Changing Models for Training Industrial Chemists 

Derek Lowe’s ‘In The Pipeline’ blog titled ‘The Current Industry Landscape’ on 27 Nov 2023 alerted me to an excellent overview editorial in the Journal of Medicinal Chemistry by Dean G. Brown on ‘Adapting to the Changing Landscape of Biotech-Driven Drug Discovery’ (DOI: 10.1021/acs.jmedchem.3c02035). One thing that struck me as I read both the blog and the editorial was that if I simply replaced terms such as ‘medicinal chemistry’ in my mind with ‘process chemistry’ then this too presented an excellent review of the history of how industrial development chemistry had evolved over my career, and how the new paradigm of smaller biotech companies has transformed career development paths and training models. 

The editorial’s main proposition is that as an industry we are still assuming that training is still taking place across the industry by internal on-the-job training and mentoring of younger chemists by more experienced chemists working side-by-side with them. However, this approach is unlikely to work in the current biotech era where the more experienced chemists are simply not around for a variety of reasons; including the fact that, by definition, small biotech companies have reduced internal laboratory sizes and staff or may even completely outsource all chemistry efforts. I think this problem is even more severe for the training of process chemists than medicinal chemists because process chemistry facilities, such as kilo labs and pilot plants, are only needed after a successful medicinal chemistry program, and they are more expensive to build and maintain. This results in a greater proportion of process chemistry being outsourced, and further magnifies the effect that there is less capability to train early career process chemists internally.  

An academic education will provide a medicinal chemist with experience working on the scale that they will encounter in an industrial chemistry laboratory, but it is extremely unlikely that an early career process chemist would have spent any during their academic career working on any scale larger than a few grams, let alone in a kilo lab or pilot plant! These larger facilities were among the first assets that the larger pharmaceutical companies sold or closed as they transitioned to the biotech paradigm, and there is little incentive for an emerging biotech company to invest in these expensive facilities, so it is very likely that young process chemists working in the biotech industry will have no opportunity to a spend significant amount of time working in these types of facility. It is my opinion that unless this training gap is recognized by executive biotech leaders (who are often not chemists) and actively addressed by senior chemistry leaders the current biotech paradigm will lead to an erosion in process chemistry expertise that could lead to a harmful disconnect between skills needed to successfully manufacture increasingly complex chemical matter and the skillsets and experience of the workforce available to perform and direct that work. 

One of things I particularly appreciated about the blog and article cited above was that they acknowledged that change in the operating model from a few large organizations that did everything in-house was needed. Transitioning the R&D infrastructure to include multiple smaller organizations has created new career opportunities and paths, especially for younger chemists willing to take on added responsibility early in their career. For example, I worked the first 5 years of my career at a rapidly growing CDMO where I experienced a wider range of chemistry (a new project about every 3-6 months) and was given managerial responsibility that I almost certainly would not have gained had I joined a larger conventional pharmaceutical or chemical company. I now think of it as my post-postdoc, and an essential foundation for my subsequent industrial career in a growing biotech company. 

Scientific Update was founded by Trevor Laird in 1989 to address the training needs of scientists that companies could no longer meet. Over the past 35 years that training gap has been magnified by the shift from a few large pharmaceutical companies who completed most of their training internally to the biotech paradigm where training, consulting and mentoring will increasingly have to come from outside. As a result, the team at Scientific Update continues to expand the training courses that we offer, and with the advent of digital media and on-line training platforms we are exploring new ways to meet the needs of industrial chemists globally regardless of the type and size of organization. If you have any suggestions for new training content or format that you would like to see offered, or if you would like to join our team to help mentor and train the next generation of process chemists, please contact us at [email protected].