Scoring Biotech Innovation (and Keeping Your Career Options Open)

May 22, 2009
The U.S. may still lead, but it can’t rule in every aspect of the industry, says author and blogger Yali Friedman, who also touched on career and workforce issues at BIO 2009

This week, the results of Scientific American’s World View project were formally presented at BIO 2009 in Atlanta.  The WorldView project developed a biotech score card for nations around the world, based on their biotechnology innovation and its economic impact, as well as education, training and infrastructure.

We spoke briefly in a fairly noisy press intervifew room at BIO 2009 in Atlanta , with Yali Friedman, Ph.D., author, blogger (BiotechBlog) and advisor on this project, to get a better understanding of how data were gathered for  WorldView and for his thoughts on the  key issues facing the industry and its professionals.

Mr. Friedman is the author of a number of core curriculum textbooks, and a series of “Best Practices” books on topics that include  business development and education.  He is also managing editor of the Journal of Commercial Biotechnology.

An informal audio, background noise included, is also available.

PhM — In collecting data for this study, how did you prevent bias from creeping into the WorldView scorecard?

YF  —  In most cases (except for two countries), we stayed away from national data, and used third party sources, such as  OECD data. So data were free, we hope, from any biases that might have resulted from using internally generated data. 

You also have this potential problem with mass, since the largest countries have the most activities going on, but you can get around this by looking at per capita data. If you take your revenues against the number of companies, see how many revenues companies make, or against GDPs to see what proportion of the nation’s income is coming from biotech revenues, you can put larger and smaller countries on a more level playing field.  Otherwise, if you look at absolute numbers it’s very polarizing and the U.S. comes out way ahead.  Using a per-capita basis also gives you useful information on individual nations’ progress

PhM —  Which countries are now hotbeds of bio innovation?

YF  —  We looked at a number of different categories of information.  The scorecard itself comes from sum of scores based on considerations of intellectual property, intensity, enterprise support, educational workforce and foundations.  In addition to that we also looked at public companies, their efficiencies and market size to get a broader idea. The U.S. has the strongest intellectual property protection of all countries examined. Iceland has greatest overall intensity.  The U.S. leads in business support, followed by Singapore and Australia, while Singapore leads in education and workforce development, followed by Switzerland and the U.S.  Israel leads in foundation, followed by Sweden and Finland.

It’s very interesting to note that the U.S., which is the world leader in biotech gross output, isn’t the leader in all these categories….in fact it just leads in two areas.

PhM — Any lessons to be learned from other nations with regardto  training and education within the U.S?

YF  —  The workforce is always an issue, but you can’t compare a smaller country’s approaches  to those of the U.S. as a whole. When most countries do benchmark comparison, they compare themselves to the leading biotech states in the U.S.
The states throughout the U.S. aren’t equal in their educational output.  A state like California trumps most other countries, but results are diluted by other states, which have emphases in other industries.

The numbers are apparent in terms of how many students come to the U.S. to do their research or how many foreign researchers there are in the U.S.  Here, you have a double edged argument.  People are saying that US relies too much on foreign scientists, but at the same time most of the world’s scientists are in the U.S. which means that the opportunities and educational system in the U.S. is very good.

PhM —  How about the argument that more researchers who come to the U.S. are returning home to start up entrepreneurial ventures in their countries of origin, and that  the U.S. isn’t developing enough “native talent?”

YF  —  It’s worth looking at the numbers behind those statements.  By my measures, I don’t see an appreciable increase in the number of students returning home, the numbers have been growing very slowly, although the issue has been getting a lot of press attention. 

Biotech is a global industry and the U.S. cannot rule in every aspect of every industry. Just as we’ve seen manufacturing and back office functions in the U.S. move offshore, there’s no reason to think that R&D won’t move too.  But the U.S. is still the largest market and has most of the  largest biotech companies in the world. Innovation is still being directed by US

Why do countries care to invest in biotech, in the first place? Because they need treatments for endemic diseases.  America is the world’s largest pharma market and will see treatments for endemic diseases.  In Africa, you see therapies being developed by nonprofit entities because there is not a large enough market there to support that effort.   The US will still get what it needs because the market is here.

PhM — Broadly, what are the key issues facing biotech today, especially as so many companies acquire or downsize?

YF  —  If you look at trends and numbers in the biotechnology industry, almost every year should be asterisked because almost every year there’s a mega-merger, or a really large company either doesn’t  IPO or goes bankrupt.  Every single year is dramatically different, but  in a large way. There aren’t any quiet years in biotech, and this year is no exception.

Financing is a particularly pressing issue this year, as we’re seeing a capital crunch.  Companies are short of cash at a time when people aren’t eager to make investments. 

Companies with profits have money at a time when nobody else does, and are in a good situation, companies that face liquidation are in for what director Jeremy Adam calls a social Darwinian event. 

You need these cycles, as Joseph Schumpter wrote in”Creative Destruction.”  Sometimes old companies have to pass in order for newer ones to emerge. In bad times, both deserving and undeserving companies suffer, in good times, both do well. Ideally, it’s in the balance of these waves, between good and bad times, that good companies will prosper, but sometimes you’ll lose baby with bath water. That’s how these things gol.

PhM – Is it becoming more difficult for anyone to carve out a stable career in biotech?

YF – The  biotech worker has to realize  that his or her job is on a cycle of a few years. Very few people work for same company for a long time…  In business development, for example, it is a matter of how much money a given company can devote to it….companies may take a few years off ….which means that anyone seeking a job in business development will have to look for another job elsewhere.  You must look at career path of those in the job you want, because you need  to see what you’re in for.  It can be very exciting. By hopping around, you’re free of stagnation and can grow tremendously.

PhM – How about skill sets, and the fact that the industry is still siloed? What are the models or best practices for training and career development?

YF – There are no easy solutions, but demands on biotech workers suggest that they need to have expertise in multiple areas, and it takes years or decades to develop that expertise.

To really understand science and business at a high level requires a PhD and MBA, plus  industry experience.  You’re looking at people who are 35-40 before they can really be effective at business development, or manage the growth of companies.

A lot of people in industry are specialists in one area but don’t understand the whole aspect. 

You need to know enough about what you don’t know, when you need to get help, where and how to get help and what the important considerations are in managing things beyond your knowledge base.  There are so many things to know, that it’s impossible for anyone to know them all. 

I have been ferreting out case studies of people who have been blindsided.  Surprises can come from any direction.

PhM – How about the emphasis on academic training in biotech?  There appear to be many people who pursue an academic career path, only to find that they cannot find employment.  The NAS career board is full of stories of underemployed people with graduate or doctorate level training that goes unused.  Is there any way that industry can retrain or engage people with these untapped skills?

YF -   That’s a real challenge and people need to rethink academic career paths.  When I was in grad school we had someone who was applying for an academic post.  She asked us how many of us were going to go academic vs. industry (we thought these were the only options, when there are actually many more options). Everyone said industry….she said that, when she was in school, it was the opposite….but  industry was paying less than academia back then. 

Academia is oversubscribed.  The average professor might produces 75 grad students in his or her lifetime but only one of them can replace that professor.  There’s only so much capacity for academic researcher and one must look outside to see other opportunities. 

One challenge in academic settings is that one is being trained by academicians who don’t know about the other options.  Students early on need to cast a wide net and see what else is out there.  

I have a PhD and can’t get any more education in this subject area.  I followed the academic path and left. It’s a phenomenal path, but keep your eyes open and see what you can do with that academic training.  You don’t have to become a professor.

About the Author

Agnes Shanley | Editor in Chief