Comparing Biotech Startups and Big Companies

Master of Biotechnology program (MBP) students heard from panelists about the pros and cons of company size at the program's Biotech-Nexus event earlier this year.

One of the common questions students in Northwestern Engineering's Master of Biotechnology program (MBP) face as they prepare for life after school is whether they should try and pursue a job at a small-sized company — like a startup — or at a more established, larger business. 

There is no right answer to the question, as students discovered earlier this year at Biotech-Nexus, a panel discussion about a variety of topics and questions facing the biotechnology industry. The panelists were asked to compare and contrast the two options based on their own experiences, and the answers, as expected, were varied. 

For Angela James, who is a director in the Department of Clinical Pharmacology and Exploratory Development at Astellas Pharma, the difference comes down to resources, flexibility, and decision-making. 

"Those are three key areas that are very different between a startup and a large company," she said. "(With) startups, you learn a lot. You wear a lot of different hats. It can be time-intensive, so your work-life balance might not be great, but you will learn a lot." 

Louisa Carr (MBP '05) shared her experience transitioning from a large company like General Electric to her current position at Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, which she described as a mid-sized company. Each had its advantages. General Electric, for example, like most companies its size has more stability and potentially more resources than a smaller business. Her current job, though, has given her far more room for creativity.

"When I was at the larger company, it felt more cumbersome," she said. "It didn’t really feel like you could invent yourself. You were what your job description was. I didn’t see ways to grow."

In her current position, Carr was asked by her manager what she was interested in working on. Once she shared her interest in a certain question, the manager's response was to go figure it out. "I ended up creating a process, and being a part of that growth is very exciting," she said. "If you can join a smaller company, there is a lot of excitement there."

Andrea Redd has never worked at a small company. Her current employer, Fresenius Kabi, has nearly 300,000 employees worldwide (as of March 2020). While she understands some of the potential downsides of big companies, she certainly recognizes the advantages. 

"You may hit a ceiling a little bit faster in a big pharma company," she said. "You may get to a point where you feel like it’s a bit cumbersome and decision making has stalled out, but I can tell you that the opportunities you make in big pharma and the connections that you make from being at these pharma companies helps you move around within these larger companies. 

"Every position that I’ve found within the larger companies has been because of somebody I know or somebody I’ve connected with."

Steve Sharpe understands the pros and cons of small and large companies. He currently is an engagement partner at PharmaACE, but he previously worked at Johnson & Johnson and was a Battalion Logistics Officer in the U.S. Army. 

"You can have an impact wherever you are," Sharpe said. "(With) small companies, the kind of impact you can have very early on in your career … is really cool and exciting. … There can be a ceiling in a very large organization and you may have to move around. That’s an important point in any industry."

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