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Biotech layoffs gather pace as industry downturn persists

At least five dozen biotechnology companies have laid off employees so far this year in a sector-wide contraction that has reached large and small drugmakers alike.

Brought on by enduring funding challenges, the consolidation has resulted in roughly 3,200 biotech employees losing their jobs between Jan. 1 and early April, according to data collected by BioPharma Dive.

While the workforce reductions aren’t a new development — more than 100 biotech companies conducted layoffs last year — the pace of announcements has accelerated, suggesting the industry hasn’t recovered from 2022’s market downturn.

Biotech is inherently risky and companies routinely report losses for years as they attempt to discover, develop and market new medicines. Except for the few that have approved drugs to sell, most rely on a steady supply of cash from investors, either private venture firms or public shareholders.

However, over the past 18 months or so, that supply has dried up. Secondary stock offerings have been fewer and less lucrative than before, while for private companies initial public offerings are near impossible to pull off. Rising interest rates in the U.S. haven’t helped, nor has the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank, which had deep roots in biotech.

“Raising capital has become increasingly difficult for companies in our industry,” wrote NGM Biopharmaceuticals CEO David Woodhouse in an April 4 email to employees announcing the company’s plan to lay off a third of its workforce.

NGM was the 60th biotech company tracked by BioPharma Dive to have announced job cuts since the start of the year. The true count is likely higher as private companies might not be under a duty to publicly disclose layoffs, while some have shut down without revealing employment details.

The median round of biotech layoffs this year involved about 40 employees, although at least eight drugmakers, including Fate Therapeutics, Molecular Templates and Sorrento Therapeutics, have each laid off more than 100 staff.

BioPharma Dive’s count was compiled via company statements, regulatory filings and “WARN” notices filed with states. In cases when a biotech only disclosed the percentage of its workforce affected, BioPharma Dive calculated the approximate number laid off using the most recent employee count given in annual filings, usually as of Dec. 31, 2022. Some layoffs announced may not yet have taken effect.

Along with the approximately 3,200 biotech employees to lose their jobs this year, nearly 1,900 more have been laid off by large pharmaceutical companies like Amgen, Pfizer and Roche, according to WARN notices.

Although layoffs have been widespread, the number of biotech staffers newly out of work represents a small fraction of the number employed across the industry. In Massachusetts alone, for instance, biopharmaceutical companies had more than 100,000 workers on their payrolls in 2021, according to MassBio, the state’s life sciences trade association.

Overall life sciences employment was still growing as of January, too, a recent report from the real estate firm CBRE showed.

“In many of these cases, it is still a small number of layoffs,” said Pearl Freier, president of Cambridge BioPartners, an industry advisory group. “What would worry me more is if, all of a sudden, I saw a company the size of Moderna saying, ‘Okay we’re laying off 500 people now.’”

Mass layoffs of the magnitude that have taken place in the technology sector this year aren’t occurring among large biotech and pharma employers. Still, for the smaller drugmakers that typify the biotech industry, cuts can be deep.

Jounce Therapeutics, a formerly up-and-coming cancer drug developer, has shed nearly all of its staff in two rounds of layoffs this year. It’s now in the process of being bought by a company controlled by one of its top shareholders.

Apart from Jounce, 17 other biotechs have trimmed 50% or more of their workforce this year. Magenta Therapeutics, Nabriva Therapeutics and Finch Therapeutics have announced cuts exceeding 80% of their staff.

The layoffs last year and so far in 2023 could reflect a correction to the biotech boom that followed the COVID-19 pandemic. New companies formed, raised cash and went public at a torrid pace in 2020 and much of 2021, swelling the industry’s ranks. The surge of investment may also have helped sustain existing companies that were otherwise struggling. Now that the trend has reversed, companies needing cash are left exposed.

“Biotech takes a lot of capital and these companies are always going to have to refill the pie at some point because it just takes forever to go anywhere,” said Stewart Lyman, an industry veteran and former consultant.

To Lance Minor, a life sciences national co-leader at the tax and advisory firm BDO, the difference between the current moment and years prior is the context.

“We started from such a high peak,” Minor said. “We saw such a huge influx over at least the past three years of new technology and new capital. It’s a tall cliff to fall off of.”