Are you a good fit for the startup environment?

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Are you a good fit for the startup environment?

Postby Shawn Baker » Wed Feb 09, 2005 4:42 pm

"The Scientist" has a nice article ("Birth of a Baby Biotech") on what life at a biotech startup can be like. It's a little more geared towards those higher up in the chain of command (with one piece of advice being to talk with the investors - a good idea to be sure, but they're unlikely to bother talking with an RA or junior scientist), but I found it to be a reasonably accurate reflection of my startup experience.

I especially liked the list of top questions to ask the prospective employer. This would have been a useful list to have when I started out. I'd be curious to hear what others have to say about their startup experiences (good and bad).

View the article: Startup Company Career Article requires free registration.

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Are you a good fit for the startup environment?

Postby Dave Jensen » Wed Feb 09, 2005 6:25 pm

Hi Shawn,

Thanks for the interesting post. Some of the items that I would point to for the ideal "startup employee" are:

- Flexibility, tons of it.
- Ability to work without a lot of pats on the back
- Must have bumper sticker that says "No Fear."
- Likes working in multidisciplined teams.
- Not afraid to start one project today, dump it, and start another project tomorrow.

I'm sure there are lots more . . . Any takers?

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Are you a good fit for the startup environment?

Postby Kim » Wed Feb 09, 2005 7:19 pm

On that article, it also points out that many start-up biotech companies are spin-off from academic labs. Usually a PI has an idea and starts his/her own company and brings the entire lab to work in the start-up.

But I also heard that academic scientists are not good industrial scientists. How do you explain the paradox? Many people believe that an academic sceintist does not work in industry settings. And yet, many start-up biotech are spin off from academic labs.
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Are you a good fit for the startup environment?

Postby Val » Wed Feb 09, 2005 8:57 pm

Kim wrote:

> ... academic scientists are not good
> industrial scientists... And yet, many start-
> up biotech are spin off from academic labs.

The corporate culture is deeply entrenched into the minds of big corporation managers. In the start-up, they would have to operate according to a different culture (e.g. being inventive and on limited budget), and they can not in principle.

Besides, American managers are good at turning the ideas into products, but they are dismal at generating the ideas. Many ideas appear in the academia labs and not in corporations.

I think it is a myth that academic scientists do not make good industrial scientists. If you let them know your "industrial" expectations (i.e., work to the deadline with just passable quality), recognise their achievement according to those expectations, put a little bit of fear into them to loose their jobs, and -- voala ! -- you get productive industrial scientists. Speaking in psychological terms, you change the person's behavior not by demanding from them to apply their thought process to changing their behavior, but only by putting those persons into another environment (that is, creating the motivations for them to change).

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Are you a good fit for the startup environment?

Postby Shawn Baker » Wed Feb 09, 2005 9:27 pm


A lot of times when a company is spun out from an academic lab, the PI from the lab just works as a consultant (such as on the SAB) for the new company. That way, they can their idea commercialized without getting their hands "dirty". It is pretty common, however, for the grad students and postdocs to go on and work for the new company.

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Are you a good fit for the startup environment?

Postby A. Sam » Wed Feb 09, 2005 10:32 pm

I'll follow-up on Dave's list and point out that it's especially important to check the 'ol ego. Remember those vendors that were so annoying when they'd show up in your academic lab? Well they can be your best friend when you have to furnish a lab and get the most for your dollar. And you'd better not shy away from heavy lifting, janitorial work, and safety compliance because man, you're all that.
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Are you a good fit for the startup environment?

Postby Lora » Thu Feb 10, 2005 10:26 am

Other things you should always have:

-A completely updated resume and an employment "backup plan." Lots of new companies go under within a few years. I recall the horrible day when I asked the office manager to order some more of my favorite gel pens, and she said the boss wouldn't let her because, at $6/box of 10, they were too expensive.
-Sam said, check your ego, and double that with a cherry on top. Entrepreneurs, upon being trusted with large sums of cash, have the psychic ability to channel the spirit of Napoleon Bonaparte. Often they've never been through the big-business HR "How To Manage Employees Effectively" seminars, so don't expect much in the way of management skills, period. In fact, given their working hours, don't expect such niceties as civility or respect before the second pot of coffee has been made. By you.
-Mechanical ability. One day, the customer service supervisor complained that we needed to have gas chromatography in-house because the turnaround time for the service lab was too slow. Mr. Entrepreneur went to the nearest equipment auction and bought two 20-year-old scrap GCs for $500--one for parts. I was given the responsibility of assembling a functional GC from the parts and calibrating it. I'm a microbiologist.

It's not all bad, some people like it. It's true you get the opportunity to advance and do things you wouldn't in a big company, but bear in mind that if you want to use this as a stepping stone to a higher position in a big company, you may be learning things "wrong" if you want to get into Regulatory or the business side of things. Entrepreneurs tend to be ignorant of things like trade restrictions (e.g., don't sell anything to Iran/North Korea/Cuba), antitrust pricing laws, EEOC, etc. And believe me, it's a BAD day when the feds show up to investigate your boss.

Are you a good fit for the startup environment?

Postby Don » Thu Feb 10, 2005 12:28 pm

Dave's, Shawn and Lora are dead on. I would underline the "no-fear" comment. Joining a start-up means taking on a good chunk of risk, and likely having to wait to be compensated for that risk. The compensation however (in the form of ownership in the business) can be significant. In addition, building something from the ground up can also be very satisfying.

I would dispute the comments that seem to indicate that science in industry is less thorough than science in academia. Successfull companies always have top-tier scientists.

I would add to the list that the start-up scientist needs to have a real product focus to succeed. In academia, you can do good science that has no product focus - the product in academia can be (although does not have to be) significant additions to the body of knowledge in a particular area. A scientist who is unable to make the shift to a focus on products that have tangible commercial value will be very frustrated in a start-up. It is quite true that many commercially successfull products have their roots in discoveries made in an academic setting - often from projects that had no commercial goals but were science for science sake. In a start-up however, the razor focus has to be on the commercial end. That is what pays the bills.

The happiest start-up scientists I know are those who have internalized the commercial focus. In many ways, it underlies most of the other qualities mentioned that make a good fit for a start-up environment.


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