A number of years ago, PCI Synthesis, now a part of Seqens CDMO North America, endowed a summer research internship at Clark University, an academic institution an hour outside of Boston. It was done at the behest of Mark Turnbull, PhD, a chemistry professor in the university’s Carlson School of Chemistry and Biochemistry, in lieu of compensation for the help he generously provided to the then young CRO. Fast forward 25 years and that mutually beneficial relationship has endured, even as PCI Synthesis grew, prospered, and became part of international chemistry juggernaut Seqens.
“Without Mark’s opening his lab to us in those first 4-5 years, PCI Synthesis may not have become the multi award-winning CDMO that became such a good fit for Seqens’ expansion into the U.S.,” said Nayan Amin, PhD, head of R&D, who has been with the company for 25 years.
Clark students have also benefitted. Each year, a Clark student spends three months gaining invaluable experience working full time on projects, either in Seqens CDMOs labs and manufacturing facilities or at the university, and several have been hired after completing their PhDs.
Motivating students to study chemistry and other sciences is critically important, especially for the CDMO and pharmaceutical industries, which face tremendous headwinds as students continue to choose careers in high tech or other disciplines over those in the life sciences. Everywhere—in trade publications, in the media, and within the industry, there is a lot of handwringing about the shortage of skilled workers. Headlines such as “Life Science Industry Threatened by Skills Shortage,” Skills Shortage: An Imminent Threat to Life Sciences Innovation,” “A Worker Shortage for Life Sciences,” paint a dire picture for the industry’s future. It’s a nationwide problem that impacts not only the ability to develop new therapies but also has economic implications for many state and local economies.
The question is how to convince young people to take the more challenging STEM courses in high school and college so that for the rest of their working years they can enjoy fulfilling work, well-paying jobs and long-lasting careers in a strategically important industry.
That it hasn’t happened in the past 10 years is evident from the statistics. Massachusetts, where Seqens North America operates, exemplifies the problem. In a report by the Massachusetts Biotech Educational Foundation, demand for candidates with PhDs has risen 140% since 2010, but the number of PhDs earned during that period has remained flat. Likewise, job demand at the bachelor’s and associate’s level has increased 120 and 140 percent, respectively, but the supply of job candidates remains well below the demand.
There are various remedies, both long-term and short-term, from apprenticeships to making schools more accountable for preparing students to offering incentives to study the sciences. As an industry CDMOs need to continue to be creative. Let’s hope that the COVID pandemic has a silver lining in that it has made abundantly clear that jobs in the life sciences can be heroic.
With the Boston area’s large cluster of life sciences companies, competition for STEM graduates at all levels is particularly keen. Sponsoring a student’s summer research project does more than encourage one person a year to pursue a career in science: it provides Seqens CDMO with long-lasting benefits that continue today.
Over the years, our relationship with Clark University has provided us with the type of hiring opportunities we particularly value: PhDs who are just entering the workforce. These are people who were motivated enough to study sciences in college, then spend another five or six years earning advanced degrees. Because they did not come to us from another company already set in their ways, we have had the opportunity to teach these scientists to do things our way, which we, in all humility, believe to be the right way to develop new chemistry.
In the same way as we implement a “right first time” approach to API synthetic route selection, we want to teach new hires best practices in API development and manufacturing. As we bring them along, providing challenging and rewarding work and career opportunities, chances are they’ll stay with us for 20-plus years, as much of our staff has.
We have hired people from local universities including Clark University, University of New Hampshire, and University of Massachusetts campuses, and it has worked out well for them and for us. These are good schools whose students are well prepared. For our new hires, another major benefit is they can remain in their communities, close to family and friends.
“Our relationship with Seqens has provided such a huge benefit to our students. The internship program that they have supported for more years than I can count has allowed so many students the opportunity to get deeply involved in chemistry research and the vast majority have then chosen to either go into industrial positions or on to graduate study after finishing their Clark degree, Prof. Turnbull commented. “We have also benefitted from seminar presentations by Seqens staff, introducing our students to Industrial Chemistry, very different from how things are done in an academic research lab. Add to this the number of students, both bachelor’s and PhDs, who have then had their first jobs at Seqens and you realize the enormous benefit that they have been given through the collaboration.”
We have also derived other significant benefits from our university collaborations.
There have been times when, while developing and scaling novel molecules, we have encountered technical issues around particle size, crystalline formation, or polymorphs. Years ago, we helped Clark University purchase an X-ray diffraction apparatus. For many years, the university graciously performed polymorph screens in their labs for our molecules. Not only did they provide free testing but also critical interpretation of results, which was very helpful to projects and useful in Drug Master File (DMF) submissions to the FDA.
“We actually think this goes the other way,” Turnbull says. “The training that we can provide to our students collecting and interpreting this data for Seqens is outstanding and an extra benefit to their education.”
This ongoing relationship has another advantage. Former students have maintained contact with their academic mentors and, in so doing, met the new PhD candidates working in the universities’ labs, which help us in our recruitment efforts.
Companies that are involved in scientific endeavors oftentimes need access to highly specialized scientific expertise—in chemistry, chemical engineering, or access to cross-disciplinary insights.
With our heavy emphasis on polymers and characterization of organic molecules, we have been able to take advantage of nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy analyses at local universities with which we have developed long-standing relationships.
Seqens CDMO is fortunate to be in the Boston area, where we can derive a great deal of value from tapping into some of the lesser-known universities whose scientists and whose work we have found to be are on a par with any of the area’s better known educational institutions. These mutually beneficial relationships have blossomed in unexpected ways. Our modest start, sponsoring a summer fellowship, led to NMR access, x-ray diffraction studies, and a pipeline of PhDs we wound hiring and training. From a technical and productivity standpoint these PhDs are our best performers, hands down, which is of course a benefit to our sponsors. They outdo and outperform chemists from other CMOs and CDMOs we encounter.
Having experienced the benefits of these collaborations, we recently endowed another fellowship, in chemical engineering, at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. The university matched the contribution, providing the department with a $1.5M gift. Although the goal of the endowment was only to give back by fostering scientific endeavors, if history is any guide, both Seqens CDMO and the university will benefit from this new relationship in multiple ways for years to come.
Collaboration with local universities is a two-way street. Many of the benefits Seqens has enjoyed over the years we did not envision when we first began, in a modest way, to build relationships with local academic institutions. It’s not something that happened overnight but over time these relationships have blossomed into long-lasting, mutually beneficial and enduring collaborations.
If you’d like to learn more about our perspectives about hiring, check out our articles like “Five Ways to Mitigate the Job Shortages in Life Sciences,” and “The Hunt for Qualified Biotech Talent Continues.” Feel free to contact us at (978) 462-5555 or firstname.lastname@example.org.