Another One Bites the Dust: The Pleasures and Perils of Start-Up Careers

You've been on the academic conveyor belt for as long as you can remember: a seamless journey from messing with insects and test tubes as a child, to years of earnest undergraduate biology courses, through the financial deprivations of your PhD and a postdoc or two. You've done all the right things--dissected those fetal pigs, sat through numerous exams, published a number of papers--and have hurdled all the milestones more or less on schedule. Maybe along the way you've picked up a few ideas and misconceptions about commercial science--the good (high pay and short hours), the bad (loss of intellectual freedom), and the ugly (a tainted soul)--but you've never really given this option serious thought. Maybe people you respect, such as a favored professor, let it be known that a move to industry would be beneath you, would make you a disappointment in their eyes.

Sound familiar? That's more or less where I was in 1997. After earning a PhD studying feline leukemia virus in relative obscurity at the University of Washington, Seattle, I found myself as an American ex-pat in London, examining the ins and outs of cellular suicide in the lab of a famous man in a prestigious institute.

Those were heady years. You start to see how science really works when you're in a big lab: You get to referee papers your boss hasn't time to read, you are suddenly invited to give talks instead of posters, and everyone has heard of your lab, even the Yanks. Television producers interrupt your mundane benchwork, and the camera operator tells you to put on a white coat and pipette blue fluid. Soon afterward, you might see your boss on the evening news--and maybe even glimpse yourself, pipetting away furiously in the background.

But at the same time, some idealism shatters. There are politics surrounding publication. There is fierce competition and infighting, both between labs and within your own. The threat of being "scooped" hangs over the room like an ominous fog, until looking at the latest table of contents in the major journals is enough to make your heart race. The lab, at times, feels like a seething primordial soup of Darwinian selection, where only the strongest survive (i.e., publish papers in Science, Cell, or Nature), and the weak fade into oblivion (i.e., become anorexic, turn into technical sales reps, or go to law school). The joy of doing science for science's sake becomes a distant memory.

Although I managed to be relatively productive and cheerful in this environment, I started to contemplate a dance with the devil--corporate science--around the end of my postdoc in 1999. Mildly disillusioned, I didn't want to leave science altogether until I'd tried out all the options. When I saw the advertisement for a senior scientist position in a start-up biotech company in the Netherlands, I decided to take the plunge.

The company was about as far from my London life as you could get. My memory of that first day, mostly a blur now, is of the smell of manure and the flock of chickens scratching for corn around the entranceway.

"They're just pets," the CEO assured me hastily as he held open the door--the company worked on an avian virus, you see.

Inside, I found an office and one well-appointed laboratory, the entire company being sandwiched between several academic departments of the local university. Lurking in this corporate space were just six scientists, making the entire company about a third of the size of the group I had just left.

But the major difference became apparent almost immediately: These people were enthusiastic, unjaded, fired up about their science. The vibe was definitively "academic," but there was something else there, too--a passion for the work, a feeling that the research they were doing was very close to the clinic and could translate into concrete cures in the foreseeable future. I hadn't often had this sensation in London.

And as the company expanded and I began to supervise my own team, I realized that all the rumors I had heard about the rigid nature of industrial science may have been a bit inflated. As long as my ideas were sound and did not stray too far from the main goal, I was given surprising freedom to direct the research. At the same time, decisions about what goals to pursue were also a group effort--even the technicians had their say.

You might assume that this was an artifact of the operation's small scale. However, we had a research contract with a multinational German pharmaceutical company, and, although they were much more restrained, the scientists we interacted with there still had a remarkable amount of creative license. And from them, I learned that discontinuing unfruitful lines--not straying too far from the goal--actually made the entire show run more efficiently, freeing money and resources for more promising strategies. In my academic past, I had watched uneasily as colleagues were allowed to carry on with dead-end projects for years, all in the name of "academic freedom." What would have happened to these lost souls, I wondered, if someone had given them a dose of corporate "tough love"?

Of course all good things have their downsides. For the very small start-up, the bitter irony is that it is extremely poor, often teetering on the edge of existence. This wouldn't be so bad if everyone around you didn't automatically assume that you were filthy rich. So we had to endure wisecracks about gold-plated pipettors when, in reality, we were using old-fashioned rubber devices to save money. At international meetings, we'd get lumped in with the global pharmas and charged at the outrageous "corporate rate," even though we had less money than our university colleagues working down the corridor.

It was especially surreal for me at these meetings when it became clear I'd magically transformed from legitimate to insignificant in the eyes of academia--in fact, not just insignificant, but the object of suspicion as an industrial mouthpiece. I was actually asked by a wide-eyed PhD student what my poster (yes, poster: members of tiny start-ups don't often get asked to speak at the podium) could possibly be about: "Are you going to try to sell us some new medication?" Read, scientists in industry don't do real science. The taboos with which I had been indoctrinated in the 1980s were clearly alive and well in some quarters.

The secrecy was hard to deal with as well. I had to bite my lip and wait 18 months--the length of time it takes a patent to enter the public domain--before I could publish my main research project or even discuss it outside the lab. It wasn't just hard on the CV; it took a great deal of joy out of the science, which for me has always been about swapping mad ideas over a few pints in the conference bars. Just lending a friend a published plasmid became a tedious exercise in dozens of pages of paperwork. And for someone educated to be ambitious, I will confess to a few sleepless nights as I watched my academic colleagues progress smartly along the conveyor belt that I had stepped off.

And in the end, the biggest fear of an academic moving to a biotech company became a reality: We went under. The company's death was slow and eminently painful, so much so that being made redundant, when it finally occurred more than a year after the first fatal twitches, was almost a relief. A small company you've been with from almost the beginning is more like a family than a place of employment. The people under my supervision manifested their suffering in an amazing variety of ways, and there was nothing I could do to help except to hide my own as best I could.

In the end, I have no regrets. I still think it is worth taking the risk, even in the current economic climate. Postdoctoral stints are never more than a few years anyway, so even if your company doesn't make it, it's not the end of the road for your own career. As I interview for academic group leader positions now, it's obvious that the company's downfall has not tainted my own reputation. Everyone knows someone who's been laid off--and the experience I gained writing patents has clearly attracted interest from the selection committees, whose departments are increasingly eager to boost their own intellectual property savvy.

All in all, it's been an enlightening journey--but it is probably no coincidence that I find myself drawn toward a different career path.

Follow Science Careers

Search Jobs

Enter keywords, locations or job types to start searching for your new science career.

Top articles in Careers