be better to have more companies," Pescatello says.

Rhode Island barely makes a mark on the map, but it is grabbing people's attention on the bioscience scene. Katherine O'Dea, executive director of the Tech Collective, an association that fosters the growth of Rhode Island's technology and biotechnology industries, says research grants to Rhode Island institutions are growing faster than to any other state in the country. Brown University and the University of Rhode Island are helping to anchor a growing network of small biotech companies.

In addition, Amgen, the largest pharmaceutical employer in the state, is spending more than $1.1 billion to build a manufacturing facility for Enbrel, a drug used to treat chronic inflammatory diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis. In addition, Bristol-Myers Squibb is considering a bid to build a $660 million pharmaceutical manufacturing plant in the state.

Rhode Island also offers many opportunities in specialized areas. For example, the state still does a fair amount of jewelry manufacturing, which requires specialty chemists, O'Dea says. There's also a specialty soap company, Bradford Soap Works, in West Warwick, which employs chemical engineers and has been in business in Rhode Island for 128 years.

O'Dea says the majority of businesses in Rhode Island are small or medium-sized, and most are concentrated in and around Providence. One such company is EpiVax, in Providence, which develops vaccines for diseases such as tuberculosis and smallpox. Anne S. De Groot, founder and CEO of EpiVax and a professor of community health and medicine at Brown University, says her company is always looking for people with experience in vaccines and protein therapeutics.

Since its founding in 1998, EpiVax has grown from three to 15 people, and the firm is looking to hire two more this summer. People with backgrounds in areas such as bioinformatics, molecular biology, or immunology are encouraged to apply.

Because Rhode Island is such a small place, there are considerably fewer job opportunities than in Boston or New Haven. But also because it's such a small place, there's more opportunity to make a difference, O'Dea says. "You have access to all the movers and shakers, and you can play in a different ballpark here."

In the northern New England states of Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire, the abundance of natural resources supports many niche markets.

Maine's coastline and its deep roots in the fishing industry make it well-situated for conducting marine biotechnology research. "We are basically sitting on the edge of a wonderful natural research laboratory," says Betsy Biemann, director of Maine Technology Institute.

Researchers at Sea Run Holdings, in Freeport, are developing a human clotting factor from salmon blood. And scientists at MariCal, in Portland, have developed a technology to allow juvenile salmon reared in freshwater tanks to adapt to saltwater, lowering their mortality rate during transition to open ocean pens.

Other places where marine biotechnology research is taking place include Gulf of Maine Research Institute, Gulf of Maine Ocean Observing System, Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences, and Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve.

Maine's other natural resource is trees, as 90% of the state is covered in forest. The state's long history of expertise in the pulp and paper industry gives it the know-how to conduct forest biorefining research, an intensifying focus now that fuel prices are soaring, says Janet Yancey-Wrona, director of Maine's Office of Innovation. The biorefining process involves extracting chemicals from wood chips or shavings, which can then be used to manufacture materials such as fuel ethanol, plastics, and specialty chemicals such as those used in coatings.

The National Science Foundation has awarded the University of Maine a $6.9 million grant to conduct forest bioproduct research and development in fields including engineering, chemistry, biology, and forest ecology. The university is recruiting three new faculty members in this area.

Companies large and small are expanding. Idexx Laboratories, in Westbrook, employs more than 3,000 people and is projecting to add another 500 jobs over the next five years. An online search of their current job openings turned up positions such as a manufacturing chemist with a minimum of a bachelor's degree in chemistry and experience in combinatorial chemistry and chemistry libraries, and a materials scientist with a Ph.D. in biochemistry, analytical chemistry, or biomedical engineering and three years of industrial experience.

Jackson Laboratory, in Bar Harbor, is the world's largest mammalian genetic research facility and continues to expand every year. A search of its openings yielded a number of potential positions, including that for an associate research scientist with a Ph.D. or M.D. and postdoctoral research experience, and a biomedical technologist with an M.S. in life sciences and five years of relevant experience with cell biology and/or assisted reproductive technologies in the mouse.


Maine Attraction Maine's research centers, such as Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory in Bar Harbor, pictured here, take advantage of the state's many natural resources.

Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory, in Salisbury Cove, is a marine and biomedical research institution that has grown from nine people in 1999 to 42 people today, says Patricia Hand, MDIBL's administrative director.

The forecast for research and development in Maine is getting brighter and brighter. Over the past two years, the number of people in R&D jobs has increased by 67%, and space dedicated to R&D has increased by 40%, says Maine Technology Institute's Biemann. "We certainly don't have the size of the job market of Massachusetts by any stretch of the imagination, but I think there is a vibrant and growing biotechnology industry here."

Whereas a lot of research takes place in Massachusetts, much of the manufacturing happens in New Hampshire. "We're the D of R&D," says Paula Newton, president of the New Hampshire Biotechnology Council. "We capitalize on the fact that we are so close to Cambridge and Boston."

Stryker Biotech, in West Lebanon, a division of Stryker Corp., is one such biomanufacturing facility. Much of its research operations are concentrated in Massachusetts, while the manufacturing takes place in New Hampshire. The company is making a protein that has been shown to contribute significantly to bone repair and regeneration.


Expansion An artist's rendition of Stryker Biotech's manufacturing facility expansion, to be completed by 2011. The facility in West Lebanon, N.H., expects to double its number of employees.

The facility in West Lebanon has 175 employees and is midway through an expansion that is expected to double the number of employees and significantly increase production capability by 2011. Stryker Biotech is seeking people with backgrounds in science, engineering, and quality control.

Scattered around New Hampshire are a number of other medically related companies, such as Percardia, in Merrimack, which has developed a technology for the treatment of coronary artery disease; and BioSignetics, in Exeter, which develops cardiac monitoring software.

In the biotech arena, one up-and-coming company is Dartmouth University spin-off GlycoFi, in Lebanon. The firm was founded by Dartmouth researchers in 2000 and now employs 58 people. In January, researchers at GlyciFi reported the first production in yeast of monoclonal antibodies with human sugar structures.

"New Hampshire is just full of companies that satisfy a niche market," Newton says. "Right now, the challenge is just getting the word out that the companies are here."

Vermont, a state of 620,000 people, is tiny-and it wants to keep it that way. "As a small state, we do not envision large employers setting up shop here with thousands of workers," says Thomas Rainey, president of the Vermont Center for Emerging Technologies. "It's going to need to be a more diversified mix of small and medium-sized companies."

Most of the biotech companies in Vermont are concentrated in and around the city of Burlington, and most are spin-offs of research from the University of Vermont. There's Biomosaics, which is developing blood tests for early cancer detection; Green Mountain Antibodies, which is manufacturing custom monoclonal and polyclonal antibodies; and Mylan Technologies, which is developing transdermal drug delivery systems.

BioTek Instruments, in Winooski, is developing microplate instrumentation and software to accelerate the drug discovery process; and Apollo SRI is developing a microsilica material that can be used for high-level drug filtering or as a delivery vehicle for pharmaceutical products. These companies are looking for people with backgrounds in areas such as organic, analytical, and biochemistry, says Christopher W. Allen, professor emeritus at the University of Vermont and a senior science adviser for the Vermont Center for Emerging Technologies.

One growing niche is in the areas of environmental technologies. ElectroCell Technologies, in Colchester, has developed a technology for treating animal wastes; Draker Solar Design, in Burlington, is working in the alternative energy market; and Seldon Laboratories, in Windsor, is developing carbon nanotube filters to purify contaminated water.

Like Boston, Vermont faces a shortage of scientifically trained personnel. Allen points out that of the graduating Ph.D.s and finishing postdocs in chemistry, only about 10% stay in the state and secure local positions.

On the other hand, Vermont attracts scientists who may be nearing the end of their careers and are looking for a slower pace of life. "What's neat about these people is they bring a lot of wisdom and experience, and they also bring some pretty impressive rolodexes," Rainey says.

The three northern states have begun to pool their resources to make their presence felt. "If we want to play in an active arena that's very large and well-known, then you yourself have to appear bigger," Newton says. "By joining together, we can do that."

Despite the competition, like that among siblings in a large family, there is a synergy among all the New England states. "There is a very good atmosphere right now for cooperative and collaborative interactions," Hand says. "And that is translating into new opportunities."

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