Two Distinct Career Paths Offer Clear Choices

Big Pharma: Big markets. Traditional science. Big future and lofty salaries. Biotech: Lots of competition for smaller markets. Cutting-edge science. Iffy future, but tempting stock options. Such are the widely held perceptions regarding the industry sectors that employ life science researchers. Those perceptions have become clichés, and like all great clichés, they're not altogether accurate--but they do contain a kernel of truth. The real truth is, the maturing biotech industr

Jul 6, 1998
James Kling

Big Pharma: Big markets. Traditional science. Big future and lofty salaries.

Biotech: Lots of competition for smaller markets. Cutting-edge science. Iffy future, but tempting stock options.

Such are the widely held perceptions regarding the industry sectors that employ life science researchers. Those perceptions have become clichés, and like all great clichés, they're not altogether accurate--but they do contain a kernel of truth.

The real truth is, the maturing biotech industry and the pharmaceutical giants are evolving organisms, and clichés that grew from the truisms of an emerging biotech industry in the 1980s need to be re-evaluated for the 1990s. For the job seeker searching for the right fit, it's time to put aside preconceived notions and take a hard look at the industries as they exist today. Whether you're a newly minted graduate, or a veteran seeking a change in scenery, there are a number of questions to ask and answers to consider.


QUESTIONABLE SECURITY: Charles R. Grebenstein, senior vice president and partner at Skott/Edwards Consultants, says that mergers and acquisitions by larger companies has taken its toll on job security.
First and foremost, job security in the pharmaceutical industry isn't what it used to be, says Charles R. Grebenstein, senior vice president and partner at Skott/Edwards Consultants, a New York-based recruiting firm. "There are any number of people in large pharmaceutical companies who have seen their career paths threatened or blunted by mergers or changes in research directions," he says.

Still, a job in big pharma is likely to be a smoother ride.

So how do companies make up for a lack of security? Stock options. The packages vary with seniority, but typically allow the employee to purchase a limited amount of stock at a discount. Once the company goes public, the employee can sell the stock on the market, often at prices much higher than what the employee paid. That is, if the company makes it to the public stage.

Plantation, Fla.-based Viragen Inc., for example, signs its employees to contracts and splits the options on a yearly performance basis. "If it's a two-year contract, options would be divided up equally and awarded at the end of each one-year period," explains Bob Zeiger, CEO of Viragen.

The packages vary widely from company to company, says Zeiger. So ask plenty of questions.

Financial considerations aside, there are a host of other questions to ask when contemplating jobs in big pharma and biotech.

Will you fit in? Corporate cultures in the two industries are almost diametrically opposed. Large pharmaceutical companies have been around for a long time, and after 50 or 100 years of success, their infrastructure is usually set in its ways. On the other hand, big pharma can bring you along slowly, and there is usually plenty of staff support and funding.

At a young biotech company, expect plenty of responsibility to be heaped on your shoulders. "We have a very lean organization, and each of the individuals we bring on board has to come out of the starting blocks at a full gallop," says Zeiger. "The other thing I specifically look for is people who have taken on a project and led it in an independent way. You really have to be a creative self-starter to survive in an entrepreneurial environment," he says.

NO BUREACRACY: In the biotech world, there is less formality and red tape than in the Big Pharma environment, says Jim Nolan, president and CEO of the Institute of Pharmaceutical Discovery Inc.
You're not expected to run the company all by yourself, but you won't have the support system you'll find in a large pharmaceutical company. "When I think about the last 15 months, it felt like doing my Ph.D. all over again. You do your own photocopies, you fix things, it's a pretty big shock in the beginning having no safety net," says Pieter B.N.W.M. Timmermans, vice president of pharmacology and preclinical development at South San Francisco, Calif.-based Tularik Inc. He moved into the position after spending seven years at DuPont Merck Pharmaceutical Co. in Wilmington, Del. "Of course, you hope you won't be doing [all these things] for the next 10 years, because you want other people to help."

As Timmermans' experience suggests, most people in an entrepreneurial environment wear multiple hats, and that can lead to a different form of job security. "You don't have anyone fighting for your job [because] there are so many things to be done, [everyone is] just making things happen," states Henry Linsert, CEO of Martek Biosciences Corp. of Columbia, Md.

Such attitudes tend to lower the barriers between different positions and shifting careers. "I felt that smaller biotech startups [would allow me to] grow into different areas of the company as the company grew. The larger companies [I looked at] had more rigid training budgets and firmer qualifications for going into different jobs," says David Shivak, a recent graduate of McMaster's University of Hamilton, Ontario, with a master's degree in immunology. On the other hand, larger companies have larger training budgets for employees who are seeking new challenges. But, "it's harder to move into a position without a stamp of approval, [in the form of additional] degrees or courses," Shivak found.

Communication skills are also at a premium, because startups provide a more tightly knit environment than larger companies do. Small companies turn to larger companies and academia for collaborators who can provide seed money for research or help push the science forward. "That makes some of the business and social skills as significant as scientific acumen in determining an employee's success in a small company," says Grebenstein.

The solitary researcher may be better suited to pharmaceutical labs, where research departments tend to be more isolated from one another. But even in larger companies, cross-disciplinary research is beginning to carry the day. The mergers and buyouts so common in the industry demand good communication skills and a willingness to adapt to changing environments.

Startup biotechs are usually seeking a niche, and often that requires them to pursue novel disease targets. "There is the potential reward of developing a product that deals with a very serious disease state that was previously virtually untreatable," Zeiger points out.


UP FRONT: Most of the scientific research in the biotech world is cutting-edge, according to Patrick Baeuerle, director of drug discovery at Tularik Inc. He moved from Munich, Germay to accept his job.
As a result, most of the science pursued at startup biotechs is cutting-edge, as companies race to be first with a novel technology or treatment that they can exploit in the marketplace. There is little room for copycat drugs in the biotech development pipeline, and that makes for some exciting science. "We're more on the front end of the discovery process. ... We don't have to open Cell to find a good [therapeutic] target. We publish it in Cell ourselves," says Patrick Baeuerle, director of drug discovery at Tularik.

Tularik is one of many biotech companies that have followed the lead of Genentech Inc. of South San Francisco, Calif., which fostered an academic research environment during its expansion in the 1980s. Many smaller companies, eager to demonstrate their scientific expertise, encourage publication of research and attendance at meetings and conferences. "People who come from large pharmaceutical companies, especially at a master's level position, [tell us that getting permission to] go to a meeting is like getting on their hands and knees and begging," says Jim Nolan, president and CEO of the Institute of Pharmaceutical Discovery Inc. (IPD) in Branford, Conn.

Stock options and business deals make for an exciting professional environment, but not everyone is comfortable with the peculiar mix of science and business that permeate startup biotechs. IPD is a privately held company that develops drug candidates to the Investigational New Drug stage, then turns them over to their large pharmaceutical company sponsors for further development. As a recent startup with no plans to become public, IPD has seen refugees from biotechs as well as the pharmaceutical industry. Nolan tells of a recruit from a publicly held biotechnology company that seemed obsessed with Wall Street. "They actually have their stock price on a TV monitor in their lobby and cafeteria and meeting rooms. It's in front of the employees all the time."

Others became frustrated by unfulfilled promise, says Nolan. "They've been filled with the failures that have happened to them before. Not all product lines are going to work, and you sometimes get all the way down the pike and side effects don't make it applicable. Some of these companies die when they reach that point."

It's a risk that Timmermans acknowledges. "We don't have any illusions that our hit rate is going to be significantly better than any other company. That sounds pessimistic, but there are still so many unknowns in predicting what will survive the ride to an approved New Drug Application. We can't put 20 developmental candidates per year in the pipeline, so we have to be very selective [in choosing targets]," he explains.

That makes them selective in choosing employees, too. Zeiger suggests that those interested in joining a biotech company get their feet wet in big pharma first. "It takes a period of time to apply those skill sets and academic prowess to functioning in a biotech or pharmaceutical development environment. It's a different world ... [and] a traditional pharmaceutical company offers a wonderful training ground."

Still, Baeuerle seems to have settled well at Tularik after jumping from the Max Planck Institute for Biochemistry in Munich, Germany. And Shivak has already made his choice. He's started at Iconix Pharmaceuticals, Inc. in Mountain View, Calif., a subsidiary of Microcide Pharmaceuticals Inc., also in Mountain View, that uses high-throughput screening to identify agonists and antagonists to human genes. Iconix was born in January. "Stability was a factor, [but] I'm fairly young [24]. ... I'm willing to take a chance at this age," Shivak says.

James Kling, a science writer based in Bellingham, Wash., can be reached online at http://www.nasw.org/users/jkling.