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Moving With The Times

In a changing U.S. biotech market, chemists and chemical engineers find opportunity outside major hubs

by Deirdre Lockwood
September 23, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 38

Credit: Stacy Winnick
On her road trip looking for a new hometown, Winnick visited Garnet, a ghost town near Missoula, Mont.
Photo of Becky Winnick, an R&D chemist at Blue Marble, visited Garnet, a ghost town near Missoula.
Credit: Stacy Winnick
On her road trip looking for a new hometown, Winnick visited Garnet, a ghost town near Missoula, Mont.

Last October, chemical engineer James Broering was among 170 employees laid off from enzyme engineering biotechnology firm Codexis in Redwood City, Cal­if. The cut left more than half of the company’s scientists without a job. Broering, 35, had been in the Bay Area for five years since moving there for a postdoctoral fellowship at Stanford University, and at first he and his wife, Lauren, hoped to stay in the region. But James searched fruitlessly for another job for several months.

With the steep cost of living in the Bay Area, Broering says, “we found ourselves having to choose between buying a house, having another kid, and paying for our daughter’s college education.”

So he expanded his search across the U.S. The North Carolina biotech hub of Research Triangle Park—with its vibrant life sciences research scene and lower cost of living—quickly rose to the top of his list.

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Broering applied for about 50 jobs in all and went to nine on-site interviews. By March, he was hired as a senior scientist at Raleigh-based Novozymes, a leading developer of industrial enzyme products.

Broering is enjoying his new position developing and testing enzymes to convert crop waste into fermentable sugar for the biofuels industry. What’s more, the family’s cost of living is down by 30–40%, and Broering’s salary is within 10% of what he earned at Codexis.

Broering’s story is emblematic of the job losses and shake-ups faced by chemists and chemical engineers working in the U.S. biotech and pharmaceutical industry in the past decade. From 2009 through 2012, an estimated 150,000 jobs in the pharma industry were slashed, according to consulting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, as a result of the economic downturn, mergers and acquisitions, and approaching patent expirations.

Now, even as the industry recovers, changes to the biopharma business model mean that many chemists remain unemployed, as both emerging and major companies increasingly outsource stages of research and development to contract organizations. And although major hubs of the U.S. biotech industry in Boston, the San Francisco Bay Area, San Diego, and New York-New Jersey still have the largest bioscience employment base, they are also some of the most expensive cities in the country, leading to tough decisions for chemists who want to stay in bioscience.

In light of these changes, some chemists and chemical engineers, like Broering, are instead taking opportunities away from the major coastal U.S. life sciences hubs. The firms in these areas may not have large numbers of jobs to offer, but there are opportunities, as Broering and others can testify.

Statistics seem to back this up. Nearly half of the emerging clusters of life sciences firms highlighted by commercial real estate services firm Jones Lang LaSalle in a 2012 report are in the Midwest, including Chicago, Cleveland, Indianapolis, Wisconsin, and Michigan (C&EN, Feb. 23, 2009, page 26). Demand is also increasing for chemists and chemical engineers in cleantech, bio­fuels, and green chemistry, with many firms located in the Midwest, according to the Department of Energy.

The life sciences hub around Madison and Milwaukee, anchored by biotech firm Promega and the University of Wisconsin system, has diverse capabilities in research instrumentation, reagents, medical devices, and agricultural biotech applications, in addition to drug discovery and stem cells, says Tom Still, president of the Wisconsin Technology Council, a nonprofit economic development group. He points out that over the years 2007–10—which include the Great Recession—jobs in the biosciences industry declined by 1.4% nationwide but grew by 5% in Wisconsin, according to a 2012 report from Battelle Memorial Institute and the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO).

The southern Wisconsin region is also home to several contract research and manufacturing firms where job opportunities for chemists are expanding. For example, Cambridge Major Laboratories (CML), a Germantown, Wis., firm that partners with the biotech and pharma industries, plans to fill 40 openings over the next year, says President and Chief Executive Officer Brian W. Scanlan. Of these, nine are chemistry positions that range from entry-level jobs to Ph.D. research scientist positions, including analytical chemists and an assistant director of R&D chemical development. The company’s revenus grew 58% between 2010 and 2012 and Milwaukee’s Business Journal recently named it one of the fastest-growing firms in the state.

CML usually hires bachelor’s-level chemists who have graduated from universities in Wisconsin or neighboring states of Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, and North and South Dakota, Scanlan says. But the firm recruits Ph.D.-level chemists and senior management from across the country. “We often have individuals who grew up in the Midwest, spent some time on the coasts, and want to come back home,” he says, noting that he himself grew up in northern Illinois and worked on the East Coast before coming back to his roots 11 years ago.

In hiring Ph.D.-level chemists, CML seeks candidates who have a fundamental understanding of chemical mechanisms and the ability to research alternative pathways to a target molecule to find which is best for design, development, and scale-up, Scanlan says. Bachelor’s-level scientists are called on to take that recipe and help make it more suitable for scaling up. The firm’s analytical group, which uses B.S.- and Ph.D.-level chemists, also does R&D and quality-control work.

A map of the U.S. shows which states have shown considerable life sciences job growth, and which have stayed unchanged or have lost jobs.
Credit: Battelle State Bioscience Industry Development Report, 2012
Life sciences jobs have shown considerable growth in states other than the traditional biotech hubs of Massachusetts and California, including North Carolina and Wisconsin.NOTE: Bioscience employment change, 2001–10.SOURCE: Battelle/BIO State Bioscience Industry Development report, 2012

The company favors candidates who understand the service-oriented side of the contract research business. About half of new research hires come from a big pharma or other large company background, Scanlan says, and they often require a change in mind-set. “You don’t just have one boss anymore; you’re working with eight to 10 companies a year,” he says.

Another contract research and manufacturing firm that partners with biopharma companies, SAFC, a division of Sigma-Aldrich, is currently seeking three synthetic organic chemists to make active pharmaceutical ingredients at its Madison location. The firm plans to add 12 to 15 other positions in the next year for B.S.- and M.S.-level chemists and chemical engineers, says Director of Operations David Bormett. Being part of Sigma-Aldrich offers employees opportunities to grow into positions globally, he says.

Laura E. Strong, the president and chief operating officer of cancer drug development company Quintessence Biosciences in Madison, says the city attracts innovators who like to build new companies, sell their ideas, and then start over again. Her firm’s CEO, Ralph Kauten, began his biotech career at Promega and was involved in starting area biotech firms PanVera, which was acquired by Invitrogen, and Mirus Bio.

Strong, 40, who has a similar zest for business development, joined Quintessence as its first employee in 2000 after getting her chemistry Ph.D. in chemistry professor Laura L. Kiessling’s lab at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. An exposure to chemical biology and talented biochemists during graduate school helped her transition to biotech and learn its lingo. Quintessence is now conducting Phase I trials of a ribonuclease drug candidate in patients with late-stage tumors.

Another example of local innovation meeting with success is stem-cell-based biotech Cellular Dynamics International (CDI) in Madison, which went public in July, raising $46 million. David Mann, another Ph.D. graduate of Kiessling’s lab, joined the company in January as product manager after working for 10 years in R&D at Boston-based Infinity Pharmaceuticals.

Credit: Courtesy of David Mann
Mann and his wife, Jen Dykema, moved from Boston to Madison, where they are shown in front of the Wisconsin Capitol.
Photo of David Mann—a product manager at Cellular Dynamics International--and his wife Jen Dykema in front of the Wisconsin Capitol in Madison.
Credit: Courtesy of David Mann
Mann and his wife, Jen Dykema, moved from Boston to Madison, where they are shown in front of the Wisconsin Capitol.

Drawn by Madison’s family-friendly environment, easier commuting, and lower cost of living compared with Boston, Mann and his wife decided to move back to raise their two children five years ago. At first, Mann worked remotely for Infinity, but as his project was winding down, he became interested in CDI through an old friend who is now the company’s chief commercial officer.

Mann, who is 44, says that although he had never worked with stem cells or in marketing, his chemistry background helped him get his position promoting CDI’s stem-cell-generated hepatocytes, which can be used in drug discovery and toxicity testing of new molecules. Through his experience developing cell-based assays and taking drug candidates through toxicity testing at Infinity, he says, “I know how our customers think about what they would want as tools.”

As the only Ph.D. chemist at CDI, “I’m a bit of a freak,” he jokes. But he advises other chemists to capitalize on this way of thinking in seeking work: “Be open to opportunities to use your skills in ways you wouldn’t think about.”

Despite these successes, Madison’s growing life sciences scene also faces challenges to job stability. In 2008, diagnostic supplier Hologic bought Madison-based Third Wave Technologies, which makes diagnostic tests and manufactures cells. But Hologic plans to close Third Wave’s operations by the end of 2014, slashing 250 jobs. Madison-based bioenergy firm Virent also recently laid off 35 workers, or one-third of its workforce.

Farther west of Wisconsin, two regional biotech clusters are getting off the ground in Missoula, Mont., and Sioux Falls, S.D. (C&EN, July 8, page 19). In Missoula, a combination of growing U.S. consumer demand for sustainable or biobased sources of chemicals for a variety of consumer products and a business environment that welcomes new start-ups are fueling job growth.

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At start-up Blue Marble Biomaterials, chemists and chemical engineers isolate chemicals from recycled, renewable feedstocks such as coffee grounds and beermaking waste for use in cosmetics and food flavorings. The company hopes to add up to 100 new jobs in the next two years, according to CEO James Stephens, including 30 new research positions and another 20 to 30 production jobs that require a degree in chemistry or chemical engineering. Last month, Blue Marble purchased a former food-processing plant in Missoula for use as a commercial biorefinery. Another Missoula-based sustainable chemistry firm, Rivertop Renewables, makes chemical products from plant sugars for use in a variety of industries.

In the biomedical field, the town is home to Rocky Mountain Biologicals, which makes vaccine and other biomedical components; 40 miles away, nearby Hamilton, Mont., has federal Rocky Mountain Laboratories and a GlaxoSmithKline vaccine manufacturing facility.

Although most people relocate only after they’ve found a job, Becky Winnick, an R&D chemist at Blue Marble, took a different path. After graduating in 2011 with a B.S. in environmental chemistry from Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., she worked at a series of unpaid or stipend-based internships in environmental science, and for a few months at analytical chemistry firm Dragon Analytical Laboratory in Olympia. Then she decided to take a road trip to find work in a place she wanted to live. She “couch surfed” through Spokane, Wash.; Coeur d’Alene, Idaho; and Kalispell, Mont., researching opportunities in libraries along the way. “I was hoping to find a simple quality-control job,” she says, but she had no luck.

Once Winnick reached Missoula, she fell in love with the town’s combination of access to nature and a vibrant music, art, and social scene and was determined to stay. She found a place to live on Craigslist and pounded the pavement of Missoula’s fledgling biosciences scene, networking with University of Montana professors and dropping off her résumé at several companies. When none of them hired her, she took a job at an IHOP restaurant for the summer and volunteered with a wildlife refuge, planning to move again by winter if nothing panned out in terms of starting a chemistry career.

Last October, Winnick saw a job posting for Blue Marble. She was hired as an intern and moved up to a permanent position in January. Now the 23-year-old works on projects from inception to scale-up, testing different extraction methods to fill requests from potential clients for such things as a natural blue food coloring and determining how to make the extracts in larger reactors.


She enjoys the chance to grow within an environmentally and financially sustainable business, as well as the creativity and flexibility the work involves. A recent effort to derive flavoring chemicals from brewery waste brought her to Missoula’s Kettle House Brewing Co. to collect spent hops for extraction experiments.

Winnick also recruits new employees for her firm, and she has some advice for candidates. “It’s important to be able to show a potential employer that you’re creative and can take initiative,” she says. “Someone who knows only how to follow assignments in undergraduate laboratory courses is not going to be able to come up with new ideas and new research.”

Winnick also advises recent bachelor’s-degree graduates in chemistry: “Don’t be afraid to move. You might not find a job in your hometown.” And she recommends networking—researching area firms carefully and forging personal connections—as a tried-and-true way to land a position.

Broering, who kept statistics on his arduous search, echoes Winnick’s advice. “Don’t be afraid to reach out to friends of friends,” he says. “I LinkedIn-stalked everybody. So many times, if I saw a position advertised, I asked a friend for an introduction to someone at the firm, and the person was always happy to put me in the internal referral system.”


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