A Tale of Two Companies


You have to love living in the Boston/Cambridge area. In most other places “gossip” columns cover the glitterati (or what passes for such). Here they cover the goings on, hanky-panky and shenanigans at multi-million dollar biotech companies. What’s not to love?

What’s apparently not to love is working at some of these places.  I couldn’t help but notice two news articles that appeared within a few months of each other that offered profiles of two companies that were so strikingly different that I sat up and took notice.   What was so different?  Well, their science was different but I’ve grown so jaded from listening to or reading about companies that claim to be  “transformative, disruptive, innovative, game changers” that all those words generate lately are a yawn.  What was different about these two companies was how they treat their scientists.  More specifically, how they manage the most abundant product or outcome that the world of science and pharmaceuticals in particular have to offer: Failure.  

First let’s consider Moderna Therapeutics, a Cambridge darling that according to the Boston Globe (in January in any case) was the “highest valued private company in biotech.”  Feel like working for such a company?  Better think twice!  In September, 2016, The Boston Globe ( (https://www.statnews.com/2016/09/13/moderna-therapeutics-biotech-mrna/ ) reported that “..the company’s caustic work environment has for years driven away top talent..,” that there is a “culture of recrimination” there and that “..failed experiments have been met with reprimands and even on-the -spotfirings..”  And if that’s not enough, how about “..abusive emails, dressings down at company meetings, exceedingly long hours and unexplained terminations.”  I really had to laugh when I read the part about getting fired for failed experiments, because if you’ve been in science for more than 10 minutes, you know that that’s what most experiments do, and usually without any help from you.

For some reason this article was on my mind when I read a more recent piece in the March 3, 2017  Wall St Journal (https://www.wsj.com/articles/celebrating-failure-in-a-tough-drug-industry-1488568710 ) entitled “Celebrating failure in a tough drug industry.”  This was about another Cambridge company, Ironwood Pharmaceuticals.  Turns out that like its peers, Ironwood, a reasonably successful ($2.5B market cap) company, is no stranger to failure. In fact, they recently got everyone in the company together after one of their major programs ground to halt and had to be abandoned. The purpose of the get-together? Insults? Recriminations? Mass layoffs? Guess again.  They held a “drug wake” to memorialize all the hard work everyone put into a program that they were going to walk away from.  

The article gives examples of other companies that do similar things.  Astra-Zeneca for example apparently has an annual “Science Oscar” ceremony celebrating “scientists who pursue promising lines of work no matter what the outcome” (emphasis mine). 

In a city where there are lots of options for talented scientists (and Boston/Cambridge is certainly that) you’d think companies would be listening to their Human Resources professionals regarding best practices for motivating creative science professionals. No organization has a formula for consistent scientific success. But if their scientists are skittish and risk averse for fear of recrimination they definitely have a formula for lost opportunity.     

Carl M. Cohen, Ph.D.

President, Science Management Associates