A Career in E-learning

The revolution in genomics is transforming every aspect of the life sciences industry. As a result, life science professionals working in research and discovery, clinical trials, and even sales and marketing need to stay abreast of the bewildering array of tools, technologies, applications, and products streaming out of research laboratories. Unlike the information technology industry, which has a well-developed infrastructure for ongoing training and education, the life sciences industry has traditionally depended on its participants to keep themselves informed of the cutting-edge technologies appropriate to their needs. Conferences, journals, reports, and workshops have stepped in to fill gaps, but although each of these devices fulfils a particular need, none of them gives the industry professional mission-critical, validated information that is delivered in a timely manner and that is accessible anytime, anywhere.

Further, with the advent of "e-genomics" companies--companies that distribute genomics information to physicians, allied health professionals, and even consumers [see Genetic Engineering News 20(15), September 2000]--extensive additional opportunities for genomics educators and trainers are now opening up. In fact, GeneEd Inc. conservatively estimates the market for all types of training to be over $3 billion in the United States alone.

Getting It Going

It was in order to meet this huge unmet need that I, along with two of my colleagues, Salil D. Patel and Irving Weiman, decided to start GeneEd. My background is in research--I obtained an M.Sc. in x-ray crystallography and a Ph.D. in biophysics (from Birkbeck College of the University of London and Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, respectively), but I always knew that I wanted to join industry. Salil's background complements mine very nicely; he holds a Ph.D. in biochemistry (from the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom) and did postdoctoral research at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and at Stanford University. Irv Weiman, the third co-founder of the company, was a venture capitalist who had been a vice president at Prudential Ventures. He brought along much-needed business sense and planning skills.

I spent the first 15 years of my industrial career in a variety of positions, starting out in research (I developed bioinformatics tools at IntelliGenetics in Mountain View, California) before moving successively into positions as technical support provider, manager, applications scientist, sales scientist, sales manager, and director of business development at a number of large and small Bay Area bioscience companies. In this way I expanded my scope of experience to include research, development, support, sales, and marketing--all skills that I felt were critical to starting my own venture.

One of the key skills I was determined to develop was sales, and I was fortunate to be mentored by a very successful salesperson with over 25 years of experience. Sales, a vocation that often seems abhorrent to scientists entering industry, is probably the single most important skill to acquire. This is because sales deals with fundamental aspects of human relationships, such as negotiation, that are largely invariable across societies, which means that sales techniques inform every discussion and business meeting in which you'll participate as a scientist.

The other key aspect to starting my own venture was my desire to infuse it with a corporate culture that was creative, productive, fun, and infectious. Having worked at a variety of companies, I had gained a broad view of the aspects of a work environment that motivate people, making them want to stay to build a winning organization. Sadly, I had also witnessed numerous poorly managed companies, including venture capital-funded organizations that were wracked by boardroom shenanigans and management indecision. Knowing that "I could do it better" helped me clarify my vision of the type of company I wanted to create.

So, when my manager at Pangea Systems (now DoubleTwist.com) in Oakland, California, gave me permission to take off the summer to get GeneEd funded, I approached the opportunity with gusto. Even so, GeneEd nearly failed to get off the ground. The day after I handed offer letters to five employees, believing we had secured $1.5 million in funding, the venture capitalists phoned to say the deal was off! (I subsequently learned that this type of behavior is not at all uncommon in the venture capital community.) At the time, I, a single parent with an aging mother to care for (and without health insurance for any of us), was down to money for only 1 more month of mortgage payments. Worse, the bad news was delivered on 22 December 1999, the week before Christmas, when everyone was on vacation.

It is at times like these that one takes a long hard look at oneself and determines if it is truly worthwhile to proceed. Having decided for all the reasons outlined above that the opportunity was too good to pass over, I went ahead and formed GeneEd, raising over $2 million in initial "seed" funding from friends, "angel" investors, and corporations such as Incyte Genomics Inc. in Palo Alto, California, and ALZA Corp. in Mountain View, California, who also became our first customers. Today, less than a year later, GeneEd has more than 20 employees and a dozen customers and continues to grow, and it has launched a series of e-learning products, both on its own and in partnership with august bodies such as Scientific American publishing.

Getting Involved

GeneEd has also launched a "virtual internship" called the Scientific Content Provider (SCP) program, in which graduate students and postdocs with recognized subject matter expertise and a desire to educate can work with us over the Internet to create e-learning courseware in novel subjects. The GeneEd SCP program provides scientists with the opportunity to convert lecture notes, PowerPoint slides, and seminar transcripts into e-learning courseware. Moreover, SCP interns earn royalties on every course based on their courseware's contents. Other companies, particularly life science information companies, have similar internship programs, in which scientists, lab technicians, programmers, and others can participate with the company in the development and support of its products and services. This can happen either remotely or on site.

GeneEd also employs graduate students to perform quality control of our courseware for both scientific and technical accuracy. In addition, we are developing a student tutoring system in which graduate students get paid for answering via e-mail technical or scientific questions from people using the courseware.

If you think you might be interested in pursuing a career (or even just earning a few extra dollars) in distance learning, you'll need to be smart, be able to operate effectively in an interdisciplinary environment, possess excellent interpersonal skills, and have a strong desire to learn (see box). And if you think GeneEd might be a good bet, then by all means contact me at the e-mail address given above!

Good luck!

Want to get ahead in distance ed or other hot disciplines? Here's how to do it?

  • Be interdisciplinary. The hot careers of the early 21st Century will occur at the interface of two or more disciplines.

  • Be open. Most research laboratories are run in a cult-like atmosphere with deep understanding in very narrow areas of specialization. The real world is very different.

  • Be personable. But remember, "it's not what you get, it's what you negotiate." Scientists are taught to argue their points (forcefully at times), whereas managers are taught to facilitate and compromise.

  • Be patient. Most Ph.D. scientists entering industry think it is their God-given right to receive large salaries and get lots of responsibility. This rarely happens. But if you work hard and do well, you can expect to be rewarded in time.

  • Be different. Industries of the future will succeed when their employees think creatively, so you should work to make "outside the box" thinking one of your core strengths as a scientist.

  • Be thrifty. Never forget that companies succeed or fail based on the amount of profit they generate. You should always describe your goals or plans in terms of the way they can increase the company's profits, cut its costs, or both.