Monday, October 18, 2010

Interview: Dr. Daniel Levy talks about becoming a biopharma consultant, part 1

Daniel Levy is the blogger behind Organic Chemistry - Education and Industry. When he's not blogging, he runs his own consulting firm, DEL Biopharma. I asked Dr. Levy a number of questions about striking out on his own and being a consultant. What follows is an e-mail Q&A, which has been checked by Dr. Levy for accuracy. This interview was divided into two parts; today is part 1.

Chemjobber: Your story about what you did after you left Scios is (I think) pretty inspiring to experienced unemployed chemists -- can you talk a little about what lead to your decision to consult? How long did you search for a new position before considering consulting?

Dr. Levy: The majority of Scios employees were laid off by August 2006. I was part of that group and, prior to our actual termination date, I was aggressively searching for new employment. Because Scios/J&J was required to give at least 60 days notice prior to a site closure, this search began in the beginning of July. At the time, I had 15 years of experience in biotech and the only opportunities advertised were for research associates or PhD scientists with up to 5 years of experience. My search was further complicated because this period was at the height of the biotech industry contraction and, in addition to the Scios community, many throughout the region were similarly affected. Since the job market was so bleak, I realized that in order to keep myself active in my chosen field, I had to find alternative ways to generate income. The answer was consulting.


In this early stage, I printed personal business cards and began to frequent all of the local biotech-oriented networking events. These included the BioScience Forum, BioE2E, Bio2Device Group, local ACS section meetings, and the Bay Area Biomedical Consultants Network. I began to build a base network and, through some personal contacts, provided limited services to small/medium-sized organizations. These contracts were small and involved the design of alternative synthetic strategies for critical starting materials. Additionally, I provided IP services to a law firm and on-site custom synthesis services to a local company. These opportunities materialized between November 2006 and January 2007.

Aside from the small contracts, it was difficult to find significant opportunities. However, in that same timeframe, I developed a relationship with a fledgling company in need of R&D guidance. I joined as a consulting VP of R&D. In this role, I facilitated filing of IP, submission of grant applications and setting of short-medium term corporate goals. While no money was available, I accepted payment in stock options as well as discounted laboratory privileges on an as-needed basis. This provided me the necessary resources to take on my first major contract in March of 2007. Utilizing the available laboratory space and associated equipment, I was retained to design and execute the custom synthesis of a novel heterobifunctional poly(ethylene)glycol reagent. This was an interesting project for two primary reasons. First, I was hired as backup to a CRO where the same project had been going on for approximately one month. Second, until I started this project, I had never done any chemistry with poly(ethylene)glycols. As this project advanced, I found myself providing starting materials to the CRO as well as rapidly advancing the synthesis to completion. In the end, I finished the synthesis before the CRO and was hired full time as the Director of Synthetic Chemistry at Intradigm Corporation. Part of my initial responsibilities was tech transfer enabling the CRO to successfully provide material while our group focused on different problems.

Approximately one year after my hire, I found myself temporarily laid off as a result of insufficient corporate funds. At this time, I decided to expand my presence as a consultant by building a website outlining my experience and services. This site (http://www.delbiopharma.com/) in addition to my blog (http://organicchemistry-educationandindustry.blogspot.com/) now serve as hubs for all of my web-based activities. Following my re-hire, I continued to develop my consulting base and web presence.

My decision to consult did not take much time and, in the long run, could not have worked out better. Through these activities, I was able to generate significant income and, eventually, define my next full time opportunity. Furthermore, during my initial period of unemployment, I maintained activity in biotech such that, while I was not getting paid much, I never stopped working.

CJ: I suspect that the biggest question that people have when they're pondering consulting is: who am I going to consult for? How did you answer that question? Did you rely on your network from working?

DEL: When deciding who to consult for, it is generally best to cast a wide net. There are many areas where medicinal chemists can contribute – even outside of biotech. The answer to this question is best found by identifying as many ancillary businesses as possible and evaluating where skill sets can be matched with the needs of potential clients. For example, one skilled in medicinal chemistry can easily recognize that any organization requiring chemical synthesis is a potential client. Furthermore, skills in managing foreign CROs are particularly valuable. The bottom line is that clients can come from any sector and one just has to be creative in applying established skill sets to sometimes unconventional needs.

As far as my network is concerned, I make phone calls every day. I rely heavily on personal connections and referrals. Most of my direct connections never lead to anything. However, you never know what connection will eventually lead to productive contracts. When consulting, it is essential to continue mining networks and developing new connections.

CJ: Can you tell us about finding your own lab space for research? That's a great part of your story -- what/how well-furnished was it for a chemistry lab?

DEL: The lab space I was able to use was essentially a barter exchange for consulting services. I was serving as acting VP of R&D for a company with no money and underutilized lab space in a local incubator. The facility was well equipped with glassware, rotary evaporators, stir plates, freezers and vacuum pumps. In this setting, I was able to execute all necessary reactions relevant to my synthetic contracts. NMR data were generated at a local contract facility. All expenses such as NMR, waste disposal and shipping were paid for by my clients.

While well equipped, the lab was not perfect and I had to be creative in how I set up necessary equipment. For example, there was a plumbing problem with my fume hood. In order to set up a condenser for azeotropic distillations, I ran a hose from the lab bench sink into the hood and drained the water from the hood back into the lab sink. While clearly not optimal, this situation served its purpose until necessary repairs were made.

From a personal perspective, the use of this laboratory space was not without risk. This statement can be related to fundamental practices all consultants should adopt. First of all, as an independent contractor engaged in laboratory work, it is essential to maintain an insurance policy covering any injury incurred during the execution of said activities. Second, all independent contractors/consultants are faced with the challenge of collecting fees when due. Finally, consulting fees aside, client companies should be contractually responsible for all laboratory-related expenses such as procurement of necessary supplies and chemicals, waste disposal and laboratory cleanup following project completion. If all agreed-upon arrangements are not met by clients, significant reductions of consulting income may result from out-of-pocket expenditures covering cleanup and maintenance of procured laboratory space. Fortunately, I never had to deal with payment delinquencies or defaults. However, I know of many consultants who have dealt with such situations. As such, I cannot overstate the importance of consulting agreements covering all areas for which payment by clients is warranted.

CJ: Can you describe the breadth of questions/problems that you were asked to consult on? Were they mostly chemistry-oriented or were you asked about strategic business decisions as well?

DEL: My consulting activities covered a broad range of issues. For example, at a company where I was retained as acting VP of R&D, I was responsible for setting corporate goals and timelines, design of critical proof-of-concept biology/biochemistry, expansion of IP, conversion of provisional patents to full applications and submission of grant applications. In another role, a law firm retained me to draft patent applications (covering pharmaceuticals, polymers, devices and dyes) and freedom-to-operate decisions. In other roles, I was asked to provide custom synthesis services in either client labs or my own facilities. Additional opportunities involved literature research and summary reports focused on novel strategies addressing difficult synthetic problems. Finally, I was also retained to establish and manage offshore CRO activities.

The breadth of my activities really supports my previous statement regarding flexibility. There are many opportunities out there. The key was to identify where the needs of my potential clients intersect with the skills I developed over the course of my education and subsequent 18 years of employment.
 
CJ here again -- stay tuned for tomorrow, when Dr. Levy will further discuss his thoughts on consulting, overseas CROs and the future of US biopharma.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks to both of you for doing this - I think it addresses an issue that a lot of organic chemists are curious about, namely how one gets into consulting. Dr. Levy's story of starting up a one-man CRO is inspiring.

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