From Academics to Biotech: A Journey to the Supposed “Dark Side”

9/28/09

If you had told me last year that today I would be running the offices of Accelerator Corporation—at least for one morning while everyone is out of town—I would have probably sniffed in disdain, tossed my hair, and shuffled back to my post-doc lab bench, a free donut in one hand (magic vendor food) and a stack of cell culture dishes in the other. What you would not have seen is my furious Googling efforts to figure out what the heck your futuristic apparition was talking about. Accelerator wha? Venture capital who? Ah, Biotech. I don’t know about that. Like when Nancy Reagan admonished me to stay off drugs in junior high, my scientific training in academia had left me with the same feelings about Biotech. I felt an illicit curiosity about this dangerous thing stamped as “Business.”

Heresy of the highest order, I inherited the prejudice that biotech and Big Pharma were outposts for sell-outs or worse yet, the incompetents in science. Want your Ph.D. thesis committee to fail you? Mention your interest in business. In late night conversations, hushed tones over cold pizza, (next to the ultra centrifuge in the basement autoclave room), I speculated about what biotech might be like. “They make money? They drive cars younger than they are? How illicit! How exciting!” I had the naïve view that biotech and the business of science were havens for everyone who didn’t want to be an academic. I have discovered I was dead wrong. The scientists of biotech are adrenaline junkies who are just as brilliant and zany as any academician.

Since I’m writing this, one can assume that I did indeed finish my post-doctoral training and switched into business. During the worst financial crisis in 80 years. To the riskiest game on the block (venture capital). Like my desire to study stem cells during the Bush Administration, we’ll just file this one under “it seemed like a good idea at the time.”

In February of this year, I started my new vocation as the intern at Seattle-based Accelerator, a venture-backed incubator for biotech startups. For the record, Accelerator has no internship program. It reviews hundreds of business plans every year, and has a track record of forming three of the most promising companies in Seattle biotech of the past five years—VLST, Allozyne, and Theraclone Sciences—who have gone on to raise more than $100 million combined.

There is clue one: I am as lucky as Charlie Bucket and the Golden Ticket. In my six months at Accelerator, I have seen more scientists like me interested in transitioning to business than I ever thought possible. And I have learned that it is a very difficult transition to make, both in practice and in intellect.

Fast forward back to today. This morning I have answered the phones and doors, taken all shipments for three companies, dropped a transferred call twice on a very forgiving CEO, attempted to find the keys to a rental car in Pennsylvania, built a spreadsheet with all therapeutic antibodies originated in phage display, made three appointments to network for an upcoming trip to Tokyo, scouted technology on two university websites, edited an investment presentation, considered the effect of “Lehman Shock” on global investment liquidity, and prepared to meet a man … Next Page »

Charlotte Hubbert is an Associate and Kauffman Fellow with Accelerator Corporation, a Seattle-based privately-held biotechnology investment and development company that is building the next generation of biotechnology companies. Follow @

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  • http://endeavor.org.mx Fernando

    Welcome to the dark side? No, in fact I think you just jumped to the “market side”, and the sun is allways brighter over here. Wish more weird, crazy and brilliant scientists were welcomed on this side.

  • Jeanot

    The dark side sounds pretty fun, and I’d love to venture into to it one day, although the one thing I’d have a hard time adjusting to is a dress code (if they do indeed exist on the market side of things). Oh, and just so you know, your academic friends will always take your calls.

  • Ajamete

    Oh come on, every academic dreams of starting their own company. All the best and brightest do! They just don’t want to give up their day jobs and the freedom they have in academia. It take real guts and creativity to meld the freedom of academic science with darwinian drive of capitalism to build something that improves peoples lives and makes VCs rich.

  • Sarah

    It seems that the dichotomy between academic research and biotech research is disintegrating. We are already seeing more fluidity develop between the two camps as we come to the realization that the differences between the two are not as great as imagined. Investigators at many different stages in their careers transition between academia and industry. Academic labs are partially supported with industry sponsored projects, and companies host academic researchers on sabbatical. A culture of dialog and exchange is developing through seminars, symposia, and casual networking that allow academic and biotech investigators working in similar fields to combine knowledge and resources to the benefit of both parties. It is an exciting time to be in science and your unique experiences in both a high profile academic lab and a fast paced VC will position you to be a leader in the scientific community.

  • Anonymouse

    But are you getting paid currently?

  • Charlotte

    Yes. I currently get paid.

  • Will

    Hey if you ever manage to figure out how to transfer calls would you let me know? Learning to drive is easier than figuring out how to navigate those things that look like straightforward telephones but act like commodore64s on steroids. I usually resort to asking my colleagues to come over and speak to the caller on my phone.

  • k

    Exceptional and colorful–informative and enlightening. Your article is written with the flourish of someone who is well read, articulate, educated. It also suggests a waft of honeymoon, a breathless wide-eyed excitement contained just under the subcutaneous tissue of your pen. But I can’t help wondering if the lustre of business will erode over the years. Do veterans and converts on “The Dark Side” look back over the wall and regret making good their escape? I’m not suggesting that they do, or that research for the sake of research is more pure or honorable than a fist full of yen, but you’ve gotta wonder if the grass really is greener… I look eagerly forward to your follow-ups.

  • Jake Harrison

    Hi Charlotte,
    I just found this quote from Orville Wyss: “It has never been demonstrated that the cloister is in any way superior to the market place for training a man to think, or that applied science is in any way inferior to pure science as an intellectual effort.” Best of luck!

  • AB

    Great article! Here are some of the things I noticed when I went from post-doc to VC:
    1) naturally, biotech has less tolerance than academia for “lateral science” – the tendency to fill in all the gaps. With cash and competition being matters of life and death for a company, the mantra is to keep pushing forward.

    2)soft skills and managing people and teams is critical to success. Most good academic PIs do this, but it’s not explicitly taught in academia and you have to face it day one in the business world.

    3) the board meetings of small R&D companies are often not unlike lab meetings in academia. Sure, the financials are discussed at some point, the bulk of the time is spent discussing data and next steps.

  • Melanomanic

    Ah, Dr. Hubbert. I hope that years from now, you will not stare into the mirror of your new Tesla roadster and ask ‘What ever happened to the Little Miss Messy I once knew?’. She’s now dressed in Gucci and Manolo Blahniks. And of course hosiery.

  • New to biotech

    Very enlightening article!
    I just wonder how much pressure do you have in this kind of “job”. During my post doc and PhD , I was working 7 days a week, at least 11h per day. The pressure to get data was enormous, my boss wanted everything done yesterday. I do believe in hard work, but staying in the lab for 24h doesn’t make you more efficient, actually many times its the opposite . Now working for a company I enjoy the idea of “normal” hours and being much more creative since my brain is not overloaded with information.
    So how it is in ventures? What happens if things don’t work the way it was planned? Is it 24/7 job or you can actually “have a life”?

  • Charlotte

    Dear New to Biotech,
    I’ve been contemplating how to answer your great question of pressure and time. Seeing as how it took me short of forever to answer your post, I’d say VC takes a lot of my time. I agree that 24/7 lab work had a lot of pressure, but it was also more of a solo event — were I to sleep in one day, it was between me and my cells. Now I’m responsible for meetings and physical deliverables with direct consequences.From what I have experienced so far, VC is a 24/7 event tempered with an acute sense of ‘having a life’. When VCs take the time to have a life, they do it in style. (Happy hour keg tappers replaced with Sommeliers).I keep banker’s hours, but it seems like I’m working harder now than I have before. Perhaps that’s the vertical learning curve (jumping into biotech AND business) and the need to hustle. The real time information content I digest is enormous. As for things not going as planned — there is the similarity with science. Nothing goes as planned. VC requires living in a fluid state in all axes, which generates its own pressures. And talk about your delayed gratification — creating a biotech company takes years.

  • New to biotech

    Thanks for taking time to reply.

  • almost retired

    Charlotte,

    Finally got around to reading your article. You are as always cleaver and fun. Do you wear the ruby red slippers with those hose?

    I grew up in Kansas City and the Kaufmann was about the only biotech industry in the city. How interesting that his legacy should champion your transition. I look forward to hearing more.

  • http://www.bioventuresinvestors.com TonyC

    The strokes of your pen are certainly filled with style, Charlotte. You’re a pleasure to read – on the side of my screen, juxtaposed to the poker hand of b-plans I’m masticating at the moment. My path to venture capital is analogous to yours – perhaps 3 base pairs of difference. I transitioned from medical school, spent time in the consulting world and returned to business school prior to entering the world of VC. A few of your readers asked whether the flame that lured us still burned as brightly, or perhaps even singed us. From my perspective, the flame has now become a constellation of brightly burning bodies that continue to excite me and that continue to forge the tools for the practice of medicine and science. A light that touches potentially everyone. I was burdened by the notion that I was abandoning clinincal pursuits and that I had abandoned the pursuits of medicine and science. I can only say with clarity now that those concerns could not be farther from the truth. The value of ALL of medicine and science is measured through application and utility, and venture investing, which enables and facilitates application and utility, is in fact the light side…not the dark side.
    You have exciting times ahead of you!
    Tony

  • Klowee

    cool to read this – contact me, please. i’m so glad you landed on your hosiery-clad feet