4 Empowering Lessons I Have Learned After 20+ Years in the Biopharma Industry

Most people don’t believe me when I tell them that 20+ years in the biopharmaceutical industry has made me a better person.

I suppose they’ve seen “The Constant Gardner” few many times or maybe I don’t look like a fine wine that gets better with age.

However, the fact is I’ve spent most of my working life in the drug development and manufacturing in domestic and global biopharma markets collaborating with very smart and talented lot. Invariably that has left some permanent footprints on me.

Here’re my Fantastic Four lessons.

  1. Creating something worthwhile will require time (and that’s ok)

It takes nearly 15 years to bring a new drug to market.

Between discovering at a bench scale, team supply, regulatory manufacturing (animal studies), Phase 1, 2, and 3 clinical manufacturing and trials — and assuming everything works along the way — it can easily be up to 15 years before the first patient can benefit from you labor. That’s a long time.

Assuming you’re not a workaholic with no personal life, your superpowers will only allow you to touch a small aspect of the drug development cycle. If you ran an assay or executed a chromatography column or fed a bioreactor or reviewed a batch record for a particular project today, you won’t know for years what the upshot of your work is. But if and when a new drug comes to market, it’s almost guaranteed to change and even save lives for years to come. And that makes the daily grunt totally worthwhile.

It’s the difference between a slow cooked meal and a microwave dinner. Good things take time whether it’s improving your health by diet and exercise or learning a useful skill or teaching your kids about finance or building a dream house or going back to college to finish a degree or having a loving family. Final fulfillment level is directly proportionate to the required efforts.

Over the years, I’ve become a lot more patient with the results.

2. Most beneficiaries won’t know your contribution (and that’s ok)

Unlike a baker or an auto mechanic or a dentist or an accountant, a pharmaceutical worker is unlikely to be thanked by the end customer — the patient.

In my 20+ years career, I have met exactly one person who benefitted from the my work. A gentleman at a social event who was treated with Enbrel for arthritic pain in his knuckles. When I told him that I worked on it (Enbrel, not his pain) during my early days at Pfizer (then Wyeth), he was visibly moved and shook my hand so vigorously that he nearly pulled it off the socket. It was a good day.

But I know there are countless others like him who are total strangers to me.

And then I look around in my life and see the comfort and convenience I enjoy without knowing the benefactors. The fine and hardworking people who built the dining table and sofa and kitchen counter and car and tv and cabinets and the workers who grew, picked and transported the food and everything else that makes my life worth living. I don’t know any of those people and most likely never will.

But I’m very, very grateful that they chose to do what they did that’s giving me comfort, convenience and joy everyday.

I keep them in my prayers or whatever it’s equivalent is in the Northeast.

3. Majority of your efforts will be wasted (and that’s ok)

I once attended a retirement party of a guy, let’s call him Richard, who was retiring after 40 years in the biopharma industry.

In the farewell slideshow — along with the typical embarrassing but totally awesome photos — one of the slides was all the projects he’d worked on, some 100+. The punchline was how not a single one of those drugs made it to the market.

If you just look at that just one slide, it may seem like a wasted career. However the rest of the presentation and goodbye speeches by his colleagues pointed out how smart, caring, nurturing, and hardworking Richard was and how he guided and mentored the next generation of scientists and engineers and how other projects had succeeded on the shoulders of the science and technology advanced by him. I’ve seen quite a few Gandalfs like Richard during my career.

Just because the output doesn’t do justice to the input doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a failure. You learned. You discovered. You eliminated the improbabilities. Others took it and they built on your work.

Few years back, I spent an entire winter learning oil painting. After few weeks and a lot of sessions, I came out with one good painting.

Just one.

But that was enough for me. It wasn’t a wasted winter by any means.

4. Your work will be misunderstood (and that’s ok)

If you’re doing something meaningful, be prepared to be misunderstood like a character in a romantic movie in the third act.

It’s not their fault. The other party doesn’t know all the facts and has made a judgmental call based on a snapshot of information. You’ve seen that movie too, right?

That happens in real life too. Even when you’re working on curing a cancer or Alzheimer’s disease or arthritis or rare diseases and even if you’re working late and weekends and missing social events (which might not necessarily be a bad thing for not all social events are created equal), be prepared to get crap about your work from the media and anyone with a little bit of oxygen in lungs. Not about your personally but everyone and everything that has to do with your industry which by extension means you.

I can only do my job and do it well. I can’t control or influence how others see my work.

I don’t take it personally.

What have you learned as a direct result of working in a particular industry?

20+ Years Pharmaceutical Veteran | Scientist | Writer | | Bibliophile | Podcast Host — The Future of Pharma