A hidden start

William Brah

Credit: Marilyn Humphries

Jobs can emerge from random, hidden places. Bioengineer Bu Wang learned this on a chance trip to New York City. As a graduate student at Lehigh University, she visited a friend working in Daniel Heller’s laboratory at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. There, she happened upon a collaboration that changed her career path.

Heller’s team was partnering with a tiny startup company called SQZ Biotech, which was launched in 2013 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The Sloan Kettering group was having trouble delivering nanotubes into cells to create cancer diagnostics. SQZ was solving the problem by using its chip-based, gas-pressure system to push in the nanotubes. “For my entire Ph.D., I was working on microfluidics, and this was too easy to be true,” Wang says. “A few seconds and you have this magic: molecules going into cells.”

Welcome to the heady world of startups: adding, subtracting, and shuffling jobs swiftly and under the radar.

Bu Wang

Bu Wang


Smitten by the science, Wang contacted bioengineer Armon Sharei, SQZ’s CEO and one of the company’s founders. First, she managed an introduction via LinkedIn. Then came a phone conversation, followed by a flight to Boston to meet the SQZ team. Enamored with the technology, the team, and the chance to work at a budding enterprise, Wang turned down six other job offers and joined SQZ in March—2 days after defending her thesis. She was the company’s ninth employee. Over the next 4 months, SQZ added six positions. It just announced receipt of $5 million in series-A funding.

Welcome to the heady world of startups: adding, subtracting, and shuffling jobs swiftly and under the radar. “It’s an invisible market and not well advertised,” says Douglas Crawford, associate director of QB3, a University of California (UC) research institute that provides incubator space for startups in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Startups are small, so they typically don’t post jobs nationally. The enterprises are fickle, meaning that job descriptions can change “on the order of hours to days in the very early days of launch,” says Dan Widmaier, cofounder, director, and CEO at Bolt Threads, Inc., a startup in Emeryville, California. And they move fast. “Either you don’t need to hire,” Sharei says, “or when you do, you needed them yesterday.”

So, beyond being technically savvy, job candidates need to dig unconventionally, adapt agilely, and persist tenaciously until the opportune moment—then dive in.

Armon Sharei

Armon Sharei

Credit: Shirley Mao

The payoff can be big. A startup job is a chance to develop cool technologies at a dynamic pace while quickly mastering a wide swath of skills, many of them nonscientific (including marketing, purchasing, and human resources). If all goes well, scientists can “contribute to a team that builds a product that makes a great impact on the world,” Widmaier says. “That is a pretty powerful motivator.”

Who should apply?

The first consideration is the science. “We need to have people who really understand the general technology,” says Melissa Kotterman, director and head of adeno-associated virus research at 4D Molecular Therapeutics (4DMT) in San Francisco, California, a company cofounded in 2012 by UC Berkeley bioengineer David Schaffer. Kotterman was 4DMT’s first hire after working on its gene therapy technology as a graduate student in Schaffer’s lab. “I think it is very rare for a graduate student to have direct opportunity, so quickly out of graduate school, to see their research really be translated, able to help patients in a really, really, rapid way,” Kotterman says.

But most startup candidates do not need to be such a perfect fit. “We want smart super stars, just really great students, who are good at learning new things quickly,” Widmaier says. That’s because the technology upon which the company was founded evolves at a dizzying pace. Competencies a candidate brings in may not be what he or she must deploy, say, 6 months after hire, when the whole focus of the company has shifted. Thus, the perfect startup candidate has to be a self-starter who can learn on the fly by reading papers, seeking collaborators, or just trying out ideas.

Melissa Kotterman

Melissa Kotterman

Credit: Scott R.Kline

Beyond the scientific aplomb comes what Sharei terms “the cultural fit.” Potential employees must be capable of über teamwork, communicating and collaborating effectively and daily. “Everyone is in tight quarters,” Sharei says. “You end up working together a lot because you do need help.”

This may be a stretch for some academics, who are used to an environment in which you get rewarded for your personal contributions and insights rather than your effectiveness as a team player, Widmaier says. “At our company, we have many people focused simply on one grand vision.” Thus, an employee must be able to work within that team, toward that one goal, sometimes putting his or her ego aside. “You have to be willing to change with the data to support the global needs of the startup,” Widmaier says.

A good candidate also needs to demonstrate passion. “I love people who have hobbies outside work,” says Agustin Lopez Marquez, president and cofounder of SQZ. “[It] doesn't matter what it is—just that you put a lot of energy into that.” He is betting on the idea that the energy to follow a passion will translate to drive to advance the company.

Map your route

If the profile fits, how does a startup-minded scientist get in?

Start with a map, says William Brah, founder and executive director of the Venture Development Center (VDC), an incubator for startups at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. Brah gives presentations to UMass students interested in entrepreneurship. He begins with an interactive map of more than 130 venture-backed biotech companies based in Kendall Square, a hotbed of entrepreneurial activity in Cambridge, near the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). “There is an amazing amount of activity going on,” he tells students.

William Brah

William Brah

Credit: Kelly Lorenz

It’s not just in Cambridge, though. A similar guide might be drawn in the San Francisco Bay Area, where Crawford’s QB3 incubator network is located. QB3, VDC, and an incubator called LabCentral in Cambridge offer another means to find the perfect startup to target in your job search. As part of their mission to provide shared lab space and services for nascent startups, such incubators concentrate companies under one roof. So a smart tactic is to check out incubator websites for postings of open positions. Another good approach is to attend events, which often include presentations by startup founders.

Another strategy is to contact the incubator directors, people like Brah and Crawford. They are what Widmaier terms “network aggregators,” in close contact with a slew of fledgling companies, many of which are hiring or will be hiring soon.

Startup-minded scientists can also track down finalists from entrepreneurial contests, like Mass Challenge, which showcase small companies on the rise. For a wider selection, browse lists of top biotech companies on websites such as Xconomy and publications such as FierceBiotech.

Sort by scientific interest

After finding the company lists, the next step is to sort through them. How? “Pick a disease or a technology that you are passionate about,” Brah advises. As it was with Wang, the technology often is the draw and the glue that holds a young scientist’s interest as company projects and job descriptions rapidly change. With a background in materials science, Wang immediately took on a business-development role at SQZ, reaching out to potential clients about possible applications for the cell-squeezing technology. That was a far cry from bioengineering in the lab, but Wang loved the transition because it evolved from the technology. “If the science was not there,” she says, “I don't think any of us would be here.”

Beyond the science, look at a company’s growth trajectory, Brah counsels. Fast growing companies will be adding projects to keep up with investor and customer expectations. That means employees have opportunities to glean multiple skills, write their own job descriptions, and flourish with the fledgling company, gaining a rich experience and a versatile resume.

Network in

Once you’ve got a company in mind, the most challenging task comes: figuring out how to get in. Herein lies the much-trumpeted value of networks. Startup founders say the first people they look to for new hires, hands down, are their friends, colleagues, and collaborators.

That network extends beyond the lab. For example, Sharei found an engineer to employ at SQZ because the scientist worked with Sharei’s fiancé at an after-school teaching program. “It is surprising how many come to us through really random connections,” he says.

Agustin Lopez Marquez

Agustin Lopez Marquez

Courtesy of Agustin Lopez Marquez

But a savvy job hunter can engineer a bit of that serendipity. The time to start is early. “A lot of people, when they start looking for jobs, think now is the moment to network,” says Lopez Marquez at SQZ. “The time to network was actually when you were doing your studies.”

Start collaborating on projects early. Go to lab social events and reach out. “If you are a scientist or engineer in graduate school, you know world-class people working at the benches next to you,” Widmaier says. Some of them may end up in industrial positions with hiring power. That connection can become the means to a job, or at least a referral. “Introductions go a long way,” says Marco Farsheed, CEO at enEvolv, a Boston-based startup that engineers micro-organisms to produce products from renewable feedstocks. “Because we like to hire people we know.”

Other ways in the door include talking to faculty, who may sit on the boards of startup companies or have other connections to them. Founders are often posting jobs through their own university networks, so professors in targeted departments are often aware of unadvertised jobs. There are also entrepreneurial clubs springing up at universities like MIT. Some companies, including Bolt, even offer internships. Check out company websites for more information.

But, really, the answer to how to get in is: any way you can. “If you are looking at startups,” says Kotterman of 4DMT, “you've got to cast a really broad net.” That means going to company websites and looking for postings. If none are there, look for contact information and send out a CV and cover letter. Because the companies are so small, generally there is somebody on the other end who will read and review those resumes.

Kotterman, who is responsible for hiring at 4DMT, advises job prospectors to make sure the initial contact is personal rather than “a blast email to everyone that you meet. Tailor that contact to show that you have an idea of where in the company you can fit,” she says, “where your current skill set would be of most value for the company.”

Kate Stuart

Kate Stuart

Courtesy of Kate Stuart

Then follow up persistently, counsels Kate Stuart, founder and director of preclinical development at Symic Biomedical, a startup in the San Francisco Bay Area. “Our strategy has been to just really find the skill sets we need immediately, often part time,” she says. “In almost all cases, those have grown into full-time positions fairly quickly, as we find more and more work to do.” Stuart tells the story of an applicant with a fantastic resume who followed up “a handful of times,” even traveling to San Francisco and meeting Stuart in person for an informational interview. While Symic does not yet have the budget to make that hire, the candidate is definitely on the radar for when funding does become available. “She made it clear that she wasn't blanketing her resume to everybody,” Stuart says.

Finally, do not be discouraged. “People get frustrated by rejection and the time of process,” Wang says. “But in the end, it is all worth it.”

With 160 new jobs at QB3 in the last 18 months, Crawford seconds the counsel to keep at it, focusing on the rewards rather than risks of working in the startup world. “The joie de vivre, the sense of enthusiasm among founders and employees, is much higher than you often see in the halls of an academic lab,” he says. “I circulate a lot of names, encourage students to intern and spend time with these companies—get into the network in any way they can. Take the bull by the horns and do it.”

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