Justin Dragoo is Director of Client Development at Actalent. He's an industry expert with 15 years of experience in pharmaceutical and biotechnology. In this interview, he answers questions and offers insights about the state of both sectors, including:
- Factors driving growth in pharmaceuticals and biotechnology
- Innovation, personalized medicine, and the role small companies are playing in orphan drug development
- Emerging R&D hubs and new career paths in both sectors
- Industry shifts toward upskilling as the search for talent widens
Q: What forces are driving growth in pharmaceutical and biotechnology sectors?
A: First, you have incredible levels of innovation in technology, especially around biotechnology. Then you have changes in FDA regulations opening up commercial opportunities for small- and mid-size companies, specifically around the 'orphan drug' category. Then you have an increasingly aging population, which creates an increasing demand for life-extending treatment therapies. Finally, we see the speed around FDA drug approval processes adjusting, and new models of collaboration among drug companies, universities, hospitals, and venture capital investment groups. It's a perfect storm, in a positive way, for industry growth.
Q: How are companies leveraging these driving forces?
A: The pharmaceutical and biotech companies are leveraging all these factors of innovation, investment, and market opportunity to perfect their product lifecycle model. The typical lifecycle moves from pre-clinical trial, into clinical trials and, if successful, into product manufacturing. Historically this meant that only drugs that promised a certain level of return on investment (ROI) would continue beyond trials into manufacturing. This ROI was a calculation of how many patients were projected to need the drug, usually around 200,000. Drugs that didn't pass this threshold were not brought to market; they became what's called ‘orphan drugs.
What this meant was the most prevalent diseases and types of cancer were receiving the most attention, while rare diseases were not. Recent regulatory changes provide an incentive to smaller pharmaceutical companies that are eager to leverage the existing preclinical development, trial data, and intellectual property developed by the original company. Smaller companies can pick up these drugs and complete their journey to market at a fraction of the typical cost. For patients with more rare diseases, this is a very positive development. The industry is now able to develop personalized medicine. As targeted therapy becomes more affordable, immense life-saving promise is extended to even more people.
Q: San Francisco, Boston, Raleigh-Durham, and metro areas in the Mid-Atlantic are well known pharmaceutical and biotechnology hubs. Have other places emerged as hot spots?
A: Yes! We are finding rich pockets of pharmaceutical and biotechnology development across the U.S. Cities like Denver have entered the picture. Iowa and the Midwest are emerging, too. These places are offering just as much opportunity and innovation. You don't have to move to the coasts to work in these fields — your dream job might be closer to home than you expect.
Q: So pharmaceutical and biotechnology hubs are expanding. What about careers?
A: There are career paths opening at every level within both sectors. One of the biggest areas of growth includes mid-level positions within life sciences. We not only service top technical positions requiring a PhD, but we also see high demand in entry and mid-level positions that might not have major technical requirements.
It's incredible, the range of job opportunities in this expanding industry. For people graduating high school and unsure about a career path, it can be an ideal option. We recommend they have at least their associate degree, combined with a passion for helping people to get the journey started. Actalent's relationships with the biggest and the most innovative pharmaceutical companies across the globe allow us to provide a generation of workers with the chance to prove themselves.
Q: Do you have any insight to offer those in, or exploring, a career in the pharmaceutical or biotechnology sectors?
Unlike some other more traditional industries, we see leading pharmaceutical companies encouraging their more entry-level workers to bring out-of-the-box thinking to the job. As an example, one of Actalent's more creative quality assurance technicians began to ask questions about select data to understand the purpose. Based on those questions, she spotted trends that others had missed. Her findings spared the company more than six months of costly rework before it became a problem for the organization, or worse — delayed delivery to market. Her insight not only saved a therapy development program, but it likely saved lives as well.
In this industry, like so many others, curiosity can be a key character trait, especially if it';s encouraged by the company. One of Actalent';s microbiologists in a pharma organization suspected there might be a better, faster, and more efficient way to analyze testing data. He created a model algorithm that ended up reducing the time to process and analyze data from 80 hours to four. This is an evolving industry where challenging the existing perspective is changing how science is being done.
Q: With talent scarce across industries, "upskilling" is a term we hear often lately. Are you seeing real-world examples of "upskilling" in pharmaceutical and biotechnology, or is it just a buzzword?
A: Upskilling is starting to happen within pharmaceuticals. There's a huge and still growing workforce of extremely valuable people bridging the gap between the pure science people and the patients in market. As an example, we work with a company that has built a massive facility, a cleanroom where we've provided more than 100 lab technicians that 'gown-up' each shift to process tissue. This tissue goes on to be used in surgery, on burn victims and skin disease patients, for general wounds, and in countless other applications. These technicians, many with associate degrees or certifications, but lacking bachelor's degrees, are being taught and trained to perform critical work, expanding upon their initial qualifications. They are the engine of the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industry. They know what they do is impacting people's lives in the most essential ways imaginable. And all they needed to get their start was the character and commitment to apply themselves with passion to their career.