A Look at Health Care Biotech


Stephen James's future in academia was looking good until one day he had a realisation. "My ideas dried up," he says, "and I needed to reinvent myself." James (pictured left) had been in academia for 10 years, and he needed a change. He soon found his niche--the right environment for the research he liked doing and for the way he liked to work--in industrial biotechnology.

Eight years later, James is now a departmental director at a Swedish biotechnology firm called Biovitrum, in Stockholm, where he manages a research team of 40 people. Having worked on both sides of the academia/industry fence-with 8 years experience in the biotech industry to complement more than a decade in academia-James is in a good position to comment on what early career researchers can expect from a scientific career in the biotechnology and pharmaceutical sectors and how these differ from academia. Above all, he says, as a scientist in industry "you have to help ensure success in product development," a fact that has implications for the type of research you do in industrial biotech, and how you do it.

Testing Academic Waters

"I got a real flavour of academic life," says James, who graduated from the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, in 1988 with a B.Sc. in biochemistry and microbiology. After St. Andrews, he did a Ph.D. in biomedical research at the Department of Clinical Medicine at Leeds University, researching whether metabolites such as fatty acids can affect immune function in humans. James then joined Pete Downes's lab at the Department of Biochemistry of the University of Dundee as a postdoc. During this period, he received a prestigious fellowship from the university, which gave him the independence to apply for his own research grants. When the fellowship ran out in 1997, James says, there were possibilities for him to stay in the department.

But at a point in an academic career when most researchers start feeling that they are beginning to make a go of it in academia, James decided it was time for him to go away. It wasn't that his subject didn't interest him anymore; in fact, he recalls this time as particularly dynamic and exciting in biochemistry. Processes important in cell-signal transduction-the chain reaction that allows cell surface molecules to communicate messages to the cell nucleus and vice versa-were being uncovered rapidly. It also wasn't because his research was going nowhere; in fact, it was faring well. The problem was he felt he was in an intellectual rut. "The biggest problem for me was my ideas had dried up. I needed a new environment to reinvent myself."

Heading for Biotech

James's ambivalence about pursuing an academic career prompted him to apply for jobs inside and outside academe. Several months later, he was offered a position as a scientist at the pharmaceutical company Pharmacia-Upjohn in Stockholm; he accepted. His first position was at the bench, where he was "presented with a list of projects that I could get involved in." He was free to decide which of the projects on the list he wanted to pursue; he chose a project on lectins and one on growth hormones that had signal-transduction aspects.

A few years later, the company restructured. Pharmacia-Upjohn went through a merger and the pharmaceutical division where he was employed became an independent entity--Biovitrum--in 2001. Researchers at Biovitrum use animal models to test pre-clinical compounds intended to treat metabolic diseases such as diabetes, obesity, and glaucoma, and to a lesser extent, pain and inflammation. Biovitrum describes itself as a biotech company, though James says that strictly speaking, they are not developing technology but doing drug discovery. "Small pharmaceutical firm" might be a more accurate description, he notes.

Since starting out as a bench scientist, James has moved on to various other roles in the company, tracking steadily upward. First he became a project leader in drug discovery, and some time later a section manager in cell biology. Finally, he took on his current role as director of integrated pharmacology. James says his promotions within the company were due to more senior staff "believing in me." Moving from the bench to a purely management role meant changes not just in job responsibilities but also in attitudes. "You have to learn to let go of old things and be satisfied knowing less than others" about some technical and experimental aspects, admits James.

Future Trends in Biotech Careers

Apart from his own successful career, James also sees good career prospects in biotech in the coming years. In Sweden, particularly, James sees a healthy biotech sector. "In Sweden, when someone invents something it belongs to the person and not the institute," explains James, a fact he says has encouraged a lot of innovation. He also believes that there is a trend toward biotech companies engaging more in drug development as they seek new product opportunities. Biotech companies are also in a position to occupy a growing niche in the market: drug discovery and development of "non-blockbuster" drug products that yield smaller--but still adequate--profits. It's a market that is not lucrative enough, or on a large enough scale, to attract the large pharmaceutical companies, the traditional main players in drug discovery.

Stepping into Biotech

James sees several routes of entry for early-career researchers into a biotech company like Biovitrum. The most common entry level is as a bench scientist. "We are not necessarily looking for Ph.D.s," James says, though many of their new hires do have Ph.D.s. "I first design what I want from a project and then think who I'm looking for, and keep in mind their career expectations," explains James.

At the mid-career level, positions as project leader and group leader are sometimes available. And some scientists, like James, move from a hands-on research role into management. "Someone gets noticed for their technical skills and then is asked to be manager." However, he admits this is not always the best eventuality; an outstanding experimentalist might not have the skills to be a good manager. This, he feels, is something that is not always taken into consideration. When hiring at the department-manager level, the company normally seeks candidates with industrial managerial experience.

So what skills and attributes are important to make it in the biotech scene? In addition to the obvious ones such as "having good research background," James believes an essential factor in being successful and enjoying the biotech sector is appreciating the final goal of the work. "As a scientist, you must be willing to work toward making a product." Gaining new knowledge for its own sake it not enough.

What differences should early career scientists expect between academia and the biotech industry? James says that, in his experience, industry is "strongly project-driven; the boundaries between projects are more distinct than [in] academia." Another important difference for those contemplating a career in the biotech or pharmaceutical industry is the low priority given to publishing results. "Although publication of research results is encouraged," James says, due to patent concerns "there can be heavy policing of what can be published when," says James. He feels this could be frustrating for some young scientists: "If being known as an expert in your academic field is what switches you on, think carefully before you enter the sector." In industry, he continues, "your success as a researcher may be recognised in a different way, such as being associated with a drug launch," notes James.

Aside from personal recognition within the company, an important career reward for James is being involved in research that has a tangible application. His ultimate career dream is "to be able to say that I was associated with a new drug, something that has a real life value."

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