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Raising the Start-up: Growing Drug Discovery Careers on the Fast Track

Have you ever wondered what life would be like in a start-up company? My guess is that you know at least one or two people who have gone the start-up route. After all, it's not at all unusual for today's Ph.D. graduates or postdocs to start their own company, or to join a young company in its early stages, because so many business opportunities exist in hot fields such as biotech, nanotechnology, or the medical-device industry. These businesses are literally brimming with entrepreneurs and start-up ventures.

Start-ups are out there, and they're hiring. But they can be hard to find, hard to approach ... and it can be oh-so-tough to predict their future success or failure. Joining a start-up is risky, almost as risky as starting one. In a start-up, success or failure can depend on far more than the efforts and accomplishments of hard-working employees; I know of no other venues where your career can be affected so radically by financiers out playing 18 holes or sitting behind big mahogany desks.

This month's column dissects one of today's successful start-up companies and describes how the founder's career blossomed into the leadership role at a firm that has now attracted bets to the tune of more than $45 million in other people's money. Every start-up is risky, but with hard work and good ideas, the founder of Raven Biotechnologies has convinced big-time investors and early-career scientists alike that her company has a bright future, and that investing their money--and, in the case of young scientists, their time--is worth the risk. Maybe you, too, have a future as a scientific entrepreneur, if you have the right mindset and the necessary skills.

Trading Places

Dr. Jennie Mather was 5 years into her faculty-level position at Rockefeller University when she started missing the West Coast. After a Ph.D. at the University of California, San Diego, and some wonderful early years in exciting locales such as France and New York, the pull of the West Coast took hold of Jennie. She was just about to accept an offer at a California academic institution when she got a call from a friend, another scientist. This scientist had just interviewed at a young start-up company in San Francisco. He told Jennie about the quality of work there and the unusual nature of the business, and although that job--at Genentech--didn't appeal to him, he convinced Jennie to submit an application. Soon she was out interviewing for the job her friend had turned down.

Genentech made her an offer. Later, the favor was returned when her friend took that academic job that Mather had passed on. Jennie Mather didn't need that opportunity any more; she had found her true calling as an industry scientist.

Career Momentum in the Drug Discovery Business

"I loved the cultural differences I found," says Jennie. "[Doing] good science with great colleagues certainly is possible in industry, unlike what they tell you in academia. Also, I liked the fact that the pace was so much faster. In particular, the drive for a yes/no answer was refreshing; I've always liked solving the problem that needs to be solved right now." Jennie's problem-solving ability caught the attention of management at the rapidly growing Genentech, where she was promoted several times, eventually to positions that involved supervising of people and projects.

"My early years at Genentech helped me to develop interpersonal skills, as well as negotiation and persuasion abilities. This combination was really refreshing for me. You don't need to develop these in academia, and they served me well when I moved into key positions on project teams," says Jennie. Jennie left a lasting impact upon Genentech: Three of the company's currently marketed drugs use a production cell line and cell culture process she developed.

The Birth of Raven Biotechnologies

Things went well for Genentech. They went from fewer than 300 employees when Jennie was hired to more than 3500 in 1998. But to Jennie it had become a different kind of business. Not bad, just different.

"Everyone had suddenly become much more specialized. And there was such a big-company feeling in the hallways. Personally, I liked it better when communication wasn't so formal," recalls Jennie. "It was a good time for me to leave. Genentech had decided to focus on genomics for the future and I didn't feel that this would be an advantage for me; I sensed that it wasn't the only solution for drug discovery. So, being very excited about a number of cell lines that I had developed at the firm, I asked if I could license them nonexclusively for my own purposes. Sure enough, they were OK with this."

Raven Biotechnologies was born in the early part of 1999, as Jennie bought a laptop computer and started making the rounds pitching a business plan. She had the guts to resign from a well-paying job, her courage buoyed by a personal bank account that had been graced with Genentech stock options. Jennie soon found two partners; together, they made up Raven's first management team.

"Being from Genentech, I had the very best networking contacts you could ask for. One night in a restaurant I started talking about my ideas with a businesswoman who was also from the company. Soon, we looked up and we were the only two people left in the place. At that point, I knew we had a deal. We moved into our first incubator the next week." Shirley Clayton was her first partner and ran the business side of the firm. Jennie was the science guru, while Penny Roberts, who had a range of experience from computers to cell culture, joined them to handle just about everything else. Every start-up needs a jack-of-all trades, and at Raven it was Penny. Penny did the plumbing, ran the wires, and got the lab together while Shirley and Jennie did the fundraising.

"Our first few hires were people who, like Penny, could do a wide variety of tasks. At 57 people today, it is still invaluable to have team members who can roll up their sleeves and dig in to any task to get it done. These special people know where to go for answers if they don't know [the answers] themselves. My first recommendation is that if you don't like that sort of atmosphere, you shouldn't be in a start-up company," cautions Jennie.

A Growing Company With Changing Needs

At first Raven's growth was fueled by the investments that the three founders made in the company; later, venture capital paid the bills. In 2000, the firm had 20 employees and had already moved into bigger quarters. In 2001, they had reached 35 employees and had to move once again.

"As start-up companies get bigger, they need to bring in more specialists. But even today, the focus for us is still on finding people who have the open attitude we seek, about doing any kind of job that needs doing. I like to hire people with that attitude, and with some kind of experience that we can use. It is less important ... whether or not they have a Ph.D. Another major point is that employees in companies like ours need to be open for risk. The first people we hired were really taking a risk. That is less so today, but still our new hires cannot be risk averse," says Jennie.

Raven's Rules for Success Within a Start-up Company

Although every company will have its own unique culture, the culture of a start-up may be more unique than other companies. Because of this uniqueness and the speed at which changes occur, these businesses require employees with certain characteristics. This list, although not specific to any one company, may help you realize how different this career choice is from the academic lab, or even from the environment of large corporations.

Ideal characteristics for the start-up company employee:

  • Flexible: There are many twists and turns during the first several years of a company's development. Each employee must be flexible enough to adapt to unforeseen changes. A scientist must be able to shift gears and drop a research track--no matter how fascinating--for whatever management needs to attract investment.
  • Team-Oriented: Industry talks about teamwork all the time, but nowhere is it more important than in the start-up company. Teams of biologists work with teams of chemists and teams of regulatory professionals to get a new drug on the market.
  • Analytical: Good technical abilities are a must-have, but the factor that most often separates offer letters from no-thank-you letters is a company's opinion of your critical thinking skills. Problem solving isn't an academic process in a start-up company; it is their lifeline to a successful product launch.
  • Goal-Driven: Start-up companies often prefer to hire people with a strong set of personal goals. By asking about past experiences and career decisions, employers will determine whether or not your goals align with theirs. Start-up companies like to hire people who have a career plan.
  • People-Skilled: Sure, even in academia it's necessary to play well with others. There is a difference, however: Academia allows you to choose your collaborators. In industry you are told whom you must collaborate with. You have to be able to make it work.
  • A Desire for Lifelong Learning: No one in a small company will ever say that they know it all. In fact, the very best people have a desire to learn other jobs or new technologies and they are constantly in learning mode.
  • Open for Risk: It goes without saying that risks are a part of the game at a start-up company. A company of any size can stumble; the start-up, though, like a small boat in heavy seas, is faced on all sides with obstacles that may appear insurmountable. Employees have to be willing to face down these issues and persist.

Raven is still growing and changing. Jennie Mather and her colleagues have found that the only thing constant for their start-up is change. Many firms end up making their mark in a different area from where they got their start, and Raven is no exception. The firm mutated from discovery boutique to a drug-development company when funding dried up for companies in the pure-research business. Enabled by a huge funding round--$43 million--a couple of years ago, Raven Biotechnologies will be filing its first IND (investigational new drug) this year, for an antibody for cancer that was discovered inside the Raven labs.

"The first people who came here will soon have had the opportunity to work on something from the idea stage to seeing people benefit from it. I can't tell you how different and how refreshing this is in comparison to academia. We founded this company to bring drugs to people who need them. We're soon going to be fulfilling that promise."

Raven Biotechnologies is an interesting story, but it isn't special. In outline, its story is repeated over and over in the drug discovery business. Start-up companies are launched every month in most of the world's major life sciences centers. Yet, like most small things, start-ups can be hard to see among giants. If you want to hook up with a start-up, you have to raise your antennae and know what to look for. My next Tooling Up column is dedicated to the subject of finding and evaluating start-up companies that may turn out to be your next employer.