Discovering Careers in a Young Biotech Company


Want to relate basic science to commercial reality and get engaged in the development of products with real possibilities to benefit human health? If so, then drug discovery is an attractive option. But what do drug discovery companies have to offer you, and what do you need to offer them?

Jerini AG is a drug discovery and development company based in the heart of Berlin. The company was founded in 1994 as a spin-off from Berlin's Humboldt University Medical facility, Charité, to commercialise a high-throughput technology that involves the chemical synthesis and screening of peptides. At the end of the 1990s the company expanded its technology platform and made the transition into a fully-fledged drug development company.

The company raised its first round of investment in 2000, and by the end of the following year, an anti-angioedemic agent was already in clinical trial. Angioedema, a hereditary disease, is characterized by acute episodic attacks of edema or swelling in the hands, feet, face, and abdomen. When it affects airway passages, angioedema can be life-threatening.

Since then, Jerini has built a pipeline of several preclinical and two clinical projects using its innovative technologies. Yet the company, with just 90 employees, is still relatively modest in size. Next Wave spoke to head of research and development Dr. Jochen Knolle (pictured above) about career prospects in the company's two major areas, preclinical and clinical development.

Knolle says chemists are in highest demand; the company employs approximately half as many biologists. Certainly organic chemists are essential for their business, and medicinal chemists are also frequently employed. In the life sciences the greatest demand is presently for cell biologists.

Experts wanted, but not narrow specialists

However, Knolle stresses that "having the precise research background is not that critical." If a candidate has had "good exposure, for example, in a pharma or biotech company, this counts for a lot more." So what does "good exposure" mean? Knolle explains that they "are always on the lookout for people with project management skills." For example, in the area of the clinical development, a person who has a broad understanding of the entire process is desirable. That means someone who could not only develop target products, but who at the same time knows how to take into account factors such as usable formulation and regulatory requirements.

Jerini, like other companies in the pharmaceutical business, needs a strong working relationship with regulatory agencies. In December 2003, for example, Jerini received from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) orphan drug designation for its drug Icatibant that treats angioedema. FDA grants the orphan drug designation to products designed to treat rare, life-threatening diseases or chronic conditions affecting relatively small numbers. The orphan drug designation provides benefits such as expedited reviews and intellectual property protections, as well as access to potential grant funding for continued research and clinical trials.

The distinct impression is that the hiring policy is relatively flexible. The company does not seem hung up the necessity of formal qualifications, in contrast to German universities and research organisations, and even some sectors of industry. Although most research scientists do have a PhD, it is not a must. Knolle is of the opinion that, "if someone without a PhD has the right experience and energy, I certainly would consider hiring them."

Nevertheless, the company tries to foster an academic environment. All researchers at Jerini publish their results, which allows them to establish a parallel academic track record. Recently, Jerini got approval from the State Medical Chamber of Berlin to formally train clinicians in-house in clinical pharmacology. The State Medical Chamber of Berlin, among other things, promotes ongoing medical education and supervises the fulfillment of physician's professional duties. After 2 years of training the candidates may return to an academic or clinical environment if they choose. English is Jerini's working language, and in addition to German employees, the company currently has staff from Italy, France, the United Kingdom, Russia, and China.

Finding the skills at home and abroad

The company accepts speculative applications as well as those in response to specific ads. If you're invited for interview expect to be asked to present your most recent research results. Since the absolute relevance of the research itself to the company is not of the highest priority, Knolle is more interested in how someone, for example, handles "unexpected questions" during their presentation.

Although globally career perspectives in drug discovery are currently very healthy, Knolle predicts that opportunities will plateau in 3 to 4 years' time. "In general, cost containment will mean that the amount of early discoveries presently in the pipeline cannot be maintained." Another important trend he sees emerging over the next few years is outsourcing. Increasing numbers of drug development projects are likely to be outsourced to companies in Asia, particularly India and China. In fact, it's already a fact of life at Jerini, for example, for in vivo (animal) pharmacology. Small to medium-sized firms invariably have limitations in in-house expertise.

That is not to say that outsourcing is the only way such companies can broaden their skills base. At the start of this year Jerini joined forces with pharma giant Merck to further develop small-molecule inhibitors for cancer. The companies will work together using Jerini's "peptides-to-drug" strategy to bring the compounds to a preclinical development stage, starting next year. Knolle sees the exposure to the development process within big pharma as advantageous for Jerini employees.

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