Taking the Road Less Traveled into the Pharmaceutical Industry

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At a recent photochemistry conference, I was asked to sit on a discussion panel, principally because my career has been almost exclusively in industry rather than academia. The panel members were asked to introduce themselves and detail their career paths. The eight or so panel members who preceded me all relayed that they'd had relatively similar career paths. The panel members stories all began with something along the lines of ''I earned an undergraduate degree, Master's, Ph.D., did a post-doctoral fellowship, and then got my first job as an assistant professor.''

When my turn came I began by paraphrasing Robert Frost’s poem about “the road less traveled,” and how the last thing I anticipated was that I would one day end up as the CEO of a start-up pharmaceutical company. I relayed to the audience how initially I thought I would be a practicing physician, then perhaps a lipid and membrane biochemist along the way, before becoming a university professor like my father. However, these plans were interrupted by time spent as a freestyle skier, climber, ski gear sales representative, fast food restaurant manager, clinical microbiologist, and a researcher into microbiological life in extreme environments (industrial and natural). Eventually my career transformed into something resembling those of my fellow panel members: an MS in Immunology followed by a PhD in Molecular Virology. I became a director of research for a vaccine company and then director of regulatory affairs for an in vitro diagnostic device company.

So what is the best, clearest path toward a career building the best medicines, vaccines, and diagnostic devices? Basically there isn’t one. Any path can get you there as long as you gain the right preparation, nurture a full spectrum of job skills from technical to marketing, and strive to be the best at whatever you do. It doesn’t matter if you want to be the director of research, and they have you answering technical questions on the phone for marketing or technical services: while you’re there, learn everything about the job and do it better than anyone else.

First, make sure that both your academic and practical education covers a broad spectrum of skills. Tightly focusing only on technical areas will limit your chances of entry and later success in this industry. The challenges of modern medicine require that your subset of skills include very diverse areas and are not limited to technical expertise taught in academic environments. In fact, much of what is taught (and not taught) may actually hinder progress. You have to know something about every aspect that goes into the making of a product, including labeling, regulatory affairs, personnel management, bottling, shipping, and competitive market factors. Without knowledge of these areas it’s almost impossible to perform even basic research. If you design something that’s too expensive to use, hard to manufacture, has regulatory barriers, or lacks a recognized market, then you’re useless even as a technical expert. You have to be able to see the full product cycle, from design to sales, to make useful products.

Within weeks of my first industry job as a research director, the vice president sent me on a tour to learn everyone’s tasks in the building. The first day, I went and worked on the loading dock and the production lines. A memorable experience materialized when I was scheduled to help the crew that loaded vaccine vials into boxes. As the vials came down the line I couldn’t keep up and eventually took some ribbing over my fumbling. I complained to the crew, “I’m not fast enough.” To my surprise, one of my co-workers answered, “Dr. Dees, we have the conveyor going as slowly as it can!” I then watched as they turned it up and began loading boxes with incredible speed and efficiency.

The very wise vice president of biologics who sent me on the building tour knew that such first-hand experiences were invaluable and would teach me three important lessons. First, as a manager, I realized that we work as team. Everyone has a job skill that is equally important to getting product out the door — from the PhDs directing the highest biotech research to our colleagues putting product on trucks. If you’re not fortunate enough to have an enlightened vice president like I did, make it your business to conduct your own facility tour. Learn everybody else’s job the best you can.

Second, never stop learning different job skills. Even though my first job was principally as a virologist designing new vaccines, I had to learn my new job. The years of academic training gave me a solid basis in the most recent advances in molecular virology, but not in running a viral neutralization assay that the research and QC crews ran everyday. So I read everything possible on neutralization assays and also had my technicians teach me what they knew. Soon I modified a number of our assays, improving speed and cost of performance. Having learned much about regulatory affairs, I submitted them for approval by the USDA, bypassing regulatory affairs, marketing, and even the president of the company, who believed they would never pass regulatory approval. They did pass and to this day save more money in a year in testing than a whole raft of veterinary vaccines would make in decades.

Third, learn job skills outside your area of expertise, especially the business skills necessary for bringing your medical product to market. If you’re a PhD, or simply more scientifically or technically inclined, learn the markets, marketing, pricing, labeling, regulatory requirements, etc. If you’re a business type learn everything you can about the technical and scientific aspects of what you’re selling, and about complying with regulations, shipping, pricing, etc. If you do not have the time and interest to learn all sides of the business, you can never be complete in your career.

For example, the trend when I was in the veterinary vaccine business was to add as many things to a vaccine as possible. This made it difficult for me as director of research to find physical space for a dozen antigens in a few ml dose. It also created problems for me in sorting out interference between vaccines and made for incredibly complicated investigations when one of these multivalent vaccine production runs failed. I raised these issues one day, and in return received some education from our marketing department regarding the market forces that drove us to make the product in this manner. That shut me up on the spot, and from that day on I made a point to learn all I could about the market forces that affected our products. That’s what it’s really all about anyway — making a product that people want and need at a price that they can afford and that’s profitable for investors and/or shareholders.

In summation, being successful in a pharmaceutical career doesn’t require treading the same old paths. In fact, I would argue that adhering to Frost’s road less traveled might ultimately make you more successful. Learn the skills for the full product cycle from research, tech transfer, raw materials, and on through to marketing and sales, and be the best you can at all of them.

Critics of this approach will say it isn’t possible to master all of these domains. Ignore them. You’ll be their boss someday.
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