- Associated Press - Sunday, February 28, 2016

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) - To Jonathan Rothberg, a Connecticut biologist and entrepreneur who has established several life science and biotechnology companies, exceptional workers in the specialized industry aren’t hard to find if you know where to look.

The Guilford businessman and researcher, who has founded companies valued in the billions of dollars and will be honored by the White House for his work in genomic research, is turning to Wall Street and military equipment manufacturing to staff his companies.

“As long as somebody has a desire, (has) an impact on society and has a desire to learn, I’ll hire them,” Rothberg said.

Connecticut’s biotechnology industry is small but growing. Researchers and businesses are looking in many directions to fill jobs in information technology, gene research, software development and numerous other fields in life sciences.

For example, Rothberg has hired high-frequency Wall Street traders who have made a killing in super-charged stock market trades. Working for Rothberg, they are now finding ways to save lives with medical imaging software, biomedical data and algorithm designs.

Rothberg, a molecular biologist by training, also tapped an electrical engineer making sonar equipment to help design an ultrasound device small enough to fit on a chip. And a one-time colleague of nuclear physicist Edward Teller is adapting advanced physics developed in President Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” missile defense initiative for a health care project.

Rothberg, who calls himself a “serial entrepreneur” for the many companies he’s established, is credited for improving access to gene sequencing - a key step in the process of finding cures to disease - by significantly bringing down the cost.

“We’ve gotten a tremendous amount of people that have offers from Google and Facebook and Netflix because they’re great computer scientists and we’ve been able to get them because when they work with us they can make a device that could save the life of somebody they love,” Rothberg said of his many inventions.

Connecticut is looking to Rothberg and other scientists and life science business owners to help diversify the state’s economy after losing thousands of well-paid manufacturing jobs and confronting a worrisome trend of rising low-wage jobs. The bioscience industry, home to highly skilled jobs paying close to $100,000 a year or more, is becoming increasingly attractive to policy makers.

State officials successfully lured Maine-based Jackson Laboratory to Farmington to boost genomic research, and the New Haven and shoreline areas - fueled by Yale University and Yale-New Haven Hospital - are developing as a center for the state’s growing bioscience industry.

The state also has promoted economic development initiatives backing Mount Sinai’s genomics research center in Branford and research and clinical work in bioscience at the University of Connecticut Health Center.

Rothberg, who will be honored this spring with the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, is credited with introducing DNA sequencing technology that significantly increased the speed and efficiency of genomic analysis. He has founded Connecticut companies that develop therapeutics for cancer treatment, advanced medical imaging, financing life science startups and other businesses.

His interest in genetic medicine coincided with a medical crisis when his newborn son, Noah, had difficulty breathing.

“I dreamed of a way to read his genetic map so we’d know what’s wrong with him,” he recalled.

He said he devised a way to miniaturize DNA sequencing to put it on a chip. Noah, now 16, is “healthy and happy,” Rothberg said.

Susan Froshauer, president and chief executive of CURE, a bioscience industry group in Connecticut, said Rothberg has a “a particular ability” to draw employees.

“He has big ideas,” she said. “The more these little start-up companies get going, the more we’ll need folks.”

Connecticut ranks near the top in research and development funding for bioscience and federal money earmarked for research. But, coinciding with the Great Recession, employment fell more steeply from 2007 to 2012 than in the U.S. The bioscience industry in the state employed 24,194 workers in 2012, down nearly 13 percent from 2007, while the drop nationally was about a half percent.

The one exception was the medical device and equipment industry in which employment rose nearly 4 percent from 2007 to 2012. The U.S. increase was 1.4 percent.

Connecticut’s bioscience workforce compares well with larger neighbors Massachusetts, which employs 77,817 workers in the industry, and New York, with 76,070 employees.

Nationally, bioscience companies employed 1.6 million workers in 2012, up by nearly 111,000 from 2001, according to a report by Battelle and the Biotechnology Industry Organization. The jobs pay well: In 2012, the industry-wide average annual salary for bioscience workers was $88,202, or nearly $40,000 more than for the average private-sector worker.

The industry “weathered difficult economic times better than most industries and is on course to regain its previous high employment levels,” the survey said.

George Goodno , a spokesman for the Biotechnology Industry Organization, said it’s difficult to know the reasons for the fall in employment. But medical device businesses tend to begin at universities and spin off to companies established by academics and university researchers, he said.

Connecticut has staked a lot on bioscience, pharmaceutical development, medical equipment manufacturing and other industry components. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and the legislature approved a deal with Jackson Laboratory in 2012 providing the genomics research institution $291 million in loans and grants. The bulk of the loan for the lab in Farmington will be forgiven if 300 people are hired within 10 years.

Paul R. Pescatello, chairman of the BioScience Growth Council of the Connecticut Business and Industry Association, said biopharma has generally included chemistry and biology. That’s still the case, he said, but jobs increasingly rely on statistics and math “and being able to crunch huge amounts of data,” he said. Genomic research, for example, requires testing and analysis of billions of molecules in genes to understand an individual’s susceptibility to disease or illness.

Alex Rothberg was a high-frequency trader persuaded by his uncle, Jonathan Rothberg, to leave his Wall Street job where he “repeated the mantra, ‘making markets more efficient.’”

“It’s a nebulous concept, hard to put your finger on it,” he said.

His uncle, he said, “didn’t necessarily have to point out any flaws or problems with market efficiencies, but he presented an alternative path.”

The younger Rothberg now works with doctors and other health practitioners, developing algorithms that help interpret data and to develop storage for medical data. “I love what I do,” he said.

He’s working at one of Rothberg’s companies, Butterfly Network, that is redeveloping the ultrasound machine to put its components onto a silicon chip, making the technology more portable and driving down the cost.

Big players in the industry also are hiring. Jackson Lab in Farmington recently reached its 200 mark in employment, with jobs paying an average of $89,000 annually, and is continuing to hire. Alexion Pharmaceuticals Inc. has said it will increase its labor force to 1,000 by the end of March and Achillion Pharmaceuticals in New Haven expanded its workforce by more than 20 percent last year and will grow another 20 percent this year, to about 100 workers, a spokeswoman said.

Michael Hyde, vice president for external affairs and strategic partnerships for Jackson Lab, said finding workers isn’t difficult. But competition for the best candidates is intense, with hiring falling short “in a shoot-out with Harvard Medical School.”

Core Informatics, a Branford software company, hired a dozen workers experienced in genomics and software for personalized medicine when they lost their jobs a few years ago after Roche purchased 454 Life Sciences. “Initially, it was bad news but it became a great opportunity for us,” said Josh Geballe, chief executive officer of Core Informatics.

The workforce has grown to 90 from 20 in two years, with plans to hire another 35 this year, he said.

Jimmy Jia, who wrote codes used in financial trading now adapts that skill to medical research for Rothberg.

“Everyone is so motivated to make a big difference. It’s very novel to me,” he said. “In finance, fields are very competitive. You’d win by taking market share from other people. Here we’re working to make things that are brand new. It will make the world a better place if we succeed.”

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Information from: Hartford Courant, https://www.courant.com


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