Cubist was one of the pure-play antibiotic companies, until Merck bought them in late 2014. And once they’d done that, they wasted no time at all making their rationale clear. They wanted Cubist’s late-stage clinical assets, and they had no use whatsoever for Cubist’s R&D people, whom they quickly fired en masse. Treating the scientists as annoying husks keeping you from sinking your corporate teeth into the delicious acquisition corn is a tradition in this industry, or at least it has been over the last twenty years or so. Pfizer, in particular, has left a trail of shucked organizations behind it, but this move by Merck was as fast and brutal as anyone’s. They should have been proud – on the scale, of course, where you can consider yourself proud of that kind of thing.
So what’s happened to all those Cubist scientists? Chemical and Engineering News has done some follow-up work, and the results are actually somewhat encouraging.
On the basis of conversations with a wide swath of ex-Cubist scientists, the job picture looks very good.
Merck completed acquiring Cubist, a medium-sized antibiotics developer, in January, and by March it had announced plans to shut down early research at Cubist’s suburban research site in Lexington, Mass. Most people stayed on until the end of April to collect their severance packages. By early June, more than half of the 120 scientists affected by the closure had already landed another job in the Boston area.
The numbers would be even better except that some of the unemployed chose to take the summer off before seriously looking. Moreover, scientists found jobs despite another flood of job seekers with antibacterials expertise. In March, AstraZeneca announced the spin-off of its antibiotics R&D activities in nearby Waltham, Mass. The new company is much smaller, putting roughly 80 researchers on the job market.
It should be noted that the AstraZeneca move was only the most recent in that company’s withdrawal from anti-infectives; they’d already put a number of their scientists onto the street a couple of years before. So it is good to hear that the market is not totally saturated.
For the most part, the ex-Cubist people have found jobs at smaller companies, which makes sense for several reasons. More antibiotic work is being done in smaller shops, first off. The amount of money a new drug in that space is like to to bring in makes more sense for a smaller outfit, although Cubist’s clinical pipeline was looking better than usual, which is why Merck swooped in. (That’s not such a bad thing for antibiotics, to be honest about it – having a bunch of smaller companies betting their respective farms will probably produce more drugs than leaving it all to the bigger players). And over the whole industry, I think we’ve been seeing a rebalancing for some years now, where fewer scientists are working at the (increasingly fewer) large companies, and more of them end up scattered across a wide list of smaller ones. Finally, the fact that Cubist was located in the greater Boston area meant that there were a number of these smaller companies ready to pick people up.
Don’t underrate that as a factor in the Boston/Cambridge ascendancy in biopharma. It didn’t have to happen there (or I should say here, since that’s where I work, too), but once an area reaches a certain number and diversity of potential employers, the effect feeds on itself. When my own previous company closed up its research site and tossed several hundred of us out into the job market, I was looking up in this area for just that reason. If something went wrong again, I figured, I had a better chance of finding a new job without having to call the moving trucks. The constant startup activity in this region keeps the landscape active, too – since many of these small companies are not going to make it, you have to have some replacements coming along.
So this is a surprisingly upbeat report, and I wanted to be sure to highlight it for just that reason. “Surprisingly upbeat” is not a setting we’ve been using very often in drug discovery for a while. A person could get used to it.