Life In Biotech

Life in the biotech industry is a far cry from academia. It isn't pure science. If you make the leap, expect to be indoctrinated into the world of business, because in industry business goals drive research. And even if you join a company as a scientist, you may find yourself moving out of the lab altogether. "There are lots of scientists who get tapped to do things in project management, business development, or marketing. As scientists, they don't have the background to handle those duties," says Rebecca Rone, who is director of the M.S. program in drug discovery and development at the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences. The program offers classes in business and financing as well as various biotechnology-related sciences.

A biotech company is a tightly focused environment, where freedom of academic inquiry is often curbed in the interest of completing a project as quickly as possible, whether it's a new drug, a diagnostic technique, or some other science-related product. "In industry you gain knowledge along the way, but your focus is to do whatever you need to do to [to finish a project]. If something doesn't work, you have to realign your focus," says Joshua Seno, who is an associate in corporate development for the technology evaluation group at Amylin Pharmaceuticals in San Diego, California.

Like many graduates, Seno spent a couple of years working in an academic lab after he graduated from Purdue University with a degree in cell biology in 1998. He spent the time working at the Indiana University Medical Center in Indianapolis, Indiana, studying DNA repair proteins and how they respond to heat, a possible adjuvant to radiation in cancer therapy.

"I guess we were working toward some sort of goal [in academic research], but it was not a [well-defined] goal. There weren't any pressing deadlines except to get grants in," he recalls. But the academic life wasn't quite what he wanted. He didn't want to do a Ph.D., and he wasn't sure a master's degree would be any more valuable than the practical experience he was already getting. But when he read an article in Science about a new kind of hybrid master's program that combined biological science with business training, he was intrigued.

Have you seen the companion piece to this article?

For an overview of the present state of the biotech industry, click this link.

He settled on the master's of bioscience offered by the Keck Graduate Institute, a program in Claremont, California, that offers classes in biology, bioinformatics, and bioengineering side by side with courses in management, ethics, and business policy. After 2 years there, during which he did a summer internship at Amylin, Seno hired on at the company. Initially he worked half time in the lab because he wasn't completely comfortable moving into the business side of things, but after about 6 months he went to his current position full-time. He soon found out that things had changed. "[At the Indiana University Medical Center], I felt a little more free to do anything I wanted, whereas here you have to make sure you're getting things done and meeting your objectives. It's almost a completely different experience," he says.

Seno's primary focus is researching therapeutic or technology areas that Amylin is considering investing or participating in. For example, he was assigned to look into proteomics--to survey the field, identify the key players and potential collaborators, and survey the technology providers. He also performs financial analyses for specific projects. Once he identifies an opportunity, his role is to pursue relationships with companies, make contacts, and begin to set up potential deals. "My job as ... the rookie in this group is really to handle some of the smaller scale projects, whereas people with more business development experience would handle bigger projects," he says.

Cross-disciplinary programs like Keck were created because of a lack of business training for scientists that join the biotech industry, but Rone also sees a need for cross-disciplinary education. "Several people have mentioned to me that they think the pipelines have dried up because we've taken advantage of the easy hits--the [targets] that Mother Nature has informed us about. There is a real feeling that we have to totally reinvent things in order to come up with [new classes of compounds], and the best way to handle that is to have understanding between the disciplines," she says. That means that molecular biologists, cell biologists, chemists, pharmacologists, and bioinformatics specialists must be able to communicate with one another in order to combine their efforts.

You need that kind of communication just to get anything done in a small biotech company, says Douglas Gjerde, CEO of San Jose, California-based PhyNexus. "Today's small company has to produce. I firmly believe in the ability of the individual to have an impact, but the individual needs help. The only way that's going to happen is if they ask for help in a very specific way. You have to know enough [about another discipline] to know how to ask a question."

But don't get too caught up in trying to know a little bit of everything. Specialization is still very important. To succeed in industry, "you have to know at least one [discipline] extremely well, and you have to know the jargon of others," Gjerde says.

So be an expert, but be a generalist, too.

No one ever said the life in the biotech industry was easy.

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