Org Prep Daily

June 18, 2018

Season 2 – Breaking Bad In South Florida (1)

Filed under: Uncategorized — milkshake @ 12:40 am

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. If you find any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events, deadly or lively, or actual molecules, carbons or heteroatoms, it is purely coincidental.


Part 1

Five years in, the CEO of Timbermill* Pharmaceuticals, Inc. has run his company into a dead end. Slender but imposing with a mischievous smile, balding, polite and blindingly smart, he founded his little biotech on the pledge of quality, speed and capital-efficient development process. The year was now 2012 and not a single promise he made to the investors came through. The cash was running low, the latest news from the clinical studies were spelling doom and the reports from the CROs were downright disturbing. The original idea behind Timbermill Pharma was to create a virtual biotech company on the East Coast with a team of experts in cancer drug development and commercialization. It was supposed to work by in-licensing drug candidates from academia, setting up collaborations with academic groups to generate biology publications, and by doing the preclinical development at CROs – no labs in house so as to keep the expenses at minimum – the purpose was to get the compounds as quickly as possible into relatively inexpensive small open-label Phase 1 dose-escalation studies. (Cancer trials are ideal because the safety bar is so low and their dosing regimen is typically very short). The positive clinical result would be wrapped into a delicious little parcel and sold = profit!

Except that by the end of 2012 there were no serious takers left for Timbermill and its projects – one by one, they reconsidered after doing their due diligence. Nobody wanted to invest; It was necessary to unload the Timbermill Pharma even on unfavorable terms, with a generous commission. And then, few months later, the impossible actually happened: Our own struggling little company bought them! The acquisition of Timbermill Pharma in 2013 turned out to be one big unmitigated calamity for us; its impact is still felt today (with the same magnitude as the fallout from our CEO cooking Ecstasy on the university campus). As our research director later put it in a moment of weakness: “Only the go-betweens who cashed their finder’s fee benefited from the deal, they took the rest of us for a ride”.

The history of the Timbermill Pharma clinical projects illustrates how virtual biotech companies do a disservice to their research projects, to their shareholders and buyers. If someone tries to sell you a “nimble virtual company composed of seasoned industry veterans” who can do it better, faster and cheaper by contracting stuff out to CROs without performing any research in house, it helps to be extra cautious. Even if the formula could somehow work, there is a moral hazard with this setup. You could buy into a mirage of an impressive drug project where everything later turns out to be sketchy and done on the cheap while the problems are skillfully papered over. This is how the faster-cheaper-CRO works: Doing things for appearances and leaving the intractable problems for the buyer to discover later on.

Timbermill Pharma licensed its two clinical candidates from an academic research group in Austria, located about hundred miles from where I was born. (I also met the CEO of Timbermill about a decade earlier when we were both at Pharmacia-Pfizer; it’s a small world). The university research group in Austria had no real experience with drug development and they produced some irreproducible half-baked procedures in their process patents, to create a semblance of a manufacturing method… The clinical compounds  from Austria were two inorganic coordination complexes, intended for the treatment of cancer. And both were also ugly-looking metal complex small molecules with a murky mechanism of action. These two compounds had low cytotoxicity on their own and were supposed to work somehow as potency-improving and resistance-reversing add-ons to the established chemotherapy drugs, by indirect mechanism that is synergistic with DNA-targeting cytotoxic drugs, etc.  These clinical compounds were nearly impossible to follow in vivo with analytical methods because they were markedly unstable in plasma so there was no PK to speak off; a cherry blossom of a project from the clinical development standpoint. (It is true that cis-platinum and related platinum drugs also have stability issues in solution but they have at least a reasonable PK and a well-defined activated metabolites/degradation products and direct DNA-dependent mechanism of action. None of this was true for the clinical candidates from Austria.)

One compound that Timbermill Pharma put into clinic was a complex of gallium. Unfortunately they could not get a composition of matter patent on it; the compound was known for more than a century. Why they did not bother to perform a simple ligand  study to get few close analog complexes not yet described in the literature? – The compounds that they could then patent for themselves before putting millions into a clinical trial. The normal medicinal chemistry mode of thinking was foreign to the Timbermill expert team and at any rate they did not have the lab nor the chemist in house for the job. Going forward just with the help of CROs, they were not able to solve even the relatively straightforward formulation task of making shelf-stable pills that would release the compound at a predictable rate in the gut before going into the clinic with it. The clinical study was a bust.

The gallium compound did not have much biology research to back it up either: lots of hand-waving about remodeling the Golgi apparatus and endoplasmic reticulum and the synergy with cytotoxic DNA active agents but no real insight. The older known gallium compounds that previously failed in the clinic supposedly acted on transferrin, by gumming it when binding gallium in place of iron – it was not clear how this clinical candidate was any different as it was falling apart in the plasma so rapidly that the parent compound could not be detected even right after injection into the animal. The only advantageous thing that the clinical candidate had was its oral availability: previously gallium was tested in cancer therapy mostly in the form of injection, although another orally available compound was also in the clinic – and failed.

Gallium has cumulative kidney toxicity, if you put a small amount of gallium into bloodstream (for example in radioisotope-based gallium scan diagnostic procedure), the kidney damage risk is negligible. Not so with the repeated treatment or with a massive dose… Obviously, the main goal in this project should have been to demonstrate new and unexpected properties of the therapeutic agent. For example, to show the oral compound does not damage kidneys nearly as much as injectable gallium salt at a comparable dose. Unfortunately, Timbermill Pharma failed to show this and the animal studies provided no real PK insight: all that could be observed in plasma was just inorganic gallium and the free ligand. If anything, the early problems with the unreliable release from the pill in humans demonstrated that gallium oral therapy was more problematic than the old injectable forms of gallium.
It was merciful that my colleagues put this clinical candidate from Timbermill Pharma on the shelf shelf just after few cursory PK and biology experiments: The gallium project soon disappeared from our company website and the management treated it with an embarrassed silence.

But the second project we got from them was a real bummer: Timbermill Pharma put its second clinical candidate through the Phase 1 dose escalation open label study – that is to say, by hiding the GMP manufacturing and formulation problems from the FDA – and we unfortunately took it from there. Our company obtained Orphan Designation for this drug candidate based on their study – by submitting the study data to the FDA. Our research director did it while knowing quite well that the dose-escalation Phase 1 trial was invalidated by the Timbermill misconduct and that it should have been re-done a long time ago.

*A long and unrelentingly depressing tale about a fictional company. So I added at least pictures of kittens.


September 9, 2017

Breaking Bad in South Florida – The Aftermath

Filed under: Uncategorized — milkshake @ 7:15 pm

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. If you find any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events, deadly or lively, or actual molecules, carbons or heteroatoms, it is purely coincidental.

The Aftermath

(here is Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9, Part 10)

The company recently raised millions from an investment fund for the clinical trials. They are initiating the phase 1 trial with a polymer-based i.v. formulation of an old chemotherapy drug. It is the same problematic nanoparticle formulation over which my biologist friend was fired.

It has been difficult for me to find a job since I went against the company. The pattern has been the same: a successful phone interview followed (after few weeks) by a brief communication that the position got already filled. The company also sent the campus police after me last October. I was suddenly called by the university police and asked to immediately report to the campus where they served me a trespass notice and a permanent campus ban – supposedly for previous loitering outside the incubator building. (I did walk by the building once, curious if the labs were still in use – they are on the ground floor, with floor-to-ceiling glass wall so one can easily look into them from the distance).

The purpose of this theatrics was to paint me as an unstable disgruntled loner who is about to bomb the campus. I think it was the idea of our research director – and the university obliged: three police cars and four armed overweight campus police officers puffed up making the campus safe for the drug kingpin in their biotech incubator…

At this time my father became critically ill, I had to go to Prague to look after him so I did not have the energy to fight this baloney trespass. By the time I returned to Florida, I pretty much gave up – I was rather depressed and tired of the affair.

It probably looks petty – what helped me to pick up the fight again were the recent company research publications: The company has been publishing our old research results to impress the potential investors and buyers. I saw enough of my work published without my name on it and I was getting resigned about it. In one case I still caught a publication in the galley proofs because the co-authors alerted me and after my protests the research director reluctantly added my name back to the author list.

But then in summer 2017, the company published a summary overview of its proprietary polymer chemistry – showcasing the remarkable ease of manufacture of new version of our elaborate polymers and the simple-yet-effective drug encapsulation with the self-assembled nanoparticles – and my name was left out again. The scheme was my proposal, and about 30% of the man-hours spent on it was also mine. The research director actually asked me to write the official history of the project for the company in 2015 because I am the main inventor on the patent claiming these polymers. But when I contacted the authors on the paper and asked them to submit an addition/correction to put my name back on the author list, they told me to get lost; some of them in a rude way.

Lucky for us, this is an ACS journal – they have the COPE guidelines for cases just like this one: The journal editors already opened an investigation. I can’t predict the outcome but there is an overwhelming evidence that it was my work and I was left out on purpose – I hope this will give me an opportunity to tell my story in C&EN.

Another issue is the clinical candidate currently in the Phase 1. The company was under the obligation to provide all available safety and efficacy animal data in the IND submission to obtain the approval for the Phase 1 clinical trials. I am not sure they submitted everything: The research director despised the animal data that were showing a poor stability of the drug-loaded nanoparticles in mouse blood – it is the research study for which my biologist friend was fired after presenting his results. I believe that the FDA probably found out about the problems with the IND data submission recently, together with the company background story. They never comment on the ongoing investigations so it is hard to confirm; the only people who will know with certainty are employed by the company, or at CDER.

And then there are the shareholders who saw the value of their investment plummet over the years – who got diluted by the acquisition of a virtual biotech company (because of a poorly-done due diligence) and recently they were diluted yet again by the investment fund. If the company is acquired or goes public, the early investors who are getting hurt will probably question why the management involved itself in cooking MDMA and other drugs in 2013-14. The continuing presence of our research director will predictably turn into a magnet for the shareholder lawsuits. When it happens I will be there to help.


September 8, 2017

Breaking Bad in South Florida (10)

Filed under: Uncategorized — milkshake @ 3:26 am

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. If you find any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events, deadly or lively, or actual molecules, carbons or heteroatoms, it is purely coincidental.

Part 10

(here is Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9, Aftermath)

A week after I spoke with the university chief compliance officer, the DEA got back to me – a senior special agent called me up and asked me to come for an interview the following week.

I had couple more calls that day: In the morning, an unexpected conference call – some university officials and lawyers urgently needed to hear the complete story of manufacturing MDMA and DMT at the company. I did not get to meet them, they did not invite me to talk to them in person afterwards. I don’t even have their names. The second call came from DEA, to set up the meeting. Then I got several frantic calls from the company lawyer – she was trying to find out what the hell just happened. Our research director never told her about illegal drugs: she had been handling the company terminations for several months already, oblivious… I explained the lawyer she really needed to speak with the research director and I wasn’t going to take part in any company-run self-investigation. The following day, the lawyer sent me a Cease and Desist letter to keep me from talking to the university and the law enforcement. I wished her good luck trying to sue me for talking to the DEA, and I suggested that she should excuse herself due to a client conflict.

The trigger for all this sudden activity was an e-mail that I wrote to our research director. The subject line: “Today is your special day! Wednesday 23rd is a perfect day to resign.“ My e-mail mentioned the university EthicsPoint misconduct submission line and also the possible involvement of his wife in the previous university investigations of our company. I sent it at 7 in the morning. At 10 am, the university officials were calling me already, then the DEA called an hour later to set up the meeting, and finally the company lawyer.

I did not realize that the university was coordinating its actions with the company and the DEA: Our research director already informed the university about the drug-manufacturing operation, to push out the CEO and to whitewash his own role in the drug ring. Our research director became the new CEO, and the university conveniently overlooked that he set up, supplied and maintainined the lab that was making illicit drugs for almost 2 years…

Now that I talked to the chief compliance officer, I became a new source of problem. At first, it was wait-and-see. (If EH&S found safety violation serious enough to push the company off campus, maybe the affair would go away. At least that was the unofficial deal we worked out with the chief compliance officer). But I was impatient, writing e-mails about going full expose. Our research director panicked after reading my e-mail on 23rd, he run to the university for help and provoked this sudden response. DEA contact people were asked to go-ahead and interview me because it wasn’t possible to delay it much further and the university really did not want to reopen its own inquiry into this scandal – they knew there were things they did not want to find out.

At the time, I did not know enough about the three previous investigations of our company – every one of them a cover up – so I underestimated the role played by the university: it wasn’t just one high-ranking official who helped to protect the good name of the university (and perhaps shielded her husband from criminal investigation too). By now, it was the presidents office, the leadership of a major university calling in political favors and going through the State Attorney office and “comparing the notes” with the DEA, trying to avoid a scandal that would tarnish the university and its biotech incubator, and implicate one of their own in the previous cover up. The university and our company were in the same boat.

I met two special agents from DEA District Office Tactical Diversion Squad on Thursday, last week of March 2016 at 11am. They were pleasant, charming, understanding. Right off the bat they offered me an unspecified but large amount of cash if I worked for them as a paid informant: they said I was perfect because of my background in setting up synthetic labs. I politely turned that offer down – I thanked them but it wasn’t the right career path for me.

We walked a short distance over to a nearby shopping mall. Sitting in front of an entrance to Macy’s, we talked for about 90 minutes (I was nervous about the DEA building and I also wanted a decent cappuccino while interviewed – it was the first time I went to the law enforcement to turn someone in.) Later we moved back to the federal building where the officers were going through their case files, writing few comments on the margins. I think we spent about two hours together – my long-winded story probably kept the agents hungry during their lunch time.

Surprisingly they did not ask me in detail about the precursors, their dates of purchase and their quantities, even though diversion of precursors for drug manufacture was very much within their field of investigation. This alone should have made me suspicious of the whole interview. Also, I told the officers where we could find the evidence in the company records, if they wanted to build the case based on the precursor purchases. And my senior chemistry grouchy colleague actually saved an NMR sample with MDMA produced at the company – it should be still in the fridge. But the DEA officers were not interested in getting a search warrant – They said the company was cooperating (about which I had serious doubts).

What they really wanted to know was who were the sources that could confirm my story, and any photographic evidence I might have. They warned me that their investigation will proceed in a slow methodic way and I should not expect any criminal charges any time soon. Maybe never. But they assured me that the culprits will get a kick in their pants, should not be able to continue in their position at the company and the university. And certainly they should not be able to buy any listed precursors in the future or obtain DEA permits for controlled substances. That was good enough for me – after all, I wasn’t really trying to get anybody thrown in jail, and I did not like the idea of having to testify in court or be called in front of a grand jury. I would have been satisfied with our research director stepping down and the company moving off campus.

I must say the officers looked just as I imagined them, after watching Breaking Bad: no-nonsense, cautious, savvy. But the DEA facilities were pretty run down – lots of empty offices with battered police precinct-like metal desks and chairs. The oversized office space was cluttered but deserted and gave impression of neglect.

Not much happened in the following months. The unusually slow pace of interviewing witnesses – maybe one interview every few weeks – was worrying me: I though the DEA was giving too much time for the company to do a damage control. I did not expect the current employees to talk to the DEA but several already laid-off people also didn’t, or claimed a total ignorance. I originally suspected maybe the DEA was slow-boating the case because they were using our former CEO (or maybe the research director) as an informant-provocateur, the same thing they offered to me but signed them with help of a sealed indictment against them. I imagined there must be some big gangster case they don’t want to compromise by blowing the identity of their informants, etc. The reality was more mundane: The DEA agents were asked to run errands for the university.

From the phone conversations I had with the DEA over the last year, I learned few details about the previous company investigations and I figured out what made the DEA special agent rather grumpy about this case: We were just “a bunch of knuckleheads and clowns, only interested in keeping our nice jobs and paychecks” for not going to the DEA before the first cover up. The DEA agents were not learning any substantially new details from anyone, or building a case that had a chance to go to court – the only reason they were wasting time interviewing us was to patiently handle some neurotic unemployed scientists, making sure no one makes a tantrum in public… I sensed that they would have loved to have the case prosecuted to the hilt: unlike the garage meth labs, the Ecstasy busts in US are exceedingly rare – and a professionally equipped superlab operating from within a biotech company on university campus would be a stuff of legend. And they sure have no love for a privileged punk with a PhD making fools of them and getting away with it. I think they were thwarted, and directed to mind the university reputation above anything else.

No one was charged. The company continues renting the office and lab space at the university research incubator, not really doing any research since shutting down the labs in 2016. EH&S performed a lab inspection, found few minor problems and wrote a mild citation. Unofficially, the company was warned by the university to never use the biotech incubator labs for a dangerous scale up manufacturing again. The polymerizations are technically challenging and some hazardous starting materials are tightly regulated – it is really difficult to contract out the entire manufacturing process to a CRO. My guess is that the company will need to build its own manufacturing facility, away from the densely populated areas.

The university did some house-cleaning – they made the wife of our research director to resign from her post of vice president for research integrity and compliance in the summer of 2016. Our technician from the formulation lab whom she hired after the layoffs, to work in her department, was pushed out too – he only found out when he saw his own position advertised on the university job bulletin board. He was completely innocent and he never got a chance to defend himself, the university canned him just for his association.

The company lawyer resigned, nominally for a client conflict but really for being misled and manipulated. The company soon hired a new law firm – more cautious and more expensive. The Chief Medical Officer left without explanation and removed the company association from her online CV. Also the business development guy who was at my termination interview have left – he developed a serious drinking problem, and it got worse at the end of March 2016. He had a heart attack recently, and died… He was a great person I admired: A self-made man and a military pilot. I think the sleaze did not originate with him, he found out about it too late to bail out – it probably pushed him over the edge.



September 3, 2017

Breaking Bad in South Florida (9)

Filed under: Uncategorized — milkshake @ 12:27 am

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. If you find any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events, deadly or lively, or actual molecules, carbons or heteroatoms, it is purely coincidental.

Part 9

(here is Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 10)

When I received the settlement documents from the company, I saw they did a quick job: there were typos, only two months of medical, instead of a temporary job extension at a reduced pay it was a straight separation, with a severance paid out in installments over a period of four months. The pay amount was the only thing that remained from our agreement, the rest was something else. The lawyer who drafted it had no clue. It was actually the same company lawyer who negotiated with the biologist fired couple months before – and our research director again did not feel like telling her about all the drugs that the management used to cook at the company, or the promises he just made to me…

I called the research director and protested that this wasn’t what we agreed on. He pretended like he did not see the documents – he assured me “he wasn’t trying to sneak this one on me”. Then the second version of documents came: it was the same text just with the typos corrected. I was supposed to apply to COBRA to get my medical and the company would reimburse it maybe later. The research director explained that he was working hard to come up with the agreement that “encapsulates” what we discussed on the dinner meeting on Monday. He just thought it expedient not to keep his word even though we shook hand on it. Instead, he proposed to have another meeting to renegotiate.

Meanwhile I saw that the Mac I got from him was trying to upload massive volumes of data to the cloud – it was tying up the connection and filling up the computer memory. (I did not have the net connection at home set up yet, I just ordered it and the Verizon guys were taking their sweet time so I was temporarily using a free login guest account on wifi radiating from a retirement community nearby; their connection was frail and slow). Then I noticed someone was reading an unopened message from my laid-off colleague in my private gmail account – and he tried to mask it by deleting the message and emptying the trash bin. So I checked the security settings: the Mac was set on enabled remote access and the firewall was down… I had pretty good idea who was reading my private e-mails and trying to upload my files to find out if I had any interesting piece of evidence on my computer. The offer about consulting and working from home was probably a ruse from the beginning, to have me take the backdoored Mac.

I changed my passwords, disabled the auto-backup cloud uploads and the remote access. I wrote the research director that it was difficult to take seriously anything he promised, and I was not slighted as he implied – not even surprised – but getting progressively more tired of everything that happened with the company and the role he played in it, as he kept making the same mistakes and excuses over again. And if we meet and try to reach a new agreement it should be final this time and not re-interpreted, modified or encapsulated.

To which I got a reply from the research director that he was cancelling our meeting and the deal was off. It was time for the lawyers. Instead, I went to war.


At this point it wasn’t about money anymore: I wrote to the research director and the business development guy explaining that the research director needs to resign from his role of a CEO – and I promised to do my part to get the company raided by the police and pushed out of the campus if he does not step down soon.

I also informed my freshly laid-off colleagues about the negotiations with the company. Some of them reacted with a surprise – they only got two weeks of severance – but they were hurt and not in a fighting mood: if anything, they were more angry with me that I got a better offer (and did not take it – because they would).

Next I called the DEA – they asked me to come over immediately but I wanted to meet some officer who investigated our company before, for repeated attempts to purchase the Ecstasy precursors. They said they would find out who that was and call me back. It took few days for them to do that.

I also paid a visit to the Chief compliance officer at the university: We had a long evening meeting and he promised to help. I knew his boss was the wife of our research director so it was tricky for him; she was the university vice-president for research integrity and compliance. I hoped he would not go to her straight away if I explained how much the whole affair stank. And I think he didn’t – but it is likely that he talked to someone else, in the university president’s office.

The university chief compliance officer was quite taken aback by the stories of drug cooking at our company – and he wanted to have absolutely no part in investigating it. He was saying it was a job for the police. So I also described some of the mishaps and close calls in our manufacturing, the risks of running kilo-scale polymerizations of ethylene oxide in a sealed glass reactor without automated cooling backup, without a burst disc and even without a reaction temperature internal thermometer. I mentioned the hectoliter volumes of flammable solvents in the lab and the nature of work with potassium metal, KH and diphosgene. We had no specialized safety training or sensors for detecting ethylene oxide leaks as required by the regulations. I showed him a picture of myself in a gas mask standing next to a 15L reactor full of concentrated HCl and heavy metal complex – parked next to a fume hood because we lacked a walk-in hood for the reactor.

Now we were on the same page. The university chief compliance officer told me that the fire safety people at the university were still having nightmares about our manufacturing lab ever since that fridge explosion and fire in March 2014. He said he would talk to EH&S at the university and he was pretty sure these safety violations alone should be enough to get the company kicked out of the research incubator. He said he would write the report using anonymous online EthicsPoint submission to the university, and he would do it by himself because he knew what to put in there to have the right effect. So he wrote it and I never saw his report.


September 1, 2017

Breaking Bad in South Florida (8)

Filed under: Uncategorized — milkshake @ 2:56 am

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. If you find any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events, deadly or lively, or actual molecules, carbons or heteroatoms, it is purely coincidental.

Part 8

(here is Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 9)

The Board of Directors met on Thursday, the last week of February 2016. Our research director did not stop to chat in the chemistry lab as he would usually do after these long meetings.

The next Friday morning I almost missed my termination interview when I showed up two hours late for it. But I was lucky, the managers were waiting and still willing to see me. (An experiment the night before was taking a long time – eventually I had to turn off the distillation, leaving it unfinished, past midnight). When I arrived to work, my colleagues were already mostly gone and the labs deserted – all quiet. Our grandmotherly administrator said that the boss needed to see me right away. There was a firmness in her voice that did not make it sound like a birthday surprise bonus check or the stock options that the previous CEO promised to me but then forgot, two years ago.

Still, I did not realize it was the grand finale until on my way there I saw a colleague walking back with an empty box in her hands, sobbing. I kept the squad waiting a little longer and helped my colleague to pack her books and papers, we carried it to her car. It gave me time to compose myself. (I even thought about just driving off without ever returning to the office but the result would have been the same and I did not like the idea of the company collecting and packing my belongings.)

So there was our research director with the business development guy waiting seated in a stuffy little office – and they looked heartbroken but they had no other choice and they were giving us two weeks of salary plus two months of medical as a severance if I please sign the papers right here at the dotted line. I told them they were way too generous and I couldn’t possibly accept their excellent offer: they should take their severance papers and please themselves in whichever way they find enjoyable.

I just figured that the list of people being laid off was probably put together three months ago, the HR consultant was already “helping with the transition” at the beginning of December last year, and the main factor that earned me the membership in the layoff club was that I made the CEO and the research director stop their illicit drug manufacture at the company. I explained that I was happy to fight the company with everything I got. The next thing they tried was the offended pose, to show me their indignation and they accused me of blackmailing them. The business guy taunted me about not having any evidence that there were drugs cooked at the company.

I walked out of that meeting and the research director run after me and brought me back to his office and he said that perhaps they should be able to work out some consulting arrangement since I was so tremendously valuable to the company. Before I even finished packing my box, the research director wrote me two e-mail messages to my gmail address (my company e-mail account already stopped working) and he attached consulting agreement proposal and he wanted me to stop by at his office, to see me again on my way out. He also set up a dinner meeting with me the next Monday.


Here is the Standard Model of corporate downsizing: The first principle is to keep all preparations secret till the last minute to better catch the subjects unaware what is about to happen so that they don’t sabotage the company or gather kompromat; ideally they should be off-guard even as they are sitting down with the “exit specialist”. Next, it is important to try to have them sign the prepared papers that they are accepting the severance and will not sue the company – this is best done by applying mild pressure while the subject is still shell-shocked. After that, you just get those bums out of the building, one by one, escorting them gently but firmly to control the unpleasant scene. The layoff theory stipulates that it is important to downsize on Friday (or better yet, on the last day before Christmas) because the ex-employees will have more time to exhaust themselves with anger and beer, and get depressed. After a weekend or holiday they will be less likely to return to the company with a shotgun. I don’t know how well the theory worked in my case but I did relax over the weekend and I was genuinely looking forward to the meeting on Monday.

On Monday night, our research director brought me the nice widescreen Mac that I was using at the company: he already prepared it by removing the company files but leaving everything else – it came installed with Chemdraw and MS Office so that I could work from home. He handed it to me in the restaurant parking lot.

I wasn’t keen on his vague consulting agreement where the number of work hours depended on the company whim. I wanted to see the exact income figure, the medical plan, my obligations laid down in a clear language. In the end, we shook hands on a fixed-term four-month extension contract: 3 extra months of salary spread over 4 months, with four months of continuing full medical coverage. I would be working from home. (There was actually plenty of research results to write up for publication and patents so this wasn’t a sinecure but a real job, and the company actually did something similar once before – to accommodate our colleague who had to be in Vancouver with his family).

I thought this package wasn’t great given the circumstances but I did not want to fight or deal with the lawyers – I thought it was reasonable enough: I could interview for a new job and still remain employed for a little longer, and I wouldn’t have to worry about medical insurance in the meantime. This convenience alone had a value for me. We could even remain on friendly collegial terms… So we shook on it and I was relieved. One huge problem solved, or so I though.


August 30, 2017

Breaking Bad in South Florida (7)

Filed under: Uncategorized — milkshake @ 10:58 pm

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. If you find any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events, deadly or lively, or actual molecules, carbons or heteroatoms, it is purely coincidental.

Part 7

(here is Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 8)

The company became more dull and quiet place after our old CEO was deposed and the biologist friend fired. We were wrapping up old projects; there wasn’t much drive to do new things until we had funding to go to clinic. The research director urged us to use up all remaining vacation time and transfer nothing to the next year.

A major cleanup of the satellite lab where our CEO used to make drugs took place in December: The Canadian chemistry colleague did it all by himself one early morning. He found some previously overlooked hand-written experimental notes that our CEO left behind, he got rid of that incriminating evidence. My colleague also threw away a whole bunch of new surplus glassware – maybe thousand USD worth of flasks – and also the empty MBraun THF drying columns stored there for repacking with new sorbent. When I asked him why he threw out all that good stuff without telling me (as I could have found some place for it), he flipped out: it was none of my effing business, and that he did not tell me because he did not want my help.

The director cautiously mentioned once that maybe we should start updating our resumes if we don’t see any new major investments coming in by the next summer. It was a half-truth like everything he says – as I understand now. There was a board meeting at the end of November which confirmed our research director as the new CEO. At the same time they already made plans complete with the list of people, to shut down the company research if the financial situation did not improve by the next meeting in 3 months time. Of course they kept this secret until the last moment. I think my Canadian chemist friend learned about these plans and that we were getting rid of the satellite labs and offices. He was very worried but he couldn’t tell me.

Another curious thing happened right after the board meeting. The company hired HR external consultant in early December “to help us with the management transition” – and she wanted to interview me. She was apparently asked by the Board of Directors to write a report based on a “strict confidentiality of the interviewed employees”, to identify any hidden problem within our company…

I wasted two hours with the HR consultant at the nearby hotel where she was talking to the employees – we had a cautious waltzing-kind of conversation: I outlined how our former CEO was buying precursors and cooking drugs at the company and that he recruited the student technician to help him with MDMA scaleup, she was nodding and taking notes, and the next question she asked without blinking was if I was ever aware of anything illegal at the company. Obviously she already knew and that is why she was asking me the same question for the second or the third time if she did not get the answer she needed. At the same time she was encouraging me and making quick leading comments whenever she liked what I was telling her. I backed out of that interview: it was clear that someone at the Board retained her to spin the story and provide an alibi if the scandal became public. I told the HR consultant that I knew our CEO was cooking drugs for more than a year and I could share a lot more about it with anyone who wanted to know. She did not want to know.

Meanwhile, our business development guy was giving optimistic pep talks how things are going to pick up real soon, early next year. Our research director was traveling quite a bit and always telling us he was going to see prospective investors, talking to the banks and VCs. The management actually used to shun the VC money before – they said they couldn’t get a decent long-term deal with VCs and they preferred rich private individuals  instead. (Some of them seemed rather clueless about biotech and research. We used to have private tours quite often – we would get a reminder to set up large scale experiments and adopt busy lab activity to make us look more impressive to the visitors. The big polymerization reactors with elaborate monomer manifolds in my hood were the spot around which the visitors usually congregated and listened to the show-and-tell by our CEO. We used to joke about putting up signs “Scientists are not pets – Respect their wildness”).

In early January 2016 our company finally settled the whistleblower retaliation/wrongful termination legal action brought by my biology friend, out of court, with a good amount of cash. It was pretty sketchy because our research director did not tell the attorney representing our company about the drug scandal – he prefered the company lawyer to be totally oblivious during the settlement negotiations. I did not realize that if the company lawyer knew more, she wouldn’t do it – she would have to recuse herself for client conflict because she used to represent the family of our former CEO.

I took most of what went on in the last two months actually as a hopeful change, quite a cleanup. I also started on a new exploratory project we wanted to do for a long time, and it was great –  I thought that I did not have to worry about all that nastiness with the illicit drug cover up anymore.

I did not get to finish the new project: I suppose it is a pretty sure sign when you have to haggle with your research director about purchasing a pack of NMR tubes that he does not want to order for you (or explain that you aren’t going to need them anyway). We did one last liquid He fill with our NMR magnet – all chemists plus our research director, working and joking together, relaxed – I can still picture it. The helium fill went smoothly and it was very peaceful.



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