NPR ran a recent piece on the problem of ghost towns being left in the wake of the great pharma mergers and layoffs of the last 10 years.
The facility I worked at in Bridgewater, NJ closed in 2011. I’m not sure they were able to find renters but the MBAs seemed to have a habit of overestimating what new tenants for labs space would be willing (or able) to pay. The lab buildings I worked in were beautiful with lots of natural light but they were never full. The facility I worked at previously in Monmouth Junction, NJ was also abandoned for awhile but I had heard that there were some plans to lease it. Or bulldoze it. I can’t remember which. I stand corrected. Google maps says the site is “closed”. That building was smaller and more contained. It would have been perfect for a small biotech company on the rise. It had a state of the art animal breeding facility and room for about 400 people. More than that makes it feel too cozy.
But as I wrote back in 2011, it is difficult to get funding for a startup. The vulture capitalists like to see most of the work done before they commit their money. Then there is the problem of finding money for equipment (this is cheaper due to the big pharmas auctioning off all their stuff), subscriptions to journals, buying expertise for robotic HTS assays, structural
biology, specialized analytical chemistry and ADME analysis, and every other thing that a small biotech doesn’t have in its own arsenal. A regular Joe researcher funding his own research will probably lose his house before the year is out. So, he and his colleagues don’t have a whole lot of money to spend on lab space, which despite its abundance, is going to be expensive.
In the meantime, Big Pharma is counting on graduate students living on subsistence wages to pick up the slack on what are now reduced government grants. It was hard enough to be a graduate student in Chemistry before the sequester. Now, the money is much harder to come by. For a person who may not get a decent paying job until he or she is almost 30, the prospects are bleak.
Funny how Paul Krugman doesn’t talk about this. He’s living in the heart of what was Big Pharma territory and the desolation is hard to ignore.
Some of the lame excuses that Big Pharma gives for pulling out of NJ is that it’s too far from the City and the kids nowadays want to be right in the middle of some hot urban action, complete with expensive tiny apartments that they will have to share with roommates until they retire. Also, Big Pharma has relocated to the coasts to be close to Harvard, MIT, Stanford and Scripps. That’s so they can share ideas in the areas where genomics and molecular biology are king. But this is utter bullshit. For one thing, if you are working in Cambridge, MA or San Francisco, you are precluded from talking about your work with anyone. There’s no sharing going on in the spirit of the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century. It’s all proprietary and very hush, hush. Your work won’t be published until the lawyers have taken out anything that’s remotely patentable. It could be years before you can share your big breakthrough.
Plus, there is this new fangled device called the internet. If I wanted to, I could use an online tool to order up a synthetic gene from California from the comfort of my backyard wisteria covered swing in Pittsburgh. I can access thousands of journal articles, provided I had $33/electronic copy and could get over my impulse to strangle the ACS and Elsevier every time I had to do it. I could attend meetings and conferences. My work does not depend on my location.
And here’s one more reason why pulling out of NJ to go to Boston doesn’t make sense. It’s fricking expensive. If the MBAs were trying to save money, which is what they always claim is the reason for shuttering labs, why the hell would they relocate to some of the most expensive real estate in America?? Why not go back to the midwest where the mothballed labs are still cheap? That’s where most of research was before the big mega mergers in the 90s brought everyone to the Northeast. Cinncinnati, Kalamazoo, Ann Arbor all had thriving research communities before the business people decided to manage things. Or even Pittsburgh. This place is hopping lately, it’s urban, housing is cheap and there’s plenty of mass transit.
And this is where I think we come to the crux of the matter. The relocation is about what the business people want. They don’t want to be stuck in dowdy, suburban NJ with the high property taxes and they can’t think past the rust belt image of the midwest. It’s not glamorous enough for the people who consider themselves the culture of smartness. Smartness demands that it hang around other smart people. Maybe if the business types rub shoulders with the supersmart MIT researchers, they won’t feel like they sold out their biology degrees to become finance wizards? Projection of sorts? I can only guess.
It’s also easier to jettison your workforce if you claim you HAVE to move to stay competitive. Yep, just cut those hundreds of thousands of experienced STEM workers loose when they are in middle age and have family responsibilities. Leave them stranded in NJ while their property values sink and they are stuck peddling themselves as consultants from one poverty stricken startup after another.
This is no way to treat the people who brought you Lipitor, Effexor and Allegra. And, yet, this is the way it’s going. Big Pharma sees its future as chronic illness specialists. They will charge hundreds of thousands of dollars a year for a drug that some people can’t live without and will expect insurance companies to pay for them. Think of it as sponge from some Nathan Brazil Well World novel. I know that a few of my friends are still making a living in companies that are focusing on orphan diseases and oncology but there’s something immoral about hooking up people to drugs you know they can’t live without with the goal of milking every dollar from them. I realize that research is expensive but we didn’t use to be so mercenary about it. Instead of solving the problem of out of control research costs, the new wizards of pharma finance have glommed onto cheap, dirty and unsustainable new ways to make money. Reduce your workforce to desperation, focus on the poor unfortunate chronically ill and ignore everyone else. This is the new business model.
And it is broken.
Filed under: General | Tagged: ACS, big pharma, biotech, cambridge, culture of smartness, ghost towns, Harvard, karen ho, midwest, MIT, roche, rust belt, san francisco, sponge, stanford, startup, STEM, synthetic gene, well world, wyeth | 30 Comments »