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Like the reeds of an old Aesop fable, the companies that topped our 2011 Best Places to Work in Industry survey are bending—but not breaking—under the strain of continued economic adversity. With funding agencies still awarding grants only to the cream of the crop and 2009 stimulus funds expected to run dry as soon as next year, companies are working hard to find new funding sources that will allow them to survive despite the still-depressed economy.
Taking advantage of the growing personal-genomics boom, for example, DNA Genotek, the survey’s #8 company, expanded the market for its saliva-based DNA collection kit from population geneticists in the field to consumers in their homes by licensing its wares to genetic-testing companies. The recent uptick in the use of personalized genetic tests has boosted DNA Genotek’s income, which the company puts right back into basic research. “Personal genomics just became yet another market that we’re playing into,” says DNA Genotek product development manager Rafal Iwasiow.
New collaborations were also common among this year’s top companies. Epizyme, the survey’s #1 company, which specializes in developing inhibitors for epigenetic enzymes, recently signed deals potentially worth more than $800 million with pharmaceutical giants GlaxoSmithKline and Eisai to develop epigenetics-targeted therapies for cancer and other diseases. “It’s a good sign for our company’s stability in the near term,” says Epizyme research associate Christina Allain.
Other top companies are collaborating with a different type of partner altogether—academia. Conversant Bio, a Huntsville, Alabama–based biotech that offers patient-sample and cell-based assays, formed relationships with labs at Stanford University to share samples, equipment, and information. And in Fargo, North Dakota, 3rd-ranked Aldevron is participating in a state-funded project to build a science city, involving collaborations between North Dakota State University labs and local research companies. “There’s a really neat synergy that’s forming here,” says Aldevron’s director of business development Michael Jablon.
Read on to learn more about the strengths and weaknesses of this year’s top-ranking companies, how multinational companies are using their diversity to their advantage, and the different ways companies are creatively utilizing state and federal funding to help their researchers succeed.
Epigenetic Endeavors at Epizyme
This year’s No. 1 company has grown exponentially since its founding in 2007, with a research focus on the epigenetics of cancer and developing drugs to modify variations in DNA methylation. Epizyme, the #1 company on this year’s overall list, has grown exponentially since its founding in 2007—from just two employees to its current R&D staff of 26. In the last year, the company identified two novel mechanisms linked to cancer, inked partnerships with two major pharmaceutical companies, and signed a lease on a larger office. The growth is “a tremendous validation of us as a company and how we’re executing things,” says medicinal chemist Ed Olhava.
Based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the company researches the epigenetics of cancer and develops drugs to modify variations in DNA methylation. The company recently identified how normal and mutant histone methyltransferase EZH2 work together to regulate growth in B-cell lymphomas, and developed a small-molecule inhibitor for another methyltransferase, DOT1L, which is able to selectively kill mixed-lineage leukemia cells in vitro.
Epizyme’s research has attracted the attention of pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline, which announced its partnership with Epizyme in January, providing the company with up to $650 million to search for new epigenetic drugs. And this March, Epizyme signed a deal worth up to $200 million with the Japanese company Eisai to develop therapeutics targeting EZH2 to treat lymphoma and other cancers.
Epizyme’s newfound collaborations are a big change for the small company, and the employees are excited about what’s to come. “It’s a great morale boost,” says Christina Allain, who develops cell-based assays for the company—“a pat on the back.”
Despite its growth, the company has stayed in the same, small office, says Allain. This isn’t a complaint, however: “It gives us a real sense of camaraderie,” she adds. But the employees’ elbow room is about to expand. In March, Epizyme signed a lease for a space in Cambridge nearly twice the size of its current office. “We made sure to have a bar in the new conference room for happy hours,” says Allain. “We have our priorities straight!”
Personal Genomics Boosts DNA Genotek
Ranked No. 8 among this year’s top companies, DNA Genotek has found a surprising new source of revenue—licensing its products to genetic-testing companies. DNA Genotek, #8 among this year’s top-ranked companies, was developing easier ways for fieldworkers to collect DNA samples for research when the personal genomics craze took off, revealing an entirely new market for its products. “The explosion in the personal-medicine area definitely opened up opportunities for DNA Genotek,” providing its employees with a novel revenue source, says Rafal Iwasiow, a former researcher who now works in development.
Until DNA Genotek released its saliva-based DNA collection product, Oragene, in 2004, there were only two reliable sources for routinely extracting DNA: a blood draw—a cumbersome process involving needles and a trip to the doctor—and a cheek swab or scrape, which can produce too small a sample. Because it uses saliva, Oragene allows patients to easily collect their own sample at home. The kits quickly became a widely trusted source for collecting DNA material, and are utilized by companies such as 23andMe and Navigenics.
Personalized genetic tests have “been a big opportunity and business focus for us,” says Paul Payette, a business manager at DNA Genotek. But the saliva kit wasn’t developed for personal use. The technology’s original purpose was to help researchers studying the genetics of human populations around the world, using reagents to kill contaminating bacteria and stabilize the DNA for later analysis. Jane McElroy of the University of Missouri School of Medicine, who uses the Oragene kit to study genetic polymorphisms that may mediate a link between cadmium exposure and endometrial cancer, says the technology allows her to collect samples by mail and store them for years.
Now, with the money coming in from Oragene sales to personal-genomics companies, DNA Genotek has begun to develop saliva-collection kits for population genetics studies of animals, such as dogs, livestock, and endangered species. “When revenues are strong, that allows you to explore other avenues,” says Payette.
This year’s top large companies excel at maintaining communication among their far-reaching branches, sharing information across the globe to keep research running smoothly and efficiently. Maintaining regular and open communication among the worldwide branches of a multinational company is no easy task. But some of the companies that topped this year’s list of large companies have managed to overcome this obstacle, sharing information across the globe to keep international research running smoothly and efficiently.
This year’s #6 large company, Novartis, the fifth largest pharmaceutical company in the world (by 2009 revenue), has nine far-flung campuses in its Institutes for BioMedical Research alone. Apart from some minor language barriers, the diversity is a boon for research, says executive director Peter Finan. “People from different countries have a different view of how they do things, the risks they take, and the processes they follow,” and these varied approaches are shared among research centers, he says.
The company’s wide reach also opens doors to some unexpected collaborations, Finan says, such as the connections he’s made with companies and universities in Shanghai, despite his home base in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Without a worldwide network, “you’re unlikely to build the same level of collaboration that you can around these local science hubs,” he says. And with its high-tech communication equipment, Novartis’s long-distance chats are accompanied by a life-size video feed of the teleconferencing researchers.
At Pioneer Hi-Bred: A DuPont Business, this year’s #2 large company, there isn’t just an international exchange of ideas, but of products as well. As a corn breeder and president of the company’s research center in Italy, Bruno Albrecht selects for traits suitable for a particular region’s environmental challenges. Sometimes a cultivar developed in one country will be successful in another region, such as the corn hybrids developed in North America now grown in the climatically similar Europe. Methods are also shared: the US branch recently developed a more efficient way of producing inbred lines, which is now employed in Pioneer’s research centers worldwide.
This leads to some healthy competition between branches, Albrecht adds, as each center wants to develop the best product or method. But regardless of where it comes from, it’s “good for farmers at the end if we’re better able to deliver products with very outstanding performance.”
Uncle Sam Helps Small Science
While much of biotech funding comes from venture capitalists and large pharmaceutical partners, some of the biotechs that topped this year’s Best Places to Work survey have taken advantage of a different source—government-funded programs that provide specialized training and services, improving research productivity and employee morale.
Vitae Pharmaceuticals, a Pennsylvania company that develops biopharmaceuticals for disease and #6 on this year’s list, is now able to fund a larger staff thanks to the federal Qualifying Therapeutic Discovery Project Program, which funds drug discovery projects for companies with fewer than 250 employees. This same program also helped Needham, Massachusetts–based Celldex Therapeutics, this year’s #7 company overall, push products through preclinical and clinical trials. “To get a million dollars in cash might not sound like a lot of money to many companies,” says Tina Fiumenero, the CFO at Vitae, which received funding for four separate projects. “But for a company like ours, that can pay for the salaries of several employees on a regular basis.”
State programs can provide more direct benefits to researchers. Pennsylvania’s Bioscience Industry Partnership program provided a grant that allowed Vitae to send company scientists Brian McKeever and Yajun Zheng to an October 2010 training program on fragment-based drug discovery, which uses libraries of small molecules to identify those that bind to a specific target—a drug-development technique the company had never explored. “It taught us another way of thinking about the way we do things,” says McKeever. “We brought the methodology home and have started implementing it already.”
Fargo, North Dakota–based Aldevron, #3 among this year’s top companies, benefits from a very different government-funded resource: the expertise of Satish Chandrasekhar, a “biotech superstar,” according to Aldevron’s CEO Michael Chambers. As the director of the brand-new North Dakota State University Center for Biopharmaceutical Research and Production, Chandrasekhar has raised over $10 million dollars in the last 10 months to advise companies, facilitate collaborations between industry and academia, and provide specialized training to students. “The ultimate goal is to increase biotech activity and jobs in the biotech space here,” says Chandrasekhar, who hopes to eventually build a “biotech city” in Fargo. “He helps companies like Aldevron jump the gap from research to clinical development,” says Chambers.