Rising from the Ashes of Pfizer: The Michigan Contract Research Organization Cluster
[Updated and corrected: 11:30 am, 7/7/10] Michigan suffered one heck of a body blow in January 2007. That’s when Pfizer, the world’s largest drugmaker, said it was shutting down its Ann Arbor, MI, research and development center, and eliminating 2,400 jobs.
That’s usually the end of the story, as hardly anybody keep tracks of what happens to a talented group of people like that as they scatter to the wind. But many of the people who honed their skills inside Pfizer and other big companies have found new entrepreneurial outlets to keep doing what they do best at a growing array of contract research organizations (CROs).
Biotech companies, and giant drugmakers like Pfizer, get all the glory when they take risks to come up with billion-dollar molecules that aspire to change the standards of medicine. But behind the scenes in the life sciences industry, there’s a big network of contract research organizations that often perform a lot of the tasks that are critical to making it all happen, such as animal tests, clinical trial design, biostatistics, and more. Established life sciences clusters, like San Francisco and Boston, are teeming with these folks, and there is an emerging cluster of these operators in Michigan as well, filled with people who learned the industry at Pfizer and Parke-Davis before that.
“There is this resource now in Michigan where you can draw on the expertise of the former Pfizer/Parke-Davis,” says Bill Sibold, the CEO of Lycera, a venture-backed company in Plymouth, MI developing drugs for autoimmune diseases. “People don’t think Michigan has this capability, but Michigan does have the capability.”
Contract research organizations have a tough job, especially as the pharmaceutical R&D market becomes increasingly globalized, making it easier for high-quality and low-cost competitors from China and India to grab contracts. But there is an advantage of working with people in close proximity to the innovator company, and being in the same time zone, Sibold says.
To get a handle on just who some of the CROs in Michigan are, and what they do, I asked Lycera founder Gary Glick to provide a few names. He came back with a list of 17 organizations in Michigan that Lycera alone has worked with, and there are more out there, plus individual consultants, he says.
Here’s the list I’ve assembled so far with help from the Lycera guys, with just a brief description I was able to gather from their websites or other sources. If you have any suggestions of CROs based in Michigan that could be added to this list, just send me a note at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
AA PharmaSyn. This company, founded in 2006 and based in Ann Arbor, MI, is a global chemistry contract research organization. The three senior business and science leaders—Helen Lee, Xue-min Cheng, and Gary Bolton—are all veterans of the former Pfizer R&D center in Michigan.
ADMETRx. This Kalamazoo, MI-based firm helps drugmakers pick candidate molecules that have the best chance of navigating through the clinical trial process required by the FDA. Co-founders Philip Burton and Jay Goodwin both got experience at Pfizer through the former Upjohn Company.