Issue Date: October 19, 2009
Rising To The Challenge
When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. That's what many companies are trying to do in this sour economy. In this year's profile of top companies to work for, C&EN highlights the efforts of several biotech companies that, despite their financial hardships, have remained committed to promoting a workplace culture that fosters creativity, builds teamwork, and gives back to the community. We identified these companies through a combination of 2009 "best companies" lists from Fortune, Working Mother, and The Scientist and, for the ones that didn't make the lists, by good- old-fashioned word of mouth.
Cambridge, Mass.-based biotech company Alkermes was founded in 1987 and is developing drugs for central nervous system disorders, addiction, and diabetes. Its current product line includes the drugs Risperdal Consta (risperidone) for the treatment of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder and Vivitrol (naltrexone for extended-release injectable suspension) for the treatment of alcohol dependence. The company experienced a major setback in March 2008, when its partner Eli Lilly & Co. discontinued a joint program to develop an inhaled insulin for diabetes (C&EN, March 17, 2008, page 9). Alkermes has since gone through restructuring and layoffs.
Despite these hardships, the company is committed to giving back to the community. In June, more than 200 Alkermes employees in Cambridge and more than 90 employees at the company's Wilmington, Ohio, location spent a morning volunteering at various locations around their communities. The events were part of a company-wide program called "Alkermes in Action," which is in its second year.
Blair Jackson, vice president of business development at Alkermes, helped build a goat pen at the Farrington Education Center, a 75-acre farm that provides inner-city children with opportunities to connect with the outdoors. "It was very rewarding," Jackson says of the volunteer project. "It's a chance to get out of your day-to-day thinking and to work with colleagues that you may not see on a daily basis."
Jen Schmitke, director of formulation development at Alkermes, spent the morning painting the rooms of a transitional housing unit. "It was fun," she says, noting that afterward, everyone returned to the office for a barbeque and shared photos from the day's events. "There was a lot of team building that day," she adds.
Last December, Alkermes' Cambridge employees traded their lavish holiday party at a hotel for a scaled-back celebration in the company's cafeteria. The company donated the money that was saved to the Greater Boston Food Bank, which in turn used the funds to prepare 1,900 meals of roast beef and turkey for the homeless. "I think that as an organization, we set a very good example," company spokeswoman Jennifer Snyder says.
Alkermes executives hope that by making a difference in the community, their employees will keep the company's goal of improving people's lives in focus. "While we can't spend every day giving back to the community, we can spend some of our time improving on the environment that we live in," Jackson says. "I think that's no different than what we do in our day-to-day jobs."
Like Alkermes, Lexicon Pharmaceuticals has had a challenging couple of years. After two rounds of restructuring, the company is hoping to turn the corner with several promising compounds in Phase IIa clinical studies, says Alan J. Main, executive vice president of pharmaceutical research.
Founded in 1995, Lexicon is a biopharmaceutical company that uses gene-knockout technology to identify new drug targets for a variety of human diseases. The company has its headquarters in The Woodlands, Texas, but its chemistry operations are housed at the company's 19-acre research facility in Princeton, N.J.
The company, which placed 24th in The Scientist's "Best Places To Work in Industry" list, thrives on its festive workplace culture, from its celebrations of research accomplishments to its Saturday paintball challenges that even the chief executive officer participates in. Employees' oil paintings, representing their latest accomplishments, adorn the company's walls.
But the real draw, according to research scientist Leonard Sung, who started working at Lexicon in July, is the value the company places on every employee—and the fact that everyone's opinion counts. During his job interview, Sung had to give a seminar in front of all the scientists at the Princeton site—around 55 people. Although he felt intimidated at first, it was "really nice to see everybody in the company in that room because everybody has a say in whether or not a person gets hired," Sung says. "That's one of the things I like about this company."
Once at Lexicon, scientists will find plenty of opportunities for professional growth. Senior Research Associate Kristen Terranova, who has a master's degree in organic chemistry, has taken advantage of the company's Industrial Associates program, having completed several graduate-level chemistry courses at Princeton University. Terranova, who started at Lexicon in 2004, says the courses helped her stay current with advances in modern synthetic chemistry.
Compared with other biotech companies, Cambridge, Mass.-based Alnylam Pharmaceuticals has been fortunate during this recession. "To put it frankly, we have cash in the bank," says Lubomir Nechev, senior director of process chemistry. "I don't think people fear for their positions. We've actually picked up people who have been laid off by our neighbors."
The company has been steadily climbing The Scientist's best companies list, placing seventh in this year's rankings. Since its founding in 2002, the firm has become a leader in the development of drugs based on RNA interference technology (C&EN, Sept. 7, page 18). Alnylam has grown from 12 employees to having nearly 200 today. Roughly 50 chemists work at the company's 100,000-sq-ft research facility in Cambridge.
Employees describe Alnylam's culture as one that fosters creativity and innovation. The company encourages its employees to use 20% of their work time on projects of their own choosing. This concept has been used by companies such as Google and 3M to inspire creativity among their employees. "I think what you really need if you want to be innovative is to give people some room to play," says Martin Maier, director of drug discovery at Alnylam.
Muthiah Manoharan, vice president of drug discovery, used his 20% to explore his ideas on microRNA. The work that he and his team did on silencing microRNA resulted in a publication in Nature, a patent, and the launch in 2007 of Regulus Therapeutics, which was founded by Alnylam and Isis Pharmaceuticals. "That was a bigger outcome than I could have imagined," Manoharan says.
Smaller start-up companies, such as Waltham, Mass.-based Avila Therapeutics and Lexington, Mass.-based Concert Pharmaceuticals, are also gaining visibility during this recession. "It used to be that people were concerned about working for small start-ups, but given the way that the industry is and the economy as a whole, there's just as much worry about working for a big company," says Andy Jones, senior director of chemistry, manufacturing, and controls at Concert.
Founded in 2006, Concert is applying deuterium chemistry to develop new drugs. The company treats its 44 employees to breakfast twice a week to give them an opportunity to come in early and socialize with their colleagues. "The intent is to create an environment that is friendly, conducive, collegial, and high performance," founder and CEO Roger Tung says. The company currently employs 11 chemists.
Avila launched in 2007 and now employs 27 people, nine of whom are chemists. The company has grown so quickly that cofounder and Chief Scientific Officer Juswinder Singh decided to create a culture club, which meets once a month to discuss ways to nurture a good workplace environment. "We realized that it would be really good to tap into the employees in the organization and use the club as a way to improve communication and to influence the culture in the organization," he says.
The company also hosts a "bonding hour" once a month with different themes. At one of these events, Singh showed up dressed as James Bond. "Everybody got a kick out of that," he says. "We're a start-up company. Fun, creativity, and innovation are core components to what we're doing."
As the economy begins to turn around, companies like Alkermes, Lexicon, Alnylam, Concert, and Avila will be better prepared than ever to welcome new employees into their workplace culture.
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