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Making the Move: A Look into the Career Transition from Pharma/Biotech to CRO

In our recruitment process we are often asked the question, “what’s a day in the life like at a CRO?” Many of our applicants are coming from a pharma or biotech background and are not sure how their experience will change, or their skills will transition, moving to the contract research side of the industry. Yes, a career with a CRO does have a different complexion than working in a pharma/biotech, but we find that new employees coming from these roles thrive in the new, diverse work they are able to do.

We started this series to help those considering a position with a CRO to understand the exciting opportunities that come with “Making the Move”. We’re kicking off with a discussion with our Chief Scientific Officer, Dr. Jim McNally, who himself came from the pharma and biotech realm before joining BioAgilytix and who works closely with scientists at all levels that have made the same transition.

Describe your background and past job functions in the pharma/biotech industry.
I’ve spent almost 20 years now in biotech and pharma, beginning in a small company doing everything possible related to assay development – non-clinical, clinical, GMP support, and more. That was such a great way to start because I gained an appreciation for every aspect of the drug development business. As I moved on to larger companies, I became more focused on large molecule bioanalytics, leading teams for assay development and validation. During my time at Pfizer in particular, I was leading a group that was developing assays for the majority of their biotherapeutic portfolio. I had an opportunity to work on every possible type of large molecule drug modality and in a wide array of disease indications due to the sheer size of the portfolio.

From there, I wanted to get back to more end-to-end programs to take something through the development process into the clinic. I eventually became a Global Program Lead at Shire taking gene therapy candidates from non-clinical development into early phase clinical trials while also maintaining my roots in leading the bioanalytical team support for all Shire programs.

What did you enjoy doing most in your pharma/biotech roles? What did you enjoy least?
I think I probably have two favorites. First, I love building, managing, and developing high-performing teams. There is nothing like constructing a team of people to work on a program or develop assays and watch those people grow and learn. I’m so acutely aware of how lucky I was to have people throughout my career that helped me grow in drug development that I feel obliged to do the same for others.

Second, while I hate it when problems arise, I love getting into problem-solving mode. Whether it’s a problematic assay or process issue, I get a real sense of satisfaction out of working with a team of people to solve problems. There is nothing like putting a team of people in a room and getting them up to the whiteboard to work through an issue.

I would say the part I liked least were situations where people become territorial. I’m a firm believer that every person on a team has a contribution to make to the entire process. Sometimes, an outside set of eyes is exactly what’s needed to get a breakthrough on a problem, and I found that teams could become a bit siloed in the large pharma and biotech organizations. For me, no matter the role, I think good scientists should be able to analyze a situation and test possible solutions. Just because you are in a non-clinical function, for example, doesn’t mean that you can’t contribute to solving a manufacturing issue.

What aspects about the CRO industry attracted you on a professional level? Why?
I saw it as a chance to get back to the unique experience of working on many different drug modalities and disease indications, which is not only incredibly intellectually stimulating but also provides me with huge growth opportunity. I go to meetings all the time and talk to people who have only worked on one type of molecule to this point in their career. Diversity of experience is, in my opinion, a real key to career growth. So, for me, the advantage of being in a CRO environment is getting back to that diversity. The breadth of programs, assays, and diseases addressed really allows you to stretch and gain a broader appreciation for biotherapeutic drug development as a whole.

Additionally, it allowed me to focus on the things I love – team-building and problem-solving – within an organization that isn’t siloed and in fact encourages cross-collaboration across departments. I’ve found it easier to access different colleagues and their expertise without hitting roadblocks. Everyone wants to contribute where they can and because our work is so diverse, everyone’s input is needed and appreciated.

What do you feel have been your major contributions to the scientific community as the result of your dual pharma/biotech / CRO background?
Because of the number of different companies I’ve worked at, I think I’ve seen that although we all operate inside the same regulations and development paradigms, each company has it’s own unique way of approaching these things. It allows me to think in terms of what is the best way to move forward and not get stuck in the “we’ve always done it this way” mentality. In my industry-wide interactions, I’m always learning new ways of approaching issues from my colleagues at other companies. As a result, I do my best to teach others in the industry that they are not alone and have a larger pool of resources to tap into than they may realize.

Thank you, Jim, for your insights! Stay tuned for the next installation in our series which will be out soon.

Interested in learning more about what it’s like to work at a CRO, the benefits, and the growth you can achieve? We encourage you to explore BioAgilytix’s Careers Center and invite you to apply for any open positions you find interesting!