A year ago, Pfizer announced a plan to exit its research and development site in Sandwich in southern England over the course of 2 years. At the time of the announcement, the site employed about 2400 workers. The company later announced that it would downsize the site instead of closing it. According to recent reports, 1500 employees will lose their jobs by the end of 2012 and 250 will be transferred to other Pfizer facilities. Another 650 or so will remain at Sandwich.
I have mixed feelings really about the change, but overall there’s been a lot of positive aspects.
As of November, some 800 employees had already lost their jobs. One of those was Andrew McElroy, who was trained as a chemist but worked at Pfizer as an outsourcing specialist. Recognizing a growing niche for outsourcing services, McElroy launched The Research Network, which today gathers several dozen former pharma employees into a firm that helps companies work with contract research organizations. Science Careers interviewed McElroy -- first by telephone and then by e-mail -- and asked him about losing his job at Pfizer, developing his business idea, and his attempt to make a silk purse -- a new business -- from a sow's ear. These interview highlights were edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: Could you start by telling us a little bit about your background?
A.M.:I did a Ph.D. at Cambridge University and then went to work for Glaxo for about 10 years, both in the U.K. and then at Research Triangle Park in North Carolina in the United States. I came back to work for Pfizer as a department head in the Medicinal Chemistry Department, at the Sandwich site, for 10 or 15 years and then moved on into some more global roles around optimizing research processes. And then the last 2 or 3 years I headed up a group at Sandwich bringing external contract research to the project teams. We worked with both the project teams and contract research organizations, providing scientific oversight and logistical support for external collaborations in Europe, India, and China. The group grew from covering just chemistry to cover biology and drug metabolism, all very much in the discovery space, until Pfizer announced it was downsizing Sandwich, at which point we decided to set up The Research Network.
Q: While working for Pfizer, could you see a growing trend toward outsourcing?
A.M.:Yes, definitely. There was across all pharma companies a greater degree of outsourcing occurring but at different paces in different companies, and I think probably Pfizer was somewhere in the middle of the range. This is partly driven by technology because drug discovery is so diverse: In order to access all the technologies you have to go around the world to find the centers of excellence.
Q: Do you think this could also be driven by pharma companies trying to reduce their costs?
A.M.:I don’t really see that as that big a driver, no. In my experience it’s more driven by the need to access the technology but also the fact that in China or India there are very large growing markets, so some of the work being done there was somewhat strategic.
Q: How did the idea for The Research Network come about?
A.M.:The downsizing announcement was in February; in fact exactly a year ago today [1 February]. On the same day, I decided to set up The Research Network. I was in the Lake District when the announcement came through, so I had a long drive back and I was thinking about where to go next, what to do. The idea was based partly on the work we did with Pfizer. There used to be a time when there were all of the technologies within one site, but as the technology has become more diverse, it has moved to a more fragmented model. So there's a need to be able to coordinate and operate in a more virtual sense. I think it’s the trend and we were quite uniquely positioned. We had quite a broad external network. We had a good opportunity then to continue to work with those companies and to look for other groups wanting to advance their discovery projects. There was still in those days a lot to do to wind down with Pfizer and transfer work, so we spent a lot of the rest of the year doing that but at the same time working up the idea of a spinout company that would provide a similar service coordinating outsourced research. We were launched in August, so we’ve been up operating since then.
Q: In the company’s name there is the word “network,” which makes it sound like people on the team are partners rather than employees.
A.M.:Yes, I think that’s a good way to look at it. We use the term “network partner” internally. But it is kind of more engaged than that. The benefit is having a team where we’re covering all disciplines so that there’s the ability to cross-refer and to help each other. We can take on entire projects. We can take on pieces of work, and we can supply work by subcontracting to other suppliers. So we basically deliver and manage the work. Virtual pharma companies may be the closest thing to what we do. They work for themselves on a project, but we operate for any customer.
Q: How did you go about setting up The Research Network?
A.M.:It was a big shock for everybody with the change at Pfizer. I was discussing it with people in the team and other folks, just to round out the idea. Then it started becoming a bit more real as some folks thought, “Yes, this sounds interesting, let’s give it a go.” So I partnered up with one of my colleagues and between the two of us we kind of moved the idea forward. So then there’s the practicalities of setting up a company, something we’ve never done before: You have to register the company, set up a bank account, register for VAT, set up e-mails. ... The next stage is thinking about who your customers might be and starting to make some connections to get work, so that’s a big change really when you’re kind of doing it yourself. So that was probably the big challenge. That is still a work in progress.
Q: What aspects of the work did you feel well prepared for?
A.M.:I think in the core science and in getting the work done. During my career, working at three sites at Glaxo and at Pfizer globally, I have seen quite a few different ways of doing things, and that’s always been quite helpful, but the science has been the bit which hasn’t changed as much. It’s still drug discovery, so it requires a lot of the same strategies and a lot of the same science.
Q: What other skills did you have to develop?
A.M.:There was some training needed, really just to learn about how to run a company legally, so that was probably the first learning curve. We’re fortunate. Because the whole site was affected, there were various organizations to come in to run courses on how to set up a business, and the tax people came in and talked to us about the tax framework. I also learned quite a lot about marketing, presentation skills, thinking in a more customer-focused way, building relationships, managing contacts -- aspects for which in the past I hadn’t really been as organized. A lot of that’s more important now.
Q: In which ways is your role different from your days at Pfizer?
A.M.:I’m more accountable. There is a very direct connection between my actions and the success of the company, so I’m very much my own boss in that regard. I also have to cover more functions, including accounts and contracts; I might have called on other people to do that in the past. We are now getting to a size where I’m able to get other people focusing on some of those things, but certainly during the first year I’ve had to become proficient at just about everything to be in front of the operation. That’s been a challenge, but enjoyable. In terms of the team, there are a lot of the same management skills, wanting to empower people and enable them to work independently so they can succeed.
Q: Six months in, at what stage of development is the company?
A.M.:The company is growing, in terms of the size of the team and the expertise, and we are looking for customers. We’ve got some work but we need to find more, so we’re definitely at early stages of development. There’s some really rather encouraging progress but we’ve got a lot further to go. It’s still challenging but I think there is plenty of opportunity.
Q: Did you find that creating a network of people who all had lost their pharma job made you better able to support each other and look up to the future?
A.M.:Very much, yes. Everyone was in the same boat, and so there was definitely a lot of mutual support. I think a lot of people took it as an opportunity to step back and decide what they wanted to do. Quite a few chose to do something different, but those who wanted to stay working in the drug discovery arena have been able to find work, generally speaking. It's a lot of hardship but there have been opportunities for people to work.
Q: Regarding your own career change, how do you feel about it?
A.M.:I was quite happy doing the work I was doing previously, so it’s not a change I was looking for. Having said that, it has definitely been a good development opportunity for me. Certainly, I’ve learned a lot and I’ve enjoyed the past year. I have mixed feelings really about the change, but overall there’s been a lot of positive aspects as well.
Q: Please describe some of the positive aspects.
A.M.:The fact that the work you do is very directly rewarded, or you make mistakes as well. There is an immediacy to working in a small company, and so to have that experience has been personally very enjoyable. And I love learning, meeting a lot of new people, and forming quite a strong network and a strong team. At the same time, you have the worry: Will you be able to find work? Is this a good idea? Is it going to take off? It’s a little bit a field of dreams in that respect, so there is the anxiety that goes along with it, particularly when the families and partners carry that risk. It’s been a challenge, but so far, so good.
Q: Would you have any advice for other laid-off pharma employees on how to bounce back?
A.M.:It really depends a lot on personal circumstances. I’m fortunate in a way because my children are a bit older. With young children it’s quite difficult. But it’s a year today since the site announcement and I think just about everybody that has been looking for a job, and willing to move, has found employment. There is opportunity out there and I think many people, once they’ve settled in a new position, feel that having had both experiences is enriching. So don’t get too downhearted. Give it a go. Decide what is it you want to do and then make it happen. And seek advice. There is a lot of support out there for folks who need to find work.
Elisabeth Pain is contributing editor for Europe.