New Horizons | November 12, 2007 Issue - Vol. 85 Issue 46 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 85 Issue 46 | pp. 36-38
Issue Date: November 12, 2007

New Horizons

Former Bayer chemists find a haven within the walls of biotech companies
Department: Business
Moving On
After the closure of the West Haven site, former Bayer chemists have landed far and wide.
Credit: Russ McCreven
Moving On
After the closure of the West Haven site, former Bayer chemists have landed far and wide.
Credit: Russ McCreven

EARLY LAST NOVEMBER, Bayer HealthCare managers gathered employees at the firm's North American headquarters in West Haven, Conn., and informed them that the location would be closing within months. By the end of January, the site's chemistry R&D center, which at its peak housed some 300 researchers, was a ghost town.

Yale University has since bought the entire Bayer campus for a purported $109 million, and those labs will soon be bustling with students. But what happened to all those Bayer scientists?

C&EN has followed the stories of a handful of West Haven chemists after the layoffs were announced. A year after the shake-up, everyone interviewed has landed on their feet. The chemists that C&EN has followed unanimously say their new jobs are more rewarding than their previous positions at Bayer.

What these chemists went through provides some insight into job prospects for chemists, particularly industry veterans who made their careers within the once-hallowed halls of big pharma.

Their experiences are in many ways a microcosm of the plight faced by scientists at big drug companies across the country. Consolidation, fewer new product launches, and cheaper labor abroad are all contributing to cutbacks in pharmaceutical R&D.

When C&EN first wrote about them, several of the chemists had yet to find work, and many were troubled by their prospects (C&EN, April 16, page 27). At the time, Derek Lowe, who had nearly 20 years of experience in drug discovery, including 10 years at Bayer, and Richard Kramss, with more than 20 years of process and medicinal chemistry experience, were still hitting the pavement.

Joachim Rudolph, a medicinal chemist who worked for Bayer for a decade, was just about to cross the country to start a new job at Genentech's South San Francisco campus. Meanwhile, Uday Khire and Suresh Katti, a medicinal chemist and X-ray crystallographer, respectively, were on the brink of launching a contract research company together in Connecticut.

THE CHEMISTS landed far and wide. Throughout this period, Pfizer and Bristol-Myers Squibb, the other big drug companies with facilities in Connecticut, were generally cutting rather than hiring scientists at the Ph.D. level. The result was something of a mass exodus from the state.

Of the 28 Ph.D. chemists who had worked in the Bayer R&D center, 16 left for jobs at companies outside Connecticut, scattering to California, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Colorado, and Canada. Three other Ph.D. chemists went to Bayer's German operations.

The research associates, Bayer's term for bachelor's- and master's-level scientists, had better luck in Connecticut. At least 22 secured jobs at local drug or biotech companies. Another 17 ended up at firms across the Northeast and California, and a handful of others shifted to careers outside the lab.

Furthermore, most of the Ph.D. chemists shifted to biotech companies, but only three Ph.D. scientists ended up at big pharmaceutical firms.

Aside from the two scientists who started their own business, the chemists interviewed last spring exemplify both trends of switching to the biotech industry and having to relocate. In addition to Rudolph's move to San Francisco, Lowe started working at Vertex Pharmaceuticals' Cambridge, Mass., site in July, and Kramss moved to southern New Jersey in August for a job at Pharmacopeia.

Careerwise, the Bayer closure seems to have benefited the chemists, who all claim to be excited about embarking on new adventures in the biotech industry.

"There's a spirit of growth here," Rudolph says about the atmosphere at Genentech, adding that he finds it fulfilling to be part of an evolving organization.

For Lowe, the position at Vertex allows him to work full-time on the kinds of experimental projects that he had been doing for fun at Bayer. A Vertex official contacted Lowe after reading his blog, called "In the Pipeline," where he occasionally updated readers about a side project dubbed "Vial Thirty-Three." His brand of scientific curiosity appears to be a match for Vertex. "I'm having to get used to the idea that my job description is now centered on the sorts of things I had to do on the side before," Lowe happily notes.

The chemists C&EN talked to universally appreciate the sense of inclusion they are finding in the biotech world. When discussing a project, everyone in the room, from associates to Ph.D.s, takes part, Rudolph says. "At traditional pharma companies, that would not happen," he notes. "The way we live science at Genentech, there's just not much hierarchy."

Kramss is experiencing a similar environment at Pharmacopeia, where he landed a Ph.D.-level position despite having only a bachelor's in chemistry. He is finding that Pharmacopeia appreciates his experience in process development and regulatory affairs as the firm transitions from contract research to drug discovery and development. "This is probably the most perfect job situation I could have found," he says.

Khire, meanwhile, is learning the ups and downs of starting a new business. Cheminpharma, the contract research company he founded in March, had a slow first three months, but it has since picked up some small projects from biotech companies. Khire has hired two former Bayer colleagues: a research associate who is working full-time and another who is working part-time.

"I'm missing that regular week-to-week paycheck, but it's exciting," Khire says. Within the next year, he hopes to expand the relationship with biotech firms and to establish new relationships with big pharma. Katti, who was initially a cofounder of Cheminpharma, has since taken a full-time position at a drug company, though he is still on hand to give Khire advice with projects.

The West Haven closure may have precipitated professional gains for the chemists, but the unsettling experience of being downsized was a major personal trial for all.

Some were demoralized by the protracted job-search process. In addition to basic financial concerns, some found it hard to jump back into the job market after decades in the relative security of Bayer. They had to dust off and update résumés, polish interview skills, and adjust to the new world of Internet-based job recruitment. Kramss likens the process to trying to date again after many years of marriage.

And even after landing new positions, the chemists had to face the stress of picking up and moving. Rudolph was one of the lucky ones. Though his wife had worked at Bayer in a nonresearch capacity, she quickly secured a job at a Swiss-based executive search firm that enabled the couple to move to San Francisco together.

For others, the shift has meant uprooting spouses and children attached to jobs and school. Kramss's wife is still in Connecticut, trying to sell their house. He hopes the entire family will have moved into the house he rented in New Jersey by the end of the month. Many of the scientists are having a tough time selling their homes amid the current credit crunch. Though they are all pleasantly surprised at the solid salaries in the biotech industry, the men interviewed wound up in areas where the cost of living is higher than in Connecticut.

Along with employment changes came lessons—some difficult, some rewarding. One understanding Lowe has taken away from the experience is of the shifting nature of the pharmaceutical job market.

"This is not a good time to be an ordinary medicinal chemist in the U.S.," Lowe says. "You really need to come up with some skills and some assets that people can't hire cheaply in India or China." He acknowledges that outsourcing is a rational practice in the current business environment. At the same time, he is confident that costs abroad will eventually start to rise to a level where U.S. chemists regain an edge.

Though they couldn't have imagined it last November, all the chemists C&EN talked to say they are happier in their new situations. And despite scattering far and wide, they have maintained a strong network of former colleagues. Rudolph frequently sends e-mail updates to a list of West Haven alumni, and they also keep track of one another through professional networking sites such as LinkedIn.

Staying in touch helped colleagues provide each other with practical and emotional support during the job search. "I don't think I've ever known such a big, happy, dysfunctional family," Kramss says.

And they are all keenly aware of just how handy that network might be if they find themselves spit out into the mercurial pharmaceutical job market again. As Lowe notes, "I'd like to find a nice, stable position somewhere—but I work in the drug industry."

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