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Career & Employment

June 9, 2008
Volume 86, Number 23
pp. 53-57

Carving Out A Biopharma Career

Despite industry challenges, savvy chemists can still land jobs along R&D pipeline

Susan J. Ainsworth

"It's certainly an interesting time in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology recruiting business right now," says Daniel Gold, vice president for the research and development practice at executive search firm Fairway Consulting Group. "There's no question that there are fewer pharmaceutical jobs out there today than there were 18 to 24 months ago, but opportunities still exist."

Enticing Work Genentech medicinal chemist Chudi Ndubaku prepares a drug candidate for biological evaluation.

Because of this, job seekers need to work harder to find positions. "In today's economic climate, candidates need to win jobs. They can't just sit back and wait to be courted. The market demands a more engaged, sophisticated, and savvy candidate," Gold says.

The global biotechnology market experienced some growth in sales and improvements in profitability in 2007. However, many biopharma firms, whose drug products are based on genetic engineering, protein design, and other biotechnologies, are struggling—like their big drug company counterparts—to fill their product pipelines and clear higher regulatory hurdles with the ultimate goal of bringing products to market. As a result, select biopharma companies, including Amgen, have cut jobs, adding to massive layoffs levied by big drug companies over the past year.

Despite these challenges, "well-educated and well-trained people are still in high demand," including in the biopharma business, Gold says. In good times and bad, cream-of-the-crop chemists and biochemists are among those scientists needed to support discovery efforts that serve as the foundation of any drug company. Biopharma firms remain engaged in the discovery of compounds that they can develop alone or in a growing number of partnerships with major drug companies.

And because chemistry serves as the "the backbone of drug research and development," Gold says, chemists, biochemists, and chemical engineers—especially those at the middle-management to senior executive level—are finding job openings all along the drug R&D spectrum. In addition, new opportunities are opening up in burgeoning contract research organizations (CROs) and contract manufacturing organizations (CMOs) that are serving the industry, he says.

Gold advises job seekers to approach the market with a track record of sound research experiences, strong multicultural communication skills, and a solid grasp of prospective employers' businesses.

In sizing up prospective employers, "look at their pipeline, which is the best way to calibrate a company's hiring plans," says Holly Butler, senior staffing manager for research at Genentech. "Look at how active the pipeline is along the various stages of discovery to development; that will tell you where the jobs are."

Within the biopharma industry as a whole, it's important to realize that "there are a million different stories out there—some positive and some negative," says Stephen Gansler, senior vice president of human resources at Millennium Pharmaceuticals.

This will be a strong year for hiring at Millennium, which continues to focus on the fast-growing oncology and anti-inflammatory disease markets, Gansler says. More hires will be needed to support the earliest stages of discovery through commercialization, he adds. The acquisition of the company by Japan's Takeda Pharmaceuticals last month will accelerate its hiring plans, Gansler predicts. After all, he notes, Millennium will need additional talent to take on development responsibilities for oncology compounds that have been in Takeda's pipeline.

The Takeda acquisition comes at a time when Millennium awaits possible Food & Drug Administration approval later this month for its oncology product Velcade, which will treat patients with newly diagnosed multiple myeloma, a cancer of the plasma cell, part of the immune system. The company already markets Velcade in the U.S. for treatment of relapsed multiple myeloma and mantle cell lymphoma.

Millennium Pharmaceuticals
COLLABORATORS Millennium chemists (from left) Rachel Gershman, Ryan Chau, and Sharmla Adhikari are synthesizing a new generation of molecules that modulate enzyme complexes.

For its part, Genentech is "still hiring aggressively" at least in its research department, Butler says. The company is adding to its headcount to support the building of new therapeutic areas, including neuroscience, microbial pathogenesis, and oncology diagnostics.

In addition, Genentech is hiring to support continued growth in small-molecule research, as part of a strategy to attack disease from both inside and outside the cell. Genentech is among the many biotechnology companies that "seem to be waking up and moving toward the small-molecule arena that the large pharmaceutical companies have been playing in for a while," Butler says.

Genentech's small-molecule effort "has provided a lot of opportunity for anyone in medicinal chemistry, analytical chemistry, and the process science chemistry areas," Butler says. As it continues to build its small-molecule area, the firm is uncovering some niches of opportunity—areas where there are not enough people qualified to do the work required, she says.

Drug metabolism and pharmacokinetics are other "hot areas for job growth," especially for biochemists, Butler says. Right now, supply of biochemists seems to lag demand.

Biochemists are in demand outside of the U.S. as well. Australia's largest biotechnology company, CSL, plans to continue to focus on recruiting biochemists into its research group and to do so at much the same pace as in 2007, according to CSL's R&D human resources manager, Paula Foord.

In particular, the new hires will support protein engineering and in vitro and in vivo biochemical analysis of protein function, Foord says. "We also recruit for chemists and biochemists in our bioprocess development and facility management areas for positions both in and out of the lab," she continues. CSL continues to hire people with these skills in quality and manufacturing roles.

CSL has experienced unprecedented growth over the past few years. It continues to expand its R&D of plasma therapeutics, vaccines, adjuvants that modify the effects of vaccines and drugs, and recombinant proteins. In 2006, the company licensed Merck & Co.'s human papillomavirus vaccine, Gardasil, in the U.S., Europe, and Australia. The vaccine is based on technology licensed by CSL to Merck in 1995.

In July 2007, CSL received FDA approval for Privigen, a new intravenous immunoglobulin, which has also recently been approved by the European Medicines Agency. Privigen is used for the treatment of patients with an immunodeficiency and chronic immune thrombocytopenic purpura.

CSL also received approval from FDA in September 2007 to market Afluria, an influenza vaccine. In response to these approvals, the company will need to continue to add to its headcount. "We need to grow capability and invest in projects for the future," Foord says.

MedImmune, too, is expanding its workforce as part of an aggressive growth strategy it has implemented over the past year. Although the company was acquired by AstraZeneca in 2007, MedImmune has maintained its entrepreneurial culture as the worldwide biologics unit of its major pharma parent, according to a MedImmune spokesperson. By doubling its pipeline and increasing its productivity targets, MedImmune plans to represent 25% of AstraZeneca's late-phase development projects by 2010.

To meet new business objectives, particularly those tied to its advancing pipeline, MedImmune is expanding its workforce by nearly 25% this year. It plans to fill more than 800 positions, mostly in R&D and clinical areas, by the end of 2008. It is recruiting both junior and seasoned scientists to add to the company's mid-Atlantic-, West Coast-, and U.K.-based facilities. To date, the company has reached nearly half of its hiring goal.

Even though some biopharma heavyweights have stepped up hiring, the highest demand for talent is in the many small-to-medium-sized biopharma companies, which have great growth potential, Gold says.

Millennium Pharmaceuticals
Work Skills At Millennium, Jasmine Afroze uses automated chromatography to purify a synthetic intermediate as she works toward preparing a new target molecule.

These smaller companies are more likely to partner with big pharma in the R&D alliances that are occurring at an unprecedented rate. In 2007, the global biotechnology industry "achieved record levels" in financing and setting up deals, including mergers, acquisitions, and strategic alliances, according to "Beyond Borders: Global Biotechnology Report 2008," released late last month by Ernst & Young (C&EN, May 26, page 21).

For example, last October, Cambridge, Mass.-based Tolerx joined with GlaxoSmithKline to develop and commercialize otelixizumbab, a monoclonal antibody the biopharma firm discovered that has potential across a broad range of autoimmune and immune-mediated inflammatory diseases, including type 1 diabetes.

In November, Memphis-based biopharma firm GTx entered into an agreement with Merck to collaborate in the discovery, development, and commercialization of selective androgen receptor modulators (SARMs), a new class of drugs with the potential to treat age-related muscle loss, muscle wasting associated with cancer, and other musculoskeletal loss conditions. The deal includes GTx's lead SARM candidate, Ostarine.

At the same time, many other small companies are moving their own compounds into early clinical development rather than licensing them out, observes Graham Johnson, chief research officer for New Haven, Conn.-based Rib-X Pharmaceuticals, a privately held biopharma firm. "This evolution will likely increase the demand for chemists who can transition from discovery to early-process development," Graham says. Chemists who also have "a practical understanding of the regulatory environment for drug development" will have an even greater competitive advantage, he adds.

Gold echoes this point. "If a smaller company advances a drug into Phase III clinical trials," which test efficacy and safety in several hundred to several thousand people, "they are going to need to dramatically grow their research and development infrastructure to support that kind of activity," the executive search firm vice president says.

Biopharmaceutical firm Shire continues to expand its staff. The Basingstoke, U.K.-based company, which has its U.S. headquarters in Chesterbrook, Pa., currently focuses on the therapeutic areas of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, gastrointestinal diseases, renal diseases, and genetic disorders.

Within its Human Genetic Therapies (HGT) business—a key growth driver for the company—Shire is "hiring at the same rate in 2008 as in 2007, adding about 200 new jobs to our current headcount," says Jodi Allen, global recruitment manager for the HGT business. "We have grown exponentially over the past few years because we keep feeding our robust pipeline."

Shire's HGT business markets two enzyme replacement therapies, Elaprase for the treatment of Hunter syndrome and Replagal for patients with Fabry disease. To support growth in the HGT business, Shire expects to hire more than 700 people in the next eight years in a variety of different competency areas, she adds.

For now, Shire's HGT business has openings for chemists, biochemists, and chemical engineers both in and outside the lab, Allen says. "The current hot areas of job growth within our organization are for chemical engineers in the areas of quality assurance and validation," which involves the testing of equipment, systems, and production processes.

Job growth is also healthy in the arena of technical support for biopharmaceutical manufacturing, Allen says. In this role, chemical engineers perform technology transfer, process monitoring, troubleshooting, and data trending and analysis, and they implement process improvements. Process development is another key area of job growth, where chemical engineers assist in the development and optimization of the purification process required for the production of proteins.

For different reasons, Rib-X Pharmaceuticals, which is focused on the discovery and development of novel antibiotics for the treatment of antibiotic-resistant infections, "will likely undertake selective recruiting in 2008," Johnson says.

Over the past two years, Rib-X has raised $123 million while in-licensing worldwide rights to RX-3341, a broad-spectrum quinolone antibiotic active against methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. The company has initiated two Phase II studies in some skin and soft tissue infections and community-acquired pneumonia for RX-1741, a molecule discovered at Rib-X. RX-1741 is a designer oxazolidinone that may eventually compete with Pfizer's Zyvox.

Rib-X employs chemists and other scientists "to fulfill a number of needs," Johnson says. In discovery, it hires structural biologists, computational chemists, biochemists, and synthetic organic chemists. Each discipline works closely with the others to create "an integrated, structure-driven drug design engine" set up to accelerate the company's discovery process, he says. Under its development umbrella, the company also employs a small team of process chemists and a chemist experienced in chemical manufacturing and regulatory areas such as chemical manufacturing and control.

Dedication At CSL, junior scientist Marianne Kathires works in fermentation cell culture.

In addition to the opportunities available in big and small biopharma companies, fast-growing contract research and contract manufacturing firms are creating a wealth of job opportunities. As pharma and biotech companies increasingly outsource to CROs and CMOs, especially those in China and India, it will fuel demand for chemists and other scientists needed to staff these organizations.

PepTech, a Burlington, Mass.-based chemistry services company, "will be actively recruiting in 2008 and beyond," says Bruno Tse, vice president of business development at the company. PepTech, which has an R&D center and pilot plant in Shanghai, is "experiencing rapid growth due to an increasing number of projects in small-molecule syntheses, medicinal chemistry compound libraries, and large-scale manufacturing." The company is also building a metric-ton-quantity manufacturing facility in Shanghai expected to be operational by the fourth quarter of this year.

At PepTech, the jobs for chemists are in the lab. "We continually recruit top talents, especially chemists with educational training from the West and work experience in big pharmaceutical companies," Tse says.

Despite their valuable experience, it's not likely that CROs and CMOs will recruit U.S.-born scientists to staff their operations in China, India, Latin America, or other parts of the world, as many of those areas boast a strong supply of homegrown talent, Gold says. In addition to having a familiarity with local government and regulatory agencies, locals can typically be employed at a lower wage than in the U.S. and still make enough to live above the average standard of living of that region, he adds.

However, growth in demand for outsourcing services that originate in other parts of the world "has provided an opportunity for talented U.S.-trained Indian and Chinese students to return home," Johnson notes.

Gold makes the same point. With an understanding of American or European culture, these students can go back to research sites in India and Asia where they will be well-positioned for leadership roles, he says.

In the increasingly global pharma market, it is critical for all scientists, regardless of their geographic location, to be able to work with people from a variety of cultures. "It's becoming more difficult for the brilliant chemist who can't communicate or work with others to exist in our business," Gold says. "Those professionals who rise through the ranks are not only accomplished scientists; they also possess positive leadership characteristics, the ability to work collaboratively, and a certain amount of polish."

In some cultures, "people are typically more aggressive about compensation, advancement, or about stating their case, while people in other cultures may be more discreet and reserved," Gold says. In order to come together and work successfully, it's important that the parties understand and accept those differences, which might be expressed by verbal or nonverbal means, he says.

Millennium, for one, seeks scientists with strong multicultural communication skills, which are even more critical since its acquisition by Takeda. To assess this skill, Gansler says he screens résumés and CVs to see if candidates have worked on academic or workplace projects with people of diverse backgrounds. "The best predictor of whether someone is going to do something in the future is evidence of them having done it in the past," he says.

Another predictor of future success lies in how enthusiastic candidates are about the work they are seeking. When the fit is right, chemists and other scientists "are excited to use their science in an applied fashion to meet unmet medical needs in real people," Butler says. "At Genentech, that work is incredibly enticing to these scientists, who, in a way, are like gamblers—they have to continue to get their fix."

Butler advises young scientists to "follow your passion," rather than follow trends that might point to seemingly safer job options. "The more interested you are in your field, the more successful you will be. Passion really is 50% of the equation," she says.

Recruiters also favor candidates with work experience. "Having experience is really a must, especially in the small-molecule arena," Butler notes. She advises candidates to compete for summer internships at pharmaceutical or biotech companies or participate in cooperative programs while still in college. Alternatively, Ph.D. graduates may gain experience through postdoctoral programs.

Securing training and experience through postdoctoral fellowships and internships will likely remain a practical way to gain the experience needed to break into the newest biopharma frontiers, says Rib-X's Johnson.

"I believe that we are experiencing the second wave of structure-based drug design," Johnson adds. The first wave, he notes, "came in the 1990s and was followed by the emergence of combinatorial chemistry for generating new drug leads."

"This new and more robust wave is ligand- rather than pharmacophore-based and takes advantage of advances in high-throughput protein crystallography and small-molecule protein NMR techniques," Johnson says. "Impressive gains in computing power allied with new algorithms for predicting protein structures are fueling progress in these new and exciting arenas," he adds.

"Once the preserve of large companies, these enabling technologies are increasingly making their way into a greater number of start-up companies," Johnson says. These developments should lead to greater demand for skilled and innovative computational chemists, applied spectroscopists, and biophysicists, he predicts.

Despite today's regulatory and product-pipeline challenges, the future looks bright to many in the biopharma industry. Although many new jobs will lie in non-U.S. markets, Johnson says, "innovation and entrepreneurial spirit are alive and well in the U.S. and I foresee a continued steady birth rate for new discovery and contract research companies."

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