Where I came from
Over a year ago I made one of the biggest decisions of my life. I packed up all my worldly belongings and moved to San Diego to begin working full-time for a small biotech startup. This was a unique opportunity for me because it was a friend who was starting the company, he and I had been speaking over the past couple years about his ideas for a company, they had had me out several years ago during their prototype phase to show me the technology and get a biologists perspective on what a successful product should look like, and I had been doing some consulting projects for them over the past year. At the time, they displayed little understanding of basic molecular biology concepts, but I didn’t think that would be a big deal because they were just starting up and not coming from a biology background, rather an electrical engineering one. I’ve now made another big decision, and that’s to end my relationship with them and move on. Below, I discuss what I’ve learned and what I might like to do in the future.
The opportunity was a unique one because my whole lab was moving to another state, and I was done with experiments, so it didn’t make sense to move with the lab just to finish writing things up. Although there were tremendous social ties holding me to New Orleans, I was preparing to leave for a post-doc anyways when they invited me out to San Diego. I figured it would be just as easy to finish writing my dissertation in San Diego as in New Orleans, so I jumped at the chance.
Where I went
The situation when I arrived was interesting. They had moved out of the garage I last saw them in to a real lab, with chemicals on the shelves and pipettes on the benches. More importantly, they had some working prototypes running. My job was going to be to take charge of the assay development and to manage the lab. Now, at a small company, the hierarchies are essentially flat, because everyone needs the expertise of everyone else pretty much at all times. The team wasn’t so big that we couldn’t all gather together in the meeting room and discuss whatever we needed to.
I loved the freedom of being able to come up with a plan and pursue it, and it was great knowing that I was working on important problems. It was also very cool being surrounded by fantastically talented people from fields quite different from mine. In fact, the first challenge I faced was getting the respect of the others. At a small startup, it becomes very obvious when someone isn’t pulling their weight. However, because the problems you’re solving are always changing, the needs of the company are always slightly shifting as well. My joining the team was part of an overall re-organization of the company to refocus now that the needs had shifted away from their starting point. I didn’t realize this immediately, but I was actually replacing someone in some capacities, with the hope that the tasks which were tangential proficiencies of the existing employees were more direct competencies of mine.
This being my first professional job in biotech, (not my first non-academic job, but I’ll spare you that part of my biography) there was a lot to adjust to. I learned that there are many differences in how groups communicate in academic and industrial settings. The other team members need to feel that you’re confident, because they don’t always have the background that your lab mates may have had to dig into your science and ask critical questions. Additionally, they don’t expect the level of criticism that’s common in a meeting with your lab mates. Of course, the goals of a company are to get to something serviceable as fast as possible, not to find The Truth™, and that’s actually not unappealing to me. As much as I remain committed to The Truth™, I also like doing things which are technical and applied. At a startup or small company, it’s possible to both have a relatively short-term impact on how science is done or how care is provided, yet at the same time be part of the infrastructure for more fundamental contributions. Being quite used to the graduate school schedule, I immersed myself in the work and comfortably worked 12 hour days and weekends and even pulled an all-nighter or two before an important meeting. Perhaps obviously for those reading along, I became so immersed that 5 months later, I hadn’t so much as looked at my dissertation.
I don’t know what sort of schedules my readers work on, but 4-5 months is when I entered a reflective phase. I was somewhat satisfied with what I had been able to contribute, I felt like I had achieved the respect of many of the team members, and I was particularly happy to have been able to bridge the engineer-biologist gap that existed prior to my arrival. Getting the whole team to speak the same language remains one of the accomplishments I’m most proud of. Teaching the language and concepts of a empirically-based science like molecular biology to a bunch of engineers with physics and computer science backgrounds is not easy, let me tell you!
This time was also a sort of breakpoint we had discussed internally in terms of my stake in the company, so it was time to make some decisions. When my wife delivered the happy news that our first child was due towards the end of the year, it became even more clear that all the loose ends in my life needed to be tied down. I had the following issues to deal with: I needed to finally finish writing up and defend, I needed to find us a living situation more conducive to raising a child, and I needed to have a serious discussion with the company founders about my future. I began working more normal hours, so I could finish writing up and defend. Writing for a couple hours here and there on nights and weekends just wasn’t getting me anywhere. Even as the pace began to pick up at work, I finished my dissertation and prepared for my defense, dropping essentially everything else. If it wasn’t for the selfless support provided by my wife during this time, our life would have probably unraveled entirely. Next, we moved from the loud, noisy, and somewhat juvenile neighborhood where we first landed in San Diego to a quieter neighborhood. Finally, I tried to get some clarity and commitment from the company regarding my long term prospects for advancement and career development. They assured me that I was a valued member of the team, and promised that as soon as they closed this next deal, which was practically a sure thing, everyone would get raises and bonuses and options and all that.
What happened when I got there
As I mentioned above, the needs of a small startup are ever-changing. I found myself spending more and more time doing things where I couldn’t draw from my background, experience, and training. I think I’m a pretty smart guy and a quick study, and I love learning new things, so always having to learn something new wasn’t a problem for me. However, when I stepped back and looked at where things were going, it just wasn’t where I wanted to go. It wasn’t where I could bring my knowledge and skills to bear most effectively, so I wasn’t setting myself up for success. Nor was I setting myself up for failure, but irrelevance? – perhaps. As fun as it was being in that diverse environment, it was also a little isolating. As each sure thing materialized and then evaporated again, I considered applying for a postdoc just to have colleagues again, but I’ve known some 30-something post-docs with children, and there was always a slight whiff of desperation coming from them.
I still believe that the company will do very well, but I had to make a decision between staying with the company, drifting further away from my optimal career path, and possibly showing up one day to find the doors closed or starting now to look for another position in a very tough job market. I picked the second choice because that at least put my fate in my own hands. My leaving was in no way a vote of no confidence in the company. If I was still a single unmarried guy with no kids, I’d probably still be there.
I had been a part of the San Diego Biotech Network since shortly after I came to town, thanks to Mary’s engaging twitter presence and inclusive and generous demeanor, so I knew how hard it was going to be to find another job. I had seen many of the same people at the SDBN meetings, month after month. I began actively applying for positions, but at the same time I started thinking about other possible opportunities, and now I find myself with a variety of loose ends again.
Where to now?
I enjoy working a few hours a week with Mendeley, helping to make introductions between the academic community members who are looking for some solutions that Mendeley provides, and the Mendeley team who want to know what are the as-yet unmet needs of the academic community. As I’ve said before, I think these guys have the potential to transform how research is communicated and how scientists collaborate and there’s a good chance they’ll do just that.
I also enjoy writing about scientific and social issues, particularly ones brought up as the cultures of traditional publishing and the online open access web collide. I’ve had some offers to blog at various outlets and although I would love to take them all up, I can’t yet find a way to do that as more than just a hobby. There’s certainly enough interesting stuff going on around here that I could keep myself busy, though.
Last but certainly not least, I really enjoy doing research, and there’s a local company(should I say?) who has just started a project doing almost exactly what I did for my dissertation. I’ve spoken to people at the company and am currently trying to convince them they’d be crazy not to at least have me in for a talk. They’re large enough that they’re probably not going anywhere soon, yet small enough to give me the chance to be involved in some really groundbreaking work. Not to mention, they’ve assembled a fantastically talented team that I would love to be a part of.
So that’s where things lie at the moment. I have a PhD, I have two years of biotech industry experience, I write fairly well, I have a good number of connections in academia, in publishing, in research, and I’ll have a daughter pretty soon. Hopefully I’ll have a new job soon, too. It’s been quite a year.