Start-ups for Postdocs 101A: Getting Started in Academically Initiated Companies

Increasingly, academic researchers are exploring opportunities to commercialize the results of their research. These opportunities can take a variety of forms, from licensing deals or sponsored research agreements with "big" companies, all the way through to the formation of a start-up company based around the researcher's proprietary knowledge and technologies. In the life sciences, the current boom in genomics and postgenomic technologies such as proteomics, microarrays, instrumentation, drug target validation, and related biotechnology fields has resulted in an unprecedented number of small, academically initiated start-up companies. For those of us in the junior ranks who are discouraged by future employment prospects in academic institutions (or the lack thereof), there are many opportunities to be had. The advantages seem almost too good to pass up: a higher salary, the possibility of leading your own research team without writing grants, and the opportunity to participate in the long-term growth of a successful company as one of their first employees. Employment by an early stage start-up can offer a unique blend of science and business experience. However, there are a number of issues that must be weighed before taking this route. This series of articles will attempt to outline the pros and cons surrounding some of these issues.

Career Path

Perhaps the most important issue is that of career path. It has long been an axiom that "leaving" academia for an industrial position, no matter how much science you will be doing, is a one-way street. This has not always been the case, and is somewhat dependent on field--for example, 30 or 40 years ago university chemistry professors often had several years of experience working in industry. Nevertheless, in most fields nowadays, there is little or no room to return to an academic position from an industrial one, at least in the junior academic ranks. Your ability to attract grant funding will likely be a major factor in whether you are hired for an academic position, and this is in turn highly dependent on your recent publication record. Performing research in an industrial context is likely to severely limit, or abolish completely, your ability to publish articles in peer-reviewed scientific journals. Be sure that you understand this right from the start.

Time Commitment

University-based start-ups have one key difference from many entrepreneurial enterprises--the founding principals already have established careers that they will likely not give up. Generally, such companies do not follow the model of "building something in the garage and working 18-hour days to make it successful" made famous by companies such as Hewlett-Packard. A major challenge facing the success of academically initiated companies is in securing adequate time commitment from the scientists upon whose expertise the success of the company rests. In the best case, the amount of time spent by the founding principals will be laid out in formal employment agreements, but this is not necessarily so and in any case, it is unlikely that a new junior employee will be privy to the details. Nevertheless, it is worth asking about this, as the situation can have a "trickle-down" effect--you may be hampered in your efforts because the boss is a) never in the office, b) always writing grants, and most importantly c) never available for important meetings related to company operations. This last point can be lethal to the start-up if meetings with potential investors must often be delayed, rescheduled, or cancelled altogether.

Another important corollary is that you may be taking the biggest career risk of anyone involved. The founding scientists all have day jobs--their academic careers. Often the greatest risk they face is some embarrassment if their company fails, and possibly the loss of a small amount of start-up capital. You, as a new employee, have likely sacrificed your future academic career in order to take a risk on the growth of their company. It may be worthwhile to gently remind your employer of this from time to time, especially when the question of your salary comes up.

Where Are These Start-ups?

The biggest single block to obtaining a position in a very early stage start-up company is simply finding one in the first place. Every academic institution harbors many such small (or tiny) companies, but few of these have any public profile to speak of. Newsprint advertisements, Web sites, and recruiters all cost time and money, two commodities that are likely in very short supply. As a result, it is very difficult to find out about these companies by following a standard job-seeking route. Here are some suggestions that might help:

  • Beat the bushes. Find a university department in your area of expertise, located in the city where you want to work, and start asking questions. You may have luck speaking with a departmental secretary, with faculty members, or with junior staff (students, postdoctoral fellows). You may be very surprised at how many companies in your field you unearth. There are at least a dozen biotechnology and instrumentation companies within walking distance of my desk in downtown Toronto, and a person passing on the street would miss all of them.

  • The technology transfer office. All academic research institutes, whether located in a university, hospital, or other affiliated research facility, have a technology transfer office. This is the place where all intellectual property agreements (patent applications, materials transfers, confidentiality agreements, and the like) are signed. The people who work in these offices will know about companies located within (or affiliated with) their researchers and will likely be able to provide at least some nonconfidential information to job seekers.

  • Industrial liaison programs. Large academic institutions often have a program to help academic researchers commercialize their discoveries. Two successful examples are the University of Toronto Innovations Foundation/UTech Services in Toronto and University Technologies International of the University of Calgary. These programs will be able to provide you with information on companies directly partnered with their institutions and may also act as recruiters for them.

  • Local initiatives. There may be groups in your area devoted to promoting interactions in a particular sector of industry. An example is the Toronto Biotechnology Initiative (TBI), which holds monthly breakfast meetings. Memberships in such organizations may seem expensive, but might ultimately be well worth it for the networking opportunities they afford. Some, such as TBI, have reduced rates for academic members.

  • Once you have identified a company for whom you would like to work, how can you go about landing a job with them? In the next article of this series, we will look more closely at how to secure such a position, and what you can do to improve your chances.

    * Richard Wintle, Ph.D., is a former Medical Research Council postdoctoral fellow and a current research associate with Ellipsis Biotherapeutics Corp. His duties include research and business development, scientific project management, and a wide variety of other tasks.

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