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Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

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Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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January 7, 2007

Good Stuff and Bad Stuff

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Posted by Derek

It's been a while since I opened up the floor on a general question, so I thought I'd toss a couple out. Since thoughts of leaving one company and starting up at another (yet-to-be-determined) one are much on my mind, I'd like to target the industrial side of my readership with these:

What's the one thing about your company's research culture that you'd change if you could?
This can range from things that just plain get on your nerves all the way up to grave structural failures that you think will eventually take the whole place down. You don't necessarily have to offer a solution, partly because too many of those might involve building a catapult to launch specific people into the trees, but if you have something specific in mind, feel free. "Buy enough crates to ship the entire (X) Department to Zanzibar", though, isn't necessarily the appropriate level of specificity, but hey, if that would do the trick. . .

And then there's:
What's one research-related thing that you think your company really gets right?

Even companies with problems generally have at least one or two parts that seem to be working well. Uncommon examples would be particularly useful, because there might actually be something that everyone else could swipe.

Comments (26) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Drug Industry History | Life in the Drug Labs


1. Bruce Hamilton on January 8, 2007 3:40 AM writes...

I'd change the perception that research milestones are more predictable by adding more managers and having more meetings, and that the milestones will conveniently arrive in 12 month packets within budgets set by administrative managers.

The best feature is the active mentoring of fresh researchers by enthusiastic, experienced staff.

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2. anon on January 8, 2007 9:23 AM writes...

From a chemistry associate (med chem) point of view:

I think that we got a little too hung up on numbers a few years ago, but fortunately it seems to have relaxed during recent years.

I appreciate having had the opportunity to do some scale up work. It is useful to have perspective beyond a few hundred mg's or so, and I doubt that I would have had this opportunity elsewhere.

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3. Eric on January 8, 2007 9:49 AM writes...

I'd get rid of management Holy Cows--those things that management claim to be true, but the rank and file know to be overstated to the point of innacuracy. Often, influential managers use the "successes" of the Holy Cows as brag points to advance their careers, so reality checks are strictly off limits. When the inevitable failures come (often the same project that was a "success" a year ago), they are quietly swept under a rug for political expediency. "Because I say so" is not the scientific method.

This was a real problem when I was (until recently) at Merck. It lowers morale and prevents creative solutions to problems when scientists are forced to use the wrong tools even when they know they are wrong.

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4. milkshake on January 8, 2007 3:10 PM writes...

One thing that I think the institute got right when starting medicinal chemistry department over here: They hired couple of young PhDs of similar age, all of them with few years of industry experience. The hiring was not just based on the competence - contributing factor was that these people knew each other and got selected so that they could get along. They were working together as one group for about year and half, and there was a big pressure to produce results fast. After this initial period the medicinal chemists were promoted, the group was split into four subgroups and each boss then got one project, and got to hire his asociates.

Another thing that helped was the genosity - we could buy what we needed, including a good LC/MS, two 400MHz Brukers, a lyo, couple of HPLCs and Combiflash stations. We were never told to spend less on chemicals, use less solvents or not to buy glassware. They gave us a decent online journal list, Beilstein, Scifinder and MDL-ISIS/ACD database of commercial chemicals and Patent Hunter subscription.

One thing I would change is to make the system for registering and submiting compounds less bureacratic - if one is not rewarded for making more compounds, one should be at least not be unnecessarily annoyed for making too many.

So Derek, I think the thing you need to do for your future company is to get good people that you know will work well together, that will be confortable with their positions at the company in terms of their careers and who are still young and enthusiastic to do lots of chemistry in the hood by themselves. But it helps if they have few years of experience from pharma industry - and that means higher salary than somebody fresh out of school. You also need to have close and friendly relation between chemists and biologists doing the screening. You need to make the place pleasant so that your people won't mind to come into the lab over weekend if it is needed and you need to bribe them with free food and occasional flattery to make them feel appreciated.

Few pompous characters with hungry egos or one cheap pushy boss will easily spoil the job enjoyment for the rest. I have seen this in dramatic contrast at Celera - despite the fact that Celera paid on average better than SUGEN, and had on average better chemists and more interesting molecules, it was an awful place to work and this all was because some nasty ambitious and bulshit-spewing people in management.

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5. Srikanth on January 8, 2007 4:20 PM writes...

"who are still young and enthusiastic to do lots of chemistry in the hood by themselves"

People at American company must always be young and enthuusisatic. I agree. I am 31 and almost old man. Have 4-5 years left in career but will return to India a rich man. (I tell no-one my arms get tired sometimes after 10 hours with extraction). So I agree fire all old people and keep hiring only young. Unlimited supply in India, though many think they get a good deal with Chinese. Only one big brain needed to create million ideas.

See Celgene is hiring. Note picture in link is good one. Shows you must kneel down and not be trouble maker but servent only. Just listen to boss, do whatever he says and know he has the biggest brain in the room. Americans dont realize this so stay unemployed. Own fault. Blow up picture and put on wall.

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6. milkshake on January 8, 2007 4:24 PM writes...

Sasha Baron-Cohen is the guy behind Srikanth and Borat

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7. Chrispy on January 8, 2007 7:53 PM writes...

Having worked at both a small and large company, the one thing which really strikes me about the latter is how important your particular micro-environment is. So I wouldn't over-generalize on the big ones.

Now I will over-generalize on the small ones: as much as I really liked being able to have a real impact at a small company, all small companies over hype their stuff. This is understandable but can be annoying if you are attracted to science as a way of finding Truth.

The other issue with small companies is that they tend to evolve, to the real detriment of the worker-bees involved. Research is great until they have a product -- then it's out with the researchers and in with the marketers. On the other hand, if you are higher-level at a small company you could, of course, strike it rich.

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8. MolecularArchitect on January 8, 2007 11:29 PM writes...

Two comments both related to Milkshake's first comment.

First is the notion that young chemists will be more enthusiastic and productive than their older peers. I've been in the business since 1984 so I am now one of the "old chemists". The fact is I am still enthusiastic and productive as were many of my "old" colleagues through the years. I've seen many non-productive young and old chemists. I've seen many newly graduated chemists who are excellent synthesis chemists but I have never seen one who was a good medicinal chemist. That takes experience, several years at least and, most importantly, working with good mentors. Sadly, what I've learned since being laid off one year ago is that most companies don't value experience. They think they can save money by hiring new graduates - a false economy given the need for rapid progress.

Secondly, it's interesting how people can experience the same culture at the same time and have completely different perceptions of it. I deduced Milkshake's identity from his comments and the fact that we were both at Celera. Although there were issues with the larger corporate picture, I found the MedChem department to be a terrific place to work. Of course, he experienced it at the RA level whereas I was in middle management (although still very active at the bench). It might surprise him to know that the majority of his colleagues (including the directors and group leaders) considered him to be a top-notch chemist. It may also surprise him to know that many also found him to be arrogant and a difficult person with whom to work. His sudden departure was due to his naiveté about corporate culture in general. He gave notice well in advance of his desired departure and was promptly shown the exit. Never give notice earlier than required! Although I don't agree with this policy, it is common and I've seen it in large, small and medium companies. This is not intended as an attack on Milkshake as I also think highly of his scientific abilities. Rather it is to emphasize that individual success in industry depends upon many factors other than scientific skill, especially people and political skills. This is precisely where Milkshake's weakness lies. This same weakness is all too common in middle and upper management. It’s the personal relationships that determine the culture and, ultimately, success or failure.

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9. eugene on January 9, 2007 12:54 AM writes...

I'm sorry to feed the troll, but Srikanth's comment #5 actually made me laugh when I looked at the picture in the link. Now that's good comedy.

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10. KinasePro on January 9, 2007 1:41 AM writes...

To hijack the thread even further - I think the Celgene picture is of (left to right, center frame) George Muller, Hon-Wah Man, Weihong Zhang, and I don't recognize the guy in the frame, or the guy kneeling. Could be Alex Ruchelman and Roger Chen, but it looks like an old picture so its hard to say.

Real life medicinal chemists!

On good / bad stuff. Good stuff: Rewarding people for doing a good job, and meeting goals. Having a stake in the projects success is a big motivator. Bad stuf: Insecure middle managers with napolean complexes. I guess thats obvious though =/

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11. gichaba on January 9, 2007 2:33 AM writes...

Real life chemists indeed!

I can attest to personally having worked with Weihong almost eight years back!

Good to see her..

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12. milkshake on January 9, 2007 3:33 AM writes...

Hi Molecular Architect, you are right, my departure from Celera happened suddenly - I was gleaving for a new job and I gave one month's notice. As you know I was on a save-the-company-crunchtime project at Celera, the deadlines were impossible, we were awfully understaffed for what was asked from us. I though it would be decent to tell my boss (and a close friend) that he needed to start looking for replacement.

A director boss asked me to put my notice in writing on Friday (because the HR supposedly asked for it so that they could advertise an open position). Next Monday, I was called to HR and was told that my resignation was "accelerated" and I couldn’t go back to and collect my belongings. So I explained the HR how this director boss was screwing her project and her people, HR reversed the decision and I went back to lab. The chagrined director called an emergency meeting of the top management the same evening and told them that I was a real security risk and would steal intellectual property and lure other chemists away. The next morning they brought me a box gave me 10 minutes to pack.

I wrote the president some letters (like that I did not appreciate their sleaze and would they please reconsider) and promptly came a check in the mail- couple salaries over what Celera owed me. And a call from the headquarters – they informed me that I was overpaid by accident but they really did not want me to give them their money back. You know, it was not a severance, I resigned on my own but they insisted that I should keep their money just the same.

I think this final farce was done for the benefit of my colleagues - the director's worry was that if we had a going-away cake and contact address then some other people might get inspired. There were plenty of disgruntled lab chemists and I was on good terms with them, I made couple of close friends. But also there were some managers there that didn't care about chemistry and knew how to talk from both corners of their mouth. Managers that were hiding in collective irresponsibility while setting their subordinates for failure.

You know, sometimes arguing too much won’t do any good - but do you really think I enjoyed being Cassandra all the time? Do you realize that these managers wasted our work, wasted our time and the compounds we put so much hope into, and the entire company was axed in the end because the top and middles management had made a bunch of promises on which they were unable to deliver?

I am sorry that you did not experience a more human corporate atmosphere and that you continue to think that Celera in SSF was an awesome place. (Especially when considering how they did to you in the end, how they went out of their way to give you the least minimum severance possible.)

I really think that when facing this kind of corporate situation it is preferable to be difficult person - if the only other alternative is to turn into a Dilbert.

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13. Kay on January 9, 2007 6:30 AM writes...

1) bury the rule of five and other robot behavior

2) we are really good at marketing

Anyone hearing ugly rumors regarding something to come at Pfizer? January 23?

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14. TNC on January 9, 2007 9:14 AM writes...

Eric: what would you consider a management Holy Cow? Are they general trends (like Lipinski) or something else?

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15. a on January 9, 2007 10:07 AM writes...

Yes, something big is happening on the 22nd or 23rd. No idea what.

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16. MolecularArchitect on January 9, 2007 11:25 AM writes...

Hi Milkshake.

As I said, my comments were not intended as a personal attack. People often complain about "office politics". This is futile as anytime that two or more people are involved, politics exist. For better or worse, these politics determine the corporate culture and are themselves determined by the personalities of the managers. Typically, scientists are promoted to managerial positions based on technical accomplishments without consideration of their people skills. They often lack the ability to customize their management to their subordinates' individual strengths and weaknesses. The ability to fairly manage the personal interactions of their group is every bit as important as their technical leadership.

You may have guessed this already but I was on the top floor. There was a noticeable difference in the atmosphere between the groups on both floors. There were far fewer disgruntled chemists. A difference I would attribute to the leadership skills of respective directors/group leaders. This led directly to the greater success of these two groups as compared to those on the first floor. You were assigned to a project that, in my opinion, should have been stopped years earlier. At the least, more effort should have been spent on finding an alternative scaffold. Having talented people work their asses off trying to solve an intractable problem for years on end just leads to discontent.

To be successful in any company, one needs to quickly understand the culture and politics. I’m not saying to be a “Dilbert” but behavior that is perceived as arrogant or difficult will lead to problems in any organization.

As to your forced early departure: I agree that giving early notice should be the correct action. It rarely is received favorably though as I also learned the hard way. I gave my first employer, a big pharma, a month’s notice. I was immediately denied all access to databases, excluded from research meetings and required to check out with security by 5:00 every day until my departure. Boy, did that inspire me to ensure an orderly handoff of my work to my colleagues! At least you received some extra money.

This might sound discouraging but there are far worse places to work than Celera. I know this from personal experience and from our former colleagues who have landed elsewhere since the shutdown. You are right though, they did screw us on the severance, violating their own written severance policy.

The shutdown occurred despite promising results in trials with three clinical candidates and a fat bank account that would be the envy of most smaller companies. The saddest legacy is how many good, “older” chemists are still looking for employment a year later. My advice: the industry is unstable and one day you too will be an “older” chemist. Cultivate a more marketable set of skills and be prepared to move on.

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17. Al on January 9, 2007 11:57 AM writes...

How "old" would people say is "old"? [These former colleagues of yours for example?]

FWIW My pet hate is the way our cap-ex budget gets spent. For example we have a microwave reactor and some new fangled flow hydrog machine, but no glassware washer.

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18. s on January 9, 2007 12:03 PM writes...

The flow hydrogenation machine is the coolest thing ever!

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19. Harry on January 9, 2007 1:24 PM writes...

This is not exactly on topic, but one of my biggest pet peeves is the client that keeps asking "Why can't you do that? It tells you how- right there in the patent!" (usally in reference to a Russian or Japanese patent).

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20. milkshake on January 9, 2007 1:46 PM writes...

Sorry Molecular Architect - I shouldn't have complained because nothing was done to me (except for some job-related frustration; and I got out e with co-authorship on some patent applications for 9 months of employment). Whereas lots of really good people ended up without jobs and at a particulary nasty job market downturn. I used the Celera name to make point that it is not just money or interesting chemistry that makes people happy at the company, the management style, its honesty and generosity (or lack of it) can make all the difference. My short stay there was quite sad for me in this sense because the place could have been great.

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21. Eric on January 9, 2007 3:27 PM writes...

TNC: The "holy cows" I refer to are generally to programs or paradigms introduced by management to radically improve performance. Some manager who hasn't been in the lab for ten years reorganizes the department and puts some "best practices" in place, and then claims to his bosses that he/she has fundamentally changed the efficiency with which a given milestone can be met. Arguably, combinatorial chemistry may have been a global example of this, considering the buzz it got and the lack of clear results. Don't hold me to that, though--I didn't work in that side of the business, and I don't consider myself an expert here.

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22. milkshake on January 9, 2007 3:53 PM writes...

I worked at Selectide in Tucson AZ for about four years in early 90s so I have seen the birth of Combichem and also the surrounding hype. Much of it was driven by startups touting their "core technology". Dumb business-degree people bought into it because it was something they could grasp with their greedy little minds and it was something that would wirtually guarantee them an increased productivity. TWhat they did not see was the dark side, the invitation to do a sloppy chemistry and biology to ramp up the numbers of things made and screened, and the limited scope of structures that could be made in each library.

IMHO the future of combichem is in parallel synthesis of simple small molecules made one-by one by some poor drones in Russia and China. I have recently seen some impressive HTS kinase hit results from commercial libraries/collections (that have been made by those poor little people in cheap countries far away) and I became a believer in usefulness of general-purpose library screening again.

Selectide site still exists and is doing fine under the current owners (Sanofi-Aventis). From what my former colleagues told me they are making one compound per vial, only few hundreds at a time, and carefully purify everything now.

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23. Anonymous on January 9, 2007 3:56 PM writes...

something "big" at pfizer? sounds sinister. are we talking more job cuts?

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24. richard blaine on January 9, 2007 11:31 PM writes...

Pet peeve: Making the group leader job totally bureaucratic, so that even the few bright scientists that take such positions are brain-dead within 6 months. Some days I feel like I've walked into a Dilbert strip. The group leaders where I work are clueless about what their people actually do in the lab all day, and are too busy checking their budget spreadsheets to be bothered to find out, anyway.

Strong point: (derived from the pet peeve) Because our group leaders are out to lunch technically, they do not snoopervise our work, but pretty much let us try whatever we think best. This has led to some pretty amazing out-of-the-box discoveries.

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26. Ksw 31 online on April 23, 2015 9:45 AM writes...

The answer, you need to do both, here are the major reasons why

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