Education

Wanted: biotech brains

An industry boom offers unprecedented opportunity

Susan McClelland August 16 1999
Education

Wanted: biotech brains

An industry boom offers unprecedented opportunity

Susan McClelland August 16 1999

Wanted: biotech brains

An industry boom offers unprecedented opportunity

Education

When Cliff McIntosh headed to the first-ever Biofair in Toronto this spring, he had few expectations. Only weeks from graduating with an honours bachelor of science in biology, the University of Western Ontario student was planning to pursue an MBA— in his words, “a more career-oriented degree.” But his visit to the Biofair— designed to link science graduates with industry— changed those plans.

McIntosh, 23, was one of three B.Sc. students who landed plum positions with CroMedica Inc., a Victoria-based company that conducts clinical trials for pharmaceutical companies. By October,

CroMedica expects to hire another 30 employees— many of whom will hold a B.Sc. “There are not many people in Canada with the experience we need,” says Lara Krupka, director of clinical operations. “Our industry is hot right now, and its the B.Sc. student who will fill the holes in the industry—one who is willing to be trained and to be moved around.”

McIntosh and his peers are benefiting from the unprecedented boom in Canadian-owned biotech and pharmaceutical companies. According to a report by BioteCanada, one-fifth of the available Canadian positions in 1998 remain unfilled in the country’s $1-billion biotechnology industry. And while investment in research has been strong—$985 million in 1997—investment in the $48-billion U.S. industry has been much stronger: in that same year, $12 billion was pumped into

American labs for research and development. For that reason, cross-border shopping for graduates has become a reality. Says Martin Moskovits, former chairman of the University of Toronto’s chemistry department: “If things are

good in Canada, you can bet things are better in the United States.”

One company sorely aware of the competition is Apotex Inc., the largest Canadian-owned pharmaceutical company. Based in Toronto, it has roughly 3,000 employees across the country. In the past two and a half years alone, Apotex filled 800 positions and is in the process of hiring for another 100. Meanwhile, JDS Fitel Inc., an Ottawa-based firm that designs and manufactures fibre-

optic components, hired more than 1,000 employees in the past year. Last month, that company merged with an American firm, to form JDS Uniphase Corp., but the Ottawa office will continue with its newly launched mentorship program: 40 full-time employees, hired from the graduating class of 1999, shadow senior employees for a one-year period, rotating departments every four months to give them a variety of experience. At the end of the year, the company makes an appropriate permanent placement. “It’s inevitable that there will be a gap between an undergraduate’s experience and what we need them to do,” says John Reid, director of advanced devices. “But we’re prepared to hire the employee with a vision for tomorrow’s innovation.” The pool of talent available to these companies is relatively small. According to the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, the number of students graduating with a B.Sc. in the physical sciences and biological sciences has increased only slightly in the past decade—certainly not enough to meet the needs of the industry. For the new grad, this means a starting salary of up to $45,000 and expanded career opportunities. Before starting as a clinical operations assistant in CroMedica’s Ottawa office in May, McIntosh had expected that an entry-level position would mean playing second fiddle to those in charge of research. Instead, McIntosh is expected to prepare reports for sponsoring agencies on clinical trials. As well, he plays a pivotal role in ensuring that investigative teams, across the country and in the United States, follow industry and internal regulations. In other words, his career aspirations of mixing business and science have already become a reality. “Because CroMedica is new,” says McIntosh, “there is a lot of opportunity for us to express our own ideas, and freedom to achieve specific career goals.” For the enterprising, the time is ripe.

Susan McClelland