Tips on How Academic Scientists Can Make the Career Switch to Industry

2/25/10

Scientists have a lot to consider if they want to leave the world of academia for a job in industry. I picked up a lot of good insights yesterday at a meeting of people with experience in making that transition.

This event was hosted by the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, organized by the Washington Biotechnology & Biomedical Association, and sponsored by Allen Austin, an executive search firm. I figured it was valuable enough material that it was worth submitting to Xconomy so that more people in the Seattle innovation community could benefit from what was said.

The panel included Ulrich Mueller, the vice president for tech transfer at the Hutch; Jonathan Drachman, a vice president at Seattle Genetics; Ken Ferguson, the CEO of Imvaxyn; Richard Mitchell, the director of business development at the Hutch; and Mark Mendel, an invention development manager at Intellectual Ventures.

Here are the key points I took down from the panel:

—Academic positions in science are largely solitary whereas positions in industry tend to be more collaborative across a broader field of disciplines. Where the currency of academia is publishing your own intellectual output, companies must marshal a broad spectrum of talents (bench science, regulatory, communications, financial, business development, etc.) toward a common goal. Several panelists were attracted to the team orientation of the companies they worked at “everyone was trying to contribute to good decisions.”

—Industrial positions are generally better equipped than academia. A company built around solving specific problems is more likely to invest in core facilities and equipment that would be difficult to replicate with grant funding.

—The breadth and diversity of experience is greater in industry because you need to collaborate with marketing, legal, finance, and customers to get a product into the market.

—While industry offers more pay and broader opportunities there is somewhat less freedom to follow individual interests. While the best funded companies allow you to spend up to 20 percent of your time on exploratory “science” you are hired in industry to fulfill more narrowly defined tasks that must fit into the company’s purpose.

—There is no tenure in industry. The business of biotech is tenuous and subject to business cycles so if you look for a job in biotech you have to have the appropriate expectations. Sometimes funding collapses at the moment of maximum promise.

—Your need to justify the science by financial imperatives is similar to the need to justify a grant.

—Because of the need to collaborate, people skills are much more important in industry. Mangers put a higher premium on people that can communicate and cooperate than on simple brilliance.

Here are some key myths that should be debunked, according to Richard Mitchell

Myth—Industrial science is not the same caliber as in academia.

Actuality—The science must be good because the success of the enterprise depends upon the quality of the science.

Myth—You cannot publish in industry.

Actuality—There will be many times when your work is reserved as a trade secret but often it is in the company’s best interest to publish. When you do so in industry the internal review process is significantly more stringent but there are many opportunities to publish.

Myth—There is no opportunity to choose your scientific path.

Actuality—There are many ways to use your creative talents within a company. If you have a brilliant idea that is far afield from the company’s core technology you may have to find another company but opportunities for marketing, customer interaction, and business development give you more creative outlets than in academia.

Myth—There is no job security.

Actuality—If you develop a diverse skill set it is common to find a rewarding role by using management, communications, or other skills.

During the Q&A session, a postdoctoral fellow said he was considering joining a startup, but worried about job security. Here were some of the questions panelists suggested she ask before taking the leap:

—Is the company not just financed but well supported by a venture capitalist?

—Is it a great company?

—Is it a great team?

—What is the track record of the investor syndicate?

—Most startups will go through life and death moments. Look at bios of the board members and other companies that they are invested in.

—When is the last time that the company raised money – do you have a year or six months to meet the next milestone?

There is certainly a lot of volatility in startups but the variety of skills that you learn there make you much more marketable. You cannot expect to be in the company 10 or 12 years but if you can make a contribution a startup can be very rewarding even if it doesn’t “make it.” “Keep in mind that overnight success takes about 15 years in this industry,” said Drachman, the vice president of translational medicine at Seattle Genetics.

Here are the highlights of a few other questions from the audience, and a brief summary of how the panel answered them:

Should I look for a job as a postdoc in industry?

It depends upon the nature of the job. Some postdoc positions are just low paid staff with rigidly defined tasks and little opportunity to affect the direction of research and no contact outside the company. Others are hiring you for your gifts and creativity and it can be a great role. It is best to do a multi-track job hunt to see what the best opportunity is.

Is it valuable to have formal business training?

Nobody on the panel had a business degree although all felt at some time that they were at a disadvantage without it. If you intend a role that is directly related to the business (business development, company valuation, senior management) it probably would be useful. All recommended a basic financial accounting course for familiarity because it is essential to understand the vocabulary of the business.

What if you want to move away from the bench?

—If you can write, that helps a lot because that is often a weakness of scientific colleagues. Communicating regulatory documents is a big part of your life. In general it is always good to have good writers that understood science.

—Becoming a patent agent is a specific skill and training program that is important to fully describing a company’s intellectual property. Patent attorneys are typically scientists but may not have background in your specific area that the company is investing in.

—The regulatory environment creates a demand for people that understand how to fulfill regulatory obligations.

—Project management is a distinct skill from science and very valuable in industry.

—Scientists are useful in business development because they understand the implications of a development deal.

—Technical Sales is a great opportunity for someone that can communicate scientific concepts. A Medical Science Liaison has the ability to interact with physicians on a very technical level.

What if you really love bench work?

It is absolutely required that companies have good bench scientists and there are opportunities to grow into management positions. If you really like the bench contact it will limit how much management you can do or there are roles to increase in responsibility. If you really like being independent a company is generally not as great an opportunity. The best funded companies reserve 20 percent of their budgets for science but it is still different from being a principal investigator in your own lab at an academic institution. A scientific management position keeps you in the lab, but mentoring skills are more important to succeed in that role than actual lab bench skills. And if you are working on something hot you may be handed five or sixpeople to tackle without having to go through the time-consuming process of writing a grant.

How important were mentors to you?

Mark Mendel mentioned that the Kauffman Fellows Program was structured as a mentoring program and has been very helpful – part of their success was in pairing neophytes with very experienced entrepreneurs. Few on the panel had formalized mentoring relationships but suggested to “make sure that the people around you are people that you want to be around.” Drachman was glad that he did not take his academic advisor’s advice to avoid industry.

Don Rule is the founder of Translational Software, a company that aims to accelerate the process of bringing molecular diagnostics from the bench to the bedside. He previously worked at Microsoft for 14 years. Follow @

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  • ed

    I have experience as both a faculty member and in two companies, one a failed biotech and a larger multinational company. I totally agree with the myths that should be debunked. Excellent science is independent of environment and there are good, reliable scientists and “legends in their own mind” in both settings. The biggest difference I experienced is that in academic settings you spend so much time becoming an expert in one particular area trying to discovery novel molecular mechanisms, but in industry you have to find a drug or therapeutic that will work (safely) in everything from a multiwell plate to a free range human. Two very different challenges.