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Biogen Does Not Slack Off, Apparently

John Caroll at FierceBiotech has more on those Biogen Idec cuts last week. It was only about 20 people in chemistry and neurology – although if you were one of the ones affected, you may well ask (to quote Austrian writer Peter Altenberg) “What’s so only?” There were also cuts of about the same size last fall in departments like clinical operations and QC, and Carroll is hearing that there may be some more:

Another person close to the move last fall tells me that Chief Medical Officer Al Sandrock outlined plans to create a “Biogen Idec Version 4.0” at an offsite company meeting last spring. “They want a leaner team,” says one source, looking to outsource more jobs. And staffers are wary that the efficiency focus will spur upcoming cuts, fearing more workers will face the ax later in the year.

What has people paying attention to these moves, which are certainly not on the scale of what’s been happening at GSK, AstraZeneca, and other companies over the last two or three years, is that Biogen is in great shape right now. They have big-selling drugs early in their patent cycles in MS and hemophilia, and they’re banging away on some other high-profile projects as we speak. Data are expected on Friday on their Alzheimer’s antibody program, which looked pretty impressive last time anyone saw any data, in December – and that’s impressive on the absolute scale, not on the relative scale of other Alzheimer’s antibody programs.
So if a company like Biogen, with big sales and big prospects, whose stock continues to rollick along to all-time highs, can be tweaking their head count, shuffling responsibilities, adjusting their outsourcing and all the rest of it – well, that tells you what things are like on the business end of this industry. Plenty of other drug companies can only dream about being in Biogen’s situation, but there they are, with both hands gripping the wheel, watching every dial and listening to every stray sound from the engine.

44 comments on “Biogen Does Not Slack Off, Apparently”

  1. nonnie says:

    Meaner and leaner sounds good to those speaking the words.

  2. AnonAnonAnon says:

    “As we plan for the future, we took a close look at our chemistry and neurology research teams and determined that some skillsets did not align with our long term goal…We plan to hire new employees in both areas to ensure we have the right capabilities to execute on our longterm strategy.”
    Does anyone actually know what this means? What skillsets were lacking, esp in chemistry? I am honestly interested, not looking for the usual cynical “fire high and hire low” response. What was it that they felt was so lacking in these chemists that they needed to be replaced? That’s a pretty serious charge.

  3. Howard Roark says:

    A) Fresh Graduate Starting your career in Pharma…
    Please do yourself a favor and “stay away from this blog”. You have a fighting chance of doing really well in the career of your choice, start your own company at some point if you could just keep your positive & creative mindset.
    B) 5-10 Year Experienced professional in Pharma…
    BEWARE of perpetuated pessimism in this blog. Keep your visit as minimum as possible. There are lots of ppl in this blog to tell you can’t do anything and the business world is destroying the research (propagated by Derek himself) and they are more than happy to drag you down to their swamp of mediocracy.
    C) 15-20 Year Experienced in pahrma, Going No where Job, Waiting for your kid to graduate so you can Retire.
    CONGRATULATIONS!!! You have found your place. Right here You could find excuses to all the things you wanted to do but never got around doing it. You will always find someone to blame to, Derek Lowe would be you closest Ally. You can even build your own Empire of idiocracy around the people who adore you support your mediocracy all the way (But, don’t expect to Derek or others to send you a penny when you soon wait in unemployment line….)
    After all this is the place you always wanted to be, everyone around you are as pessimistic, stubborn and arrogant as you are.

  4. Anonymous says:

    My guess? They were probably not good performers and Biogen may be using this as a result to get rid of them. If that’s the case at least they are not getting fired and they can get severance and unemployment.

  5. anonymous_grad_student says:

    Every time I read in this blog anything related to big Pharma and biotech companies, I want to quit grad school. Is it really that bad outside?
    Is there any hope for recently graduated medicinal/organic chemists? Is it mandatory to do a postdoc to get a job in this field?

  6. Anonymous says:

    @3: dude, not every person who gets laid off deserves it. There are so many cases of bad business decisions and poor leadership that the person who is gettig laid off has no hand in whatsoever.

  7. anon says:

    @6; Indeed: consider all the jobs lost due to one “David Sinclair”….

  8. Anonymous says:

    @5. anonymous_grad_student:
    As an organic chemist who recently lost the job at a big Pharma, I feel sorry for you… you are acquiring skills that has not market.

  9. Derek Lowe says:

    #5 – I’m not as pessimistic as some of the commenters around here. I can’t go around telling everyone that things are great in pharma R&D, because that wouldn’t be true. But at the same time, there are a lot more places to work than Big Pharma. Honestly, my advice would, at this point, be to deprioritize looking for a job at the big companies, because whatever advantage they had in job stability is gone.
    That means that you’re better off, if possible, looking for jobs in the areas with a lot of smaller companies – Boston and the Bay Area being the two biggest. There’s a lot of work to be done, and you (as someone just starting out) actually have as good a chance or better of being hired to do some of it, because you’re not getting paid as much as those of us with more experience. Stay sharp, though, keep your skills up to date, and keep a close eye on how things are going for your company – these are key, but honestly, those things are sound advice in any industry.
    So yeah, if there ever was a golden age of secure jobs in this business, it’s past. But it’s past everywhere else, too. Don’t despair – medical research isn’t going away.
    I should turn this into a post up on the main page.

  10. AnonAnonAnon says:

    @ 8 said
    “As an organic chemist who recently lost the job at a big Pharma, I feel sorry for you… you are acquiring skills that has not market.”
    And hence, my question in @2. Clearly, Biogen felt there were skills that these chemists did not have but others did since they plan to hire new chemists. Maybe these really were underperformers as @4 said. I am just curious if anyone has any real information.

  11. bhip says:

    Hey @3- Acknowledging the challenges we face in drug R&D isn’t pessimism, it’s realism.
    And try getting more fiber in your diet- it can’t hurt, right?

  12. Useless Molecule says:

    @ 5 anonymous_grad_student
    Pretty much like @3 said in his comment, if you love organic chemistry and you are good at it, go for it: there are amazing opportunities awaiting for you.
    If you are smart, hard worker and a nice person (do not neglect being nice) it’s unlikely that you will loose your job. If so, you’ll find another one very shortly, within or outside this field.

  13. Not so useless molecule says:

    @ 5 anonymous_grad_student
    #12 “Useless Molecule” is absolutely correct. Employer always looks for and does everything they can to keep a good employee (a smart, nice, hard worker who doesn’t whine/complain). Prove your worth/value to a company. You will get and keep a good job. I’m speaking it as an employer in the field.

  14. Howard Roark says:

    @#5 There is only two things you need to survive in any career you choose
    1) Pure & Absolute Passion in what you do
    2) “Guts” to Stand Up For what you believe and deliver when necessary.
    Everything else utter BS. If you have passion for “Organic chemistry” You will learn all else necessary to survive, thrive and excel in pharma. If you don’t.. You have No one else to blame but yourself.
    I see you all nothing but a hypocrite to kill a passion in young growing chemist because you were not able to capitalize on your skills.
    For god sake…Stop crying abt bad business decisions and poor leadership skills. No one in any place stops you from becoming the perfect leader or business magnets you wanted to be. It’s partly your reason why your place is infested with poor leaders and managers…because YOU LET THEM GET THERE.
    That’s it I AM DONE.

  15. Anonymous says:

    @14 I’m pretty sure Derek is pretty successful in the field, so I’m not sure why you think his negativity is because he somehow failed somewhere.

  16. Crank says:

    Thank goodness your done, cause your an idiot. All Derek is doing is keeping things transparent. If a big company was moving into town with lots of opportunities, I’m sure Derek would be posting that also. If your in the top 10 percent, your going to be fine, other than that, you will have troubles

  17. Anon says:

    Simplistically, I would say the answer to your question is: yes, it’s really that bad. The reality is that the pharmaceutical industry, both big and small companies, is constantly trying to reduce the number of research scientists on their payrolls. Instead of paying salaries, they are willing to spend money on outsourced R&D and on mergers and acquisitions (it’s unclear to me that this is cheaper in the long run).
    …”They want a leaner team,” says one source, looking to outsource more jobs….
    The net effect of this is that jobs in pharma are being lost, and replaced with jobs in CRO companies. Many of which are based overseas. I suspect jobs won’t completely disappear, but at the moment there is a large surplus of qualified candidates. So, workers are considered expendable and easily replaceable. Not a particularly great way to be rewarded for having persevered through grad school and post-doc. This isn’t really a move to save money to keep the company afloat. Biogen being a good example of this. Their annual profits are huge, with a net profit of ~$3billion last year. It’s just the new way to operate, and is the stack reality we all need to accept and to which we need to adapt.

  18. exGlaxoid says:

    Please explain your blind optimism to some of the best chemists in the industry at GSK, many of whom are being laid off this year. They include:
    Fresh Graduates, who were just recruited (from top 10 schools) within the last 2 years and are now being laid off after relocating>
    5-10 Year Experienced professionals who have been laid off there by the 100 in RTP alone, but also other sites.
    And explain to the 15-20 Year Experienced guys, many of who have discovered MARKETED drugs, why their promised pensions, retirement healthcare , and jobs have shrunk or vaporized due to the 1000+ cuts in RTP. One person I know was 3 weeks from being vested in her retirement healthcare when she was “transferred” (sold) to another company, where her 20+ years of excellent service will be useless and get her nothing.
    I have friends who are much more recent graduates, one of whom just laid off from their 3rd job since leaving GSK years ago. So they keep finding good jobs, and then those jobs keep going away.
    If Howard Roark would like to point to some of those jobs, please, do, my CEN has not listed more than a couple in the USA in the last 2 years. It used to have dozens per week. And starting a business in chemistry has become nearly impossible, if you wish to do actual chemistry, due to the regulatory issues now. I know far more companies that have closed recently than that have started. Only professors with university funds can seem to start a business right now. Most others cannot get enough funding since that is drying up in chemistry.

  19. AnonAnonAnon says:

    Please don’t feed the trolls(#3). They only come back for more and don’t learn to survive on their own.
    Thank you.

  20. anonymous_grad_student says:

    Thanks to all that are answering my question. I understand is not pessimism and instead realism. So, please keep sharing your experiences.
    Derek it would be great a post about this, many of my fellow grad students are really concerned about this lack of jobs and constant layoffs issue. In addition to the competition with grad students from big universities and big name groups we will be also competing with experienced people who were fired from big Pharma.

  21. YetaB says:

    There once was a dinosaur. He had a lovely time! Another dinosaur who worked near him had evolved into a bird – a goose that laid golden eggs, no less. The golden eggs rained down, and there seemed no end.
    There was no need for him to evolve, the eggs were raining down. But five years later, there was a hint that the eggs might not keep raining for ever. But the dinosaur didn’t believe. His Tyrannosaurus kept telling him that he had to evolve – or at least spend more than 5% of his working time actually doing well-designed experiments that might take projects forward – but no – he knew best. He was a leader in his field, and he was going to make golden eggs too, the way they used to. Dinosaurs lay eggs too, you know, he thought, and reminded the raptors that he had been watching other people lay golden eggs since before they graduated.
    But after ten years, he hadn’t produced any eggs. He’d written many a powerpoint slide, and he’d thrown many a proto-egg over the wall into the stange land of “Development”. But they had all cracked straight away.
    When the golden eggs stopped raining, the chief Tryannosaurus called a town hall meeting to tell the other dinosaurs that they were extinct.
    To be repeated ad infinitum….

  22. milkshaken says:

    Big pharma or midsize biotech job is an excellent career starting point if you can get in as a fresh graduate – but just don’t plan staying there for more than three or four years. Based on my experience, it is definitely worth it to be inside a whale for awhile but some amount of soul crushing is included.
    In the long run, traditional medicinal chemistry does not really pay so you may want to look to other fields: material science, polymers, even medical devices and formulation. Even isotope labeling, NMR spectroscopy, process development, patent law, whatever – just not the traditional medchem.

  23. Farmhand says:

    Great advice from you (and others) to the grad student, especially about where to look for a job and keeping your skills up to date, something that everyone knows but few people actually do. You really should do a post on this. Given the tirade caused by “End of Synthesis”, I would think this would be a great opportunity to find out what people think are the essential skills and opportunities for chemists in the coming decades.
    To add my two cents to #5, I quote the late Terry Pratchett
    “If you trust in yourself
    . . .and believe in your dreams
    . . .and follow your star
    . . . you’ll still get beaten by people who spent their time working hard and learning things and weren’t so lazy.

  24. Diazonium salt says:

    I don’t believe #3 is the name listed. I worked with #3 at a big Pharma company, and he was let go after a long career as a bench chemist. I believe a troll is using his name.

  25. Wavefunction says:

    I would be careful not to read too much into 20 layoffs. On the kind of scale we are talking about here this could be (sadly) no more than a statistical fluctuation. Still jarring for those on the block though – good luck to them.

  26. Magrinho says:

    Dear Howard, you are a poorly rendered character in a equally poorly written book that most people grow out of by age 20. I’d suggest that you do the same if you want to move beyond your latest robotic and generic commentary.
    If this was all a brilliant parody of Ayn Rand, then apologies and chapeau.

  27. Andrzej says:

    I suppose it’s a fictional name. Howard Roark is a protagonist of Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead”.

  28. NHR_GUY says:

    @24 Diazonium Salt
    Worked with him too (and probably you as well). I find it odd behavior coming from the real person with that name.

  29. Hap says:

    1) I thought there were enough bridges in Boston for the trolls not to be busy here. Live and learn. At least the troll’s not sullying the name of a character I actually liked, like Dagny Taggart or Hank Rearden.
    2) The problem is that lots of the people that have gotten whacked probably did learn and were good – if what you do isn’t seen as valuable by the people that pay you, then you’re either going to be underpaid or unemployed, and the things that make you worthwhile as a person and worker, while necessary, aren’t sufficient. The careers in chemistry that lots of people are selling (dependable, useful careers worth the school needed to do them) don’t seem to exist right now.
    Chemistry’s still useful, and there’s no reason to do something else if it’s what you love – it’s just not going to be dependable. Doing it as well as you can and learning as much as you can are requirements for your own soul, but they probably aren’t stays against uncertainty.

  30. anon3 says:

    There was a Chinese chemist who was very upset about some comments Derek made about China a while back. He took to writing insults on the blog. I think ‘Howard’ is the same guy. His english isn’t bad but its not great either.

  31. Beyond Chemistry says:

    True that.. Cynics attract Cynics, Soon enough you have swamp full of Cynics and everyone else get instantly repealed.
    I don’t know the real reason Why Derek Started this Blog. If it continue to be nothing more than a place to vent out your anguish, I hardly see anything productive coming out of this blog, which is what we desperately need in times like these…

  32. milkshake says:

    Please ignore the juvenile baiting commenters here, don’t fan the flamers, don’t feed the trolls. There is enough people in the general public with strong but uninformed opinions about pharma companies and drug research and free market economy workings in general – and they are not too shy about sharing them… I am surprised but glad we don’t see that Ayn Rand crap here more often.

  33. dave w says:

    #i7: The ‘upstream’ questioon inspired by your comment: “This isn’t really a move to save money to keep the company afloat. […] It’s just the new way to operate” – so if it’s not a question of financial desperation, what is actually driving this to be “the new way to operate” – do manager-types genuinely believe this “new way” works better, or are they under some constraint to act as if they believe this is the case?
    Is this an instance of some reality-distortion effect that tends to make really bad (from an operational point of view) decisions look like “good business decisions” in the moment?

  34. Anon says:

    How are things at NIBR Cambridge? I have a friend who got a job there in 2007 and we chat from time to time – he has never feared for his job (he is a MS-level med-chem associate). The levels vary – but they always seem to be hiring for some positions – sometimes MS/PhD med chemists. NIBR Cambridge has seemed more stable than other places. Am I right? I’m curious to see what it’s like there.

  35. Anonymous says:

    IDK, a lot of people who seem to have the most straightforward of a time figuring out a career in industry (at least getting their foot in the door) in my PhD program are the ones from traditional synthesis groups. Process chemistry and discovery chemistry seems to want to hire people who have made natural products (or done methodology with a PI who makes natural products). Companies like Dow, Pfizer, Merck, 3M, Genetech, Amgen, and Gilead have all hired people I know who come out of those sorts of groups without a postdoc. (Oh and polymers people. They get jobs at all kinds of places, Millikin, IBM, oil companies, but that’s a different story).
    Anyone who does anything even remotely interdisciplinary often seems to have a hard time finding a job. Whether this is chemical biology, dabbling in a little inorganic chemistry, carbohydrate chemistry, etc. if you don’t have the profile that hiring managers are used to seeing, it’s the kiss of death. It usually requires at least a few years of postdoc to get your foot in the door as, say, a biochemist or chemical biologist, and they are usually hired for a very specific niche/skill set.
    Of course, this is just getting your first job out of grad school/postdoc.

  36. tt says:

    As a frequent reader/fan of this blog, I don’t find it be all doom and gloom, rather it’s a fairly realistic take on the state of the industry. I’m a hiring manager at a big pharma and can say that the industry is definitely changed as far as career stability is concerned. People who are adaptable and just plain good scientists tend to land well regardless of changes to an organization. For a fresh graduate, the forecast is just different than it was 10-15 years ago. As Derek said, willingness to work for a smaller company in the bay area or Boston is the best chance of getting a job. I’ve also seen many ore experienced people going towards CRO’s, or shifting to other pharma support areas. Simply put, it’s a much more diverse, fragment hiring landscape.
    I think a post on this topic as well as advice on what type of skills companies are looking for would be great. In my own experience sifting through CV’s, the one thing that always stands out are candidates who are really well grounded in physical organic chemistry. Seems like those who understand reactivity and mechanism can pick up on just about any chemistry topic you throw at them. I likely have a slight bias against total synthesis, but if they can communicate how they thought about a problem and the underlying logic behind their approach and solutions as well as some deeper understanding about the chemical steps involved, then its interesting to me. To comment #35, I really haven’t been too impressed with the depth of understanding from candidates who have a more interdisciplinary training (jack of all trade…master of none).
    It certainly is strange times for pharma….lots of over-valued early stage assets from biotech and many large, lumbering organizations trying to figure out how to adapt to this new environment of biologics and small molecules crossed with different, more demand expectations from those paying for it and regulating us.

  37. Anonzy says:

    #34: NIBR Cambridge has seemed more stable than other places. Am I right?

  38. anon says:

    I agree with everyone here that the days of getting a job, doing great work, spending a productive well compensated career in one place, are long gone. There was a time when eccentric iconoclastic bright people were considered valuable, hard to believe nowadays. I have several friends that have gone from science to patent law; they say it’s much less tedious and very well rewarded. I have friends who are in the business end of small companies; understanding the science is a huge advantage, and the compensation and perks are incredible for what little they do. If you are just starting out, realize you are unlikely to be paid well to work at the bench for any length of time. The science skills and ability to handle tedium and frustration, as with failed experiments, will serve you well. Make/find your own niche. You owe no one loyalty, that cuts both ways now. Look for jobs from jobs, constantly seeking to improve your position in life. Have fun.

  39. Anonymous says:

    Probably this is driven more by strategic refocusing and moving to more interesting and productive areas of discovery, e.g., biotherapeutics vs chemicals, protein and antibody engineering vs medchem…

  40. Anon says:

    You ask a good question. WHY do companies now operate this way. Let’s be clear, I’m not in the room when these decisions are made, so I don’t have a definitive answer for you. In my opinion, the primary driving force is to be able to quickly control cost/cash flow, in order to satisfy Wall St.’s need for a never ending string of impressive quarterly earnings reports. Companies no longer seem to be able to handle lean times. Instead, they chose to eat the seed corn.

  41. milkshake says:

    People respond to incentives. The big pharma CEOs are rewarded tens of millions USD to destroy their own companies and to lie to the investors. So they do it, because their tenure at the company is shorter than the discovery-development-clinical trial-approval- cycle. They know they can bloody realign silo five sigma open space deemphasize their research into synergistic nonexistence and the Wall street will cheer them for closing down the research sites.

  42. Andy says:

    Hit the nail on the head there milkshake.
    It’d take a really unusual type of person to not respond to these financial incentives. I would.

  43. Am I Lloyd says:

    So the question is, how do you change these incentives? Making a quick buck at the expense of everyone else seems to be rooted in human nature. Government regulation is not going to work in this case since government can’t dictate how Wall Street chooses to incentivize its investors. So how do we proceed, then?

  44. milkshake says:

    Goldman has a good solution: It does not allow its partners to cash out their options for very extended period of time, something like 20 years. The same would work for pharma. But CEOs of course are not stupid so they never suggest compensation scheme like this. Even the most incompetent CEOs who clearly drove their company to the ground (Kindler) end up with golden parachute – tens of millions retirement money per year, every year, as long as they live, just for leaving the mess in their wake.
    Who decides on the compensation scheme – it is the board of directors, presumably looking after investors interests but in reality they are buddies of each other, many of these people sit on several boards and have former classmates high up in other companies… So. It is the whole mindset of masters of universe who skim from the top and then explain how they so deserve it all…
    Things like stock option / performance bonus maturity date is something that can be regulated.

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