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Academia (vs. Industry)

Where the Talent Comes From

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.

15 comments on “Where the Talent Comes From”

  1. entropyGain says:

    Not sure what I’m more annoyed by.
    1) This issue has been building for many years, but now a social media savvy VC blogs about it and it gets some visibility?
    2) the assumption that talent must be derived from big pharma or academia – what about all the brick & mortor small companies where people actually still learn team work.
    3) the presumption that his timelines are too tight to bother to learn/teach. This is a symptom of focus on the exit rather than focus on building value. Cashing in rather than creating. Related to wall street’s focus on quarterly earnings instead of long term growth.
    At the risk of offending some of my big company friends, we still hire excellent organic chemists out of academia and train them to be med chemists, we hire med chemists out of small companies that actually made drugs, we don’t hire med chemists directly out of big pharma. Too often too damaged, too many bad habits/assumptions. They need at least a couple years of rehab in smaller companies before they’re ready to be part of a productive scrappy team again.

  2. CMCguy says:

    Its all made more grim by the outsourcing of chemistry since was frequently the means to employ peoples skills at the bench while they adsorbed and learned the finer points of medchem practice. Even though consider lack of talent development in the drug discovery side as limited these days I would suggest its worse in process, analytical and others area that are required to translate from a lead candidate to a clinical study to commercializable drug.

  3. Anonymous says:

    testing, testing….

  4. Anon1 says:

    @1 There’s thousands of chemists in big pharma, from all over the world, with all kinds of different backgrounds, and all kinds of different personalities. Think about it.

  5. Med chemist says:

    As a newly minted postdoc working in a small biotech, I attended an in-house two day short course in med chem taught by a well-versed academic. It was from the big Pharma perspective. Obviously the knowledge learned did not bring me up to par with a 5+ year veteran but it gave me an incredible head start.

  6. annonie says:

    So, what’s new here? Big Pharma (BP) cut R&D across the board and has not done a lot of new hiring. Some of this “experience” was hired into small companies, where they get various types of experience depending on the culture of their BP training…..getting bias and all. This is not new. What will cause new hiring? Most likely, it will be when BP is run down to where they have to bring in new blood in greater number than the current dribbling inflow rate. For biotechs, they will hire new PhDs when the population of experienced folks begins to dwindle. Will this happen to the biotechs….not too likely as there are always some experience folks from BP always looking for a opportunity, the idea of being more independent, the possibility of greater financial reward. So, what’s changed?

  7. Henry's cat says:

    I work in a biotech and sadly there are plenty of people here who like a good pre-meeting meeting. I also think the main reason Big-Pharma people get jobs in Biotech is because that is all there is at the time they get laid off from whatever mega-merger or corporate buyout that happens at any particular time. As far as new hires go, experience isn’t everything. A new hire does count as one FTE, but these youngsters are normally bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and, if you can pick a good one, very productive. A good team has the right mix of experience and youth.

  8. dave w says:

    The whole issue of “a new hire ‘counts’ as a FTE”… this sort of thinking is IMHO a symptom of bean-counter-itis: thinking of “the hed count” as an ‘input’ setting, an independently adjustable variable, rather than an emergent characteristic.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Would it not make sense to actually talk to people instead of assuming you know their motivations?
    Not every minted PhD cares about Nature, and like Derek says not every big pharma hire is a magician.
    If your hiring based on your own preconceived ideas judging people mainly on bits of paper then you might sometimes get what you want.
    But maybe those who are the most valuable bring something extra that can’t be judged on past experience alone.
    “Past performance is no guarantee of future results.”

  10. Dr. Strangelove says:

    Which came first…..fewer medicinal chemists or fewer candidates? Hmmm.

  11. Cellbio says:

    I agree with Entropy’s sentiment regarding value creation. Living through my third go at “value creation”, and finally breaking through the resistance to investing in the team that creates the value as a required, or preferable route anyway. Als agree with entropy and Henry’s Cat view on the right mix at smallcos. Over last two years, have hired around 30 into small company. At the start, the team always tried to hire deep experience at a deep discount, which created a top heavy, office focused culture. Hiring new graduates eager to learn revitalized the culture, and the spirit and satisfaction of the experienced staff too.
    I am not saying the virtual model with industry vets is not viable too, just not applicable to all situations, especially where real research is being done as opposed to late stage execution or a value play which is not really about development but more about polishing something to be sellable. Fairly easy to tell from the pitch deck if the potential value being sold is really about strength of data or strength of story. One is very technical, the other is very topical with the largest piece of the pitch reflecting the latest area of interest from scientific/clinical and replete with deal comps, essentially selling to the buyer that is on the sidelines of a hot area how they too can get into the game with a buy vs. build calculation. Those small biotech timelines are short as the game changes quickly. Good strategy, but not the only one, and more financial than scientific, so not a universal training ground.

  12. NoniMausa says:

    In a business environment where everybody waits for somebody else to do the work, training good specialized staff is kind of a suckers game. Business has gone past a tipping point where any investment in training has become simply a service to your competitors. Without somebody knocking heads together*, how can such a standoff change?
    * like the government, for whom head-knocking is a specialty.

  13. Sam Adams the Dog says:

    “So if Big Pharma is looking for people from the small companies…”
    But they’re not. They’re looking for the small companies, not the people. (Or else they’d have a younger group of med. chemists following acquisitions.)

  14. Anonymous says:

    Completely agree with #13 (Sam Adams…). Derek’s statement should be amended to “So, if Big Pharma is looking for *molecules* from the small companies…”

  15. Anon says:

    As a recent grad, I see a lot of people switching fields later and later in their careers. Are you going to waste 3-5 years on 1-2 postdocs making a meager wage? Why not spend that time getting a masters in something like petroleum engineering and make 120k out the door? Being a “trainee” at the age of 35, no thanks. We have a huge oversupply and the smarter people are jumping ship, if they haven’t already. Most of the people I see that are left don’t have the skills to jump to another ship, so that is the talent you will be getting 10 years from now. What Bruce’s problem is going to be is that when he does find people with experience 10 years from now, they won’t be as good as the prior generation.

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