On June 2, 70% of the staff at Athersys, a local biotech company in the regenerative medicine field, received word that their jobs were ending on July 1 as part of a corporate restructuring plan to reduce costs and prioritize its lead clinical programs.
For a company of around 100 people, only 30 or so are left standing. I was one of the 70% who was laid off from my job of four years as a research associate in the process development lab.
For many of us who worked there, Athersys was not just a job, it was a mission we believed in. Cellular therapy has the potential to drastically improve human health and quality of life.
Unfortunately, the development and the road to FDA approval of these novel therapies is fraught with risk; so much depends on investor funding, or partnerships with larger companies, which can shoulder greater financial instability.
Even knowing all of this, very few of us expected such a drastic move. This was the company we risked our health for by reporting into work every day during the pandemic. The company for which we worked more than 12 hours on some days, in a lab where conditions were often hot. Getting a drink of water required de-gowning, and breaks to eat—if you were even able—had to be strategically found during experiments and processing activities.
The work was not easy, but the purpose and the people we stood shoulder to shoulder with made it worthwhile.
For me, Athersys was my forever job when I accepted the position in 2018. I’d weathered rocky waters there in 2019 when I dealt with financial and mental health difficulties, and I grew into a stronger person both professionally and personally.
In the last two years, I never looked at another job site, didn’t even bother updating my LinkedIn profile. But almost to the day—on my four-year anniversary—I and 70 of my coworkers are forced back to square one in starting over at a new company.
The road ahead is scarier for some. Families and mortgages make it difficult, but not impossible, to pick up and start over outside of Cleveland. We all realize that suddenly the job market has had a large influx of people looking for very similar and specific research and quality laboratory positions.
Many of us left other employers for very specific reasons. One coworker describes the toxic work environment she left to join Athersys. Another tells me how she worked very long hours in an academic setting without the salary to support her.
For me, I had to work for a company that had the same goals I believed in personally. We all devote a large part of lives to our chosen career, and if it doesn’t resonate with who you are, chances of happiness are that much harder.
Of course, there is one summery, shiny, and quite bright side to being laid off in July.
Anyone with kids (or who is one at heart) knows what I am getting at. For the first summer since I graduated from high school, I don’t have a full-time job. “I have two boys—eight and 13 years old—who are ecstatic about the time we will spend swimming together, riffing on awful movies at the drive-in, camping on a Tuesday, hiking at the many beautiful (and free!) parks in greater Cleveland, and all around enjoying the simple pastimes that made the summers of our youth such a special time.
Still, beneath all that joy lurks the fear of the future. The what-ifs swirl in my head when I stare up at my bedroom ceiling, not sleeping. I should put a motivational poster up there, honestly.
Summer fun aside, an important decision lies ahead of my coworkers and me. Whether it is going back to school, leaving Cleveland, or getting lucky with the right job here, our lives will lead down different paths. Sure, there are questions, and I’d be lying if I said we all didn’t feel a sense of betrayal.
But I wish Athersys the best in getting its therapy out there in hospitals around the world.
It is not lost on me that I sit outside on a park bench writing this on a beautiful summer day. My sons are enjoying the incredible new playground at Edgewater Park. There is laughter all around me and there are families from all walks of life—a vibrant, diverse, and most importantly, happy crowd.
Cleveland is my home. I’ve left before to pursue education, adventure, and a career. But somehow, I always end up back here. Whatever the future holds for my family I’m happy to be here, right now, on this day. Sometimes, that’s all you need.