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by investors who care much more about short-term returns than long-term impact. They are lucky to employ 30 people at their peak, not 700.
These new models have forced a whole set of new cultural ideas onto biotech. No longer do people go in to a company like Icos, somewhat naively, thinking they’ll work there 20 years, be part of something really big and bold, and have financial security for their families. For those lucky enough to get full-time jobs with benefits, they’re aware that what’s here today could easily be gone tomorrow. They know that today’s co-workers could be gone in a heartbeat. So why bother getting to know them very well? Who has time for a company softball game or happy hour anyway?
Henney noted that he re-connected with a former Icos employee this week who told him she now works at Oncothyreon (NASDAQ: ONTY). This person pointed out that the company (where Henney is chairman of the board) was appealing in part because it had a decent amount of cash, which meant it could operate for at least a couple years.
It’s understandable that people would want to grasp for a branch of stability in an unstable world, but that answer from a biotech employee is a revealing one. It says that people have been burned before, and everybody in biotech now does the cold-eyed financial analysis before pouring their heart and soul into anything.
“That’s the kind of level of perception that wouldn’t have occurred to first-generation people,” Henney says.
Some of this is clearly for the better. Surely, it would be foolish to get overly nostalgic about the past. There was a huge amount of waste in first-generation biotech companies from the ‘80s. Like many others, I’ve opined here about how biotech needs to do a better job at reducing the time/expense/risk equation that’s the great bugaboo of drug development. Some of these new business models are imposing a focus and discipline that in many ways is healthy, and should better serve patients and society. Maybe it’s just part of the natural way of the world, as people become wiser and more cautious with age and experience.
But I still can’t let go of the amazing can-do spirit that I saw in that room of Icos alumni this week. It’s a powerful thing. While few people are in a position to feel so good about their current jobs, there’s still tremendous human spirit in the people who work in biotech. It was obvious in the exciting early days of the industry. And it’s still there, if you just scratch a little below the surface. The best entrepreneurs and investors today understand that. As we head into the holiday season, it’s my hope that industry leaders find a way to keep that spirit alive and well.
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