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Opportunities Along The Atlantic

Smaller firms are recruiting chemists to help tap new markets and cultivate groundbreaking technologies

by Susan J. Ainsworth
August 20, 2012 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 90, Issue 34

Credit: Ariad Pharmaceuticals
At Ariad Pharmaceuticals, medicinal chemists help discover breakthrough medicines for cancer patients.
This is a photo of medicinal chemists at Ariad Pharmaceuticals helping discover breakthrough medicines for cancer patients.
Credit: Ariad Pharmaceuticals
At Ariad Pharmaceuticals, medicinal chemists help discover breakthrough medicines for cancer patients.

The East Coast of the U.S.—dotted with world-class academic institutions, government agencies, and a plethora of chemical and drug companies—long provided significant opportunities for chemists seeking jobs. But over the past few years, the region has been devastated by massive layoffs precipitated by the Great Recession as well as woes specific to big pharma.

Some signs are evident, however, that a turnaround is under way for the region. Even while the U.S. unemployment rate for chemists remains near the historic high (C&EN, July 23, page 6), the number of job postings in many East Coast metropolitan areas grew during the first six months of this year compared with the same period last year, according to Quebec City-based Wanted Analytics, which maintains a massive database of job listings across many fields.

At least some of this growth can be attributed to hiring at smaller companies in the region. Reaching out to a sampling of these firms—through Twitter, the American Chemical Society’s Division of Small Chemical Businesses, some ACS local sections, members of the Society of Chemical Manufacturers & Affiliates, and other avenues—C&EN learned that some are stepping up hiring of chemists and chemical engineers. As the economy struggles to recover, these firms say they are recruiting to expand their businesses into new markets or to further develop cutting-edge technologies.

“New technologies are most certainly boosting demand for products, and that is prompting companies to increase manufacturing capacity,” observes Ronald Mc­Elhaney Sr., managing partner of Savannah Management Recruiters. As a result, these small companies are taking on more chemical engineers, chemists, and support personnel to bolster successful R&D programs, he adds. “Right now,” he says, “I am busier than I have been in five years.”

Although hiring at these smaller companies is incremental compared with the way it happens sometimes at chemical and pharma giants, it represents a niche of opportunity in the chemical enterprise, where chemists’ job prospects have been all too slim over the past few years.

Joining a smaller company may now be a more attractive option for chemists, many of whom previously gravitated toward larger companies, where they could stay for their entire careers thanks to long-term job security. “However, that chemistry cocoon, which was safe and warm and comfy, has been torn open by factors over which chemists have no control,” says Richard M. (Erik) Gordon, a pharmaceutical industry analyst at the University of Michigan’s Stephen M. Ross School of Business.

In the pharma industry at least, those factors—including patent expirations on blockbuster drugs, mergers and acquisitions, less-than-robust drug pipelines, and outsourcing of technical positions to India and China—are forcing chemists to “think outside the box and replot their career paths,” which may lead them to smaller companies, Gordon says.

For chemists seeking jobs along the East Coast, prospects are improving at smaller biopharma firms, he says. The firms are conducting promising, cutting-edge drug development research, including much of the large-molecule, protein-based research in which the industry is now investing more heavily, Gordon adds.

These smaller biotechs are attracting the attention of big pharma, which is eager to collaborate with them or even acquire them. “The trend in large pharma companies to outsource drug discovery is largely based on the perception that small companies can provide a more nimble and responsive discovery model,” says Arthur J. Hiller, who has held leadership roles within big and small pharma for 30 years and is now chief executive officer of Cambridge, Mass., start-up SciFluor Life Sciences.

“Virtually every major pharma company has research facilities in the Boston-Cambridge area,” Hiller adds. “In addition to having the smaller and more nimble biotechs as neighbors, the access to top-flight university research and chemistry departments provides a one-stop shopping ecosystem that simply isn’t replicated in many other emerging science centers.

“There’s a lot of money waiting on the sidelines” to fund new companies in the area, and as a result, more start-ups are being created, Hiller observes. That trend is contributing to “a robust local hiring environment. However, it remains to be seen whether the new jobs in these companies can offset the recent downsizing efforts of big companies on the East Coast.”

For its part, SciFluor currently employs three in-house chemists in addition to three full-time equivalents in India who handle synthesis work. Adding to its current base of eight employees, the firm hopes to hire up to 12 chemists with strong medicinal chemistry backgrounds over the next 12 to 18 months as it grows into new chemistry lab space, Hiller says.

Focused on improving the pharma­cologic properties of drugs, SciFluor grew out of fluorination technology developed in the lab of Harvard University chemist Tobias Ritter, the company’s cofounder and chief scientific adviser. The firm, which was founded in March 2011, aims to add fluorine to therapeutics to improve potency, safety, or other characteristics and to better understand how drugs work in the body, Hiller says. SciFluor has already filed for provisional patents for five molecules for which it is seeking development partners.

Ariad Pharmaceuticals is another Cambridge-based biotech that is adding chemists to help speed drug candidates through its development pipeline. Focused on small-molecule oncology drugs, Ariad has developed two late-stage clinical candidates and recently filed a New Drug Application for one of them: ponatinib, an oral multitargeted kinase inhibitor that may have broad applications in cancer, says William C. Shakespeare, the company’s vice president of drug discovery.

Credit: Wolfe Laboratories
Wolfe Laboratories scientist Nicholas Boylan analyzes samples of biotherapeutics using liquid chromatography and tandem mass spectrometry.
This is a photo of Wolfe Laboratories scientist Nicholas Boylan analyzing samples of biotherapeutics using LC/MS.
Credit: Wolfe Laboratories
Wolfe Laboratories scientist Nicholas Boylan analyzes samples of biotherapeutics using liquid chromatography and tandem mass spectrometry.

To support these efforts, Ariad hired two in-house medicinal chemists this year and added five medicinal chemists at a contract research organization (CRO) in China, Shakespeare says, noting that the company headcount now totals 210. In 2013, Ariad expects to hire an entry-level Ph.D. medicinal chemist with some small-molecule drug discovery experience and a B.S. or M.S. chemist with three to five years of pharma or biotech experience.

Larger drug and biotech companies are also increasingly reaching out to CROs for help with drug discovery. Consequently, some CROs are beefing up their staffs.

Credit: Dan Auble
At CSCS Corp., Michael J. Bradlee loads a sample into a gas chromatograph/mass spectrometer for analysis.
This is a photo of Michael J. Bradlee at CSCS Corp. loading a sample into a GC/MS for analysis.
Credit: Dan Auble
At CSCS Corp., Michael J. Bradlee loads a sample into a gas chromatograph/mass spectrometer for analysis.

For example, Watertown, Mass.-based Wolfe Laboratories is in the midst of hiring Ph.D. scientists in pharmaceutical chemistry, organic chemistry, biochemistry, or chemical engineering with two or more years of experience in drug development from the postdiscovery phase to the initial clinical trials phase, according to Margarita Hunter, the company’s associate director of marketing.

CSCS Corp., a 10-employee CRO in West Warwick, R.I., that serves both pharma and chemical clients, is also poised to expand its staff, says Peter J. Bonk, the company’s vice president of R&D. Anticipating new business, it plans to hire an analytical chemist and at least one chemist with a strong background in organic chemistry.

Outside the CRO realm, some other East Coast companies that serve pharma and chemical companies also report that they are hiring chemists to support growth in their businesses.

Jordi Labs, a Bellingham, Mass., producer of polymer chromatography products and analytical services, is continuing to add to its roster of employees, which now includes 26 people. “In the current economic decline, we have had eight years of consecutive growth,” says Mark A. Jordi, the firm’s president.

Expanding its operations through the recent purchase of a 34,000-sq-ft production and analytical services facility, Jordi Labs is looking to find trained chemists with advanced degrees in analytical or polymer chemistry to fill positions for a gas chromatography/mass spectrometry specialist, a laboratory chemist, a synthetic polymer chemist, and a high-pressure liquid chromatography specialist.

Credit: Courtesy of Jordi Labs
Lars Qvicklund analyzes polyethylene for a Jordi Labs’ client using high-temperature gel permeation chromatography.
This is a photo of Jordi Labs' senior chemist Lars Qvicklund analyzing polyethylene using high-temperature gel permeation chromatography.
Credit: Courtesy of Jordi Labs
Lars Qvicklund analyzes polyethylene for a Jordi Labs’ client using high-temperature gel permeation chromatography.

Likewise, Strem Chemicals, a 62-employee manufacturer of specialty chemicals in Newburyport, Mass., is expanding. It is moving into a new 15,000-sq-ft warehouse to keep up with growing demand from a broad range of customers, including those in the pharma and R&D markets, says President Michael E. Strem. The company, which also provides custom synthesis and services relevant to current Good Manufacturing Practices, expects to hire one or two more chemists this year, he says.

Hiring is also up at Nation Ford Chemical, a 90-employee custom manufacturer of specialty organic chemicals in Fort Mill, S.C. The company is growing at a rate of 20% per year, reports President Jay A. Dickson. That growth can be traced in part to increased demand for its toll manufacturing services, which involve producing a material for a customer, often using the customer’s technology.

Credit: Greg Nikas
In its kilo-scale clean-room suites, Strem Chemicals handles synthesis as well as validation and stability studies.
This is a photo of a Strem Chemicals employee handling synthesis as well as validation and stability study in a kilo-scale clean room.
Credit: Greg Nikas
In its kilo-scale clean-room suites, Strem Chemicals handles synthesis as well as validation and stability studies.

Nation Ford Chemical also expects to continue to grow through acquisition. In May of this year, it bought an N-phenyl-α-naphthylamine business from Bayer CropScience. To keep pace with growth and to staff a 13,000-sq-ft plant slated to open next month, it is “actively seeking” at least two chemical engineers with a background in production and business development, Dickson says. Other new hires will include 15 to 20 chemical operators and a few lab technicians.

Other small East Coast companies say they are hiring chemists and chemical engineers to help take their cutting-edge technologies into new markets. Such is the case at Pixelligent Technologies, a Baltimore company that produces nanocrystal additives and polymer nanocomposites for electronics, industrial, and military applications.

The company is working closely with a number of midsize to large companies that are eager to tap into technology that they chose not to develop in-house, says Craig R. Bandes, Pixelligent’s CEO. “Our pipeline has grown dramatically over the past six months,” he says, “as we develop new applications that can improve these companies’ products.”

After closing on a $5 million round of financing in September 2011, Pixelligent increased its ranks from 12 employees to 25 employees, Bandes says. As the company scales up its manufacturing process, he hopes it can double its current workforce by this time next year. Hires would include three to five experienced polymer chemists, as well as bachelor-degree-level chemists to conduct characterization work and run reactors.

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New York City-based SiGNa Chemistry, which has developed and patented a green method for stabilizing reactive alkali metals in nanostructured porous oxide powders, is also expanding into new industries, such as oil and gas, batteries, and alternative energy.

As a result, “we are hiring rapidly,” says its president and founder, Michael Lefenfeld (see page 43). SiGNa has been recruiting inorganic and materials chemists, as well as chemical engineers, material engineers, and ceramic engineers to add to its current staff of 65.

Like many early-stage and midsized companies right now, SiGNa is able to step up hiring not only because of mounting demand from a growing customer base, “but also because we can bring in top talent at a price that is lower than it might have been a few years ago,” Lefenfeld says. “I don’t want to pick the bones of a bad economy, but hiring in a ‘buyer’s market’ is a huge growth opportunity for a small to medium-sized organization.”

Although new hires “may be offered less cash—which is always held more tightly in smaller firms—they may also receive stock options, which could potentially increase their total compensation,” Lefenfeld notes. “Working for a small company offers some risks, but it can also offer some rewards or windfalls, if the company grows, goes public, or is acquired.”

For those chemists eager to experience the rewards of working for a smaller company, however, finding job openings can be challenging. Unlike large companies, small or start-up companies often don’t have human resources officers on staff and don’t retain recruiters because of the high costs associated with these methods of hiring.

Instead, these companies often rely on social media tools such as LinkedIn and craigslist to find candidates, Lefenfeld points out. Consequently, those who are looking for jobs in a smaller firm “really need to build their network.”

Job seekers may want to reach out to venture capital firms, too, as a source of job opportunities, offers Kerry Boehner, an executive recruiter at Pittsburgh pharma and biotech recruiting firm KOB Solutions. They will be familiar with some of the more promising start-ups, know which ones are hiring, and have an idea of the kinds of positions they are looking to fill, she says. In addition to conducting Internet searches, job seekers can find venture capital firms by checking the websites of start-ups in their field of interest.


As a job seeker in today’s market, “you have to use every resource available to you,” Boehner says. “You have to be completely open-minded and leave no stone unturned, because you really never know where the next opportunity is going to come from. It could very easily turn out to be in a small company that you previously didn’t even know existed.”


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