Scientific Careers in Biotech Start-ups, Part II

In " Part I: What's Involved," we examined the often frustrating work environment that career scientists, and managers, can expect to face in a biotech start-up. The fast-tracked road to product development can leave many scientists feeling jilted, and "burn-rates" in start-ups can be costly in terms of productivity and morale. So if you are considering working for a start-up, first decide if you have the right scientific style.

It is best to make that decision before your first interview. Once the interview process starts, these issues get pushed to the back burner. As an applicant, a scientist is usually eager to demonstrate scientific depth in the area of interest. Yet it is more likely that the discussion may revolve around current needs of the company and not the bigger picture of the overall project, let alone the individual's interest pattern. As a result, the hiring manager will rarely gain insight into the professional career profile of the applicant. For both parties to gain the most from the interview situation, key factors that need to be explored are:

  • Core scientific competencies and areas of interest

  • Scientific beliefs, operational paradigms, and intuitive hypotheses

  • Leadership aptitude and respect for authority

  • Team skills and work style

  • Learning style, developmental needs and wants

  • Ideal job, long-term ambitions and goals

As we discussed in Part I, it is often necessary to have a tight alignment of all activities within the project, so this may not be a good fit for those scientists seeking projects that flex according to their interest patterns. This dilemma could be prevented if both you and the recruiter were to explore your past successes to discover under what management and job design conditions you obtained job satisfaction, motivation, and peak performance. Scientists should also be prepared to do some soul searching and lots of research into the company before they consider applying for a job.

Traditional jobs are managed through task and job design, skill definition, and fit with the employee as well as providing a degree of autonomy. On the other hand, R&D involves working with the unknown, with limited budgets and a lack of project or job definition. Instead of following the routine testing or procedures of the traditional scientist, the successful start-up applicant is a pioneer looking to invent new solutions. In other words, the success of the biotech start-up depends on a unique kind of scientist--the entrepreneur.

Are You an Entrepreneur?

Start-up biotech firms need entrepreneurial scientists, driven by passion for the project at hand. After all, the biotech industry has entrepreneurial risk in its genes (no pun intended); its success depends on creative problem solving through uncharted waters. To be successful in this environment, you must be motivated by the horizontal nature of the overall project and be driven, not only by the science, but also by the sheer excitement and passion of completing the project and getting it to market. You should enjoy the changing nature of the project and will not be frustrated by its inherent ambiguity or lack of management definition. The entrepreneur is in business for results, a team-oriented generalist who sees science as the means and not the end.

Are You an Entreprenuer?

Traditional Scientist

Entrepreneurial Scientist

prefers to work on one's own

a team player

motivated by analysis

motivated by results

analytical social style

driver social style

motivated by scientific specialty

motivated by overall R&D project

wants to solve scientific product problems

wants to get market acceptance

more of a specialist

more of a generalist

detail oriented

big picture oriented

security oriented

risk taker and reward maker

vertical specialist

horizontal generalist

needs mechanistic organizational structure

needs organic organizational structure

So, before deciding to leap into the unknown world of the biotech start-up, it is vital that you consider whether or not you fit this profile of the entrepreneurial scientist. If you are not a good fit, you won't be able to help the firm. But if you are an entrepreneur, there may be no better place for you to work. There is no in-between in this game, but both parties stand to gain huge rewards if the shoe fits.

Can't tell? The following test can be used as an applicant prescreening tool and can also help scientists decide whether they are best suited for an organic, entrepreneurial biotech start-up or a mechanistic, traditional organization.

Bureaucratic Orientation Test

Instructions: For each statement, answer either mostly agree or mostly disagree.

  • I value stability in my job.

  • I like a predictable organization.

  • The best job for me would be one in which the future is uncertain.

  • The federal government would be a nice place to work.

  • Rules, policies, and procedures tend to frustrate me.

  • I would enjoy working for a company that employed 85,000 people.

  • Being self-employed involves more risk than I am willing to take.

  • Before accepting a job, I would like to see an exact job description.

  • I would prefer being a freelance house painter to being a government clerk.

  • Seniority should be as important as performance when determining promotion.

  • I would be proud to work for the largest and most successful company in its field.

  • I would prefer making $70,000 per year as the vice president of a small company instead of $85,000 per year as a staff specialist in a large company.

  • Wearing an employee badge with a number on it is degrading.

  • Parking spaces on the company lot should be assigned according to job level.

  • An accountant working for a large organization is not a true professional.

  • Before accepting a job, I would make sure the company had excellent benefits.

  • A company will not be successful unless it establishes a clear set of rules and procedures.

  • Regular working hours and vacations are important to me.

  • People should be respected according to their rank.

  • Rules are meant to be broken.

  • Scoring: Give yourself one point for each "mostly agree," except for questions 3, 5, 9, 12, 13, 15, and 20. Give yourself one point for each "mostly disagree" on these questions. A score of 15 or more indicates that you enjoy working in a mechanistic organization while a score of 5 or lower suggests a bureaucracy would frustrate you and that a more entrepreneurial, organic organization would be a better fit.

    This simplified test, from S. Robbins and N. Langton (pp. 567-568), is adapted from A. J. Dubrin's Human Relations: A Job Oriented Approach, 5th edition, 1992. Reprinted with permission of Prentice Hall Inc.

    About the author:

    With a Ph.D. in social theory and an MBA from the Ivey School of Business, Doug Treen is a VP with GenPharm, a subsidiary of E. Merck KgaA. He also recently taught MBA students at the Schulich School of Business and advises Queen University's Center for Enterprise Development.

    (Article derived from one originally published in Biotechnology Focus , September 2000.)

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