In a year like no other, 2020’s Top Employers Survey not only highlighted the best working environments in pharma and biotech but also addressed some of the unique issues that arose this year, such as how to respond to a pandemic.
When an employee boasts that your business, Vertex Pharmaceuticals, is “the best company I’ve ever worked for,” you tend to take note. This was just one of hundreds of comments from respondents to Science’s 19th annual Top Employers Survey. Another observation concerning Vertex, a Boston-based firm that moved up four places from last year to No. 8, states that “Vertex puts its employees first. I am so proud to work here.”
The Top Employers Survey was conducted by Cell Associates and Brighton Consulting. This year, the online survey took place from March 3 through May 3, 2020, and included approximately 7,600 respondents from across the world. Typically, the survey has highlighted pharma and biotech companies’ commitment to innovation and progressive corporate culture as well as advanced technology and cutting-edge techniques, such as the use of CRISPR-Cas9 for genome editing and artificial intelligence, and machine learning for design, development, and manufacture of therapeutics and interventions. Not surprisingly, we saw these trends emerge again. But as we know, 2020 is unlike any other year. Given that the survey rolled out as quarantines were taking effect, respondents were able to provide a peek into the ambitious initiatives their companies were pursuing in response to COVID-19—which include everything from developing new work-at-home policies for family-focused employees to rapidly shifting corporate assets to support public health concerns and develop novel therapeutics.
For the companies that emerged in the top 20, remarks from respondents reflected their pride and gratitude in the fact that the organizations they represented had continuously invested in their well-being while still putting science and patients first. When employees see meaningful action by their employers that is designed to empower and support them in every way possible, they respond in kind: They produce their best work. And in the arena of pharma and biotech, that easily translates into better patient outcomes.
Gratitude is particularly strong among respondents whose corporations have appeared on the list before. “Being recognized is a great thing,” says Hervé Hoppenot, CEO of Incyte (No. 2, advancing from No. 3 in 2019), a Delaware-based pharma company. “It means a lot to be on the list. Being at the cutting edge of science and having the best people want to work here [gives us] a sense of pride.” John Frels, vice president of R&D at Abbott, a Chicago-based medical device and health care company that moved up to No. 14 this year from the No. 17 spot last year, notes the placement “validates what I have come to appreciate over my career: This is a company concerned about the long-term sustainability of delivering great value to our patients and customers, and it’s a great place for scientists to apply their skills. We bring out the best in our scientists over the course of their career.”
Having a work culture aligned with employee values is another important driver for the top employers and is referenced many times in the survey comments. Says one respondent, “Vertex innovates with speed and ferocity like no other company, while also putting a priority on culture that is amazingly open and supportive.” An employee of Syngenta, the No. 4-ranked Swiss-based biotech firm that focuses on agrochemicals and seeds, notes what they consider to be their company’s benefits: “Organizational culture, concern with the environment, concern with the well-being of employees.” And a respondent referring to Alnylam Pharmaceuticals, headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts (No. 3), practically shouts their answer: “GREAT culture!! Collaborative! Inclusive! Exciting!”
DNA of top employers
What is the winning formulation that puts companies on the Top Employers list? Chief among the ingredients is an articulated mission of supporting scientists and science. Almost all of the top employers indicated that they are science- and patient-centered. And over and over again, the survey respondents echoed this philosophy.
“Regeneron is built around a science-first approach,” says Drew Murphy, executive vice president of research at the American biotech organization based in Tarrytown, New York, which ranked No. 1 in this year’s survey. “Unlike other companies, our commercial people don’t tell our researchers what to do. The scientists set the agenda. And if you do science the right way, you never really fail. You either succeed or learn something more valuable.” The strategy is clearly working, as the attrition rate of its 8,600 staff (approximately half of whom are in R&D or administration) was less than half the industry average in each of the last 5 years. For example, Regeneron’s 2019 turnover rate was 7.8% compared to an industry average of 18.7%, with turnover in its R&D organization ranking lowest of all employee groups. (The industry average is based on the Radford 2019 U.S. Workforce Trends Report for life sciences.)
In the life sciences sector, there is a symbiosis between science and patient priorities, and the top employers (and many survey respondents) emphasize this as a marker of a great company. This synergy manifests in multiple ways. bluebird bio (No. 20), for example, hosts Patient Days, in which scientists have the exceptional experience of interacting with those who directly benefit from their outputs and get a taste of the patient’s journey. “You get a window into what it’s like to be a patient dealing with the challenges we are trying to solve,” says Philip Gregory, chief scientific officer of the Cambridge, Massachusetts–based firm that develops gene therapies for severe genetic disorders and cancer. “This is one way we connect the employees to the patient, so they can see why they are doing this—it grounds you and reminds you that you have a purpose beyond the one step you are aiming to do.”
Abbott also places R&D in front, so that science serves as its fuel for constant growth, scaling, and sustainability. “There are ample opportunities to stay with the company,” says Frels. “You can settle yourself into your career at Abbott, knowing that even if you move to different roles in the company, you can have confidence that what you will do will always be challenging and impactful in the long-term.”
Access to professional development goes hand-in-hand with career advancement, of course, and the top employers are generous and proactive in designing and implementing programs that allow for skill building, networking, self-promotion, and leadership development. Abbott offers extensive training, including an engineering rotation program for new hires to learn about different divisions of the business. Its scientific employees are encouraged to produce individual development plans to map out their career, and there are plentiful opportunities for employees to move across departments, functions, and locations.
Language matters too. bluebird executives refer to their employees as “birds” and the firm itself as the “nest.” They offer leadership development for all staff and have leadership coaches on-site to enable employees to go in the direction they want to. To facilitate better and more meaningful interpersonal messaging, the company uses a psychometric tool called Insights Discovery, which has a four-colored model to help people understand their personal style and preferences, including those related to communication. When you walk by someone’s desk, you may see a stack of colored bricks on their cubical; the top brick signifies which communication behavior you lead with. For example, Cool Blue indicates a preference for data, structure and/or process. “It helps others to engage me, for example, in a way that is most effective. You understand who you are interacting with and their communication preference,” says Gregory. “It creates a dialogue.” And of course, better communication makes a better (and a top) company.
Flexibility is also important, and many companies actively demonstrate this trait, according to the survey. This is clear from the responses to COVID-19, as discussed below, but it is also seen in other ways, especially when it comes to harnessing the power of new and advancing technologies, such as data science. Vertex for example, leverages the kaleidoscope of data science benefits and applications across the enterprise, from human resources to legal to R&D. As David Altshuler, executive vice president, global research and chief scientific officer, explains, “We decided to build in an internal data science team and apply it broadly across the business. Each year the executive team picks several areas of the company to focus our data science efforts on, and we would assign it an innovative business leader. This is the secret sauce of Vertex—the urgency of making progress and seeing innovation and business go hand in hand: an alignment within the entire company.”
One of the parameters that defines a top employer is its devotion to an innovation culture—and employees notice innovation. In fact, one of the most common words survey respondents used to describe their employers was “innovative.”
Vertex, for example, has its VOICE Challenge, which engages employees so that “everyone is included in the innovation mission,” says Altshuler. This annual innovation tournament starts with identifying grand scientific and business challenges, which Altshuler describes as “things that would make a big difference to what we do.” He adds, “We invite the entire company to come up with ideas. Last year, we got 360 ideas.” Those ideas were suggested by 1,000 employees across all business units (making up about a third of the company). The top suggestions are assigned resources to develop, pitch, and design a program that advances them from conception to implementation. Some recent suggestions that have become reality include Vertex’s sickle cell disease and beta-thalassemia research programs, a mobile app and iPad kiosk system to help “Vertexians” find conference rooms and colleagues at their Boston headquarters, and a commuter bus program to reduce traffic congestion in Boston’s Seaport District.
“Innovation can come from everywhere,” says Natalie Hosea, site head for Takeda California and Drug Metabolism and Pharmacokinetics at Takeda Pharmaceutical Company Limited (No. 18). “Our scientists feel empowered to innovate in the space and feel comfortable with idea generation. We are a patient-first company: For every day it takes for an intervention to get to a patent, a patient is suffering. This motivates us.” The organization’s official innovation framework for research, Portfolio Entry, involves actively vetting ideas and testing hypotheses among its internal scientific community and external collaborators. Data is reviewed in a cross-functional manner, she adds, and feedback is provided as the R&D team reviews cases and narratives to decide what to invest in. The program is robust and fosters an important sense of organizational pride. And here, creativity begets creativity: Takeda focuses on four therapeutic areas, Hosea notes, but when an idea is generated that goes beyond those areas, the company aims high, actively pursuing unique licensing partnerships or other external arrangements—anything to get that solution to the bedside.
Novo Nordisk, an almost century-old Danish multinational pharmaceutical company with over 43,000 employees across the world and R&D centers in five nations (No. 7), recently initiated an R&D ideas challenge, which welcomes proposals for disruption from every employee. Recently, it received 500 proposals for transformational medications or diagnostics. “We were going to fund one, but we ended up funding the top five,” says Mads Krogsgaard Thomsen, chief scientific officer. “They get time off and work in an incubator environment to see if they can validate their idea. We give them the resources for do this for 6 months.” The company sees an appetite for repeating this process.
Biocon Limited (No. 5) takes a decidedly entrepreneurial approach to “impassioned innovation,” says Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, founder and executive chairperson of this Bangalore, India–based institution. Its victorious innovation program, Novel Biologics, acts like an incubator inside its R&D division, has regularly achieved key business and scientific benchmarks, including the creation of new assets within the portfolio of the company, and, not surprisingly, spin-off startups. In fact, one of the spin-offs has its own incubator. One example of their success with the Novel Biologics group is an immuno-oncology program focusing on development of novel bifunctional fusion antibodies, which is now housed in Biocon’s wholly owned subsidiary Bicara Therapeutics, based out of Boston.
Other companies, while still championing innovation, do not have formal programs to spur it. Regeneron’s leadership prefers to capitalize on organically generated discoveries. “Innovation is so rooted in the way we do everything, we don’t need an artificial mechanism to try and instill it,” says Murphy. “We don’t formalize this, and a lack of formality and being able to go off script allows us to pursue and pressure test ideas.” The culture at Regeneron is such that employees have autonomy to discuss hypotheses. “We don’t like people hiding the idea until they get all the data,” he says. “It’s like the Beatles’ lyric ‘Take a sad song and make it better’—you have to talk these things through. We encourage people to be generous with their ideas.”
Not every industry gives its employees the privilege of being able to improve human health, and very few organizations are agile enough to grant their staff the opportunity to shift their focus and assets to confront an emerging plague. The pharmaceutical and biotech enterprises on this list are the notable exceptions. And those companies have quickly embraced the chance to serve humanity by fighting COVID-19.
Abbott has extensive experience in infectious disease diagnostics; it delivered the world’s first HIV test in the 1980s. Soon after SARS-CoV-2 was identified, Abbott’s scientists swung into action, initiating the fastest diagnostic product development campaign in the company’s history. “We leveraged next generation sequencing and informatics tools to rapidly design prototype tests,” explains Frels. “Our scientists collaborated quickly and effectively to help accelerate product development.” By the end of March, the teams had developed and launched laboratory and rapid point-of-care molecular diagnostic COVID-19 tests. This was followed quickly in mid-April with the launch of the first large-scale, high-throughput laboratory COVID-19 serology test. Since then, the teams have continued their work, developing and launching additional laboratory-based and rapid diagnostic tests. “We’ve had high-level management support and leadership through it all,” explains Frels, “and together with committed teams of staff from across Abbott working 24/7 shifts, we’ve made it happen.”
Incyte mobilized its resources to enable employees to work from home. “While working remotely after March 13th, we launched a new product and in addition realized that two of our established products could be helpful with the respiratory issues attached to COVID,” shares Hoppenot. “We had our teams on nights and weekends putting together a clinical program to send to the FDA [U.S. Food and Drug Administration] and get it approved. All of this was done remotely and was an enormous amount of work. Having an active role in the fight against COVID was important for all of us, and being able to do it while working remotely was even more motivating.”
Takeda reacted to COVID by focusing its efforts in five areas: research to address future pandemics; working with the CoVIg-19 Plasma Alliance to develop a plasma-derived hyperimmune globulin therapy for COVID; repurposing approved products or assets in development; data and information sharing; and establishing R&D partnerships. Takeda already has a culture that fosters external collaborations, so they were poised for this type of pivot. One of the company’s areas of expertise is in therapies derived from blood plasma. By May, the firm had joined with nine other biotechs to form the CoVIg-19 Plasma Alliance, described on its website as “an unprecedented partnership of the world’s leading plasma companies, spanning plasma collection, development, production, and distribution.” Furthermore, Takeda has taken a leadership role in the establishment of the COVID-19 R&D Alliance, which includes other top employers Alnylam Pharmaceuticals (No. 3), AbbVie (No. 12), Pfizer (No. 17), and Novartis (No. 19). One of the R&D Alliance’s projects is the development of an external-facing, data communication platform. “We are focusing on ways to share data and get it out to the public domain faster,” says Hosea. And in collaboration with this alliance, Takeda carefully examined their portfolio to see what approved products or assets in development could be pursued to treat COVID-19.
But COVID response didn’t just mean pumping out new medicines. At bluebird, it involved a lot of employee care. The company enacted an extra day off per month for every staff member, provided open Q and A sessions at open mics to converse with the entire leadership team on a regular basis, and organized support programs for “baby birds” (the children of employees) to help parents and caregivers—actions that were all in line with its core values.
Diversity and social justice
While these companies have waged war against a microscopic virus, a macroscopic issue has come to light, as social justice conversations in the United States have reinforced many organizations’ commitment to provide nurturing, inclusive spaces for all employees. Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs are closely tied to company cultures. Scientists look for such programs as signs of a place where they can thrive, where their inputs are seen, and where their voices are heard. Over and over again, survey respondents mentioned their gratitude to employers for building programs that buoy these critical efforts.
But there is still work to be done. “There is a lack of diversity in this industry,” admits Hoppenot. “Racism and science do not go together. If you are to be successful in science, we cannot have racism.” Hoppenot, like many leaders of Top Employer companies, is committed to having the difficult but necessary discussions about race, inclusivity, and diversity, and is already making changes in the company to advance this mission. The firm’s leadership is reaching out to organizations to assist it with improving the recruiting and mentoring of underrepresented minorities, especially African Americans, in its employee ranks. “We have always had this as a top priority, but we realized we needed to include more people in the discussion. To that end, our Inclusion Team is actively working to identify and implement initiatives that increase inclusion and also provide development opportunities for our employees,” says Paula Swain, Incyte’s executive vice president of human resources. “We don’t want to look at this as a moment in time. Investing in inclusion, mentoring, development, and retention will be part of what we will do as an organization now and in the future.”
bluebird bio is one of several organizations that has instituted DEI practices throughout its structure. “Our philosophy can be summarized as ‘all birds fly further together.’ The diversity of the ‘flock’ is something we measure. We stand for an environment where everyone can be their best selves and know they belong. Diversity and equity and inclusion allow us to dream boldly,” says Gregory. He explains that the company has three “domains of action and accountability”—inclusive business practices, inclusive workforce culture, and workforce diversity—and adds, “Our core values are connected to our five nonnegotiables: We challenge our colleagues to be authentic, courageous, humble, caring, and transparent.” The DEI initiatives include top-down investments in hiring, retention, and development as well as employee resource groups, such as those that support individuals who are LGBTQ, Black, Latinx, Asian, women, veterans, disabled, and parents and caregivers. The company has a DEI officer on its senior management team and has developed specific programs to support underrepresented employees and foster an inclusive culture.
Regeneron is also willing to scrutinize its own diversity practices. “We believe that diversity of employees is as important as diversity of ideas. We are proud of a diverse workforce in terms of immigrants. But we look to do more. We can do better,” says Murphy. One example of the company’s dedication to this philosophy is its increase in recruitment activities at Historically Black Colleges and Universities. “There is more talent. We want to be truly reflective of the U.S. and the world. Biotech is not as diverse as it could be.”
Although the MeToo movement has ignited support for gender diversity among several of the top employers, Biocon stands out because Mazumdar-Shaw has always aimed to promote gender parity. Of the company’s 12,000 employees, half are in R&D, and over a third of its scientific employees are female. “As a woman scientist, I have been driven to make sure the company is supportive of women scientists,” says Mazumdar-Shaw, who serves as executive chairman. “I wanted this to be a company where women scientists feel comfortable and excited to go to work.” As the pandemic anchored her employees to their residences, she launched a listening tour to dialogue with them and find out how they were managing. She noticed that working from home could be leveraged—for the benefit of the staff. “Working from home is a boon to our women scientists,” she says. “To offer better work–life balance, we will give them the opportunity to work from home 2 days a week when things normalize post-COVID.”
Building sustainable organizations, one human at a time
Top employers continue to look for ways to express their commitment to their communities. Of key importance are environmental and sustainability concerns. At Syngenta, for example, climate change is not just a consideration—it is the impetus for innovation to support farmers.
“We consider what we do as contributing to the world’s food security and helping agriculture to protect the planet ,” says Gusui Wu, head of global seeds research. “The world faces significant environmental and nutritional challenges, which are magnified in the developing world and recently underscored by COVID.” Detailed, rigorous decisions about how to assist food growers in an environmentally friendly avenue is fortified through data science that pervades every touchpoint of the organization. But data doesn’t run the show, humans do. “From multiple surveys we have done over the years, there is a genuine feeling from our employees that we are proud of what we do because we are contributing to the global food supply. By 2050, there will be a global population of 10 billion, so the world needs to significantly increase its food supply,” he adds. “Employees know that our continuous work is needed by our customers. Farmers depend on the products and technologies we develop. Our employees are a big part of the ag economy.”
Indeed, the future of pharma and biotech industries, and for that matter, science, is decidedly human. And our top employers celebrate this.
“Employees drive our business,” says Murphy, noting that his company has been on the Top Employers list at either No.1 or No. 2 over the last ten years. “It’s really important to us. Organizations don’t make drugs, people do.”
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