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Size Matters: Why a Biotech's Size Can Affect Your Career

5/4/2017 3:13:33 PM

Size Matters: Why a Biotech's Size Can Affect Your Career May 11, 2017
By Mark Terry, Breaking News Staff

The general, often romantic view of a biotech company is that of a scrappy two or three-person company with a great idea and small staff willing to work around the clock to bring that great idea to fruition. And it’s not wrong. There are plenty of small biotech companies that fit that description.
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And it’s also true that Genentech (RHHBY), a member of the Roche Group (RHHBY), with its 13,300 employees and 35 products on the market, is also a biotech company.

From almost every perspective—except for the loose definition of using biological agents to develop therapeutics—they are two different types of companies. And in deciding what career you want in life sciences, knowing the difference is important.

Pros and Cons of Small Companies vs. Large Companies
Just a Cog
Pay & Benefits
Slow to Change
Sideways Movement

Small Companies


1. Visibility

If you’re one of a dozen employees, everyone knows each other. That can be a positive, particularly in terms of having your contributions recognized. Dean Medley, senior vice president of recruiting at Medical Methods told “Every success you have in a small business is magnified by a hundred. When you land a new account, it’s a huge deal.”

2. Agility

Not just for the company, but for you as an employee. Want to get the attention of the head of the company for approval on a project if there’s 10,000 employees? Good luck. In a dozen. Knock on her door.

3. Variety

Quite likely, at a larger company, you will have very specific duties, possibly as part of a team. For a small company, you may have to do more things—not just research-and-development work, but regulatory documentation, business management and potentially some sales and marketing activities … as well as fixing the copy machine and updating the computers’ antiviral software.


1. Visibility

Wait! We said that was a plus. And it is. Until you screw up. There’s nothing fun about making a big mistake and having every single member of the company know about it.

2. Pay & Benefits

Some smaller biotechs may pay competitively with larger companies, some may not. But it would be a rare for a small company to be able to offer similar benefits, including health insurance, time off, paid vacation and retirement plans that match larger companies. On the other hand, the possibility of some sort of profit-sharing and/or stock options for a smaller biotech company is probably greater than at a larger company.

3. Infrastructure

A small biotech company may have no such thing as a human resources or legal department. That means that if you’re having problems with someone on the staff, there’s no infrastructure for dealing with problems.

4. Volatility

There are a number of terms associated with small biotech companies. One is “unicorn.” That’s a company with a single product. The problem with that is not only all your eggs are in one basket, you only have one egg. And if somewhere in preclinical or clinical trials that product is found to be unviable, the company is likely to go under. Related terms often associated with small biotech companies include “runway” and “cash burn,” which are essentially the same thing—how much money do they have to operate. Small biotech startups are typically funded by venture capital investors with a finite amount of money hoping to get to a point where they can license a product, sell the company or take it public. “Cash runway” refers to how much money they have and “cash burn” relates to how fast they’re spending it.

Agenovir: Profile of a Small Company

Founded in 2014 and located in San Diego, Agenovir focuses on developing human therapeutics for diseases associated with, or caused by, latent or persistent viral reservoirs. It’s using CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing technology to develop topical treatments for diseases like cytomegalovirus, cervical-cancer causing human papillomavirus and other viral infections. The company was based on targeted nuclease technology licensed from the laboratory of Stephen Quake at Stanford University.

According to Crunchbase, the company has six employees, four of whom are the founders. However, its LinkedIn page indicates 11 to 50 employees, although only 10 are listed. On May 17, 2016, the company closed on a Series A financing round worth $10.6 million. Investors included Celgene (CELG), Data Collective and Lightspeed Venture Partners.

Agenovir must be growing, because it currently has two job postings in South San Francisco for Scientist/Senior Scientist — Bioanalytical (DMPK) and Research Associate - Biochemistry, Gene Editing, Drug Discovery and Development.

Large Companies


1. Structure

Because you’re part of something that’s been in existence for a while, you can concentrate on your specific duties instead of building a new company. And as a result, you’re not inventing the wheel every time you do something—the company already has a procedure and approach to handling things.

2. Benefits

As mentioned regarding smaller companies, the pay may or may not be the same, but the benefits at a larger company are usually better. You won’t have to pay as much for your health insurance, and things like paid time-off, vacations, and retirement are likely to be better than at a small startup.

3. Sideways Movement

If your job doesn’t quite work out, you can usually move to a different department or change positions. You might be able to move upwards as well. Small companies don’t usually allow for that.

4. Stability

Generally speaking, larger biotech companies have been around for a while and likely have multiple products on the market—they’re not just R&D companies, they’re also commercial companies that sell and market products, which means they’re bringing in revenue. As a result, although a failed clinical trial or research program won’t be a cause for celebration, it’s unlikely to sink the company.


1. Just a Cog

Although many large companies are naturally broken into smaller divisions, units, and departments, it can be easy to feel lost in the bigger machine, to feel that your role has no impact on the larger mission of the company.

2. Slow to Change

As has often been noted, no one turns an aircraft carrier on a dime. Or, for that matter, stop and start. As Eric Ravenscraft wrote in Lifehacker, “Shaking things up at a big company can take a lot of time. Even if your company is open to new ideas (which isn’t always a given), getting your department to move to a new model or create a product cane take a lot of time.”

3. Isolation

Although it can seem odd to feel isolated in a company with thousands of people, the fact is you’ll be working with a lot of people you don’t know—and many of them will make decisions about your career, whether it’s the company’s chief executive officer, someone in human resources, or even someone in a different part of the company in a different country. Ravenscraft notes, “A good company will provide a method for employees to voice serious concerns to upper management, but this isn’t always guaranteed or effective.”

4. Bosses

A company with a handful of people will have a boss, maybe two, but in reality, a company that small will have to work as a team with quite a bit of interplay on roles and direction. This can be much different at a large company, where there can be layers and layers of middle management and assorted program directors, project directors, department heads, division heads, team leaders, etc. It’s not necessarily worse than a small company, but it’s most definitely different.

Amgen: Profile of a Large Company

Headquartered in Thousand Oaks, Calif., Amgen is the sixth-largest independent biotech company by market cap in the world. It has a presence in about 100 countries and has six therapeutic areas: cardiovascular disease, oncology, bone health, neuroscience, nephrology and inflammation. It employs about 20,000 people worldwide and in 2016 reported total revenue of $23 billion. It has over a dozen products it markets, including Enbrel, Epogen, Kyprolis, Neulasta and Repatha. lists 38 currently jobs with Amgen (AMGN), including Global Marketing Manager — Bone Health, Senior Associate Scientist-PKDM and Senior Associate Scientist-Quantitative Molecular Biologist.

Some people will be happier working for a smaller company, where each day may be different and you have the potential excitement of building something from the ground up, or you may prefer the stability and opportunities a larger company offers. One is not better than the other, just different.

Mark Stephens, founder and chief executive officer of IDR Solutions, writing for OnStartups, said, “Make a list and see how many ‘cherished ambitions’ you can stick to or whether you finally succumb and realize that you also need to have ‘middle’ management to make things work.”

The choice is yours.

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