Bully for Biotech

Today, in the post-9/11, post-dot-com era, risk seems to be the operative word, as the employment outlook over the past couple of years has been bleak. But as you ponder career possibilities, remember the old adage: Threat and opportunity are opposite sides of the same coin.

The biotech industry grew steadily during the last quarter of the last century, starting at its unofficial birth with the launch of Genentech in 1976. According Ernst & Young, the number of jobs more than doubled, from 79,000 to 191,000, between 1992 and 2001.

Then came 2001-02. Many of the start-ups birthed during the heady late 1990s and 2000 found themselves strapped for cash when things soured, and many of them have since been absorbed by other companies or dissolved. The result has been consolidations and layoffs on a scale never before seen in the young life of biotechnology.

"It's the first time in [biotech's] history that employment has gone down," says Mark Dibner, president of BioAbility, a consulting firm for the biotech and pharmaceutical industry based in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. Twenty percent of the 320 public biotech companies in the United States restructured in 2002, reducing R&D, cutting costs, and laying off employees in the process, according to the 2003 version of Ernst & Young's annual review of the U.S. biotechnology industry, optimistically titled Resilience.

The downturn has left the job market flooded with highly qualified ex-employees who struggle to find work. Even those who succeed do so on the company's terms. "You can't negotiate anymore," says Janine Niacaris, who is a co-chair of the Biotechnology Industry Organization's (BIO's) Human Resources Committee, and she should know. Niacaris was once vice president of human resources and administration at Menlo Park, California-based Geron, but she is now, herself, unemployed.

Where did all this doom and gloom begin? 9/11 and the fall of the dot-coms triggered it, says Scott Morrison, U.S. life sciences director at New York-based Ernst & Young and a co-author of Resilience. But it can also be traced to the short-term failure of one particular flavor of business plan that was an investor darling during the boom times. Many of those start-ups aimed to be "tool box" companies that capitalized on genomics discoveries and technology, furnishing leads to larger partners in the pharmaceutical industry that those bigger companies would then develop into novel drugs. But the strategy didn't pan out, says Morrison. "They didn't deliver on the number of partnerships. The pharmaceutical companies said, 'I've got a wealth of new targets, now what do I do with them?' "

The answer to that question says a lot about the current state of biotech. When they got pummeled by the stock market, those drug targets were scrapped in favor of a safer approach that aims to pay off sooner. Today's pharmaceutical companies focus on products that are further along in the pipeline, in phase II or phase III trials, hoping to see some of them through to market in order to bolster earnings soon and gain a healthier footing.

The Bright Side

Amidst the threat there are opportunities. Biotech stock prices have climbed in the last few months, and after a long hiatus, venture capitalists are starting to put more money into existing companies "at a pretty furious clip," says Morrison. New financing should translate into new jobs. "I think we'll go back to a hiring phase and I wouldn't be surprised if we saw job growth back in the double digits [comparable to the growth rate in the 1990s] in the next 12 months," he adds.

Morrison sees human therapeutics as the biggest player in the biotech industry, and he thinks it will see the biggest growth. Although medical diagnostics are only a small percentage of the industry, he thinks it will grow along with materials science, another small player that will be bolstered by increasing interest and government investment in nanotechnology research.

The Local Scene

So where will the jobs be? Biotech has its meccas in Boston, San Diego, and San Francisco, and those regions will remain entrenched. But a number of other areas are making a heavy push to attract biotechnology companies and make names for themselves. Pittsburgh, Chicago, Cleveland, Atlanta, Philadelphia, and Princeton get nods from Morrison and others, but other areas will, no doubt, surprise.

Regions will probably distinguish themselves by their specialty. "It's going to be very hard to [beat out] San Diego," says Donald F. Smith Jr., who is interim CEO of the Pittsburgh Life Sciences Greenhouse, a public-private partnership that aims to stimulate the life sciences industry in the Pittsburgh area.

In the future, where a young scientist goes could depend on his or her specialty. "It's going to be very appealing to be in one place or another. If you want to be with the best and the brightest, that [region] is where you will put yourself," says David Miller, president of the Illinois Biotechnology Industry Organization, a nonprofit that is seeking to boost commercialization of academic science. Miller thinks that in 10 years Chicago could be known for its nanotechnology.

What's more, the lower cost of living in a place like Pittsburgh or Atlanta has appeal to the cash-strapped young professionals who staff new biotech companies. "[In Pittsburgh], you can get in on the ground floor and have a very high quality of life while you're doing it," says Smith.

Getting There (Had Better Be) Half the Fun

In a tight job market glutted with out-of-work pros, how do you get a foot in the door?

It's not easy. There's no denying that this is a tough time to break in. Emeryville, California-based Chiron, for example, is hiring at a steady pace, but it makes very few new hires directly from academia, says Anthony Damaschino, the company's director of human resources for biopharmaceuticals. Most new hires have at minimum a few years of experience in a large pharmaceutical company or a small biotech.

Everyone agrees that the key to maximizing your chances is networking. Talk to people at scientific meetings and collect business cards, says Chandra Louise, who is president of PharmSupport, a consulting company based in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. Louise is author of Jump Start Your Career in Bioscience, published by Peer Productions. And put those business cards to good use. "Find an excuse to e-mail people. Ask them an interesting question about their research," she advises.

Damaschino seconds that advice and emphasizes the importance of personal connections, estimating that half of Chiron's hires get in by networking. "If you have a personal reference that works at the company, or someone internally walks your resume over to HR, it just gets you ahead of the game."

In the end, though, patience may be the key. Biotechnology isn't going anywhere, but a full recovery will take awhile. In the meantime, "you have to be willing to compromise on what you think is the perfect job to get the experience," says Niacaris. Those who are patient, and willing to settle for less in the short term, will be more likely than their peers to locate opportunity amidst the threat. "Those who are willing to do that are going to find some of the positions."

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