Drug Discovery in New Jersey: An industry in flux, but still plenty of jobs for skilled PSM graduates

On Thursday December 3, leaders from pharmaceutical and biotechnology firms shared their views on industry trends and provided guidance to students in the program regarding how to shape successful careers in a period of rapid change. Dr. Matthew Sills and Dr.Michael Shakarjian led a panel of employers, including:  Dr. Solomon Babani, Global Vice President, Alliance Management, Covance; Dr. Clive Meanwell, Chief Executive Officer, The Medicines Company; Dr. Rene Belder, Vice President, Diabetes Development, Sanofi Pharmaceuticals; Dr. Elizabeth “Tibby” Posillico, President and Chief Executive Officer, Elusys Therapeutics; Dr. S. David Kimball, Associate Vice President, Research Commercialization Rutgers University, Office of Research and Economic Development.

Each panelist described their career pathway into their current positions, which varied significantly and which demonstrated the multiple aspects of the industry that can be explored from similar starting points. Several had begun in large pharmaceutical companies and had moved into fields ranging from start-ups in biotechnology, to venture capital, to academia. Others started out in small companies and moved to larger firms – and sometimes back again to smaller ones – over the course of their careers. Many moved through a variety of science and business related roles, as well. If they all shared one thing in common, it was an adventurous approach to their careers. Each panelist recalled seeking out new environments, looking for new places to learn, and, sometimes, being forced into this position by circumstances out of their control. Regardless of the cause, each adapted, again and again, to new cultures and roles in order to keep innovating, to keep producing work of which they could be proud.

When asked to discuss trends in the industry, panelists reflected on the challenges and opportunities posed by investors and investment firms. All agreed that Wall Street plays a large role in shaping decision-making in the industry. The demand for short-term profits for investors is leading to more consolidation of companies over time, as this can save in labor and other costs. However, this move toward bigness can sometimes work against the long-term interests of the industry as these firms consolidate and invest less in R&D. The trend appears to be that more R&D is moving into smaller biotech firms.  These companies take the initial risks, and then sell their successful clinical drug candidates to big pharma or are purchased by these larger companies when they are successful. 

Trends toward increased consolidation and de-investment in R&D among large life sciences companies stimulated a discussion among panelists about the value that can be derived from working in “Big Pharma” today. David Kimball noted that, “you will not learn as much today from a big pharmaceutical company as you will from a small firm.” Clive Meanwell pointed out that, “creativity occurs in small groups….[what matters for your professional development is] the Rule of 1, 7, and 70. One is you – what are your skills and strengths? Seven includes you and the 6 immediate people around you when you work– do you like them? Are they people who you can learn from and grow? The 70 are the mid-level bosses, your business unit in the company – what are the leaders like? Do they inspire confidence and creativity?” Getting to know your unit of 1, 7, and 70, and being comfortable and confident about them, is the key to success, regardless of where you work. Panelists agreed that Big Pharma can still provide an important training ground for new graduates. As long as the Rule of 1, 7, and 70 is satisfied, new workers can have access to a wide network of mentors and colleagues, and a “big picture” perspective of the regulatory and other aspects of the industry that is hard to replicate elsewhere. 

While change is inevitable when working in the drug discovery business, panelists described ups and downs as they adapted to new situations. Elizabeth “Tibby” Posillico did not want to work in a lab following her PhD. studies, so she joined a start-up so small they were “cooking antibodies in soup pots.” The ability to keep the pot going while learning other aspects of the business was exciting, but also exhausting, causing her to move to larger firms and to try out different roles, from scientist, to head of manufacturing, to therapeutic marketing, and business development, all before starting her own business. Rene Belder described the sometimes difficult transition from a large corporate environment to a small firm, where you may not have access to a library or “the nephrologist down the hall.” Others described the difficulties of adjusting to a new culture when a merger occurs, including one panelist who told of having to hide the operations manuals from the old company even though they were helpful to getting the current job done. 

Other discussion topics addressed by the panel included what unmet medical needs they saw taking precedence, how they see biologics affecting the patient market in the future and what factors are most influencing drug development today. Unmet needs, the panel agreed, are difficult to pin down. As Rene Belder said, “Unmet needs have to do with how much money society is willing to pay for a condition. Allergies are an unmet medical need for those who suffer and pay out of pocket for medicines. If society decided this was an unmet need, they could find the money for it.”  This challenge, as Sol Barbani and others pointed out, is one that often involves health economists.  These individuals analyze the costs and benefits of drugs and represent a growing job area in the industry, several noted. Biologics are also an important part of the marketplace, according to panelists, but there are important considerations of cost and regulation that limit their current growth. Biologics, according to Elizabeth “Tibby” Posillico, are safe, as they usually produce fewer side effects than small molecules due to their specificity, but they are also less flexible and costly to develop as a result. Here again, Sol Barbani pointed out, health economists could help to demonstrate how high short term costs can generate long term cost savings when investing in biologics solutions..

When addressing factors affecting drug development, David Kimball pointed out that, “More data is not always better.” He stated the importance of thinking first about the science and not mining data blindly. Instead, it is important to test hypotheses using data as a way to make new discoveries. Rene Belder also noted the importance of understanding your clients’ needs. It does not make sense to start looking in a direction that is of no interest to the client. Overall, a taste for ambiguity and risk is required to develop drugs successfully. There will be long stretches when you will not know if you will be successful or not, so it is important to work in teams, one panelist pointed out, as well as not to get “hung up” on problems. 

Overall, panelists described an industry marked by rapid and ongoing change, which requires those seeking careers to be adaptable, but which can offer a rich and exciting career to the skilled and eager young professional. Panelists noted that PSM students are uniquely prepared to enter a wide range of companies and roles in the drug development field, from regulatory and clinical trials work, to business development and marketing, to science and perhaps even the burgeoning new field of health economics. Having an in-depth understanding of the science, as well as the “big picture” understanding of business fundamentals can help PSM students secure exciting roles in small and large firms alike. Panelists offered career advice for students including, “Project a willingness to work.”; “Start with your strengths – not your weaknesses”; “Manage projects – put things together and make things happen” ; “You will have problems- we on this panel have collectively worked on more drugs that have failed than have worked – so you need to have a connection to the work.”; and “When you first start, find a mentor, someone who will teach you and let you make mistakes.”

Looking ahead, due to the number of skilled workers in New Jersey, panelists see New Jersey still maintaining strength in the advanced drug development R&D space. Others also predicted that New Jersey will continue to have a strong job market for the clinical trial, regulatory, and sales and marketing aspects of the drug development industry. While Boston and San Diego have captured large parts of the pharmaceutical R&D and biotech markets, some panelists saw this as a bubble that may burst, potentially sending many companies back to New Jersey for their R&D talent.