In 2020, Passage Bio, a genetic medicines company focused on rare disorders of the central nervous system, boasted a workforce of 20. That number has jumped to 100, with the aim of reaching 150 this year, according to CEO Bruce Goldsmith.
The Center City-based company’s quick expansion signals the uptick in employment opportunities and economic growth among the three dozen cell therapy, gene therapy, and gene editing companies located across the Philadelphia region.
Last year, the Philadelphia region’s entire life sciences hub ranked sixth in the United States, according to the JLL 2020 U.S. Life Sciences Real Estate Outlook, which tracks trends in the field, based on “new peaks in capital venture investment and life sciences employment.”
For the cell therapy, gene therapy, and gene editing sector, this translated to raising $4.3 billion in investment during 2020, skyrocketing up more than fourfold from $828 million in 2019. During the first quarter of 2021, the sector brought in $980 million in investment across 16 companies, according to the biopharma database company DealForma.
Cell therapy, gene therapy, and gene editing all involve cell or gene modifications to treat disease. While these companies currently employ about 4,900 workers across the region, data from Econsult Solutions Inc. (ESI), an economic consulting firm in Philadelphia, show that the sector can add as many as 11,274 jobs over the next decade.
With the possible multiplying of this high-tech, well-paying workforce on the horizon, Saul Behar, a senior vice president at the University City Science Center, sees an opportunity for local residents. And not only for those with doctorates.
“In the future, there will be jobs in this area for people that don’t require a graduate or even a college degree,” Behar said. “Think logistics, marketing, lab cleaning, front office positions, finance.”
Not to mention a range of computer science careers. “Connected health, digital health, and data analytics are all vital to this sector,” Behar said.
While pay rates vary depending on the company, the industry, and the position, Behar added that wages ranged broadly from $15 to $27 an hour, while salaries for business operation roles start at $55,000 a year.
Given the risky nature of new therapy development, where promising discoveries can be derailed by anything from a lack of investment to the FDA approval process, the business can be unpredictable. Goldsmith, of Passage Bio, said that risk is a necessary component of R&D.
“To create sustainable job growth and opportunity, our industry must continue to innovate, which means taking on a certain amount of risk, with the goal of helping patients,” Goldsmith said. “We now have a robust job market because of all the new companies created, so, even if some fail, the Philadelphia job ecosystem will remain very promising.”
In and around the city, various training programs and collaborations have already begun to prepare workers to fill these jobs.
The University City Science Center recently received a $250,000 grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration to expand its Building an Understanding of Lab Basics, or BULB, initiative to recruit and train underemployed and unemployed Philadelphians for biotech careers in cell and gene therapy companies.
BULB includes “soft” and “hard” skills training focused on the basics of biotech laboratories and manufacturing environments, plus on-the-job training at partner employers. BULB graduates range from lab technicians and lab assistants to entry-level positions in logistics, marketing, finance, and human resources. The program is free and open to those with a GED or high school diploma, and those with some college and workforce experience. Participants will learn skills sought by employers, network with companies, and gain career opportunities.
“One indicator of market demand is that Indeed.com, an online employment site, currently lists 68 entry-level openings in the region under ‘gene therapy,’” Behar said. “While many of these jobs require a bachelor’s degree, some do not, such as entry-level roles in lab science, lab management, and logistics.”
With new biopharma therapies on the horizon, the Jefferson Institute of Bioprocessing is training graduate students, engineers, scientists, and technicians in bioprocessing, procedures that involve living cells or components of cells to create treatments. The program recently received a $2 million grant from the Commonwealth’s Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program, which will allow the Lower Gwynedd facility to add nearly 40,000 square feet of additional academic and training space.
“Some of the best opportunities for growth in the manufacturing area for advanced vaccines and cell and gene therapies are right here in Philadelphia,” said Parviz Shamlou, the institute’s executive director. “That’s where we come in.”
Shamlou stressed the importance of opening biopharma training to Black and underrepresented communities and his hope that graduates remain in the Philadelphia region. Starting salaries for bioprocessing engineers range from $75,000 to $100,000.
To find well-trained talent, in 2020 several gene and cell therapy companies created an employer-led Life Sciences Talent Pipeline Collaborative, convened by the Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia.
The group, which currently has 16 employers, plans to connect with several established programs, including a strategic arrangement between the Wistar Institute and the historically Black Cheyney University. Both groups are working to expand life science research education, training, and business development opportunities.
Cheyney students will participate in Wistar’s biomedical research and training curriculum and gain hands-on laboratory experience through laboratory courses and internships that can progress into Wistar’s credentialed apprenticeship program.
To extend the pipeline, members and training partners of the collaborative will also sponsor and mentor STEM programs for K-12 students through career exposure, classroom, and site visits. These programs include FirstHand, a free offering from the University City Science Center that provides supplemental STEM learning for middle and high school students. And Project Onramp Philadelphia, a partnership between Life Science Cares Philadelphia and Philadelphia Futures to help low-income, first-generation college students start their life sciences careers with 12-week paid internships.
“We’re not there yet, but part of our mission is to ensure that our community understands programs that are available to get on a path toward these careers,” said Claire Mazzaro Greenwood, executive director of the CEO Council for Growth. “We hope it will be a collaborative strategy that serves multiple interests.”
Meanwhile, Goldsmith said he is open to future hires who may not be entirely familiar with the emerging fields of cell and gene therapies.
“We’ve thought a lot about recruiting talent from training programs, or people who may not be familiar with this particular field, but can grow into the position,” Goldsmith said. “We look for people who are experienced, driven and have curiosity. You have to want to learn.”
“It’s a question of timing,” the science center’s Behar said. “We’re not at the point where there are lots and lots of jobs yet, but there will be in the future. We want to be ready.”
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