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FEATURE: Despite Cool Economy, Genomics Companies Still Struggling to Fill Positions

NEW YORK, April 20 - When Affymetrix subsidiary Perlegen Sciences announced earlier in the week that it had hired as its new director of information systems Pixar Animation Studios computer vice president Greg Brandau, the genomics industry barely blinked.

It didn't seem to matter that the new executive, who will oversee information systems involved in Perlegen's efforts to use Affymetrix microarrays to hunt down key genomic variations, has no job experience or background in life sciences.

After all, everyone knows how hard it is to find executives with one foot in biology and the other in information systems: It's about as hard as it is to find skilled bioinformaticists, genomics business people, microarray scientists, and protein structure specialists.

"We're still having a difficult time getting good people," said Matthew Takahashi, a headhunter with Executive BioSearch in Palos Verdes Estates, Calif.

Despite the cooling of the overall economy, recruiters say the job market in genomics is still about as hot as a sidewalk in August. As a result, the thirst for qualified candidates is forcing recruiters to think outside the box or to lower the bar for life sciences experience when finding people to fill positions.

"Even in the business level, they're looking for people who have a degree in science, with business experience," said Dave Marshman, a recruiter with Axis Executive Search of La Jolla, Calif. "Sometimes it's almost unrealistic within the confines of marketing or sales."

Takahashi, who recruits for the business side of genomics, said his greatest need is to find people who are qualified scientists, and want to make the move from lab coats to business suits. These days, a person does not need business experience--only a business orientation and skills, such as thinking strategically, working in teams, and the ability to communicate--to make this transition. An MBA also helps, said Takahashi.

Given the high level of collaboration between companies in this sector, many companies also need business people with experience licensing technology and forging partnerships with other companies, said Marshman. "Strong business professionals are in demand."

It can take up to six months to fill a business development position in a genomics or similar company, and a director of marketing and sales realistically takes 60 to 90 days, Takahashi said.

University bioinformatics programs have just begun to address the other key need in this personnel-strapped sector: people with both computer and biology experience. Until these graduates start flooding the market, companies may have to resort to finding qualified computer people, as Perlegen did. 

"There's been an explosion of biotech companies that's created the demand, but the supply isn't there, so companies have to find computer scientists who are willing to understand the biology," said Herbert Hess, a Toronto-based recruiter of IT and bioinformatics professionals.

At the low level, Marshman said, it is very possible to jump from the computer science area to the life sciences, especially if you know JAVA or PERL. Hess added that people with data warehousing and data mining experience who want to go into bioinformatics and learn biology can easily move into the field.

But many companies also face a desperate need for researchers in another exploding area--proteomics, said Ellen Clark, president of Clark Executive Search in Shelter Island, NY, and these positions require people with molecular biology experience. 

"With proteomics being a hot issue, everybody is looking for the same people," said Clark. "I have a company on the East Coast that wants more or less an entry level protein structure person. They said 'send us anybody you can find.'"   Another hot area is the microarray field, especially microarray analysis jobs that require statistical informatics background, Clark added.

With this kind of demand, job seekers know that it's a buyer's market, and many are demanding hefty compensation packages.

"Some of the people get a little cocky," said Clark. "One guy in statistical informatics said 'I'd go for $250,000,'" when asked about his salary requirements for a position at a particular company. "I laughed and told him that was more than the vice president was getting."

But the compensation situation has shifted lately given Wall Street's woes. Many companies can no longer placate prize job candidates with hefty equity packages with their stock prices at current levels. "Candidates want to see a little more salary now, while earlier they were willing to forego the salary for stock options," said Marshman.

Yet this financial downturn hasn't seemed to stop the growth in the sector's personnel needs. "This industry is growing geometrically," said Hess. "It's the industry of the 21  st century."

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