Anyone who's paid any attention to the biotechnology industry knows that it supposedly has been poised for growth for a long time. Magazines such as Business Week have referred to the time we live in as the "Biotech Century." But jobs in the biotech century have been hard to find for many qualified applicants.
One problem is that biotechnology encompasses a multitude of career choices and specializations. And because technologies change so fast, you'll never identify that "hot" job if you try to time the market, matching up a specific set of skills to what's in demand at any given moment. That's why it is essential now and again to step back and look at the really major trends developing in the field.
If I were starting out in this dynamic industry, I'd strongly consider a role in the bioprocessing or manufacturing end of the business. There's a lot of growth ahead of us yet because the industry is far from mature.
What is the single biggest trend right now that may impact your career if you are seeking a job in the biotech industry? In my opinion, it is the industry's continuing maturation. Companies previously hiring in drug development or research are now stepping up to build manufacturing facilities that will take their products into the real world. This has created a large category of jobs often classified as biomanufacturing, which I'll discuss in this month's "Tooling Up."
A pipeline spinning off its own career niches
"Biomanufacturing is a growing field," says Louise Duffy, who runs the U.S.- and U.K.-based biopharmaceutical manufacturing operations for GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world. GSK's operations show just how important biotechnology has become to the classical pharmaceutical company. "Right now, a lot of investment has been made by large and small companies for new, very sophisticated biotechnology products, many of which have passed the process-development stage and are heading through the pipeline. Manufacturing facilities are either up now or going to be built for these products in the near future. A lot of hot, new stuff is coming online, and manufacturing will be where many jobs end up."
It's worth examining more closely what this pipeline is all about and where the jobs are. The term "pipeline" refers to the drug-development cycle, an 8- to 12-year affair from start to finish. Drug discovery goes on early in the pipeline, followed by process development--another great career track, which I'll focus on in a later "Tooling Up." Process development is the means by which cool research discoveries get translated into something reproducible in a manufacturing environment. Process development is followed by biomanufacturing, during which products are produced for clinical trials or other forms of early testing, first in a pilot plant facility (a small test environment for new processes) and later, after regulatory approvals, in large facilities.
Biomanufacturing doesn't refer exclusively to biopharmaceutical products--but pharma is a big chunk of it right now. Each industry has its own development cycle. For a nutritional-supplement company I'm involved in, the pipeline was fewer than 3 years from start to finish. For some food, beverage, or consumer biotech products, it could be even shorter.
Biomanufacturing jobs run the gamut from bachelor's degree–level positions in factory operations to Ph.D. roles that deploy extensive technical knowledge and critical thinking skills to debug processes and troubleshoot manufacturing plant problems. Because of the overall growth of manufacturing operations, jobs are available at all degree levels, for both science (biochemistry, chemistry, or microbiology, for example) and engineering (chemical engineering, mechanical engineering, biochemical engineering, and so on). There's a lot of flexibility in the work, so there is less emphasis on one specific area of training than there is in bench science.
Bachelor's degree holders in manufacturing jobs work in shifts as production operators, dealing with huge fermenters, for example, or filtration and purification equipment. Scientists who've earned a master's degree and engineers often start at the same level, with some of them moving directly on to a technical-support team. Ph.D.s will only rarely be involved in hands-on production jobs, as their technical skills and thinking ability in more creative roles are the real benefits to the employer.
There are also many jobs with supplier companies, including those that design and build facilities (Jacobs Engineering is one example) and contract manufacturing organizations, which produce products in partnership with sponsor companies (such as Xcellerex). All of these companies hire scientific and engineering staff to support their contracts.
An often-misunderstood job category
Most advertised biomanufacturing jobs are for operator roles and require only a bachelor's degree, which leads some Ph.D.s to look askance at the category. "That's not something I've ever had an interest in. Standing around watching a fermenter grow E. coli isn't why I went to school for my Ph.D.," one postdoc told me recently.
That's a myopic view because, as in many other job categories, B.S.-level positions are advertised whereas job openings for Ph.D.s are usually filled via networking. These Ph.D. positions in biomanufacturing are what Duffy calls "problem-solver positions."
"Ph.D.s ... start with us as technical specialists, supporting the company in a problem-solving capacity," she says. The technical support group, Duffy told me, is an important part of the manufacturing operation, and technical-support jobs would appeal to anyone who has an interest in quickly gaining responsibility and respect. Technical specialists deal with every issue that comes up daily, from analyzing a sudden drop in fermenter throughput to looking at possible sources of contamination in the physical plant.
Getting into biomanufacturing
It can be frustrating to specifically target a biomanufacturing career while you are in school because directly relevant experiences just don't exist at the university. This is a field in which opportunities come after you've landed a job in a company. You might start, for example, in quality control and then move into production operations or technical support as you grow with the employer.
In this field, an applicant's technical skills are assumed: Companies expect that they will hire competent, intelligent people who can attack a challenge with enthusiasm and skill. To get hired--and to excel in the job--you need to add teamwork, leadership ability, and problem-solving to your skill set.
"During the interview process, we look carefully at leadership ability and interpersonal skills. It's likely that a new employee would go immediately to work on projects, solving a problem with a partner who would be on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean," Duffy says. Consequently, in hiring, Duffy emphasizes a proven track record that demonstrates excellent interpersonal abilities--"soft" skills that are not taught at the university.
Experience in another part of the drug-development pipeline is also valuable for (pharmaceutical) biomanufacturing jobs. For example, Duffy took a job at a small Canadian biotech company, ABI Biotechnology in Manitoba,in process developmentafter getting her Ph.D. in chemical engineering. "My time in process development was a critical stage for my career development, because process-development people work closely with the manufacturing groups, and I became grounded in an entirely new way of thinking about problems," Duffy says. Those skills helped her later when she moved to a consultant role with a contractor that provides architectural and engineering services to the biomanufacturing industry.
Duffy believes that her early small-company experience prepared her to "wear many hats," and as a result she moved quickly up the career ladder. She also values a business-development role she had for a time at GSK, which gave her a good exposure to the overall GSK business. "When I see someone move up the ladder, it is often that person who has been able to successfully marry their technical skills with leadership skills and some general management knowledge," Duffy says.
A bright future for leaders and problem solvers
S. Anne Montgomery, editor in chief of the leading trade journal dedicated to this field, BioProcess International, agrees with Duffy about the growth of jobs in biomanufacturing. "Companies will be making decisions soon about investing in manufacturing facilities or which contract manufacturing company they'll partner with for their production," Montgomery says. "If I were starting out in this dynamic industry, I'd strongly consider a role in the bioprocessing or manufacturing end of the business. There's a lot of growth ahead of us yet because the industry is far from mature."
Photo (top): Todd Huffman