The Rutgers iJOBs site visit to Ferring Pharmaceuticals on November 30th marked the first time when Ferring hosted students from a university for an onsite visit. Ferring was established in Malmo, Sweden by Dr. Frederik Paulson in 1950, and today, has offices all over the globe, including the corporate headquarters in Saint Prex, Switzerland. The site that we visited in Parsippany is Ferring’s US operations center. Ferring has pre-clinical research and development facilities at the Ferring Research Institute (FRI) in San Diego, as well as other R&D facilities in Denmark, Israel, Switzerland, China, India, and Scotland.
The afternoon started with a presentation by Dr. Joan- Carles Arce, Chief Scientific Officer (CSO) at Ferring. After giving us the company’s historical background, Dr. Arce discussed the strategic pharmaceutical areas where Ferring is a world leader: peptide-based drugs and biotechnology products with a focus on reproductive health, urology, gastroenterology, endocrinology, and orthopedics. They also have a considerable presence in the field of fertility-related products specifically known as Assisted Reproductive Technology (ART) which can help couples conceive. They have products ranging from those that address male and female infertility to ones that aid conception and prevent pre-term labor. He emphasized that Ferring handles the entire life-cycle of a product starting from pre-clinical product development to clinical studies, and even into post-marketing research. Interestingly, in response to a question about acquiring novel molecules or peptides from smaller firms, he stated that there seems to be a reversal in the industry about product acquisition and more and more companies prefer to develop their molecules in-house. This little tidbit is worth noting for those graduate students who are interested in pursuing a career at the bench in the industry since it implies that more positions for pre-clinical research may become available. While time constraints did not allow him to go into details about all their products, he did emphasize that the core motto at Ferring is “People come first.” This people-centric work ethic means Ferring focuses on helping the patients and doctors, along with its employees.
Following the presentation by the CSO, we proceeded with a panel discussion. Experts in areas such as statistics, US patent and law, medical affairs, market access strategy, and clinical development shared what their work at Ferring entailed, as well as the path they took to get there from their humble beginnings as graduate students. A common theme was few, if any of them, found themselves at Ferring straight out of graduate school. Dr. Yodit Seifu (Senior Project Statistician), trained as a statistician in Canada and then moved to the US. She first joined Novartis, though she is now working at Ferring with a small team that provides support to a variety of cross-functional teams. Dr. Jesse Fecker took a more circuitous route instead. After completing his doctorate, we went on to join a law firm as a technical specialist before going to law school. He is now the Senior Director and Chief US Patent Counsel at Ferring. While he went to law school, he advised that, to be employable in the industry, becoming a patent agent may be sufficient (these are people with degrees in specific niche areas which pass the patent bar exam, which is not the same as going to law school!). For those grad students interested in pursuing a non-research position and have a passion for patent law, this may be the path forward.
Dr. Pierre-Emmanuel Puig, while permanently stationed at the Switzerland site of Ferring, is currently in the USA for a year-long rotation and joined us for the panel discussion. Unlike some others, Dr. Puig knew he wanted to move away from the bench once he had his doctorate. He leveraged his interest in business and management to get an MBA and now works at Ferring in Global Market Strategy and Operations. Briefly, his position involves distilling the scientific knowledge for the non-scientific personnel, both within the company and outside, for example, to insurance payers. Unlike Dr. Puig, Dr. Patrick Heiser, (Senior director for Clinical Development in Reproductive Health and Urology) went for the traditional post-doc following his doctorate, following which he joined Ferring. One way to break into the industry, he advised was to become a medical writer or to work at a publishing house. More and more pharmaceutical companies are now moving the medical writing and publishing in-house rather than hiring medical writing firms. As scientists-in-training, graduate students have plenty of experience in writing manuscripts as well as funding grants which can be leveraged in this particular field. He also made it clear that employees are not pigeon-holed at Ferring, and that lateral trajectories for employees are not only possible but even encouraged!
Last on the panel was Dr. Benjamin Billips, (Director, MSLs) who works in the field of medical affairs. An interesting note for graduate students interested in medical affairs is that Ferring is one of the few companies that hire fresh PhDs for the position of an MSL (Dr. Billips himself was hired for the position without prior experience). When asked if the inexperienced MSLs get proper training or are expected to learn on the job, Dr. Billips made it clear that Ferring invested in its employees and allowed them sufficient time to learn not only about the specific therapeutic area but also to watch and learn from the interactions of other experienced MSLs. However, he did stress the importance of being able to showcase one’s ability to distill complex scientific principles into succinct takeaway messages, which is a crucial skill one needs to develop as an MSL.
The informational and interactive panel discussion was followed by a brief tour of the on-site labs by one half of the group while the other half interacted with the panel members and enjoyed some drinks and refreshments. For those of you who are gastronomes, it is vital for me to mention that Ferring’s bistro is managed by a Michelin-starred chef!
The afternoon came to a close with students and panel members exchanging business cards before iJOBS attendees returned to Rutgers. While this was the first visit of graduate students and post-docs to Ferring, Suzanne Volkert, the director for talent acquisition mentioned that it would not be the last and that Ferring was looking forward to creating more ties with academic institutions in the future.