Pharmaceutical Diaspora | April 16, 2007 Issue - Vol. 85 Issue 16 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 85 Issue 16 | pp. 27-30
Issue Date: April 16, 2007

Pharmaceutical Diaspora

Highly experienced Bayer chemists encounter challenging job market
Department: Business
Ghost Town
Pharmaceutical research at Bayer's West Haven site ended in January.
Credit: Russ McCreven
Ghost Town
Pharmaceutical research at Bayer's West Haven site ended in January.
Credit: Russ McCreven

AT A RECENT RECRUITING EVENT in Boston, a highly respected scientist with decades of experience in drug discovery stood alongside graduate students ready to embark on careers. He was not there to screen the eager candidates or offer any advice. Like the grad students, he was waiting to hand over his résumé.

It's a situation that a person starting out in chemistry a decade or more ago never would have expected to encounter. But as the pharmaceutical industry restructures and consolidates, the scenario is becoming disturbingly common. To drug industry chemists, the anecdote is just more evidence that the days in which an accomplished scientist could find stability within the walls of big pharma are over.

The gentleman at the job fair was one of the many researchers put out of work by the closure of Bayer's R&D campus in West Haven, Conn. Early last November, the German company announced it would shut down the site, which also served as its North American headquarters, effectively displacing some 300 researchers. The labs were largely cleared out by the end of January.

West Haven is just one of many U.S. pharmaceutical R&D and production sites that in recent years have been significantly scaled back or shut down altogether. This year has brought a fresh round of cutbacks. Intent on eliminating 10,000 jobs worldwide, Pfizer announced the closure of three research sites in Michigan and manufacturing facilities in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Omaha, Neb. Abbott Laboratories laid off 200 employees, mostly scientists working at its Lake County, Ill., site, and AstraZeneca began trimming 3,000 jobs from its manufacturing network.

To better understand the trend, C&EN followed the stories of several chemists affected by the closure of Bayer's West Haven facility. The idea was to learn, through personal accounts, what the job market is like for displaced chemists, particularly ones with a great deal of experience in the drug industry.

The West Haven decision didn't come as a total surprise. When Bayer announced its acquisition of rival German drugmaker Schering last year, it said frankly that big job cuts were in the works worldwide. Indeed, Bayer is now slashing 10% of the roughly 60,000 people employed by the combined firm. The West Haven campus and Schering's Berlex research facility in Richmond, Calif., were the first of many to go.

Furthermore, earlier cutbacks in West Haven had left the site operating at less than full capacity. Just four years ago, the site boasted more than 2,000 employees; by the time the November layoffs were announced, only about 800 people worked across its campus of 17 steel-frame and stone buildings. The chemistry R&D building where those interviewed for this article had worked was the specific target of layoffs in 2004, and Bayer trimmed the head count again last summer after it decided to discontinue diabetes research at the site.

Cutbacks At U.S. R&D Sites

February 2006: Procter & Gamble drops discovery-phase R&D, costing 300 scientific jobs at its Mason, Ohio, site.

February 2006: Johnson & Johnson closes its Raritan, N.J., drug discovery unit, which employed 280 people.

June 2006: Johnson & Johnson closes its Freemont, Calif., biopharmaceutical operations, affecting 500 jobs.

November 2006: Bayer closes R&D sites in West Haven, Conn., and Richmond, Calif., affecting 600 scientists.

January 2007: Pfizer shutters three R&D sites in Michigan as part of a plan to cut 10,000 jobs globally.

February 2007: Abbott Laboratories cuts 200 jobs, primarily scientists working at its Lake County, Ill., facility.

SOURCE: Company information

While some employees were concerned about the fate of the overall site, others continued to believe in a chance it would be kept in the fold. Bayer had opened the chemistry research unit in 2001 at a cost of $53 million, and many researchers doubted the company would abandon such a state-of-the-art facility. In addition, the state of Connecticut was eager to keep West Haven's highest taxpayer; it offered the company some $60 million in financial assistance to prevent the closure.

Another argument in favor of the site was its productivity. As Bayer's oncology hub in the U.S., the site was central to the discovery and development work on Nexavar, a kidney cancer drug licensed to Onyx Pharmaceuticals. Approved in late 2005, the drug reaped $160 million in sales in 2006, and analysts expect it to bring in nearly $300 million this year.

Whether or not they were surprised by the closure, most of the chemists C&EN interviewed see the move as a sign of a changed industry. When many of them started out in pharmaceutical research more than a decade ago, it was with a relatively strong sense of job security and stability. Now, they are concerned about the shift in some lab work, particularly synthesis, to lower cost regions of the world, and they are surprised at how challenging it has been for the most experienced scientists to find work.

"I went into chemistry because I thought this was something that offered security—there's always going to be a need for medicine, always a need for research," says Richard Kramss, who worked at the West Haven site for more than 12 years.

Now, some chemists are worried that companies want manpower more than brainpower. "Everybody needs hands to synthesize compounds. There's just not so much demand for people to come up with ideas or to manage other people, and this limited need is mainly covered by internal personnel development and promotions rather than through external hiring," says Joachim Rudolph, a German native who did his postdoc with K. Barry Sharpless at Scripps Research Insitute. He joined Bayer's central research division in Germany in 1997 and has spent the past five years in West Haven.

Indeed, as they set out in their job search, the West Haven scientists have found that vast experience can be a liability rather than an asset.

Chemists with bachelor's or master's degrees, particularly those not long out of school, have had an easier time finding jobs compared with the more experienced ones. In fact, many of these chemists had multiple job offers to choose from and were able to stay in the Connecticut area. For example, Bristol-Myers Squibb absorbed a number of them at its Wallingford, Conn., facility and is interviewing other candidates, says a Bristol-Myers spokesman.

For Rudolph, a medicinal chemist, the situation was driven home in the early phases of his job search when he was going to job fairs or talking to headhunters. "I think the hardest part was when I talked to headhunters or with other companies and realized that experience is actually not something they necessarily are looking for," he says. "I think they really need people who can produce compounds."

"Hands are very transferable," agrees a researcher who asked to remain unnamed. A victim of the Bayer layoffs last summer, he says the bachelor's and master's scientists who were let go in that round also had an easy time transitioning to other positions.

This notion of "hands over brains" was echoed throughout the interviews. It appears that the most experienced—and highly paid—scientists, regardless of education, have had the most trouble finding jobs.

"Because the pharmaceutical world is in contraction right now, it makes it very difficult," Rudolph says. People with 15 or more years of experience are having the hardest time, he adds, and many from West Haven who fall into that category still don't have jobs. "Some are even considering taking off parts of their CVs to look less experienced," he notes.

Credit: Courtesy of Derek Lowe
Credit: Courtesy of Derek Lowe

The problem of too much experience is most acute for the senior-level investigators who are at the top rungs of the drug discovery ladder. Derek Lowe, for example, has worked in discovery for nearly 20 years, starting out at Schering-Plough in New Jersey in 1989 and moving to Bayer in 1997. Five months after the announcement of the West Haven closure, he has yet to find a job.

As is true for many of the researchers C&EN interviewed, Lowe's search is complicated by geography: He is keen to stay near West Haven. Though traces of his native Arkansas are still detectable in Lowe's slight southern drawl, his family is now firmly rooted in Connecticut. He is casting a net across the Northeast, but his job search is primarily focused on "all the opportunities I can find that don't involve moving vans," he says.

Yet he readily admits that his options in Connecticut are limited. The only major drug companies with research divisions in the immediate area are Pfizer, BristolMyers, and Boehringer Ingelheim. And the handful of small biopharmaceutical companies in the state can absorb only so many scientists.

There is some hope that positions will open up at Pfizer's R&D headquarters in Groton, Conn., once the company's Michigan restructuring is complete. Researchers from Michigan who don't want to relocate to Connecticut could create opportunities for others outside of the company.

Further narrowing his possibilities, Lowe is also committed to staying in drug discovery. He points out that several of his former colleagues have left basic research and transitioned into drug development work, in some cases because those jobs were more readily available.

In a twist, Lowe has had some help in his job hunt from an unusual source: his blog. Readers of the well-read and well-respected "In the Pipeline," where for the past five years Lowe has written about everything from pharmaceutical news to the smell of common lab solvents, have come forward with leads that he otherwise might not have known about.

The Internet age is helping Lowe, but Kramss is finding it has its drawbacks. "There's no human connection of any sort" when reaching out to potential employers through online job postings, he laments. "It has become so impersonal now that all you are is a PDF or a Word document, end of story."

DEEP EXPERIENCE seems to be working against Kramss as well. After many of his non-Ph.D. colleagues had been quickly snapped up by local firms, Kramss, with more than 20 years of experience in process and medicinal chemistry, is still waiting. He has a bachelor's in chemistry from Indiana University, Bloomington, but by the time of the layoffs he had become a junior-level investigator, a title associated with newly minted Ph.D.s.

Kramss is concerned that recruiters may perceive him as too expensive and too set in his ways after so many years in the industry. And he's often not able to get a foot in the door to explain the contrary, because companies now expect candidates to apply online, even after an initial meeting at a job fair.

Though Kramss continues to look for positions in drug discovery and development—a lead recently materialized at a biotech firm—he is also studying regulatory affairs as a backup plan.

Some of the more experienced researchers, already facing a limited market at their skill level, are doubly challenged because their spouses also worked at West Haven.

Rudolph, for example, initially intended to stay on the East Coast because his wife also worked for Bayer, in a nonresearch capacity. When finding a local job proved challenging, he broadened his search to the West Coast, in part to tap into a network of contacts from his years at Scripps. In the end, he was able to secure a medicinal chemistry position at Genentech's South San Francisco labs, where the company is rapidly expanding its chemistry research activities (C&EN, Oct. 30, 2006, page 14).

In an even more challenging turn, the researcher who was let go as part of the June 2006 layoffs is married to another Bayer scientist. "Given that we were looking for two research positions, we needed to go to a place with a high density of companies," he says.

A NUMBER of others are in the same boat. One, for example, managed to land a job in Indiana at Eli Lilly & Co. while his wife was still working in New Haven. "People either have relocated and abandoned everything in Connecticut, or they are still leading this dual life," the researcher adds. He recently started a job at a big drug company in the Boston area.

Credit: Courtesy of Uday Khire
Credit: Courtesy of Uday Khire

For others, the layoffs provided the push to head in an entirely new direction. Uday Khire, a medicinal chemist, has started his own contract research organization, called Cheminpharma. A former colleague from Bayer, Suresh Katti, an X-ray crystallographer, will serve on the company's management team as a consultant. The firm will focus on what Khire calls the "knowledge-based drug discovery" needed to turn compounds from hits into clinical candidates.

Khire had been thinking about such a business for several years, particularly after finishing an M.B.A. through Bayer's pharmaceutical management program, and the layoffs at West Haven set the wheels in motion. As a member of Bayer's outsourcing committee, he was well-aware of where the gaps are in outside discovery services. Khire believes his company is entering an area relatively untouched by competition from contract research organizations in India and China, where the focus is more on process scale-up.

Khire and Katti gained plenty of management experience during their time at Bayer, but they are still a bit daunted by the idea of starting up a company. "It's a very different feeling moving from being a scientist to a businessman," says Katti, who was at Bayer for more than 17 years. "We're entering a totally new area."

The state of Connecticut is providing some assistance. The two scientists have leased a lab from Connecticut Innovations, a government-funded group that acts almost as a venture capital firm to help emerging companies get their footing. Khire went to the American Chemical Society national meeting in Chicago last month to attend symposia organized by the Division of Small Chemical Businesses, which he says provided a lot of guidance.

Still, all the actual funding is coming out of their pockets. "I'm excited but at the same time scared because right now we're funding everything with our own money," Khire says. He is giving himself a year to make it work. The backup plan is to go back to big pharma.

Khire and Katti see their move as a positive step, albeit a risky one. Another positive outcome of the closure, West Haven scientists agree, is the way employees have banded together to create a community that has the potential to be around long after everyone has landed in new positions.

A "Bayer alumni" website they established enables former West Haven employees to keep in touch and pass on potential job opportunities they encounter in their search. Lowe, for example, has posted jobs he heard about through his blog.

"Every day you get a couple of e-mails with job leads," Rudolph says. "We really stuck together and didn't see each other as competitors, even though in some ways we were." His former Bayer colleagues are "a good bunch of people," he adds. "That is something I will hopefully have in my new company."

The level of collegial support has been "tremendous," Kramss adds. "It really blunted some of the dismay over being away from one's colleagues and friends. Now we have a means of staying in touch with one another." And as more scientists from West Haven find work, it creates a new network for others to tap into. Word of mouth is the best way into a company, the chemists say.

As the chemists in the Bayer diaspora spread beyond Connecticut and big pharma, they hope that everyone will soon be back in the workforce. "The funny thing is that in the end, for most people, it is a very good change," Rudolph says. "Some are very happy and thankful that it happened, because it forced them to move on to new things, to collect new experiences and perspectives."

"Some of the comments on my blog have been extremely gloomy," Lowe says. "I just can't buy into that." Although he concedes that a chemist can no longer waltz into a position on the basis of a degree and vast pharmaceutical industry experience, he also remains confident that the market will be able to absorb those that it recently squeezed out. "I am still waiting for them to soak me up," he says.


More on this Topic

Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © American Chemical Society

Leave A Comment

*Required to comment