The War for Talent

As the biotech market continues to prosper, frustrated employees in Big Pharma are looking to an industry that they hope will bring challenging new opportunities.
Apr 01, 2006
By Pharmaceutical Executive Editors

A New Business Model Emerges
I used to think I would stay in Big Pharma until I retired. After nine years at Eli Lilly and 14 in the pharma industry, I felt I was in the right place at the right time. And then I noticed my colleagues leaving to enter the world of another "B": biotech. As a steady trickle of them departed for better money and satisfying jobs, it was hard not to notice Big Pharma's fallouts—it's a heavily bureaucratic and political institution that favors status quo over change and progress.

For better or for worse, there seems to be a lot of people like me, folks who are discovering that the biotech world gives them the satisfactions and rewards they always wanted—and then some. I haven't seen any numbers I trust yet, but it's pretty clear that in the war for talent, Big Pharma now has a powerful competitor. If companies want to have a sporting chance in that war, they need to start thinking about why biotech is so appealing—and how they can get some of that appeal themselves.

Innovation First

In a lot of ways, biotech is what I used to think pharma was—the right place at the right time. That's partly a matter of technology: With its focus on genetics, biotech is closer to where the action is in pharmaceutical innovation, with a concentration on pharmacogenomics and research that focuses in on patients rather than diseases. But biotech is also at an appealing point in the industry lifecycle. The field is no longer tiny—according to Richard Oliver, author of The Coming Biotech Age, biotech is a $1 trillion industry in the United States. The top companies, such as Amgen and Genentech, are giving traditional pharma companies a run for their money. Business Week named Amgen fourth on the S&P 500 in 2004 for being the most "future-oriented" of the 500 corporations on the list. But at the same time, most individual biotech companies are relatively small and far more entrepreneurial than the traditional pharma company.

Mark Ahn, Ph.D, who left Big Pharma to become president and CEO of Hana Biosciences in San Francisco, felt that the challenge in Big Pharma is that innovations and advancements are slowed. "The bureaucracy which comes with size can also choke off sources of innovation and energy," Ahn said. "A smaller organization can take advantage of its size and focus, while being mindful of the ever-changing demands of growth." The freedom to explore and experiment was an enticement to Ahn, who felt that in addition to more scientific opportunities, the biotech model was more focused on new experiences that concentrate on patients.

Show Me the Money

The Q12
It's no surprise that employees who left Big Pharma for biotech are doing it partly for the money. The success of biotech's innovations has been financially rewarding, and potential employees are finding attractive packages getting more difficult to resist. Innovation plus interest makes stocks grow exponentially, and pharma companies are aware of biotech's scientific and financial success. And they want a piece of the pie, too. Over the past few years, you'd be hard pressed to find a company that has not purchased or does not have a partnership with a biotech firm. Case in point: Eli Lilly's recent medicines, Cialis and Byetta, came out of a collaboration with a biotech firm; Pfizer's new inhaled insulin is from Nektar.

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