UCI Center for Virus Research Career Seminar Provides Insider Perspectives on both Pharma and Biotech
UCI biomedical graduate students got first-person perspective on industry jobs at the May 23 UCI Center for Virus Research event, “A Career in Biotech/Pharma: Is it the right career for you?” Don Ganem, M.D., Ph.D., global head, infectious diseases research at the Novartis Institutes of Biomedical Research was the keynote speaker. He compared the cultures of the pharma world to academia. The UCI Center for Virus Research fosters scholarship, training, and interdisciplinary research studies founded in molecular virology. “Industry is not monolithic,” said Ganem. “The distinction between large biotechs and pharma is becoming smaller but mid-sized biotechs are now very different companies than what they were as startups.” According to Ganem, there are many different career options in industry beyond laboratory research, including clinical investigation, the business side doing out-licensing and in-licensing, deals and mergers, as well as the regulatory side preparing documentation and advice for FDA approval.
Differing attitudes towards research
“Like universities, different companies have very different philosophies about research,” said Ganem. According to Ganem, companies differ strikingly in their commitment scientific inquiry as a core part of the enterprise, particularly big pharma. This results from pressures by Wall Street, investors and the business side of the operation. Business school graduates are taught to create shareholder value as the dominant ethos. While fifteen to twenty years ago, pharmas were run by scientists; now they are managed by MBAs and accountants. In the 1990s, pharma companies increased their research budgets, but this did not result in a corresponding uptick in new drug approvals, and Wall Street devalued research. “This is an erroneous conclusion,” said Ganem. “But many companies in the last five to ten years have responded by dramatic decreases in their research budget because of this mantra on Wall Street that internal research doesn’t pay.”
According to PHrMA, the industry trade group, in recent years the definition of a “research-intensive pharma company” has been lowered to investment of 10% of revenues in R&D. “The poster child for this kind of company is Valeant, that spends less than 3% of its budget in R&D.” said Ganem. “If you think about it, they’ve set the bar at one half of what it was a decade ago. Another way companies responded to this pressure is to diminish the number of areas in which they are working.” For example, companies have abandoned research in infectious diseases to cluster in cancer research, where they can get reimbursement for a drug that only modestly extends survival—and at a level of payment that they can’t get in heart disease and cancer. “If you have a declining budget for R&D and it’s easier to register a drug in cancer, and the drug can command a high price, why should you as the CFO invest in infectious disease research?” said Ganem. “And that can lead to a lot of deformities in the allocation of resources. Firms also differ in the autonomy they grant to R&D.” said Ganem. “Novartis lets those questions be decided by scientists.”
“This plays out differently in startup biotechs that have no revenues yet,” said Ganem. “You want to inquire about these imperatives with friends who are involved. The science focus of a small biotech is quite intense but the focus is quite narrow. By definition, they don’t have any revenue stream, with investors priming the pump with primary investment. Little companies don’t have the luxury of wide scope anymore.”
Ganem notes that a very new, very different dynamic has emerged in the last five years or so. Instead of putting money in biotech companies with long research horizons, VCs can now invest in social media companies with a quicker path to payout. “It is very difficult to get a VC interested in a small biotech unless you are going to have something ready for phase I in a few years,” said Ganem. Other industries have shorter product cycle times than pharma. But drug discovery and development is difficult—it can take up to 30 years to bring a small molecule drug to market. “We are trying to manipulate the workings of a machine we did not build, and whose workings we barely understand.” Ganem said. “So the whole premise that Wall Street is operating on is demonstrably false. You cannot imagine that you are spending money in 1994 and see that reflected in a spike of registrations in 1999. It is foolish.”
Academia vs Industry: different cultures
According to Ganem, academia and industry work on different goals and emphasize different success factors. “The mission of academic science is knowledge generation.” said Ganem. “The mission of industrial science is product generation. This is really fundamental. You have to have a Bolshevik commitment to making something that is going to benefit someone in a clinic or in a hospital or in a clinic somewhere. If you don’t have that, you have no business being in industry.”
“The most important trait in academic scientists is to be provocative,” said Ganem. “The most important trait in industry scientists is to be productive.” However, industry remains the best place to do translational research, in his opinion.
Even industry structure is different. A research group inside a company will consist of a Ph.D. leading four to five, even 10 highly accomplished technicians. These groups reassemble and reform as necessary, whereas academics is a cottage industry model. “The kind of teamwork that goes on in industry is extremely difficult to do in a university,” said Ganem. “It is very rare for an academic collaboration go on beyond more than two to three years.”
According to Ganem, for the most part, because of divergent goals in industry and academia, joint ventures between industry and universities have not succeeded. Incubators are somewhat more successful. “It is hard to open research to universities because of IP issues.” said Ganem. “The biggest problem for industry, when working scientist –to-scientist with universities is contamination of ideas where an IP lawsuit develops. If a company thinks something has no commercial value it will publish it.”
But science careers in pharma are limited in duration because of the way this industry is structured. “The science hierarchy can take you only so far in a company,” said Ganem. “Science careers in a company will plateau after 10-15 years. You cannot advance beyond a certain level in the bureaucracy unless you do something other than science.” This usually means transitioning to regulatory affairs, business development or intellectual property. Those who want to stay in science have to transition to another company or start their own.
He advised that getting your initial training at a large company can help you get a job in a smaller company. Hiring managers in biology want to see post-doctoral work, while students in disciplines such as chemistry are hired right out of grad school. Industry values M.Ds/Ph.Ds for running clinical trials.
“Individual achievement is valued in academia—but in industry you are judged by your work with a team.” Ganem said. According to Ganem, the best time to be hired in a pharma is right after you have finished your doctoral work/medical school. You can apply for laboratory careers right after finishing your post doc. Leadership and management positions are often filled by top people who have been at other companies at 15-20 years. There is also a bias towards hiring people for senior positions who have risen to the top of the academic world.
Career advice from insiders
Ganem was then joined on a panel by Kristen Bedard, Ph.D, head of Virology at Kineta, Hoelger Roehl, Ph.D., senior manager, business development at Illumina, Felicia Hernandez, Ph.D., variant assessment scientist at Ambry Genetics and Steve Granger, Ph.D. chief scientific officer at Salimetrics. All of the panelists were former Ph.D. students or post-doctoral trainees in the Center of Virus Research laboratories. The panelists returned to UCI to share their personal career trajectories and lessons learned from experience:
- Bedard advised that strong communications skills were necessary to be able to integrate and lead a team, and suggested students practice giving presentations.
- “Start being able to speak the language of industry,” advised Roehl. “The pieces I like are to see something that you have worked on going to the clinic. If you can make a good case for yourself, you can go to the CEO, get 10 people overnight and the sky is the limit. That entails you get appropriate compensation. It is generally rewarded quite well.” Roehl advised attending scientific meetings, and looking for regional development networks, through UCLA and incubators.
- “If you are not aware of opportunities, they will zoom right by your head,” said Granger. “You need to take charge of your skill set and develop the skills so you won’t be left behind when the wheel changes at your company, as it surely will. Get used to putting projects on a timeline. Try to manage that in a logical way. “Notebook, notebook, notebook. If it hasn’t been documented in a notebook it hasn’t been invented. Not until it has been cosigned will it hold up in court.”