Science and research

Pharmaceuticals and biotechnology

Discovering, developing, manufacturing and marketing new compounds for use in medicine, agriculture and industry.

This is a broad business sector encompassing different industries that work with life-science technologies. The pharmaceutical industry develops, tests and manufactures new drugs to combat either the causative agents or the symptoms of disease. Biotechnology involves the investigation and use of biological processes for other purposes, including the manufacture of foodstuffs, breeding new varieties of animals and plants for research and agriculture, and the biological production of chemicals for industrial use.

Biotechnology also includes some emerging nanotechnologies, as some biological systems are examples of minute mechanical machines and can thus be used and adapted to manipulate and create new materials at a molecular level.

The pharmaceutical industry is well established; in contrast, biotechnology relies on much newer technologies and has yet to get to grow to the size that the pharmaceutical business has. Biotechnology companies have often been set up using venture capital to solve a specific research question; if the research is successful and a marketable product is developed, these companies are often bought up by larger pharmaceutical businesses or chemical manufacturers.

Developments in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology sector

The costs of bringing new drugs to market are huge, mainly because of the expense of the vigorous testing a possible pharmaceutical agent undergoes; the financial rewards are limited too as patents on new drugs expire rapidly and other companies can then market generic versions. Also, many of the medical problems that affect large numbers of people in the developed world are already countered by effective pharmaceuticals, leaving increasingly marginal targets for research. There is also less cash available in markets in the developing world to pay for the research necessary to develop pharmaceuticals to counter the medical problems there.

Collectively, these factors have put the margins of pharmaceutical companies under increasing pressure. The drops in share price thus caused have made some companies ripe for takeover by others and the resulting buyouts have left fewer, larger players, the principal ones worldwide being Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer and Roche. The largest companies based in the UK are GlaxoSmithKline and AstraZeneca.

Some biotech industries produce products that are not intended for human consumption and they therefore do not incur the costs of the intensive testing required before a substance is considered safe to be put into the body. However, the products that they do make often still need to undergo stringent testing before the risk of releasing them into the environment is considered negligible, such as genetically modified plants not intended for food. There are some very lucrative parts of the biotech industry supplying high-margin, high-demand products, an example of which would be biofuels.

Who can apply?

The industry relies on groups of people who can work together effectively at each stage of product development, from initial research and development through to the release of that product to market so effective teamwork is necessary. There are tight margins present in many parts of this sector so financial awareness is also important.

People who can characterise biological systems for treatment or emulation are needed, so those with biology or biochemistry degrees are in demand. Chemists are needed to develop the reactions to create the compounds of interest, as are engineers who design the equipment that scales up the production of successful candidate compounds in a commercially viable manner. Such equipment is often reliant on computer control so electronic engineers and those with an IT background can often find employment in this sector.

Getting in and getting on

Work experience will prove your suitability and commitment to work in this sector and some companies recruit (or at the least fast-track applications from) graduates on the basis of them having successfully completed work experience with that business. It is offered in the form of a year in industry as part of some sandwich courses but it’s also offered during summer vacations and these companies can also provide sponsorship for undergraduates.

However, for many jobs in pharmaceuticals and biotechnology, a research masters or a PhD is necessary. If you are a graduate and want a post that requires a further degree, these companies will sometimes help to fund the costs of undertaking a research masters or PhD in an area of commercial interest.

Generally, when first employed in the sector, technical graduates work as researchers on specific teams. As their careers progress, they go on to lead research teams and then on to manage and coordinate teams as part of the product development strategy of a business.