I occasionally talk about the ecosystem of the drug industry being harmed by all the disruptions of recent years, and this post by Bruce Booth is exactly the sort of thing that fits that category. He’s talking about how much time it takes to get experience in this field, and what’s been happening to the flow of people:
Two recent events sparked my interest in this topic of where young talent develops and emerges in our industry. A good friend and “greybeard” med chemist forwarded me a note from a chemistry professor who was trying to find a spot for his “best student”, a new PhD chemist. I said we tended to not hire new graduates into our portfolio, but was saddened to hear of this start pupil’s job challenge. Shortly after that, I had dinner with a senior chemist from Big Pharma. He said the shortest-tenured chemist on his 30+ person team was 15-year veteran. His group had shrunk in the past and had never rehired. Since hiring a “trainee” post-doc chemist “counted” as an FTE on their books, they haven’t even implemented the traditional fellowship programs that exist elsewhere. Stories like these abound.
There is indeed a steady stream of big-company veterans who depart for smaller biopharma, bringing with them their experience (and usually a desire not to spend all their time holding pre-meeting meetings and the like, fortunately). But Booth is worried about a general talent shortage that could well be coming:
The short version of the dilemma is this: biotech startups have no margin for error around very tight timelines so can’t really “train” folks in drug discovery, and because of that they rely on bigger companies as the principle source for talent; but, at the same time, bigger firms are cutting back on research hiring and training, in part while offshoring certain science roles to other geographies, and yet are looking “outside” their walls for innovation from biotechs.
While I’d argue this talent flux is fine and maybe a positive right now, it’s a classic “chicken and egg” problem for the future. Without training in bigger pharma, there’s less talent for biotech; without that talent, biotech won’t make good drugs; without good biotech drugs, there’s no innovation for pharma, and then the end is nigh.
So if Big Pharma is looking for people from the small companies while the smaller companies are looking for people from Big Pharma, it does make you wonder where the supply will eventually come from. I share some of these worries, but at the same time, I think that it’s possible to learn on the job at a smaller company, in the lower-level positions, anyway. And not everyone who’s working at a larger company is learning what they should be. I remember once at a previous job when we were bringing in a med-chem candidate from a big company, a guy with 8 or 9 years experience. We asked him how he got along with the people who did the assays for his projects, and he replied that well, he didn’t see them much, because they were over in another building, and they weren’t supposed to be hanging around there, anyway. OK, then, what about the tox or formulations people? Well, he didn’t go to those meetings much, because that was something that his boss was supposed to be in charge of. And so on, and so on. What was happening was that the structure of his company was gradually crippling this guy’s career. He should have known more than he did; he should have been more experienced than he really was, and the problem looked to be getting worse every year. There’s plenty of blame to go around, though – not only was the structure of his research organization messing this guy up, but he himself didn’t even seem to be noticing it, which was also not a good sign. This is what Booth is talking about here:
. . .the “unit of work” in drug R&D is the team, not the individual, and success is less about single expertise and more about how it gets integrated with others. In some ways, your value to the organization begins to correlate with more generalist, integrative skills rather than specialist, academic ones; with a strong R&D grounding, this “utility player” profile across drug discovery becomes increasingly valuable.
And its very hard to learn these hard and soft things, i.e., grow these noses, inside of a startup environment with always-urgent milestones to hit in order to get the next dollop of funding, and little margin of error in the plan to get there. This is true in both bricks-and-mortar startups and virtual ones.
With the former, these lab-based biotechs can spin their wheels inefficiently if they hire too heavily from academia – the “book smart” rather than “research-street smart” folks. It’s easy to keep churning out experiments to “explore” the science – but breaking the prevailing mindset of “writing the Nature paper” versus “making a drug” takes time, and this changes what experiments you do. . .
Bruce took a poll of the R&D folks associated with his own firm’s roster of startups, and found that almost all of them were trained at larger companies, which certainly says something. I wonder, though, if this current form of the ecosystem is a bit of an artifact. Times have been so tough the last ten to fifteen years that there may well be a larger proportion of big-company veterans who have made the move to smaller firms, either by choice or out of necessity. (In a similar but even more dramatic example, the vast herds of buffalo and flocks of passenger pigeons described in the 19th century were partly (or maybe largely) due to the disruption of the hunting patterns of the American Indians, who had been displaced and quite literally decimated by disease – see the book 1491 for more on this).
The other side of all this, as mentioned above, is the lack of entry-level drug discovery positions in the bigger companies. Many readers here have mentioned this over the last few years, that the passing on of knowledge and experience from the older researchers to the younger ones has been getting thoroughly disrupted (as the older ones get laid off and the younger ones don’t get hired). We don’t want to find ourselves in the position of Casey Stengel, looking at his expansion-team Mets and asking “Don’t anybody here know how to play this game?”
Booth’s post has a few rays of hope near the end – read the whole thing to find them. I continue to think that drug discovery is a valuable enough activity that the incentives will keep it alive in one form or another, but I also realize that that’s no guarantee, either. We (and everyone else with a stake in the matter) have to realize that we could indeed screw it up, and that we might be well along the way to doing it.