How to Navigate a Career Change From Biotech To Pharma 


Last week, we looked at how to make a career change from pharma to biotech. Specifically, we discussed how the line between biotech and pharma companies is getting more blurred, year by year.

The two have more in common than many might think. That’s good news if you’re looking to make the move from biotech to a pharmaceutical company. 

It's never been easier to navigate a career change from biotech to pharma. Similar hard skills and experience are required for both, which means a transition to pharma is a logical move. What’s more, the adaptability and multitasking skills that biotech employees are known for are highly coveted by pharmaceuticals. 

The question that really matters is whether the big pharma life is the right one for you. Want to know if you should make the move? Let’s take a deep dive into how to navigate a career change from biotech to pharma. 

Is it Easy To Move From Biotech to Pharma? 

If you’re concerned that a big pharmaceutical might be unimpressed with your biotech experience, don’t be. Pharma companies not only appreciate the resilience of biotech employees, they understand they’re frequently involved in pioneering research. 

Rob Etherington, president and CEO of Clene Nanomedicine, has seen this happen firsthand. A 30-year veteran of biotechs, he's familiar with how the two industries interact.

“A good example is research on pulmonary hypertension. It’s changed from a deadly orphan rare disease to something that is now managed in a multimillion-dollar pharmaceutical category with lots of drug options,” Etherington said in an interview with BioSpace.

Since biotechs are often responsible for ground-breaking research on orphan causes, pharma companies are happy to have biotech workers join their teams. “You can now move from small to large quite easily,” he added.

So yes, your biotech credentials should be more than enough to allow you to make the leap to pharma. But how do you know for certain that life in big pharma is right for you? 

Advantages of Pharma: a Sense of Security 

With their legacy of success, support from shareholders and deep pockets, there’s a certain level of comfort that pharmaceuticals can provide. It’s easy to feel like your research, and your job, are both secure. 

“Having many assets can help diversify the chance of success”, Spiro Rombotis, president and CEO of Cyclacel told BioSpace. Pharma companies often have multiple research projects on the go. If one isn’t producing the anticipated results, a big pharmaceutical can simply focus its efforts on another. 

Rombotis also noted that pharma companies have “best-in-class procedures” for starting and continuing new research. In general, a pharma company’s operational philosophies are set in stone. For a medical professional looking to make a difference, this can also be appealing when compared to the more frenzied atmosphere in biotech. 

“If you're not comfortable with trying to always hustle for another dollar to fund your next clinical program, then pharma might be what you’re looking for,” Etherington said. 

Disadvantages of Pharma: Everything Takes Longer 

The same best-in-class procedures that provide a sense of security can also be frustrating. Everything in a pharma company, be it a meeting with C-level executives or a presentation of results, usually takes much longer to happen. 

“Pharma can take longer to proceed”, Rombotis said. “Large companies have more systems for control but have less room to be creative. For biotech employees, it can feel stifling”. 

So for anyone who is used to just knocking on a biotech CEO’s door, this can be quite the culture shock. If you leave the biotech world for pharma, expect longer wait times for everything: replies from the CEO’s executive assistant, results of a shareholders’ meeting and even an answer from a neighboring department. 

For many biotech employees, this extended procedural time can feel limiting. If you prefer an atmosphere where it’s easy to get a meeting with the C-level, then pharma life may not be for you. "If you like being in a place where you can innovate quickly and rapidly, then you might be more suited for a small biotech”, Etherington said. 

Biotech and Pharma Often Work Together 

Like most medical workers, the core reason for what you do in both biotech and pharma is to improve and save lives. That’s why it’s important to remember that, despite their differences, biotechs and pharma companies both have the same goals in mind. More importantly, the two often work together in order to achieve ground-breaking results. 

“(People) need to know that big pharma and biotech are symbiotic. They rely on each other; their people have different talents and resources they can share,” Etherington said. “It used to be that biotech was a series of refugees that was composed of refugees from big pharma. I don't think that's the case anymore. I think that there's a lot of lines that are crossed now, with colleagues into and out of both types of companies”.  

Rombotis agreed, calling the relationship between biotech and pharma “a bilateral bridge." With the innovative research done by biotechs and the established procedures and funding of pharma companies, life-saving results can be achieved when both work together.   

Both Rombotis and Etherington pointed out how biotechs often only achieve results once they’ve collaborated with big pharma. Likewise, the reverse is also true. Chances are, if you choose a pharma company, you’ll end up working hand-in-hand with a biotech on some major work. 

The Takeaway

Biotech and pharma companies have more in common than you likely realized. If you're in biotech and haven’t already worked with a pharma company to achieve results, you likely will soon.   

So if you’re looking to make the leap from pharma to biotech, your credentials matter less than your compatibility with a larger company. If you’re comfortable in a world where established procedures and bigger funding mean security, then pharma life might be right for you. Just remember those same procedures can mean longer times to achieve your goals and a more creatively limited environment overall. 

Ultimately, if your goal is to improve the lives of other people through ground-breaking research, then you’ll be happy whether you’re in a small biotech or a massive pharma company. 

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