Preparing for careers in start-ups/spin-outs

For most scientists, it seems like our training focuses on just two career paths: tenure-track academics or industry scientists. Sometimes you’ll get a career discussion about patent law, but those two trajectories seem to be all that trainees hear about.

So when Alex Federation asked me if I wanted to help him launch Talus Bio, I absolutely had no idea what I was doing or getting myself into. All I knew was that I loved the science and I loved working with Fed, so we pushed ahead with the shared vision of what we wanted the company/lab to do.

Over the last year with Talus, I’ve had the opportunity to meet a ton of amazing people in the start-up/spin-out world, and I’ve been blown away at the range of career opportunities there are beyond company founders themselves. And also dismayed that I’ve never even heard of most of them because they sound like perfect fits for the skills that a PhD cultivates beyond churning out papers for your boss.

That’s why I organized the latest Career Explorations panel for US HUPO’s Early Career Researcher group and focused on some of these jobs. I invited four panelists, ranging from startup founders to tech transfer officers to due diligence scientists:

Emily: https://linkedin.com/in/emily-hartman-guthrie-0b013437/
Susan: https://linkedin.com/in/susanmockus/
Marco: https://linkedin.com/in/marco-lobba/
Steve: https://www.linkedin.com/in/steve-ouellette-b93b1561/

During the 1-hour conversation, we touched on many aspects of spin-outs and start-ups. Of course there was plenty of interest in how to launch a startup company from a university research project, but there was also discussion about how exactly patenting and IP plays into startup companies, how tech transfer and commercialization are handled from the university or research institute, and how funding is secured from venture capital and investment firms.

I’ve compiled four main highlights from our discussion, but US HUPO will be sharing the recording of the panel shortly, so check there for the full conversation!

Q1: How do you build non-lab skills, like management, leadership, etc, during your academic training?
(1) Read books on management and leadership skills (*see recommended reading below)
(2) Take courses from your university’s MBA program, both to expand your knowledge but also to meet people (potential co-founders) with complementary business skills
(3) Look for incubators or entrepreneur support programs at your university, which typically include workshops on leadership, management, and business development
(4) Internships at VC firms (commonly posted on LinkedIn, so have your LinkedIn profile up to date!)

Q2: How do you get started with a potential spin off?
(1) iCORPS program is a great place to start and will give you opportunities to practice business development
(2) Find product market fit through “user/customer” interviews (something that iCORPS will also help you with)
(3) Report all your inventions/discoveries to university patent/IP office BEFORE publishing a paper or sharing at a conference — having intellectual property will make it easier to fundraise for your company
(4) Draft a commercialization/business plan (again, something that iCORPS can help you with)
(5) Read Jared Friedman’s How to spin your scientific research out of a university and into a startup

Q3: Investment in proteomics is booming — pros and cons?
(Pro) Proteomics can solve problems that genomics couldn’t; next generation sequencing is cheap now so there’s more investment opportunities for proteomics; there’s more mainstream interest in proteomics these days
(Con) hard to explain proteomics and especially mass spectrometry; orthogonal validation for proteomics is tough; there’s a history of failed companies and overpromised/underdelivered projects; hard to define a proteomics product (methods and software patents are trickier than a product or chemical/compound, for example)

Q4: What business models seem to work for proteomics?
Hybrid platform/fee-for-service + internal therapeutics dev is a popular model now with early stage venture capital. However, it’s tough to stay lean and hard to stay focused when you’re essentially trying to run two businesses: one as a CRO and one as a pharmaceutical. In the future, maybe there will be more proteomics-based diagnostics companies?

* Recommended reading from the panelists:
Managing Up: How to Forge an Effective Relationship With Those Above You, Book by Roger Gittines and Rosanne Badowski
Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity, Book by Kim Scott
Biotechnology Entrepreneurship: Starting, Managing, and Leading Biotech Companies, Editor: Craig D. Shimasaki
Bio Design: Nature, Science, Creativity, Book by William Myers

Author: Lindsay K Pino

co-founder and CTO at Talus Bio (opinions my own)

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