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Top Employer survey: The innovation imperative

This Advertising Feature has been commissioned, edited, and produced by the Science/AAAS Custom Publishing Office

The 2007 version of Science ’s annual survey of Top Employers features a tight race for first place among three companies. It also reveals the key ingredient for all successful employers: a commitment to innovative thinking throughout the product pipeline, from the laboratory to the clinic or marketplace.

For the first time in its six years of existence, Science’s survey of Top Employers in the biotechnology, biopharmaceutical, pharmaceutical, and related industries has produced a winner not named Genentech. In a desperately close contest, last year’s No. 2, Germany-based Boehringer Ingelheim, just beat out Genentech and another California biopharma, Amgen. This year’s survey also marked the arrival in the top 10 employers of two firms from beyond the traditional biotech/biopharma/pharmaceutical cluster: chemical giant DuPont and agricultural company Monsanto.

Constant themes

The lineup of the top employers may have changed, but the themes that underpin their success remain largely constant. Respondents to the survey highlighted the critical importance of innovation. “It’s important to have a strong commitment to research and innovation as a driver for producing new and better medicine for patients and for our own growth,” says Mikael Dolsten, executive vice president, and head of wordwide pharma research, at Boehringer Ingelheim. Equally important is the ability to develop genuinely new—rather than me-too—drugs and other products. “With all our medications, we’re attempting to develop an understanding of the mechanism of the disease and an understanding of which patients will respond, so that we can treat those patients who will respond and not those who won’t,” comments Richard Scheller, executive vice president of research for Genentech. Adds Roger Perlmutter, Amgen’s executive vice president for research and development: “We use science and innovation to drive advances in medicine.”

Survey takers like—and representatives of top 10 companies—agree that the challenge of addressing unmet medical needs also plays a strong role in the perception of companies by potential employees and other outsiders. So does the flexibility and nimbleness that arrive when even the largest corporations encourage small-firm behavior. “We are succeeding by behaving like a small company within a big company,” explains Thomas Koestler, executive vice president at Schering-Plough and president of the Schering-Plough Research Institute.

Respondents reported mixed feelings about their business. Issues such as drug recalls and failures of promising molecules in the late stages of clinical trials have continued to besmirch the industry’s reputation. On the other hand, the emergence of new products such as drugs for cancer, HIV/AIDS, and rare diseases, as well as progress in stem cell research, are strong positives in the industry’s favor. Nevertheless, almost a third of participants said that it was at least fairly likely that they would seek a new job within a year.

Two groups of respondents

Commissioned by Science’s Business Office, Senn-Delaney Culture Diagnostics & Measurement carried out the web-based survey between May 2 and June 6. This year the study involved an expanded group of respondents. In addition to AAAS members, registrants with, and visitors to the Science website who had registered with AAAS, for the first time Senn-Delaney added a second tranche of survey takers, obtained via an e-mail blast to 968 human resources contacts in industry drawn from the AAAS sales database. The traditional list yielded 839 respondents, while the e-mail blast produced 2,318 more, for a total of 3,157. More details on the demographics of the respondents can be seen in the PDF titled Demographics.

Top 20 Employers

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The survey asked each participant to list the companies that she or he regarded as the best, average, and worst employers in the biotechnology, biopharmaceutical, pharmaceutical, and related fields. Individuals were allowed to vote for their own companies; in fact 63 percent of participants work for the employers that they regarded as best. Respondents then rated the companies that they had chosen on 23 driving characteristics, such as financial strength, easy adaptation to change, and a research-driven environment. To categorize companies on the basis of that information, Senn-Delaney used a statistical process that included frequency analysis, stepwise regression, and discriminant analysis. That resulted in a unique ranking score for each company rated. Only those companies rated by at least 20 respondents qualified for inclusion in the survey.

Three tiers in the top 10

The top 10 companies occupy three tiers, based on their scores. In the top tier, separated by a hair’s breadth with ranking scores between 90 and 100, are Boehringer Ingelheim, Genentech, and Amgen. Standing alone in the second tier, with a ranking score in the 80s, is fourth-placed Schering-Plough. And rounding out the top ten, scoring in the 70s, Genzyme, Novartis, DuPont, Monsanto, AstraZeneca, and Johnson & Johnson occupy the third tier.

The six most important driving characteristics, as judged by survey participants, changed from those of 2006 in only one respect. Doing important quality research replaced having a clear vision toward the future in sixth place. Being an innovative leader in the industry continued as the most important driver, followed by treating employees with respecthaving work culture values aligned with personal valueshaving loyal employees; and being socially responsible.

Inevitably, the leading employers scored well on those key drivers. Respondents gave Boehringer Ingelheim and Amgen extremely high ratings on each of the six. Genentech scored top grades on innovative leadership, important quality research, and the loyalty of its employees. And Schering-Plough won plaudits for the quality of its research and social responsibility.


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No overnight success

The top employers haven’t earned their reputations overnight. “Our process started in the early 1990s, when we developed a corporate vision of how we would establish an environment in which people would work well together,” explains Hans-Joachim Geppert, head of corporate division human resources at Boehringer Ingelheim, which has improved from eighth place in 2005. “Then in 2004 we reloaded, with a concept that we call Lead & Learn. This outlines ways in which we can deliver our corporate vision of Value through Innovation.

Schering-Plough’s Koestler attributes his company’s rise from 17th place last year to a six- to eight-year plan laid out by newly arrived CEO Fred Hassan in 2003. A change in name and mission five years ago helped Wyeth to break into the top 20 in 2005 and to maintain its position there since. And the arrival of a new CEO helped Millennium Pharmaceuticals to regain the place in this year’s top 20 that it had lost in 2006.

Maintaining high placement also requires a vision for the future. “It all starts with our mission, our aspiration, and our values, which are very clear to our employees and anyone who seeks a position here,” says Amgen’s Perlmutter. “We have a very strong commitment to getting the best people in the world and putting them into a system in which their performance is enhanced,” says Jeffrey Elton, senior vice president of strategy and global chief operating officer of the Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research.

Ideas and initiatives

Recruiting the right people, inculcating them with the corporation’s values, providing them with scientific challenges, and including them in discussion of the company’s goals have played major roles in Boehringer Ingelheim’s success. “We encourage everybody to come up with ideas and initiatives,” Geppert explains. “To be successful, you need a long-term strategy; you have to convince people that you stay with your principles and your ethics.”

Dolsten echoes those points. “We have been able to show over many years how we build on long-lasting core principles and deliver by efficiently translating advances in basic science into new medicines,” he says. “This continuity operates in a climate of continuous improvements in which we provide ourselves with challenges. We count on our people to contribute and grow together. In R&D we aim to have a dialogue with our associates as to where we are heading and what our key drivers are.” That type of dialogue extends to the company as a whole. “It’s not a top-down process,” Geppert says. “In a strong science-driven industry in which people have such personal passion, devoting most of their lives to creating new medicines, they need to feel that they can trust the core principles, to build something that lasts beyond a year or two.”

Quid pro quo

Trust in its employees earns the company a quid pro quo in terms of loyalty. “The average time our employees stay with us is almost 13 years,” Geppert points out. “It’s not unusual for some to celebrate their 25th and even their 40th year with us.” Indeed, the company relies on internal promotions to fill 80 percent of its key positions worldwide. “This isn’t a primary goal, but we feel very comfortable with it,” Geppert says. “It shows that we want to give the majority of our people internal options while we like to bring in fresh blood.”

That approach, combined with Lead & Learn principles, started three years ago, has paid dividends internally and externally. “Our emphasis on values through innovation has had a strong fingerprint,” Dolsten notes. “Employees appreciate the company’s commitment to provide drugs that make a true difference to patients.” And in the past year, he continues, “candidates for jobs from other companies have been very interested in learning about Boehringer Ingelheim. People have actively contacted us to learn what we stand for and about our pipeline of new drugs. Senior scientists have even been prepared to make lateral moves to join us.”

Equally attractive to current and would-be employees, Boehringer Ingelheim’s management aims for nimbleness in its operations. “We have the critical mass and resources to discover new innovative drugs and, at the same time, we strive to be a simple, efficient organization,” Dolsten says.

Continuing success

Genentech continues to rely on the formulae that have made it so successful in the past. “We stick with the science,” Scheller says. “We have not made any changes in our general philosophy of following scientific innovation in an attempt to develop novel, breakthrough medicines to improve and extend people’s lives. Our approach produces new insights into basic biology. I moved here six years ago because biomedical research had allowed us to think about disease in very mechanistic terms and the rationality of the design of medications to treat diseases. The pipeline of Genentech has grown tremendously. Some of the molecules invented on my watch have already moved into phase 2 clinical trials.”

The company prides itself on its ability to combine the best of academic and industrial research environments. “I talk of myself as a human experimental biologist,” Scheller continues. “That can only be done in industry because of the complexity and cost of doing the work. So much of what you learn depends on how you ask the questions; we are asking the questions a little differently from the academics who study mouse models.”

Genentech challenges its scientists in both basic science and biomedical research. “People respond to our balance of basic and translational research,” Scheller continues. “Our postdoctoral program continues to be strong, and to make fundamental discoveries that the postdocs can publish. Some of the research turns out to be translationally important and medically important. We feel it’s extremely important to contribute to the general knowledge of basic science.”

An ambivalent advance

Such knowledge led to a significant medical advance last year. It took the form of a molecule that might attack the wet form of macular degeneration—a major cause of blindness in older individuals—without causing unpleasant side effects. “We did a long series of studies with thousands of patients and showed that this medication, Lucentis, actually reduced wet macular degeneration,” Scheller recalls. “The company is really, really proud of this discovery. People work here because of things like that.”

Not every good deed goes unpunished in the biopharmaceutical world, however. Ophthalmologists had found that Avastin, a Genentech cancer drug, could also modify wet macular degeneration when injected into the eye. Critics complained that the company priced Lucentis at a significantly higher rate than Avastin and prevented Avastin’s use in the eye. However, Scheller says, “There have been no clinical studies to demonstrate that Avastin is safe for optical use. It’s not manufactured to the standards that the US Food and Drug Administration requires for use in the eye.”

Driving Characteristics of Top Employers

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Encounter with controversy

Amgen had its own encounter with controversy during the past year. The company has faced challenges to its anemia franchise, including safety concerns that triggered regulatory changes to its Aranesp (darbepoetin alfa) and EPOGEN (Epoetin alfa) labels. Perlmutter sees plenty of positives in the fact that Amgen nevertheless maintained its position in the top five. “In face of the challenges related to some of our products, we emphasize our commitment to patient safety and to scientific research, knowing that the truth will emerge despite economic and marketplace challenges,” he says. “Employees take comfort from the fact that everyone here—including those at the top of the house—is committed to patient safety.”

Like Boehringer Ingelheim and Genentech, the number three company puts strong emphasis on innovation. “We are first and foremost science-based. We started with basic research and have emphasized it throughout our history. Our mission is to serve patients and our aspiration is to do that better than anyone has done before. So our commitment to innovative research is very clear,” Perlmutter says. “We also try to provide an environment in which staff members feel empowered. In R&D, we encourage personal and scientific growth; we have a scientific career track for those who want to stay close to the lab and a managerial path for those who want to get more involved in those areas. We pay a lot of attention to leadership attributes. And we offer an enormously competitive benefits package. This year, for example, we added a second paid week’s shutdown, in July as well as December. That reinforces our commitment to our employees’ well-being.”

Moving up the table

Echoing Boehringer Ingelheim, Schering-Plough has moved rapidly up the table as a result of a fresh management initiative and success in behaving like a small company within a large company. “A key component of our strategic plan has been to make long-term investments in science and technology, and to stress scientific excellence. This is demonstrated by our substantial growth in R&D investment between 2003 and 2007,” Koestler says. “We are advancing and strengthening our pipeline. Across the organization we are delivering high performance, at a time when many of our industry peers are having issues and in some cases downsizing their work forces.”

As in other companies in the top ten, Schering-Plough’s commitment to innovation starts at the top. “Our emphasis on science excellence is reflected in the top management’s focus on science, and that goes all the way to the CEO,” Koestler says. “Customer-centered product flow—our cross-functional process for translating that science into medicines—is identified as the core work process of the company, and it has the direct engagement of the CEO.”

The new emphasis has already led to the discovery of Zetia, which Koestler describes as “the first new class of cholesterol product in two decades.” And a company survey last year reflected a significant improvement in morale as the firm turned around. “Our people are aligned and convergent on our strategy, our direction, and what we need to do to succeed,” Koestler concludes.

Reward for consistency

Novartis attributes its consistently high position in the annual surveys to a constant approach to drug discovery. “A couple of notions pop out more than others,” Elton says. “As the first, Novartis overall and the Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research have the commitment to focus on the unmet needs of patients. That’s how we design our portfolio; it’s not present value or market size, but understanding patients’ needs. All our colleagues want to be part of an organization for which that is a primary motivation. The second area involves being an innovator—having unique insights, making them practical, and translating them into a therapeutic approach.”

Like other top companies, the firm believes in challenging its scientists. “There’s a very strong emphasis on talent models,” Elton continues, “and we take [into account] the opinions of all our associates.”

The pharmaceutical firm has also developed new approaches to drug discovery. “When the Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research was first founded, we set up a model that would make biology more rational by understanding the molecular pathways of disease,” Elton says. “We have also expanded the number of therapeutic modalities we pursue. Twenty-five percent of our pipeline is now in biologics.”

Two newcomers

Two of the newcomers to the top 10 focus on biotechnology beyond the pharmaceutical arena. “We have made a very strong commitment to the food and value chain—to ‘green biotech,’ says Uma Chowdhry, senior vice president and chief science and technology officer for DuPont. “We’re also committed to ‘white biotech, the application of biotechnology to industrial production.’ We’re now looking at the world of biology and asking how to use our tools to make a more sustainable world with a focus on biofuels and renewable materials, for example.” Monsanto, meanwhile, “has been dedicated to being a leader in innovation, particularly in agriculture,” says vice president of biotechnology Steve Padgette. “We invested heavily in biotechnology. Now we’re delivering products to customers.”

DuPont’s basic principles mirror those of other members of the top ten employers. “Because of our tradition of innovation via science,” Chowdhry says, “we have successfully transformed our science into successful products for our customers.” Staffers appreciate that. “Most employees in R&D stay here because of the caliber of our people and the quality of our science that is committed to improving people’s lives,” she continues.

Monsanto works on similar principles. “We’re very much a technology-driven company,” Padgette says. “We have been dedicated to being leaders in innovation, particularly in agriculture. For several years we invested heavily in biotechnology.” Research plays a critical role in the company’s mission. “We spend about 10 percent of our sales on R&D,” Padgette continues. “We have a real commitment from our senior executives not only to support our R&D but also to make sure that we have a really great place for all our employees. We have this nice balance between long-term science investment and product focus.”

The company puts in plenty of effort to encourage its researchers. “Publications and peer review are very much encouraged,” Padgette continues. “We have a nice set of internal rewards for innovation and progress that recognize scientists for their quality research. We’re also team oriented. It’s a good environment for scientists to collaborate in.”

Fresh blood

The arrival of fresh blood in the corner office helped to reverse a decline in the perception of Millennium Pharmaceuticals. Last year, the biopharmaceutical company dropped out of the top 20 employers. This year, under new chief executive officer Deborah Dunsire, it has returned to 13th place. “Under her leadership we’ve really managed to craft essentially a new company, with a different outlook on the future and a different outlook about ourselves,” says chief scientific officer Joseph Bolen. “Deborah has overhauled the entire commercial situation and got it on track. And we have focused the entire R&D organization—our most important asset. In research, the productivity is finally living up to what the expectations have been for a long time.”

Like other top employers, Millennium focuses its productivity on authentically new molecules. In particular, the company has developed expertise in protein homeostasis, a new and emerging area of biology. “We don’t have any me-toos. So we’re doing what we said we would do,” Bolen says. “For a company our size to have 10 different molecules in clinical trials is quite unusual.”

Millennium is proud of its close relationship with its scientists and other staffers. “If you believe that people are the most important asset, you treat them like family,” Bolen explains. “We have about 200 discovery scientists. When we have our quarterly reviews, we call them family meetings.”

Change of name

Wyeth has also benefited from an improved reputation that followed a change—in this case the replacement of the name American Home Products with Wyeth, and the company’s decision to concentrate on pharmaceuticals. “The perception of Wyeth as a strong science-driven pharmaceutical company is gaining ground and is a genuine transformation,” says Frank Walsh, vice president and head of discovery research. “From the CEO downwards, there’s a commitment to the belief that basic research will deliver the medicines of tomorrow. Our drug discovery organization has been spectacularly successful. Over the past five years we have put more than 60 molecules into clinical development.”

Those successes have had a positive impact on recruitment. “People who choose to join us know that they will be working on innovative science, not more me-too research,” Walsh points out. “We are very vigorous in choosing our leaders of drug discovery; all of the leaders are outstanding, well published scientists in their own right. And we have a very clear idea of where we want to be in the future: the best drug discovery organization in the business."

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Positive and negative perceptions

In addition to determining top employers, the survey gave respondents the opportunity to voice their thoughts about the industry as a whole and their places in it. It asked them to name recent events with the greatest impact on the industry’s reputation, to suggest actions that could improve that reputation, and the advantages and disadvantages of working in the industry.

Like last year, respondents pinpointed two continuing controversies as the main causes of negative perceptions of the industry. First came drug recalls and the medical and legal issues surrounding drugs such as Vioxx that had been approved for sale and then had proved fallible. Failures in clinical trials, most notably the organ failures caused by the immunosuppressive drug candidate TGN1412, contributed their own negative sentiment. Other issues included the cost of medications and healthcare and changes in the industry, such as acquisitions, mergers, downsizing, and outsourcing.

Again echoing last year’s survey, respondents saw plenty of reasons to applaud the industry. New products and developments, such as new drugs for cancer, fresh therapies for rare diseases, progress in medications for HIV/AIDS, and advances in stem cell research had the greatest positive impact.

What should companies do to improve their own and the industry’s reputation? Respondents’ most common advice: Be honest, ethical, and more accountable, and educate and communicate with the public. That means admitting mistakes, answering tough questions, being forthcoming and open, increasing transparency, and earning the public’s trust. Other actions recommended by respondents include showing social and environmental responsibility—by doing charity work, for example; fostering more collaborative research and funding more research; controlling costs and lowering drug prices; and demonstrating a commitment to safety.

Prescriptions for improvement

Several companies have already taken actions in line with those recommendations. “We go to great lengths to ensure that patients who need our medications get our medications,” Genentech’s Scheller says. “We also spend a lot of time monitoring the safety of our marketed products.” Amgen offers its own assurances. “We’re doing a lot of work to improve clinical trial design and to improve the way drugs are discovered and developed,” Perlmutter says. “We’ve talked the talk and we also walk the walk.”

Novartis has developed two ways to overcome negative perceptions. One involves an altruistic focus on diseases that are common in the Third World, such as malaria, leprosy, and tuberculosis. “Our Institute for Tropical Diseases in Singapore is not allowed to make a profit,” Elton notes. And to deal with the issue of business conduct, he continues, “We have a global business practice office that is focused on ensuring that the highest standards in business practice are maintained. Anyone can submit a report to it.”

Schering-Plough takes a two-pronged approach to ensuring a favorable perception by outsiders. “On the scientific level, we believe in evaluating risk in our discovery and development program early and continually,” Koestler says. “This should lead to lower late-stage failure rates. It is about focusing on the pipeline, the science, and our people, and building quality into our molecules at the source.” Koestler also emphasizes a particular facet of improving corporate reputations. “We were leaders in getting Medicare part D legislation enacted, we have formidable patient assistance programs, and we’re embarking on our social action plan,” he says. “It is very important that we maintain our sense of humility while recognizing the importance of our contributions to improving the quality of human life.”

Alleviating public concerns

DuPont and Monsanto face the task of alleviating the public’s concerns about new nonmedical products, notably genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Before it introduces new products, DuPont prepares the market for them. “We go out before the issue gets to a fever pitch, talking to governments and nongovernmental organizations to explain our view,” Chowdhry explains. “We proactively think about scenarios the public would be concerned about and make sure that we communicate clearly what it is we are doing and why we are doing it, and that it’s the public good that is always the goal.”

Monsanto thinks along the same lines. “We have really focused on the safety of our biotech crops, growing on more than a billion acres,” Padgette says. “We focus on vigorous quality control and assessments all the way through the pipeline.”

Survey takers’ ambivalence toward the biopharma/biotech industry extends to their personal places in it. The main advantages of working in the industry, they say, include the opportunity to have an impact on the world by developing life-saving drugs and helping patients to live better lives. High pay and benefits, opportunities for personal growth in a future-oriented industry with reliable funding, and job security also feature as benefits of employment by companies in the field. On the other hand, respondents see the industry’s negative public image as a major liability. That image, they say, has led to a loss of credibility, a low public opinion, and a perception that they are members of an untrustworthy industry.

The job seekers

The decline in the industry’s reputation probably accounts for the fact that almost one-third of the respondents report that, within the next year, it’s at least fairly likely that they will seek a different job. They give two main reasons: the desire for new challenges and experiences, sometimes in a new or different field; and a wish for career advancement, with the opportunity for professional growth. Other reasons include the impending end of a contract, the search for better salary and benefits, the ambition to take on a management role, distress at a change in corporate direction, stress in the workplace, and strictly personal issues such as location and family reasons.

The top employers report far lower levels of job seeking among their employees. “The turnover rate in research and in Genentech as a whole is nowhere near to the 31 percent ballpark,” Scheller says. That situation stems in large measure from the employers’ conscious efforts to keep their scientists and other staffers content.

Life science corporations have devised several ways to achieve that goal. “We have built child care centers and work with local organizations to help work-life situations,” says Boehringer Ingelheim’s Geppert. “We have also increased the number of short-term international assignments to develop our capabilities. These enrich employees’ abilities to make a career at Boehringer Ingelheim.” Schering-Plough takes a similar line. “We will continue to invest in our talent management systems to ensure that our people know we are serious about their personal and professional growth and development, and that their achievements will be rewarded and recognized,” Koestler says.

Challenging problems

High salaries and other benefits provide obvious appeal to employees. However, the main stimuli for a dedicated scientific work force are challenging problems, top-notch colleagues, and the ability to disseminate their findings. “We have developed an outstanding scientific environment,” says Wyeth’s Walsh. “We demand that our scientists publish their research and attend appropriate scientific conferences to present their research. And we have very extensive collaborations with academics.”

A comforting yet challenging environment also serves to maintain scientists’ enthusiasm. “We have a veteran group that’s worked here together for many years,” Millennium’s Bolen says. “If you’re part of a family, it’s hard to leave.” In general, adds Amgen’s Perlmutter, “People come to companies in the sciences because they’re excited about what they see in the science, and they leave because they become convinced that they can’t contribute at the level they would like.”

Hence the ultimate secret of top employers is their ability to set tough goals and give scientists the tools to attain them. “As long as people believe that the options they have here and the teams they work with are the best, they’ll stay to make Novartis a company that makes people proud to come to work for every day,” Elton says. “We try to keep the challenges high and the understanding high,” Monsanto’s Padgette adds, “so that our people can be excited at the contributions they’re making to the marketplace.” Walsh summarizes the approach to retaining talent. “We have a very empowered scientific environment,” he says, “in which scientists can make decisions and genuinely direct their science.”

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