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Imagine yourself in a job where every 6 years you get to take a sabbatical and where you get to pursue your own research interests much of the time. Sounds like a nice academic position, doesn't it?

It also describes jobs at Genentech, the primogenitor and stalwart of the biotechnology industry. Venture capitalist Robert Swanson and University of California, San Francisco, biochemist Herbert Boyer started the company in 1976, and today it has 8300 employees and owns 5000 patents. Genentech is widely regarded as one of the world's most successful biotechnology companies; indeed, it consistently ranks among the best companies overall. This year, Fortune named it number 30 in its list of the 100 fastest growing companies in the U.S.

Genentech is also considered one of the best places to work. In November 2004, for the third year running, a poll of pharmaceutical and biotech employees conducted by Science, ranked Genentech as the best place to work. Sources as wide-ranging as Essence, Working Mother, and The Scientist have all named Genentech a top-tier employer. It has made Fortune's "100 Best Companies to Work For" list for the past seven years.

So what is it like working for the oldest and perhaps best-respected biotechnology company on the planet? What qualities is Genentech looking for in its candidates? How do you get your foot--and then the rest of you--in the door? Read on.

Tweed Jackets, Not Suits

One of the most unusual aspects of Genentech's corporate culture is its resemblance to academia. Holly Butler, the senior staffing consultant for research, describes the work atmosphere as "casual intensity." Dress is casual, hours are flexible, but Genentech researchers are very focused and a typical workweek extends beyond 40 hours. "Your job drives your hours. This is an environment where everyone is considered and assumed to be a responsible, engaged adult until proven otherwise. You do what you have to do to get the job done," Butler says.

At Genentech, hard work has its rewards. Among these is their sabbatical program, a perk that is not limited to high-level employees, in contrast to academia, where it is reserved for tenured or at least tenure-track faculty. Every six years following employment, every Genentech employee receives a bonus 6-week paid leave. It's not the semester or year that many faculty receive periodically, but it's better than any other U.S. industrial employer we know of. And, unlike academia, there's no implicit obligation to use the time to advance your career. In fact, people often use it to travel, according to Marc Tessier-Lavigne, senior vice president of research drug discovery.

The resemblance to academia doesn't end there. M.D. and Ph.D. researchers get "discretionary time"; As much as 25% of a scientist's research time can be dedicated to the problem of his or her choice. This unusual corporate policy has been a mainstay of Genentech from the very beginning. And it has paid off: the antibody drug Avastin, approved last year for the treatment of metastatic colon and rectum cancer, got its start that way. Napoleone Ferrara joined the company in 1988, and was assigned to work on reproductive biology. But he used his discretionary time to work on angiogenesis. In 1989, he announced the discovery of the gene encoding vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF), which promotes the growth of blood vessels. The company developed anti-VEGF antibodies and eventually produced Avastin. Besides its approval for colon and rectum cancer, it is in late stage trials for a variety of other solid tumors.

According to Genentech's management, discretionary time is a keeper. "If anyone were to ever question it, we would point to Napoleone and VEGF," says Tessier-Lavigne. He believes the program is vital to the corporate culture. "Scientists are driven by their curiosity--it's just a natural thing for them to follow their nose. [Discretionary time] creates a great culture of inquiry and constant exploration, and of course, it has the side benefit that it can lead to discoveries important to our translational research and drug discovery."

Finally, as in academia, Genentech scientists are expected to publish their results. "We make sure people have time to focus on writing up papers. The acid test [of research] is to get that critical feedback from the outside community," says Tessier-Lavigne. The company can afford a liberal publishing policy, Tessier-Lavigne says, because it carefully patents its discoveries before those papers go into print.

The Opportunities

Employment prospects are bright at Genentech. In its June 2005 issue, Business 2.0 named the company one of the 100 fastest growing tech companies in the U.S., despite the fact that it is already one of the largest biotech companies in the world.

Genentech's research is focused on three areas: oncology, immunology, and vascular biology. The research arm employs about 700 people, about a third of who have Ph.D.s or M.D.s. A typical lab is headed up by a Ph.D. or M.D. scientist assisted by two or three B.S.- or M.S.-level research associates.

The research arm is looking for a wide range of expertise, including protein engineering, protein chemistry, small-molecule and medicinal chemistry, pharmacology, and bioinformatics, to name a few disciplines. They also need people with experience in small-animal models. Other opportunities include development science, where decisions are made about which compounds to move forward into the clinic and which diseases they will be tested against. This division has about 270 employees, with expertise in research pathology, pharmacodynamics, toxicology, molecular diagnostics, and related disciplines.

Genentech also has opportunities in manufacturing and process science. Following a successful effort to find an effective drug, there are numerous challenges to producing enough of it to satisfy the market. "Manufacturing and process science sometimes gets neglected as an area of interest. People think of biotech as just R&D," says Butler. Needed expertise includes analytical chemists and chemical engineers, among other fields.

Avastin's recent success led the company to purchase a manufacturing facility in Oceanside, California, to make the drug. Butler anticipates that the company will hire about 200 new employees for the facility by the end of 2006, many of them with specialties in manufacturing and process science.

To fill its research and development positions, the company is interested in researchers with combined backgrounds in biology and medicine. M.D./Ph.D.s are "a very natural fit" at Genentech, says Tessier-Lavigne. But there is still a place for those without formal medical training. "We don't expect everyone to come here with the full armament of knowledge necessary to do translational medicine. If you come in with a strong background in mechanistic science, molecular biology, and exposure to mammalian biology, that's a great substrate for us to work from."

One way to get in the door is Genentech's postdoc program. Genentech employs 85 to 90 postdocs, about 70 of who work in research. Some postdocs go on to permanent positions within the company, but it's no sure thing. "We have an open, competitive recruitment process. What I would say is, for the postdocs who come here, because they can see how Genentech works and know what they're getting into, they're very well-positioned when competing for a position," Tessier-Lavigne says.

There are likely to be plenty of jobs available in the coming years, as new growth is pushed by Genentech's recent successes with Avastin, Rituxan (a treatment for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma), Herceptin (breast cancer), and other drugs. Genentech's workforce expanded by 23% in 2004, and the company expects similar growth in 2005. Despite the expansion, management remains committed to preserving the unique corporate culture that has helped make Genentech such a success. Says Butler: "We've spent a lot of time examining those things that we value and keep us unique and successful. We've worked hard to guard those very carefully."

Jim Kling is a freelance science and medical writer based in Bellingham, Washington.