The bioscience field is booming in Westchester, and everyone in it is focused on finding talented employees.
One is a pharmaceutical giant, valued at roughly $50 billion. Another is a pharmaceutical up-and-comer, with just 12 employees, five of them part-time. Both are at the cutting edge of bioscience, and both are headquartered in Westchester County.
Regeneron, the Tarrytown-based international drug company whose monoclonal antibody treatment for COVID-19 earned emergency approval from the Food and Drug Administration last year (and whose most famous recipient was a certain former president) is the “Goliath.” Oligomerix, the White Plains-based “David,” is in the midst of conducting trials on new agents to treat Alzheimer’s and other neurological diseases. They are at vastly different stages in their corporate evolutions. But they share one important trait: they need talented workers.
As you would expect, each is looking for different skillsets at this point in their clinical trajectories. “Being small, we have to employ people with specific areas of expertise but who also are willing to ‘pitch in’ wherever necessary to get a job done,” says Jack Pasini, Oligomerix’s chief commercial officer. “We are in the process of organizing a range of relevant training for the further development of our employees, from CEO down to lab assistants.”
At Regeneron, on the other hand, there are many job opportunities in various areas of the company. “For our growing Regeneron team, the most open positions fall within our Research and Preclinical Development and Global Development groups,” says Mazher Ahmad, vice president, talent. For the former, “we are on the hunt for scientists and research specialists who focus on our technology platforms, protein development and target discovery activities. For GD, we have a wide range of opportunities for people who focus on clinical trial strategies, operations, and translational sciences.”
Westchester County boasts the largest biosciences cluster in New York State and the fifth-largest cluster in the United States, according to the Westchester County Office of Economic Development (OED). With more than 200 companies employing about 8,000 workers – 20% of the state’s total biosciences workforce — the county’s biotech/biosciences cluster includes academic research institutions, research and development startups, large manufacturers, supply chain vendors, and the usual satellite operations that offer consulting, financing, marketing, communications, and other support services.
To add to this robust sector, the OED announced in February that it has created an Industry Desk program to help key business sectors in a variety of areas, including workforce development. The first sector to receive this support is biosciences. With so many successful biotech companies already established here, the sector is well-positioned to grow even larger, says Deborah Novick, director of entrepreneurship and innovation with the OED and chair of the Industry Desk Biosciences Task Force. A key driver of expansion, Novick says, is access to talent.
One challenge in workforce development is how broad the needs of biotech and biosciences companies are, she says. “It ranges from lab associates with an associate’s degree and a certificate all the way up to PhDs and post-docs, including engineers with all kinds of STEM backgrounds and a wide range of academic credentials,” Novick says.
The county has a highly educated workforce already here to fill these mostly high-paying jobs, which require advanced degrees. There are also entry-level jobs at many companies for those without higher education. The middle ground is more problematic. “We have a gap in the middle skills, not entry level but step-up jobs that get you on the career ladder,” she says.
Along with paying well, jobs in biotech and bioscience offer metaphysical and societal benefits. Ahmad says that working at a company like Regeneron “means you have the ability to make an impact on scientific innovation and patients’ lives, as well as get exposure to cutting-edge technologies, brilliant people, and hands-on experience. We have a unique, science-driven culture that encourages our colleagues to pursue their scientific curiosities with the goal of discovering important medicines.”
For Pasini, working at Oligomerix offers “the opportunity to contribute to a cause that is focused on meeting one of the greatest unmet medical needs around the globe, that being development of a disease-modifying therapeutic targeting Alzheimer’s disease and related rare diseases,” including dementia and ALS.
For those looking to create jobs rather than land one, the Westchester County Biosciences Accelerator offers a six-month program to provide entrepreneurial guidance and networking opportunities to new ventures looking for seed money to build their companies. “We help entrepreneurs figure out how to get the wheels rolling, and that creates jobs,” explains Mary Howard, program manager at the accelerator. “They may need a lot of people” if their idea takes off, she says. In fact, most new jobs are coming from small and medium-size companies, Howard says: “This is a boomtime in creating new companies, and in general, small companies are where the jobs are coming from.”
Joanne Gere, executive director of the Westchester Biotech Project, agrees. “These jobs are being created, not so much opening,” she says. The Westchester Biotech Project was cofounded by Michael Welling, after his son, Matthew, was successfully treated for a rare leukemia as an infant. “Matthew was saved by cutting-edge treatment. I saw others die, so I felt an obligation to use his story for good,” Welling says. Gere and Welling work to bring disparate silos in the biotech universe together. “It’s a vision of a collaborative community that supports anyone and everyone in solving their ‘X,’” Welling explains. If that X is workforce development, for instance, they work with local colleges and their academic advisors to highlight job opportunities and the coursework they require. “We focus on alignment between career and academic advising,” Gere says. Along with STEM grads, they are also exploring ways for students with liberal arts degrees “to find their way into this field.”
The COVID pandemic thwarted in-person training, of course, but they planned on launching online coursework and internship programs this spring; “By fall, we hope to bring people together again,” Gere says.
For her, a challenge lies in “the alignment of inspiration and opportunity. Can you get a job doing this work close to home?” Long-term, the answer seems to be a resounding yes. Between startups and companies relocating here from New York City, the need for workers in biotech “is very serious,” she says. Welling, in fact, thinks Westchester is in danger of falling behind the curve. “Healthcare and biotech is one of the fastest-growing areas of equity investment. I believe this is one of, if not the, biggest areas of growth. We are way behind other places in the country — Boston, San Diego, even Chattanooga and Columbus. So many communities that five years ago were looking for a lifeline to success landed on this. We are playing catch up. We need to be sure we are not left behind.”