How to Navigate a Career Change From Pharma to Biotech


If you’re considering a career change from pharma to biotech, you’ll be happy to hear that it might be more common than you think. 

Navigating a Career Change to Biotech

To navigate a career change from pharma to biotech (or the other way around), make the most of your soft skills to achieve success.  Resiliency, being prepared for sudden changes and accepting the risk of failure will serve you well in the biotech world. They’re also extremely beneficial skills to bring to pharma as well. 

Thanks to the increasing similarities between large pharmaceuticals and smaller biotechs, most medical professionals have the transferrable skills necessary to move from one to the other.    

The Fuzzy Frontier Between Pharma and Biotech

Many people, especially young professionals who are new to the workforce, think that pharma and biotech are two vastly different entities. But according to experts, they're now more similar than ever. 

Spiro Rombotis, President and CEO of Cyclacel Pharmaceuticals, said there is a “fuzzy frontier” between pharmaceuticals and biotechs. A 36-year veteran of the life sciences world, Rombotis joined Cyclacel in 1997 after leaving Bristol Myers Squibb.  One of the first biotechs he worked for, Centercor, has since been acquired by Johnson & Johnson

“There can be confusing info from Wall Street about biotech and pharma,” Rombotis said. “Young people often think they’re two different industries. The reality is we both follow the same regulations and the same standards. We both are an industry to serve patients, but also congress and the law. It’s a complex ecosystem”. 

This is evident based on many well-established pharmaceuticals that now have biotech divisions. So, if you’re considering a move from one to the other, your hard qualifications are likely sufficient to make the jump.  What's more important is that your soft skills are suitable for the role you want. 

Advantages of Working in Biotech

Rob Etherington, President and CEO of Clene Nanomedicine, agreed that the delineation between both worlds has become increasingly blurred. With almost 30 years of experience in the life sciences industry, Etherington first began his career at Actelion Pharmaceuticals before becoming Clene’s founding CEO. 

“Big pharma and biotech are symbiotic,” Etherington said. “They rely on each other; people have different talents and resources they can share.” 

However, both Rombotis and Etherington pointed out there are still distinct differences between the two. These differences, he said, can be advantageous to those in the biotech sphere. 

  1.  Biotechs are laser-focused. 

While large pharma companies often have multiple projects on the go, biotechs are usually focused on one singular area.  Cyclacel, for instance, is solely focused on “the development of cancer medicines based on cell cycle, transcriptional regulation, and mitosis biology.” 

Rombotis said “the fundamental difference is decisions get made faster”, whereas a pharma company may take much longer to choose their next direction. 

Etherington was succinct in discussing the difference in biotechs. “Biotechs are laser-focused. If that’s what you’re looking for, then biotech is for you." 

  1. Biotechs Come With Greater Control

Thanks to their smaller size and laser focus, there’s a greater ability for biotechs to have control over their own decisions.  As Rombotis put it, biotechs can “steer the ship more quickly”. 

While larger pharma companies have many levels of decision-making that can bring progress to a crawl, biotechs usually don’t have that problem.  With fewer executives and shareholders, biotech leaders often feel like they have more control over their vision.  

Etherington used Clene’s research as an example.

“The advantage of doing kind of cutting-edge scientific research, like we are, is that you can pivot a little faster than you can in a larger ship, you're in a bit of a speedboat,” Etherington said. He stressed, though, that biotechs often work with big pharma companies to accomplish their goals. Nevertheless, the feeling of control biotech researchers often feel is palpatible. 

  1. Biotechs are Innovation Leaders 

By their very nature, biotechs often focus their medical research on areas that may have been overlooked. “Orphaned” causes and underfunded research areas often become their primary focus.

As a result of their research, biotechs become innovation leaders. When their research is a success, larger pharma companies often follow suit. 

Etherington cited ALS research as an example of this innovation. “We sit now at a renaissance of ALS discovery. There are multiple companies that are focused on this space. But again, the vast majority of them are biotech companies that are doing completely novel approaches.” 

“30 years ago, monoclonal research was first on the chopping block,” Rombotis pointed out. “Now, it’s a multimillion-dollar field”. 

Disadvantages of Working in Biotech

The same things that make life in the biotech sphere so appealing, however, also bring its greatest disadvantage: a higher risk of failure. 

With multiple research streams on the go, large pharma companies can easily cull one area if it isn’t producing the expected results.  Since biotechs are often focused on just one area, though, the fallout from a failed project can be much more detrimental. 

“In biotech, we’re constantly balancing project management with risk management”, Rombotis said.  This can give biotech employees a sense of instability and insecurity that they might not feel in a larger pharma company. 

Etherington acknowledged that a biotech’s singular focus can bring more risk. “Laser focus drives results, but if there's a failure, that same laser focus means there's not a lot of residual money, time or other pipeline bandwidth to take up the slack and failure.”  

Which Industry is Better for You?

So how do you know if you’re better suited to life in a pharma company or if you’re ready to jump to the biotech world?  That all comes down to your personal preferences…and your transferable skills. 

“Preference (between biotechs and pharma) really depends on the person”, Rombotis stressed.  “Ultimately, classifications are artificial. Biotechs and pharma both follow the same regulations and same standards.” 

Since similar hard qualifications are needed for both the pharma and biotech spheres, anyone who wants to make the leap into biotech should focus on their soft skills to make an impression. 

Biotechs are often on the cutting edge of innovative medicine, but with fewer dollars in the coffers and fewer people to help share responsibilities, the stakes can be higher. 

“I’d say that anyone who wants to join a biotech should have three things,” Etherington said. “Resilience, the willingness to wear multiple hats, and a high tolerance for risk”. 

If you’re ready to be flexible, take on multiple duties and push medical discoveries to higher frontiers, then working in biotech is right for you. 

The Takeaway

There are more similarities between pharmaceutical companies and biotechs than you might first think.  If you’re hoping to make the move from pharma to biotech, then focus on the soft skills needed to thrive in a biotech environment.  Resiliency, willingness to take on multiple roles and the anticipation of potential risk are the most important assets you need to succeed in biotech. Ultimately, the goals of pharma and biotech are the same: to serve patients and save lives. 

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