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What Became of Cubist

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.

45 comments on “What Became of Cubist”

  1. anon says:

    If my “email address will not be published”, why am I being asked to enter it here? Can someone please explain the purpose?

  2. Wile E. Coyote, Genius says:

    I find that it takes any email. abc@abc.com is what I entered and it let me comment.

  3. Anon says:

    I’m going for “yournot@gettingmyemail.com”. Seems to work fine, though having a fixed identifier to each comment is not something I like. Some random generation will probably be necessary.

  4. Lyle Langley says:

    Off to a great start in the comments section I see.

  5. John Galt III says:

    The email address can function as a sort of password that prevents other people from making comments using your name/pen name. It also can be used by the moderator to save time by enabling comments from people whose behavior is reliably good.

    Glad to be rid of that crazy error in IE. Just in case you never saw it:

    Fatal error: Call to undefined function: str_split() in /home/corante/public_html/pipeline/connect.php(1) : regexp code(1) : eval()’d code(1) : regexp code on line 1

  6. Bill Hipkin says:

    …Pfizer, in particular, has left a trail of shucked organizations behind it…shucked…rhymes with shucked, maybe???

    1. MolecularGeek says:

      Or, as the legendary t-shirt put it, they were Pfizered.

  7. PorkPieHat says:

    @ Bill Hipkin…..perfect.

  8. PorkPieHat says:

    I’d be curious to know what % of those Cubist employees who continued employment at other biopharma in the Boston/Cambridge area were their medchemists? Another way of looking at it: what % of their medchem folks were re-employed in medchemists/drug discovery roles? The commoditzation of small-molecule medicinal chemistry/drug discovery has been going on since the early 2000s. The greatest contraction in the biopharma industry has to have been in that sector of the job market, not just because of outsourcing / offshoring to Asia (as has been railed on so harshly here), but because of the rise of re-purposing, a gradual shift from small molecules to other modalities (peptides, mAbs, proteins, siRNA, etc.) and other factors (like lean startups, etc).

  9. Chemjobber says:

    Something that concerns me about the shift from larger corporations employing chemists to smaller ones is the seemingly necessary lower salaries and benefits. Perhaps I am wrong, but it seems to me that the reason that chemists want to work at large corporations is not the awesome lanyards/badges, but the great pay and benefits…

  10. anon the II says:

    My guess, and it’s just a guess, is that the average age of those who will ultimately find new jobs will be younger than the average age of those who lost their jobs.

    Having said that, I’m excited to test the new comment posting software. Here goes…..

  11. anon the II says:

    OK, it is fast at posting. But, wtf is my picture doing up there on my anonymous post?

  12. anon says:

    Can we have comment numbers please? A big part of the pipeline was @# comment directs

  13. David Borhani says:

    And I was going to ask *how* you got your picture there!

    One other comment formatting thing to fix: The timestamp is actually a useless link: anon the II’s last post at ”August 4, 2015 at 10:18 am” links to http://blogs.sciencemag.org/pipeline/archives/2015/08/04/what-became-of-cubist#comment-94090. Why? And it should be number 12 (I think); are there 94,090 comments total? Seems awfully low for 13 years of blogging… Clicking the timestamp rolls the comment to the top of the page, slightly *under* the black & white banner. Oops.

  14. David Borhani says:

    One more: the comment count on the main page (Cubist = 10) doesn’t match the page itself (currently 14).

    And the local-time timestamps are really silly!

  15. Hap says:

    @CJ: I think that’s a feature, not a bug – everyone is looking to lower their labor costs without lowering their prices (it seems to be how pharma wants to decrease their R+D costs). If I’m being really cynical, companies need to keep enough of those jobs around to advertise them to people who might become chemists (“look, this could be you!”) but not enough that a significant fraction of the potential employable population will hold such a job. I think some people prefer the environment of small companies and are willing to deal with the pay and benefits to be in one, but for lots of people, they aren’t a good fit.

  16. Lisa Jarvis says:

    Just chiming in to answer question about % of the 120 scientists that were chemists or med chemists. Didn’t fit it into the story, but I’m told there were about 25 med chemists (and another 25 on contract), and roughly a dozen more chemists working in “discovery.” Everyone who has found a job appears to be working still in discovery/med chem.

  17. Cube says:

    We had about 30 medicinal chemist at Cubist. The job market is fantastic compared to a few years ago and anyone who wanted to stay in medicinal chemistry has done so. Some people were fed up with being arbitrarily fired every 5 years and have switched fields (mostly associates) or are trying to.

  18. c says:

    Along with smaller salaries and benefits there is definitely a decrease in job security in a small group. With all the focus on “we need more scientists and engineers etc” how can I advise my kids to get into science when folks doing R&D are entering a profession with diminishing pay, benefits and job security.

    Aside from having the passion to do science which is what got me into the field many years ago (full discloseur: laid off a few years ago from big pharma and now in another field) what economic reasons do kids have today to motivate them into the world of science?

    The money, benefits and job security seem to be squarely on the business/finance side of the equation and I don’t see that changing any time soon.

    Do you advise your kids go into the profession of R&D? I struggle with it and I’m sorry to say that I do.

    1. Anon says:

      My PhD advisor used to tell us about glories of research careers and make us feel guilty for taking any day off but his one kid is MD and another is Harvard MBA. My postdoc advisor’s kid is in medical school.

      1. Scientist says:

        Aha, the replies are not nested/indented. Many blogs have that feature where replies are indented / clearly grouped with the original comment. This helps readability, especially since the old numbering is gone.

        (This comment was generated using the “Reply” button to my above comment, which was a “Reply” to “c” a few above that.)

    2. Scientist says:

      Testing out the “Reply” button… this is an attempt at a reply to “c”. Will it be nested…?

  19. J. Jacobs says:

    Do you advise your kids go into the profession of R&D ?

    Hell no. At least not in a corporate setting. The corporate world comprises two types: the “shuckers” and the “shucked.” If they are going to play the game at least give them a chance to win. Can’t help you if you don’t like the person your offspring becomes. As many have told me “it’s just business.”

  20. innovorich says:

    Having worked at big and small companies, I never want to go back to a big company. The distance from decision makers/making, size of the bureaucracy, and amount of complex poisonous politics is just not worth going back to once you realise how different most small company cultures are like.

  21. anon says:

    “Shucked.” Brilliant!

  22. Chris says:

    I’d just like to underline the comment about the attractions of working at smaller companies. The pay might be lower but the job satisfaction more than makes up for it.

  23. Former Cube says:

    We did lose several of our BS/MS chemists to other healthcare industries when the closure happened, but I wouldn’t throw in the towel on careers in research. I think the bottom line is that if you’re good at what you do and have the personality to roll with changes you’re going to be fine. What I think is telling is that the BS/MS chemists who left chemistry landed other jobs just as easily as those of us who stayed in chemistry. It’s not like they were forced out and struggled to find opportunities and I’d suggest a career shift like that is potentially harder than staying in your chosen field. It’s not like you can point at a Swern yield and use it to prove you’re great at Regulatory Affairs.

    The other thing I’d throw out there having just gone through the interview process is that there seems to be a big swing in the industry to having PhD’s stay primarily at the bench for much longer than before. That could mean a lot of things, but it was a pretty clear message throughout every one of my interviews.

  24. Chrispy says:

    You Cubists can be glad you did not get sucked into the demoralized hellhole Merck is today. But I have to add that it is possible for small entities to be EVEN WORSE than large ones. While large organizations suffer from politics and bureaucracy, at small ones you have the opportunity for self-appointed gods to make poor decisions unfettered by HR, a company board, or any kind of shame. The boss wants to put his drug-addled daughter in charge of purchasing? Done — too bad if you need to order anything. And in addition you get to worry about the total bankruptcy of the company. That said, though, if reasonable people are in charge the small company environment wins hands-down over the large one. I know may people (myself included) who would never go back to a large company.

  25. Chrispy says:

    And I agree that the comments need numbers — people often reply directly to a previous comment. Fast posting is nice, though! Did anyone figure out how to put their picture in the thumbnail (on purpose)?

  26. Me says:

    Yes…..sounds right. I got fed up with the redundancy merry-go-round at big pharma, but couldn’t stomach the low pay on offer at biotech/CROs. Made a run for it while I’m still young enough. Messed up really – you do a great job, and are rewarded by losing your livelihood.

  27. DailyRefuge says:

    The new website looks dope Derek! congrats! With the addition of your blog, I already think more highly of Science Translation Medicine.

  28. cancer_man says:

    Unfortunately, we will not get numbers, and I doubt any changes. Not even the ridiculous problem that commas are identical to periods. The blog format has been pre-ordained.

  29. Yoink says:

    But I have to add that it is possible for small entities to be EVEN WORSE than large ones. While large organizations suffer from politics and bureaucracy, at small ones you have the opportunity for self-appointed gods to make poor decisions unfettered by HR, a company board, or any kind of shame.

    Did we work at the same company?

  30. Photos says:

    Photos are being pulled from gravatar.com based on the email address furnished with your comment. This is fairly standard for WordPress-based blogs such as this one has become

  31. gippgig says:

    Off topic but relevant:
    FDA approves first 3D-printed drug, Spritam (levetiracetam)
    http://www.aprecia.com/pdf/2015_08_03_Spritam_FDA_Approval_Press_Release.pdf

    1. nothing says:

      It seems like a type of rapid-dissolving formulation, I imagine the patient is expected to drop it in a glass of water and drink it. But I do wonder, how is that going to taste? Will this really be an advantage over taking a tablet?

  32. Student says:

    I hope that the future isn’t bleak for aspiring Biology/Biotechnology professionals like me.

  33. Word Smith says:

    Like the new look to your blog Derek. Working in the Cambridge/Boston area does have some advantages and the potential for a replacement job should your company be bought or have layoffs. Working in another “magnet area” for biotech such as San Diego, research triangle NC, San Francisco etc is worth considering if you are new to this industry or relocating and plan on taking a job in the pharma industry. There is some strength in numbers which does give a bit more job security. Getting equity in your company can be a huge help for surviving in the long term. Thanks for the posting, good to know that there are a few bright spots to a job in biotech.

  34. befuddled says:

    “Getting equity in your company can be a huge help for surviving in the long term.”
    In a business as uncertain as biotech/pharma, I would think that getting equity in your company (unless it’s a *lot* of equity) is a very bad idea.

  35. Word Smith says:

    Risk indeed in taking company stock as part of your compensation. It however CAN be a huge help because with the risk comes reward. When these companies buy and sell each other, equity can go to the shareholders which can include the employees. Having equity in your small biotech gives an equity employee some (most likely small) stake in the outcome. This can be either success or failure of the company, so yes you may get nothing. Getting in early seems to be important for the employee that is in research and not management.

  36. The Aqueous Layer says:

    What I think is telling is that the BS/MS chemists who left chemistry landed other jobs just as easily as those of us who stayed in chemistry. It’s not like they were forced out and struggled to find opportunities and I’d suggest a career shift like that is potentially harder than staying in your chosen field. It’s not like you can point at a Swern yield and use it to prove you’re great at Regulatory Affairs.

    I’ve had several MS colleagues leave the bench for RA and have been promoted to levels unattainable by a BS/MS level chemist. Heck, somewhat difficult to attain by a PhD in my company. Hard work and talent seem to be rewarded and recognized in other areas much more than in the realm of science. That’s a hard reality.

    The other thing I’d throw out there having just gone through the interview process is that there seems to be a big swing in the industry to having PhD’s stay primarily at the bench for much longer than before. That could mean a lot of things, but it was a pretty clear message throughout every one of my interviews.

    This is, without a doubt, true. The days of a PhD working a few years on the bench, getting 2-3 associates and not doing chemistry are fading fast…

  37. Scientist says:

    I will never advise my kids to pursue a career of professional scientist, even though they clearly love nature and science. I don’t advise anyone to pursue this career, for that matter. Young people ask me about my job and I simply say that there is very little science funding these days, and they’re better off doing something else, like software engineering.

    Sad for US science that we have gotten to this abysmal state. We’ll miss out on great discoveries if all the great minds go elsewhere.

  38. anon the II says:

    I went to gravatar.com and got rid of my picture. This is a test.

  39. Retired NIHer says:

    I got the impression from the C&EN article that many of the former Cubist scientists are no longer working on antibiotics in their new jobs. How has Cubist’s demise impacted the antibiotics R&D landscape?

Comments are closed.