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Local Diaspora: Cubist’s former research team joins Boston’s vibrant biotech ecosystem

by Lisa M. Jarvis
August 3, 2015 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 93, Issue 31

Credit: Bhaumik Pandya
Lawrence working at Macrolide’s labs.
Lawrence working at Macrolide's labs.
Credit: Bhaumik Pandya
Lawrence working at Macrolide’s labs.

Boston might be the most in-demand place to set up shop for pharma companies these days, but does that boom translate into an equally robust job market for researchers? The recent closure of Cubist Pharmaceuticals’ R&D labs after the firm’s acquisition by Merck & Co. provides a snapshot of the employment prospects for scientists—chemists in particular—in the hottest town for biotech.


Local Diaspora: Cubist’s former research team joins Boston’s vibrant biotech ecosystem

On the basis of conversations with a wide swath of ex-Cubist scientists, the job picture looks very good.

Merck completed acquiring Cubist, a medium-sized antibiotics developer, in January, and by March it had announced plans to shut down early research at Cubist’s suburban research site in Lexington, Mass. Most people stayed on until the end of April to collect their severance packages. By early June, more than half of the 120 scientists affected by the closure had already landed another job in the Boston area.

The numbers would be even better except that some of the unemployed chose to take the summer off before seriously looking. Moreover, scientists found jobs despite another flood of job seekers with antibacterials expertise. In March, AstraZeneca announced the spin-off of its antibiotics R&D activities in nearby Waltham, Mass. The new company is much smaller, putting roughly 80 researchers on the job market.

The Cubist researchers’ new jobs do come with caveats. C&EN estimates that just a dozen of them ended up at larger firms, including Novartis, Shire, and Biogen. Many scientists landed at young companies where resources are limited and demands on their time are different. But researchers seem excited to take new risks and build skills that could help them move up the career ladder.

“It seems like anybody from Cubist who was interested in finding a job quickly, did,” says Jonathan Lawrence, a medicinal chemist who is now an associate director at Macrolide Pharmaceuticals, an antibiotics firm that launched in March.

Lawrence is one of more than 10 scientists who ended up at companies that were born in just the past few months. Macrolide took on three ex-Cubist chemists, while two brand-new biotechs—Polaris Partners-backed Morphic Rock Therapeutic and Flagship Ventures-backed VL32—are being helmed and populated by ex-Cubist scientists.

Cubist’s former senior director of medicinal chemistry, Blaise Lippa, was the first hire at Morphic Rock. The new company is developing small molecules to block transmembrane integrin receptors, which play a role in several diseases.

A start-up is a major departure for Lippa, who worked at Pfizer before spending more than seven years at Cubist. But as he contemplated his next move, he was drawn by the exciting science: In 2012, Harvard University immunologist Timothy A. Springer published ground-breaking structural insights into integrins, opening the door to designing better drugs against the targets.

VL32, meanwhile, is focused on the microbiome. Led by Jared Silverman, Cubist’s former head of biology, VL32 already has absorbed four other scientists from Cubist’s microbiology and chemistry groups.

Silverman says the choice to take on an entrepreneurial role was driven, in part, by the market. He wasn’t interested in going to a big pharma company, and few senior leadership positions exist at midsized firms. “There were a lot of interesting things going on at the start-up level and a real opportunity to create the job I wanted,” he says.

Dominic Ryan, who was director of discovery technologies at Cubist, sees challenges for scientists who held senior leadership roles at the firm. Ryan has years of experience managing drug discovery activities—including high-throughput screening, protein crystallography, and compound management—but those skills are primarily useful to larger firms.

“Very small start-ups are typically looking for a head of medicinal chemistry and a head of biology,” says Ryan, who is taking time off before looking for his next position. “That’s less likely to be me.”

Many of the scientists affected by the layoff had spent much of their professional careers at Cubist. As a consequence, they are still adjusting to being at new, and often significantly smaller, research organizations where they must juggle many roles and where financial and human resources are far more limited.

“Cubist had built to a point where there was very little we couldn’t do internally or didn’t have an expert in-house who could manage well-established relationships with vendors,” notes Silverman, who started at Cubist right after his postdoc.

Aileen Rubio, formerly Cubist’s head of infectious diseases, agrees. She now leads biology at antibiotics-focused Spero Therapeutics, where all of the lab work is currently handled by contract research organizations.

Rubio says the virtual model requires a new mind-set about how to manage a project. For example, at Cubist she would assemble an in-house project team spanning all aspects of discovering a drug. When working with outside organizations, “you have to keep track of a lot more moving parts,” Rubio says.

Many of the Cubist scientists have been helping each other with their transitions to new organizations. As Lawrence sets up Macrolide’s laboratories, advice from his former lab mates has aided decisions about everything from the appropriate strains of bacteria for assessing compounds to figuring out the most affordable instruments and software.

“I’ve had meetings and teleconferences with former colleagues who are at other companies or at academic institutions to pick their brains on what they think we need,” Lawrence says. “It feels like a family that is just more spread out now.”



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