The extinction of big pharma discovery research

Historically, a PhD biologist leaving academia for industry was expected to send their resume to the large pharmaceutical companies and wait for the storied labs of Merck or Pfizer to decide they needed an expert in their niche field. Today this option is going the way of the dinosaurs as big pharma opts to outsource their discovery research to smaller, external labs and to reallocate their research dollars to innovation hubs. These centers, strategically positioned in technology hotbeds like Silicon Valley, Boston, and Shanghai, seek to identify research, both early- and late-stage, for licensing or acquisition. Most recently Merck announced their intention to followed Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, and GlaxoSmithKline down this path as covered in my January 10th Oxbridge Biotech Roundtable Newsflash here.

Instead of lamenting the loss of the behemoth pharmaceutical research machine, we should rejoice in the shifting focus to smaller startups that offer PhD scientists more research freedom and allow young scientists to take an active role in the future of the organization; making them more than a pipetting, replaceable cog tethered to a lab bench. However, this paradigm shift to entrepreneurship does come with the disadvantages of lower salaries and less job security, but the opportunities to grow laterally and to find research that engenders passion by choosing from the diverse startup landscape compensates for these losses. Of course the issue of low funding for discovery stage biotech entrepreneurs remains, but perhaps continued change at the top of the foodchain will lead to increased support for early-stage ideas. It is an exciting time in biotech and an exciting time to be a scientist. 


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