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Health, Science, Environment

Chemical reaction: After Pfizer, local scientists may seek entrepreneurial formula for success

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 19, 2009 - When Brad Keller left his job at Pfizer in January, he brought two things with him: more than 20 years of laboratory work in pharmaceuticals and the notion that he could use that knowledge well by working for himself, not for someone else.

But moving from the lab bench to an entrepreneur's office isn't always the easiest journey, so he -- and many of the hundreds who will be laid off in Pfizer's latest job contraction -- could use a little help.

Luckily, the St. Louis area's effort to become a hub for biotechnology and the life sciences has spawned programs designed to provide just that kind of assistance. Now, Keller, 55, is part of the Innovation Acceleration Partnership fellowship program at Washington University, where he can find the technical advice and the encouragement he needs.

"The technology area was something that was always very exciting and interesting to me," Keller says. "Getting involved in the effort to help this region grow in biotechnology was something I wanted to do.

"Even with all the intellectual power at Washington University and Saint Louis University, St. Louis is an area that hasn't experienced some of the biotech startup growth that you have seen on both coasts. To me, this was an area that seemed to be growing momentum with a number of forces to support that."

TWO WAYS TO VIEW THE SHRINKING AT PFIZER

For years, local leaders have worked to position the St. Louis area as the biotech version of Silicon Valley. With universities, institutions like the Danforth Plant Science Center and the Missouri Botanical Garden and corporations like Pfizer and Monsanto, they have touted a critical mass of knowhow to attract and retain talented scientists and entrepreneurs.

Word earlier this month that Pfizer was shedding 600 of its 1,000 jobs at its campus in Chesterfield -- a casualty of its multibillion-dollar acquisition of fellow pharmaceutical firm Wyeth -- could be seen as a big blow to the area's life sciences reputation.

But those who have been active in trying to build up the region's role in that field say that Pfizer's move reflects conditions in the industry, not anything about what the St. Louis area has to offer.

"It's not just Pfizer," says Marcia Mellitz, whose Center for Emerging Technologies in St. Louis, works to help move research from the laboratory to the marketplace.

"It's all over the big pharmaceutical companies, which are in the process of reorganizing, downsizing and merging. This would be happening even if there wasn't a problem with the economy right now. It's really related to their major products going off patent and a lack of similar blockbuster compounds in the pipeline."

"You always hate to lose jobs in any industry," adds Denny Coleman, president and chief executive of the St. Louis County Economic Council, "and losing those 600 Pfizer jobs is an impact that we'd prefer to do without. But we're not immune to the international mergers and acquisitions that are going on."

Coleman says talks are ongoing about what effect, if any, Pfizer's actions will have on tax credits it received when it originally opened its Chesterfield facility. But with Monsanto planning on moving from a tenant at the campus to the owner, he said that the area's biotech efforts won't slow down.

"We were fortunate several years ago in terms of being able not only to survive the Pharmacia-Pfizer merger but to actually gain new investment out of that," Coleman said. "As it turns it, that win is translating into the jobs and investment that Pfizer is keeping here. It's that new biologics division of theirs that is going to be the bulk of the 400 jobs they are keeping here in St. Louis County. That part of it is exciting."

Equally promising, Mellitz says, is the prospect of being able to help the pharmaceutical industry move to its next stage.

"What's happening in the long term is going to be very good for the kind of things we do," she says. "Where companies are looking for new products is in smaller companies. Between 25 and 30 percent of their products going forward are going to be biologics, and they are buying small and mid-sized biotechnology companies to get those products.

"Even if they buy those companies, we have been seeing people who started those companies turning around and starting other companies. You have those serial entrepreneurs, the kinds of people who built Silicon Valley. That's a healthy environment."

Coleman's council stands ready to provide the atmosphere to let that environment blossom.

"Any of the folks who are inclined to want to try that," he says, "we're going to be here as well as a host of other organizations in town who want to help them."

ENTREPRENEURIAL ASSISTANCE

Sam Fiorello, chief operating officer of the Danforth Plant Science Center and head of its Bio-Research & Development Growth Park, is looking to put together a conference that would bring together people who would like to have such assistance and those who can provide it.

"The positive side of this is you have a lot of very smart, highly trained and highly skilled people now looking for opportunities," he says.

"If you can figure out a way to harness that skill set and if one of the companies in my research park can find someone with skilled hands at the bench, that would be an opportunity for a company that I'm recruiting to pick up some skilled people. If a subset of those folks have an entrepreneurial zeal and an entrepreneurial bent, we should work with them."

Taking the big leap often means moving into a kind of culture that you are not used to, he added.

"There's stuff out there that if you've been in a big company your entire career, you might not know how to tap into it well," Fiorello said. "I think those kinds of things we need to be proactive and aggressive about. It's not one of the things we're good at. We have lots of different pieces floating out there, but no good central repository where these things live."

Ken Harrington, managing director of the Skandalaris Center for Entrepreneurial Studies at Washington University,  is working to help create that repository and let potential entrepreneurs know that it exists. While the economy may not be the strongest, he notes, bad times can be good for new companies to sprout and bloom.

"If you look historically at some of the most entrepreneurial parts of the country -- Palo Alto, San Jose, San Diego -- many of those areas evolved from bad economic times," he says. "People retooled, got lucky with a couple of successes like Hewlett Packard or the mini-computer business and became real entrepreneurial regions.

"I don't know whether there is a silver lining here or not. There's a certain amount of luck involved. But 10 percent of the people are involved in entrepreneurial activity, and they're the ones who create the jobs."

Mellitz, at the Center for Emerging Technologies, points to a recent study from the Kauffman Foundation that says nearly two-thirds of the net new jobs created in the United States in 2007 came from companies that were less than five years old.

And, she adds, creating those jobs not only helps attract people to the St. Louis area and keep them here but with the multiplier effect, each new job created can result in more than three more positions in support areas.

FROM RESEARCHER TO BOSS

Those are the kinds of facts and figures and visions that are driving Keller at his innovation fellowship at Washington U. He just started on Oct. 1, but he is looking forward to seeing "what I can contribute to the biotech atmosphere in St. Louis."

In his career with Monsanto, Pharmacia and finally Pfizer, starting in 1988, Keller worked as a drug discovery scientist, looking first for new ideas to combat cardiovascular disease by reducing bad cholesterol, then at how to fight liver disease. His job at Pfizer ended when the company decided to move out of research into his latest specialty.

The process of bringing a drug from the laboratory to the marketplace is a long one, he notes. The discovery process along could last as long as 10 years, and clinical trials could add another five years or more.

He has no business background, but he realized after leaving Pfizer that becoming involved in the commercial side of science would be a good fit for his interests and his talents.

"As part of my role at the company," Keller says, "I was involved in a few licensing evaluations, doing due diligence from the pharmacology and the discovery side of things. What I can bring to the table is a breadth of experience in drug discovery and development, to help evaluate proposals.

"When you look at the concentration of venture capital, there is a lot more on the coasts. That is starting to change a little bit, with a couple of very good venture capital firms here. But it seems like a lot of that entrepreneurial spirit and training that started on the coasts is now working its way into the Midwest."

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