The Cheese Keeps Moving


When I was in the third year of my degree (B.Sc., biochemistry), I wasn't sure that research was where I wanted to be in the long term. I was concerned about quality of life and personal job satisfaction, among other things. I began to research options and decided that I would like eventually to work my way into the business side of science. I made a rough plan: Finish my undergraduate degree, work in a lab for 2 to 3 years, perhaps go back to complete graduate studies (M.Sc. or an MBA), possibly get some more technical work experience, and then cross over into business.

This was a naïve plan, perhaps, because it is never that simple. But as luck would have it, I was halfway through my plan when I was unexpectedly presented with the wonderful opportunities and future prospects offered by the WestLink Technology Commercialization Internship Program.

After completing my undergraduate degree, my first research position was in a lab that was going through the process of creating a spin-off company, based on a technology developed by my supervisor and one of his postdocs. I absorbed a great deal of information about the technology-commercialization process from the scientist's perspective during my time in that research group.

A few years after joining the lab, I bumped into the incredible opportunity of the WestLink internship. I was at a transition point when the internship came up: My technician position was in the teeter-totter space of termination if the granting agency didn't renew the laboratory funding. I think that if I hadn't had the incentive to look for other job opportunities, I would have missed the WestLink posting.

As luck would have it, I saw the announcement and applied. Ironically, I had applied for another lab-tech position at a government lab and accepted that offer 2 days before my supervisor's grant was renewed. But when it rains, it pours, and I was also offered the internship. After agonizing over one of the scariest decisions that I have ever made, I decided to take the internship position. But at the time, it felt like a one-way step: If I took the internship, there would be no going back to the lab and the comfort of a job that I knew I was good at.

Now, I am glad that I took that leap, and I feel that I have accelerated my career path and potential goals through the opportunity offered by the internship.

My three internship rotations, which began in May 2001 and are due to be wrap up in April 2003, were somewhat intertwined. I began at the University of Saskatchewan's technology transfer office, called UST, where I learned about intellectual property, interacted with university inventors, and worked on a survey of start-up companies that sprouted from my alma mater. It was a gentle introduction to technology transfer because the academic attitude was still somewhat prevalent. The experience also allowed me to think about my original supervisor's project from the perspective of the technology-transfer office. I believe that my former supervisor really appreciated my presence at the office because I was able to help him understand the commercialization process better and see where the communication gaps were occurring, which in turn helped UST understand where it could strengthen its liaison capacity.

At the university, I spent much of my time visiting with researchers to learn about their work (which was fascinating) and educating them about the patenting process and the role that technology transfer plays at a university. I found that my biochemistry degree was really useful because it allowed me to bridge many scientific disciplines. For example, just having basic scientific knowledge helped me to grasp ideas and manage projects in fields as diverse as pharmaceutical chemistry, nanotechnology, robotics, agricultural engineering, and medical devices. I was able to delve deeper and identify the commercial opportunities in the areas of biology, genetics, immunology, organic chemistry, physical chemistry, microbiology, and plant science, among many others.

But as I moved on through the subsequent placements, I detected a definite shift toward a more corporate mindset. In the second placement, for example, I found myself at one of the university's spin-off companies, Alviva Biopharmaceuticals, an early-stage biopharmaceutical research company that focuses on developing therapeutics for neurodegenerative diseases. I spent the majority of my time divided between competitive intelligence research, business plan development, and the quality-assurance (QA) research review team. It was interesting to see the company from the perspective of the university, and vice versa. I learned a great many new skills while on the QA team, from regulatory requirements for drug development to implementing good laboratory practice, including writing and organizing standard operating procedures, as well as performing research audits.

The time I spent on the audit team taught me a lot about research design and data management, which was very helpful because my background research experience didn't include the design of large-scale experiments. One of the major challenges that this company faced while I was there was raising sufficient capital to provide for ongoing research costs. So it was interesting to learn about the company's experiences with and perspectives on venture capital (VC) before I headed off to my third placement, which was in the VC community.

My current, and final, placement is with a seed-stage venture fund, Foragen Technologies Management, which specializes in the advanced agricultural-technology sector. Seed-stage venture funds are injected into a company at a very early, incredibly high-risk stage. This is generally the point where the company has preliminary proof-of-concept of a technology and needs that $1 million to $3 million to get to the next stage of development. Foragen provides both funds and management expertise to these early-stage companies.

Taking the Plunge

For anyone interested in taking the plunge and changing careers, I recommend reading the book Who Moved My Cheese, by Spencer Johnson, M.D. It is an interesting little story that describes people's attitude toward change and how they react to it. This book is a definite "must read." Check out the summary here.

A great deal of my time at Foragen is spent performing due diligence (just another way of saying research) on potential investee companies. We work closely with university technology-transfer offices and inventors to build business cases for compelling technologies. We also look at early-stage companies with developed business plans. It has been an incredible learning experience looking at business plans from a critical perspective. I think that the major lesson I have learned from my time in venture capital is that it is very hard to write a rock-solid business plan and much easier to find holes in it. With what I know now, I would be better positioned to help an early-stage company with its plan and also help the company present a more solid business case.

I have had a fantastic time during the internship and have built an amazing network, including my fellow interns, mentors, and contacts that I have made through the conferences I was able to attend. I have come to realize so much about my potential and have gained enormous amounts of applied knowledge in legal, start-up, and financing issues, as well as practical know-how in the process of technology commercialization. The last 2 years have been a period of tremendous personal-growth experience.

It still isn't clear in my mind where I want to be "when I grow up," but I certainly have a better idea, and I feel that there are more opportunities open to me now than ever. My future plans involve doing my MBA sometime down the road and getting the "perfect" job that utilizes all of my skills. But for now, I am content with the prospect that my career will evolve even further in the area of technology commercialization and management. Wish me luck.

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