What makes Pfizer Gene Therapy inherently different?
When you think of Pfizer, connection to its ranking as one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies quickly comes to mind. Yet, with that status, and having the resources to make their work and science globally impactful- how is the company also able to have the agility to operate as a small biotech?
Double-clicking on Pfizer’s Gene Therapy Group at their sites in North Carolina provides a closer look into this start-up culture. In fact, it is exactly what separates Pfizer from others in the Gene Therapy area. We sat down with several colleagues who spend their day to day lives working on Gene Therapy and let’s just say, the results were emphatic.
Now, we want to define the start-up culture that we allude to in a “small biotech company.” What does this mean? What makes this type of atmosphere unique? Let me save you a quick Google search. When we look at startup culture, we often are diving into factors such as workplace environment, collaboration, decision making and problem solving. A startup culture generally makes these things a lot easier as the organization puts trust into their employees to make the right decisions. Oh, and one last piece that makes a startup culture unique is the aspect of joy. Colleagues are walking around with smiles on their faces and are excited to wake up and go to work every day.
Margaret Ruesch, Vice President of Pfizer’s Biotherapeutics Analytical R&D, who leads teams of experts in state-of-the-art and innovative modalities for Gene Therapy, puts it this way: “You really get the best of both worlds – the positives of a big company with the feel of a surprisingly small, nimble and innovative culture – that is the Gene Therapy group at Pfizer.”
She goes on to talk about a culture that’s fueled by connection and inclusivity – a nurturing and safe environment that encourages curiosity, and where colleagues feel cared for and supported.
What’s the upshot? When you combine the startup culture of a small biotech company and the resources that Pfizer can supply, you get outstanding results. It’s two ends of the spectrum colliding. Gene Therapy Senior Scientist William Kish says his “Scientific Vision has been realized by leveraging Pfizer’s resources.” He continues, “Leadership told us to absolutely go for it, that virtually no resource is unobtainable” when he first started with Pfizer in 2016. The work that is being done in Pfizer Gene Therapy, specifically geared towards Wilson’s Disease and Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy is groundbreaking. A combination of great people, Pfizer’s environment as well as the resources available all make the work possible.
RAISING THE BAR ON COLLABORATION
As we discuss the Gene Therapy team, we must further explore collaboration. Pfizer as an entity treasures the idea of collaboration and that value spreads throughout the organization. William Kish, who works in Process Development, stated that “Fostering ideas, regardless of title” is a big part of the collaboration piece within the team. It doesn’t matter if you just stepped in the door or are fresh out of college, people want to hear your ideas. Director of GMP Compliance at the Chapel Hill site, BethAnne Bort, notes that colleagues have a fantastic relationship with senior and executive leadership. “There is always open communication with them, our Vice Presidents are constantly in touch with us – it’s just a lot of great exposure.” BethAnne goes on to speak about the friendly and welcoming environment, “there is constant support from them, if we ever need anything, we can go to them. It’s a very enabling and supportive leadership team, which I have not found anywhere else.”
Scott Coury is a Clinical Manufacturing Manager for Pfizer Gene Therapy and believes that the collaboration taking place has led us to where we are today – cutting edge science. Now you may be thinking that collaboration happens in all places of work, especially in the science R&D field…right? But here’s the Pfizer difference as described by Scott: “I pinch myself almost every day, I’m so happy to be a part of it. People want to ensure your training is done properly, if they have information – they want to share it. I find it very helpful and very energetic for the group. For someone who is new and looking to develop their skills, you have an entire support group willing to share their wealth of knowledge. I’ve now been here for a good 6 months and I feel it; the collaboration is unparallel.”
PERSPECTIVE AND CHALLENGES
Any great outcome is a product of challenges throughout the journey. One thing we picked up on during our conversations with the folks in Pfizer Gene Therapy is that you’ll never be bored at work. A Technician at the Chapel Hill site, Treko McGhee says, “We are always cookin’ something up”. This is a testament to the Gene Therapy team as there is always exciting work to be done. Treko continues, “The way our sites work together, the way our teams work together, really cultivates a creative and collaborative environment that allows us to challenge each other’s ideas.”
Gene Therapy Quality Control Analyst, Krissy Spruiell, would agree with the above. When Krissy first joined Pfizer, she recognized the gravity of the challenge, “this is not going to be easy” she said. “This is a different type of research environment. If possible, we have to be right the first time around, which presents a real challenge.” So, what helped her tackle this challenge? Krissy had to demonstrate that she had the ability to change quickly, adapt to the environment, learn new procedures quickly and to perform them well. At the end of the day for Krissy it took commitment, inner-strength and self-belief to hurdle these challenges!
Sushma Ghimire, a Scientist at Pfizer’s Morrisville site, is also drawn by overcoming challenges and the opportunity to constantly learn and develop. Why did she join Pfizer? Because of the synergies, connection and innovation she found in the Gene Therapy group. The fast-pace, large-scale study projects she’s worked on along with cross-functional collaborations have been a source of much pride and fulfillment for Sushma and she wants to make sure others know just how unique and ‘wonderful’ the environment truly is.
DRIVEN BY PURPOSE
Pfizer colleagues have a distinctive and unshakable commitment to a higher purpose and innovation for patients that could not be more palpable and inspiring. You understand the promise captured in the words of Paul Mensah, Vice President and Head of Bioprocess R&D: “Patients are always at the forefront of everything we do. In fact, our biggest motivation by far is hearing testimonials from patients, knowing that the product that we have worked on has made it to the market and is making a meaningful difference in patients’ lives. Knowing that humanity is counting on us to deliver on a vaccine so we can get back to ‘normal’ or that a Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD) patient with no options is counting on us to deliver on our gene therapy, is a huge motivation for us all.”
By and large, this patient centric approach was the common and central theme in all our conversations – and a reminder of the fulfilment and joy that is gained through purpose-based contributions.
Pfizer Gene Therapy is at the beginning of a revolution. You can only imagine what is next; between the cutting-edge science, visions being realized through resources provided and a colleague friendly workplace, the sky is the limit. The team is looking forward to expanding their operation with a new site in Durham, North Carolina coming in 2021. Click here to learn more about the new facility, you won’t want to miss it.
Originally published on Thursday, November 25, 2021