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by Cynthia Robbins-Roth, Ph.D.


BioWorld Today Biotech's Redemption Chance: Make Drugs, Foster Community

By Cynthia Robbins-Roth
BioWorld Today Columnist

Biotech employees are not thrilled with the reputation their firms are acquiring. Working on innovative life-saving drugs is great, but folks have doubts about the price tags affixed to these drugs, and the sales and marketing practices that look a lot like Big Pharma's methods (appearing soon in a cinema near you in Michael Moore's latest film).

As leadership becomes more tied to stock performance via option packages and bonuses, it separates from the staff's desire to maintain social values. Even at mighty Genentech Inc., just voted by Fortune magazine as the best company to work for, there is trouble: A whistleblower lawsuit was filed recently by a former employee over Rituxan marketing.

The connection to community is important to employees and can help attract and retain them. In the Bay area, Symyx and Maxygen agree that their proactive community participation scores big points with staff.

Both companies, along with Alexza Pharmaceuticals, Rigel, and a host of high-tech firms in the region, have developed active community-based philanthropic programs with the help of the Entrepreneurs' Foundation (EF).

EF was created in 1998 by Gib Myers, a high-tech venture capitalist at Mayfield Fund, as a way to use the energy, wealth, innovation and stock options of Silicon Valley to enhance the community.

EF works with firms to develop and implement philanthropic programs and community-involvement activities. Part of the fuel is provided by company stock, which is "banked" until IPO - an idea Myers got from eBay, which put pre-IPO stock aside to create a foundation.

Myers brought the concept to the Mayfield portfolio and it spread via the venture capital network. More than 130 Bay area companies have joined EF, and other cities are working to adopt the model.

Diane Solinger came from a nonprofit background to become executive director of EF in 1999 - right during the heart of the internet boom. Her challenge has been to continue to grow the EF network of company collaborators and to include more of the local biotech community.

Solinger said: “This resonates with life sciences companies. People work for these companies because they hope to effect positive change in people's lives.”

Changing Corporate Culture
Solinger works with corporate leadership to build programs that support the business objectives of the company in response to surveys of employees' interests, and in-house teams are created to implement the programs. The key is support from the CEO and top management.

“We don't want philanthropy to be a knee-jerk response,” she said. “We want it built into the corporate culture. Companies with strong ethical cultures will build socially responsible programs that are integrated.”

Corporate giving includes donations of stock, matching employee donations, community funds and donations of products and services. EF in the Bay area has generated $4 million for community groups including Second Harvest Food Bank, Emergency Housing Consortium, Partners in School Innovation, the Red Cross and others.

EF has worked to create community service programs that are built into the human resources policies; they are based on employee surveys and managed by employee teams. Companies also provide paid time off for employees to work in the community. Last year, EF companies donated 8,508 hours of community service.

Employee giving is coordinated through EF, including fund raisers, payroll deductions and donations. EF companies gave 11,331 pounds of food, 1,193 toys and 631 backpacks in 2004. The also participated in fund-raiser activities and sponsored auctions for local schools.

EF helps companies with business practices - donating office space and supplies to community organizations, supporting recycling and alternative transportation programs, finding vendors who support community programs and hiring staff via groups that help transition people back into the work force.

And finally, EF helps companies market their community involvement locally and to investors.

Doing Well By Doing Good
So how does this work in real life? Does “doing good” eventually benefit the bottom line?

Jeri Hilleman, executive vice president and chief financial officer at Symyx, said yes. EF has been a key way for a little company of 350 staff to become part of a larger group - the entire EF community. The range of community service activities is built into the Symyx benefits package. The impetus, Hilleman said, “came from employee interest in community outreach.”

Maxygen's founder and CEO, Russell Howard, felt it was important to establish community service in the company's corporate culture; it goes hand in hand with marking important pharmaceuticals in making Maxygen a good place to work. He provided pre-IPO stock for a fund designated for philanthropic uses and built a community-involvement group. Maxygen employees are given three days of paid time off for community volunteering.

Maxygen usually sponsors two events every three months, including Save the Bay, when people help clean up the Bay. It also supports Habitat for Humanity and Second Harvest Food Bank, plus it matches funds for employee donations to charities.

Mary Langhart, Senior HR specialist, said that the active community participation has been a big winner with employees.

“We did a staff survey with EF, and found that the staff loves the program,” she said. “They get a stronger sense of team and better communication within groups through working on these events. This enhanced sense of team has been great for the company. Probably 75 percent of our employees participate.”

That legacy carried through to Maxygen spinouts Codexis and Verdia (now part of Pioneer), which participate in the Community Involvement Team organizing activities throughout the year.

Is it worthwhile for biotech CEOs to spend time and resources on community service? Brian Cunningham, long-time biotech exec, lawyer and supporter of public service, said the growing disenchantment with the biopharma industry and its pricing policies means it needs as many friends as possible in state, federal and public agencies. Activity beyond obvious self-interest is a smart move in these political times.

For more information, go to www.efbayarea.org.

-- January 17, 2006

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by Cynthia Robbins-Roth, Ph.D.


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