Crossing the Start-Up Line

Danika Goosney (pictured left) was sitting on the fence.

In the midst of a postdoctoral position, she was looking from side-to-side at her future career prospects. To her left, she could see the starting line for an academic position with her own lab, and to her right she could see the potential for a position as a research scientist in the biotech industry. She wasn't sure of which way to choose, until a start-up biotech company came along and gave her the chance to have the best of both worlds.

The company was Vancouver-based Inimex Pharmaceuticals Inc., which focuses on discovering and developing new medicines that enhance natural immunity. Inimex was founded in 2001 by two professors from the University of British Columbia (UBC), Bob Hancock and Brett Finlay. They offered Goosney a job she didn't even know existed; she could have a foot in both industrial and academic research, "doing a little bit of both and seeing what I liked best", says Goosney. "It sounded fantastic."

But to understand why she was even on the fence in the first place, we have to step back to examine a driving goal she shares with many students--that of running her own lab one day.

The Dream of Academia

Upon finishing her undergraduate degree at St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia, Goosney decided that she wanted to move out west to Vancouver. She focused on this exclusively, interviewing with various labs at UBC and finally deciding to complete her doctoral studies with Brett Finlay in the department of microbiology and immunology. It was a wise decision, as Goosney found that she loved "everything about the lab and Vancouver". The choice to work with Finlay would later prove fruitful for Goosney, as she would be drawn back to work on the industrial applications of Finlay's research at Inimex.

After finishing her Ph.D., she spent some time as a postdoc in the Finlay Lab. But Goosney had "academic dreams". In order to prepare herself to be an independent scientist, she would need to find a postdoctoral position that would allow her to distinguish her research from that of Finlay's--competing with her former supervisor for grants on bacteria pathogenesis would not only be awkward, it would also be difficult. Goosney eventually decided on moving to the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego, California, to study with Glen Nemerow.

"It was great, every resource you could possibly need was available at Scripps, and [Nemerow] was incredibly encouraging," she says. But after a year in the position, she started to lose steam. "The problem for me was that once I started my project, I found it was a repeat of the research I had done in Brett's lab [only] with a different system. I didn't find that as challenging", she admits, and her motivation was lacking somewhat.

While her ambition was to be a principal investigator, and extensive postdoc research experience is most commonly a requirement for an academic position, she nonetheless loathed the idea of completing a second postdoc.

"I had some feelers out and feel I could have maybe gone to a small [American] university and started a lab," relates Goosney, "but I had ties with Vancouver and the lifestyle in Southern California was not for me." The timing of her job search in Canada was premature however, as Goosney hadn't developed a strong research program of her own to leverage an academic position. "I knew that coming back to Vancouver through an academic way was not going to happen," say Goosney, "That's when I got the offer from Inimex."

The Choice: Academia vs. Biotech

"At first, I said no" to the prospect of working in industry, states Goosney, adding that she had always "avoided the biotech industry". As far as a career was concerned, she wanted what she believed at the time only a university could offer--research freedom, teaching opportunities, and a sense of community and security.

But the company's executives knew Goosney well, and were not deterred easily. Hancock, one of the company's founders, tried to make the offer more attractive, including a chance to run a lab, the opportunity for academic ties to both Genome BC and UBC, and an improved financial package. "They basically said that I could have a position as a research scientist and maintain a very academic research program," Goosney explains, so she accepted the offer.

Goosney now finds herself back in Vancouver, still connected with Finlay, but in an entirely new research environment. In a job that is essentially 50% drug development and 50% discovery science, Goosney studies peptides that modulate innate immunity and uses cell biology techniques and in vitro screens to determine which peptides are effective. Six months into the position, she officially has her own lab with one technician and a co-op student and ties to labs at UBC. There is also the potential for her to teach in the future. All of these things combined to give an academic feel to the Inimex position, something she chalks up to joining a recent biotechnology offshoot of academic research. "It's perfect. It turned out to be exactly what I wanted," comments Goosney.

But compared to her postdoc days, "it is more of a managerial role" at Inimex, she explains. "I have people working for me and I have to work with other groups to coordinate our efforts." It's a 9-to-5 job, with quite a few meetings scheduled and some limitations on research direction, as well as the expectation to "always be around". But teamwork, ample reagents and equipment, not having to write grants, and the financial benefits are just some of the advantages that far outweigh the minor drawbacks, leaving Goosney feeling altogether "more than satisfied at the end of the day."

Finding Freedom in the Company Goals

Having experienced the best of both worlds, Goosney now finds that her mentality about research is changing, due to her job at Inimex. In the past, she had always assumed that basic research and the freedom that an academic position provided was her calling. Yet never having been exposed to industrial research, she had no idea how enjoyable it could be. "I find myself much more motivated towards the goals of the industry side of the company. I was never ever like that before, it's a total surprise," reveals Goosney. She feels as though she is working towards a new kind of purpose, and "the end goal has changed into [developing a product] that is going to go out into the public and hopefully help people."

She likens the change to switching from the backbench to the front lines. "I think my mentality [at Inimex] is a little different from running my own academic lab, in that no one cares about senior authorship on a paper, its just getting things done and working properly. It's teamwork. We all want to get this company working," says Goosney.

Her advice to others thinking about joining a start-up is to make sure the right scientific base is there. "A lot of start-ups fail, so you need to research the science behind it and make sure it has the potential to work," says Goosney.

No longer sitting on the fence, Goosney couldn't be happier. "I hope to be there a lot longer, because I really believe in the company. I think it is going to work."

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