More Commercial Awareness for the European Biotech Industry


"Follow the money"... and "check every lead." Deep Throat's recommendation to Watergate affair investigators Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein seems just as relevant today to young scientists wanting to work in the biotech industry. "In Europe, the [biotech] industry is recovering and is now better positioned to move forward," says Ernst & Young's latest study: Beyond Borders: Global Biotechnology Report 2005 . "Europe saw significant consolidation and restructuring within the industry" and is "gaining momentum," even though it "continues to lag behind the U.S. biotech sector," concludes the report. "European research is noted for [its] academic excellence, but there is a need for more commercial thinking," says William Powlett Smith, leader of Ernst & Young's U.K. biotech practice.

Views from the Top

"Young scientists who move into the European biotech industry should realise that they are pioneers of its development into a mature industry," says Alexander von Gabain, Chief Executive Officer and co-founder of Intercell AG, a vaccine company in Vienna that currently employs 150 people from 14 countries. Researchers will face many challenges; to meet them they need "to be flexible," he says. "This is necessary when the market or the competition demands a change in research direction."

For Camille Wermuth, Chief Scientific Officer and President-founder of Strasbourg-based Prestwick-Chemical Inc., a 43-strong biotech company providing research services for large pharmaceutical corporations: "Young scientists in industry need to be able to demonstrate feasibility of their research within a given time-span." Another important skill he wants the scientists in his company to have is the ability to represent the company as ambassadors, since they have direct contact with clients.

For Gerard Drewes, director of discovery research at Cellzome AG, a 75-strong British-German drug-discovery company specialising in proteomics technology, being a team player is another requirement. Young scientists "should be able to 'think out of the box' and to communicate with colleagues [who are] often from different backgrounds." Drewes and his colleague Nigel Ramsden, head of drug discovery at Cambridge, also think that "broad scientific experience is important." Finally, "the scientists to be recruited should have a strong interest in research," says Drewes. What's important "is to enjoy challenging research."

Perspectives from Human Resources

"Presently the biotech and pharma companies are recruiting young scientists for jobs in R&D, clinical studies, quality assurance, laboratory work, [and] regulatory affairs," says Jens-Peter Mayer, the Biotech branch manager at Kelly Scientific Resources, a global recruiting company specialising in health sciences. People interested in this industry need to accumulate relevant experience, and industry internships are a good way to do it. But the internships must fit into a well-conceived career-development plan: not just any internship will do. Daniel Brazier, senior consultant for clinical research at Progressive, a European recruiting company, stresses that "any experience is not necessarily better than no experience."

Brazier thinks that there are good professional opportunities for young scientists within small-to-medium-sized companies, and contract research organisations in particular. However, he emphasises, more than good scientific training is needed to break in. "Young scientists with more soft skills and personality have better chances to be selected than others," he says. "The [scientific] qualifications of candidates are usually equally good."

Frederic Perraud, Chief Financial Officer at Polyplus-Transgene in Strasbourg, a life-sciences company dedicated to the development of reagents, believes that "young scientists also need to be polyvalent," ... to have a wide and diverse range of skills and abilities ... " and to be prepared to help in other activities of a small enterprise if needed." Along with Mayer and Brazier, Perraud values prior industrial experience. "Being familiar with the industrial setting is an asset for young scientists who want to move into the [Biotech] industry," says Perraud. What makes industrial experience so important to human resources is the evidence that young scientists are able to work within an industrial team and prioritise their work, and have learned self-management.

Young Scientists' Perspectives

So what do young scientists coming from academia think of their first experiences within the biotech industry? "One difference in industry is the higher level of documentation of the lab work when compared to academia," states Scott Hobson, a scientist with a Ph.D. in biochemistry working at Cellzome Heidelberg. "The lab notebook needs to be signed by another person every day because it simply has to provide evidence for patenting, ensure that the findings can be used by another person in the company, and furthermore, account for the time spent."

Cyrille Boussard, a medical chemist with previous postdoc experience now working at Cellzome Ltd., Cambridge, notes that projects are usually shorter in industry. "The research in industry is changing fast, [and] the research project will be immediately terminated when the company has ceased to be commercially interested in the project. This requires a high degree of flexibility compared to academia, where interesting research projects can be pursued just for their scientific merit."

Both Hobson and Boussard feel that biotech industrial research is much broader and diverse, with scientists interacting with a multidisciplinary team. Both also experienced the 'matrix' management structure, where each scientist works both under a line manager--a senior scientist who acts as a supervisor and career mentor--and a project manager who is in charge of the practical implementation of the project and of the project team. For young scientists this means that career development and research projects are in two different pairs of hands, while in academia the two roles of line and project managers are often assumed by a single person.

The Nature of Industrial Research

Scientists entering industry must realise that by its nature industrial research is focused on obtaining and rapidly commercialising research results. Most interviewees agree that one implication of this is that in industry, it is particularly important to reproduce results with high fidelity and to attain a good quantitative up-scalability of the research. This means that "more experiments are needed in industry," Hobson says.

Another implication is that "the research is fast changing," agree both Cellzome directors. "Every researcher should be flexible and not frustrated if a project is terminated for nonscientific reasons." This doesn't mean that scientists have no influence on research activities. "Scientists should come up with many ideas and we supervisors filter and shape them," says Ramsden.

All interviewees agree that teamwork is crucial, and so is the ability to adapt to a new team as scientists may be assigned to a new project, or be working on several different ones at once. This makes good communication skills and the willingness to follow common objectives all the more important.

Career Paths in the Biotech Industry

Typically, young scientists are recruited in industry for jobs that match their previous research experience in academia. The responsibilities taken by newly recruited scientists in the biotech industry depend on their degree and experience. Those who have completed academic postdocs often lead a small team in a research lab, while Ph.D. graduates may have one or two technicians working for them. M.Sc. graduates usually start with no supervisory responsibility, but some M.Sc. graduates have built up their own teams subsequently. Perraud emphasises that it is possible to gain experience through on-the-job and external training in order to qualify for new assignments with more or different responsibilities within the company.

Almost by definition, small-to-medium-sized companies have more potential for growth--and professional development--than larger companies. Von Gabain says that at Intercell AG, some young scientists have indeed developed new professional interests and new skills such as marketing, project management, and clinical research management. After a couple of years in the lab, they were able to move on to these new professional activities. Many corporate officers will consider the experience and know-how gained during a couple of successful years in industry as almost the equivalent of an MBA.


Powlett Smith recommends that young scientists prepare themselves for working in industry by learning about business and research commercialisation as early as possible. Commercial thinking, even in research, needs to be given more attention if a more mature industry is to be developed. However commercial knowledge per se is not required when interviewing for a research lab position, according to both Cellzome directors. There is a need for people moving toward the commercialisation end of the industry, but the required knowledge can come from experience. Finally, Boussard encourages young scientists "to contact people from biotech companies to learn more about their work. They are often open-minded and happy to present their work environment."

Perhaps Deep Throat's recommendation to "follow the money" should not be taken too literally here; there are many other factors in making a good career match. Yet it is clear that the main trigger for--and the ultimate objective of--all industrial activities is the generation of revenues. Young scientists have to become more aware of this fact and its implications and also be willing to learn about the commercialisation of new products and the related market if they are to play an important role in developing European biotech into a more mature industry.

The author is a consultant in industrial R&D based in Europe, who writes under the pen name Albert Michels.

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