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Raising the Start-up, Part 2: Finding and Joining the Club

"I've decided that I'd like to target industry for a job, but I am having trouble locating employers in the regions I've identified. Sure, I know the names of the big ones. The area pharmaceutical companies aren't all that difficult to track down either. But I think it might be a lot of fun to work in a start-up company, one that is just getting off the ground,? said the postdoctoral job seeker. He was getting more and more emotional as he went on, and I could tell that this issue was very frustrating for him.

"My problem is that these firms aren't promoted anywhere and I can't seem to find them, let alone get my foot in the door. The ones that I have researched seem to fill their positions from a small pool of contacts--almost as if they knew one another already from some private club. What do I need to do to find and target start-ups?" he asked.

As I concluded my seminar at the recent AAAS National Meeting in Seattle, I realized that this was probably the hundredth time that I have fielded this question or a similar one. I have been researching and approaching start-up companies for many years in search of new business clients. Although they are harder to find than the big name firms, I am able to use my sleuthing skills and networking to find them without too much of a problem.

But I'm in a privileged position. I'm networking amongst people I've known for many years. Most job seekers are starting from nothing. And this scientist was right: Industry is a lot like a private club.

The Membership Director Isn't Your Key to Success

Nowhere in industry is this "private club" atmosphere more prevalent than at start-ups. After all, most of the employees who start these ventures have similar backgrounds. They may have all come from the same academic lab where the technology originated. Or, they might have come from the company where a key manager developed a business plan to start a new venture ... much like the story of Raven Biotechnologies from Part 1. The people running these companies often use their networking contacts to locate new employees.

Start-up companies share this clubby atmosphere with all biotech firms and even pharmaceutical companies. When I go to a trade meeting for the bio/pharma industry--the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) meeting for example--the evening social events remind me of block parties. So many people know each other or come from similar backgrounds. They talk about common past histories, mutual acquaintances, and so on. To the recent graduate or postdoc, trying to break into this crowd is a bit like trying to join some kind of exclusive country club--or get past the doorman without being a member.

If you were trying to join a private club, would you write letters to the membership director to get in the door? No, it doesn't work that way. You don't get in by writing a letter to the guy in charge of membership. In job-seeking as at a private club, the secret is to work the membership, not the membership director.

Finding the Start-up Company

The absolute, number one, best way to find start-up companies in your region is to have them come to you as networking leads. Yes, this is another Tooling Up column that advises you to sharpen those networking skills. The advice that follows will help you in your job search, but this analytical "data gathering" approach pales in comparison to the tried and true, ear-to-the-phone method of asking your contacts who they know.

But Next Wave has had many, many articles--including Tooling Up articles--about networking, so I don't intend to cover that ground again. What I will do is help you locate those elusive, exclusive start-up companies. You can't join if you don't know where they are. So here's where to look:

- The technology-transfer offices of your university: A lot of intellectual property is developed at most universities. While not every school has outplacement programs for technology on the scale of a UC Berkeley or MIT, you will probably still find a knowledgeable staff in the tech-transfer office who can tell you about new businesses being spun out of university research programs. It happens all the time. At least 50% of the notices I read about new companies arose from--or utilize technology developed in--some university laboratory.

- The salespeople who call on your lab: All companies, especially the larger reagents or lab-products firms, use a system where a sales manager provides leads to the sales force about start-ups. This means that salespeople tend to be well informed about these things. In addition, salespeople are generally excellent networkers themselves and always know who is new, what labs are rising, and so on.

- Other job seekers: Don't make the mistake of thinking that other job seekers are only your competitors. They can also help you. Everyone picks up different information along the path of a job search, and a vehicle for sharing this info, such as a regular Friday afternoon session at the pub, is a great resource. Read the Next Wave story of how Dr. Jennie Mather, CEO of Raven Biotechnologies, found her first job at Genentech with one such lead, and how she returned the favor by sharing a lead of her own!

- Suppliers of services who cater to the life sciences community: As you scan the names of association members or board members, look for contacts inside accounting offices, banks, venture capital (VC) firms, or even headhunting companies. These people always have their ears open and they have no reservations about sharing names of start-up companies with courteous and professional job seekers.

The Analytical Approach

If you live in a non-entrepreneurial region, like certain parts of the Midwest or Southeast, it may be very difficult to find biotech companies, let alone start-up companies, in your area. On the other hand, almost everyone reading this has a biotech cluster or two within a day's drive. As a job seeker, you need to decide what regions you are going to target, and where you can live comfortably. Once you've done that, find out what forces are at work in that cluster to promote the development of biotechnology start-up companies.

For example, every cluster has biotech associations, and each of them has a newsletter and regular meetings--networking again! Sign up for the e-mail newsletters, become a member, and do whatever you have to to pick up the regular news releases that these associations put out about new companies. In my home region of Arizona--a hot spot for the future life science companies--we are actively promoting each and every potential new company in the area, via e-mail lists that even nonmembers can receive. Every state association that I know of has such a list. For a master list of these associations, see the BIO Web site.

There are some national biotechnology e-mail lists that are particularly good for identifying start-up companies, and I've listed several of them and their addresses in the sidebar. Gathering information via newsletters is more tedious, because they are quite broad in their scope and you?ll be reading about start-up companies in all parts of the country, but it's worth the effort.

Lead Generation E-mail Lists for Start-up Company Searches

- Fierce Biotech: A first-rate freebee from Washington, D.C.-based FierceBiotech.Com. Great stuff about new drugs, new financings, and the people/companies which make this business tick. Recent examples include: Vicuron Pharmaceuticals has appointed Jennifer D. Copeland, M.S., and Steven P. Gelone, Pharm.D., as senior directors to lead the company's Medical Science Liaison field force. ... Sign up for free at

- Genepool (BioSpace): This list, while annoying in its many advertising blurbs and tendencies to try and do too much, does indeed catch fire on occasion with mention of start-ups and successful financings. Recent examples include: BioRexis Pharmaceutical Completes $30 Million Series B Financing ... VaxInnate Corporation Raises $23.1 Million In Series B Financing ... Sign up for Genepool at

- Venture Reporter: This is a free version of an expensive VC list that keeps salespeople informed of new investments. All you'll get is a one-line blurb with a company name and city, but you can then use Google to track down other useful information. Recent examples include: Targeted Molecules Raises $4,000,000 in Financing [San Diego, CA]. Targeted Molecules is a developer of novel targeted drugs for a range of ailments, beginning with inflammatory diseases of the brain. Investors include: GeneChem Management, Inglewood Ventures, Linkagene, Neuro Discovery. Sign up at

Putting It All Together

I strongly recommend that job seekers maintain a networking database that includes all the companies you've identified through the search process and the contacts you've made in those firms. I have an easy-to-use Filemaker template that I use for just such a database, and any information that I pick up in my daily networking goes directly into that file so that I can access it later. There is nothing as embarrassing as calling a person who you?ve already been in touch with but forgetting that you've met before.

Perhaps this month's column will help you get your foot in the door at a new company before the firm starts to openly advertise in the pages of Science. Regardless of how you find them, working for a start-up is invigorating and--of course--risky. But for certain people, at a special time of life, it is absolutely the perfect outlet for years of specialized training. Have fun!

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