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Tooling Up: The Business Development Career Track

This month, I am launching a new series of columns about alternative career options for scientists that will alternate with the normal nuts-and-bolts content of Tooling Up. In each of these columns, I will expand upon a career option and present the background and advice of someone who has excelled in that field.

As I've stated many times in my columns, the best way to learn about a job that sounds interesting to you is to talk to someone who's already working in that position. In this series, I'll be doing some of that work for you, but I urge you to take it further. Tools like Informational Interviewing can be invaluable when you combine what you learn on Science Careers with your own research.

Smaller companies are a great place to start a career in business development because of the varied work. You can be developing a marketing plan one day and be working on the terms of a licensing agreement with a major company the next.

This month, I'll explore business development (BD) careers. This is the job option people ask me about most often when I give seminars about alternative careers. It is also one of the most misunderstood. For many, the term brings to mind a rep from the local reagents supplier--someone they generally avoid when they see him in the lab. Or they think of a used-car salesman--and all that says about pushy sales behavior.

Much more than sales

"In small companies, the term 'business development' is often applied to salespeople because the perception is that it sounds friendlier," says Brandon Price, a business-development consultant who runs his own business, Falcon Ridge Associates, in Cary, North Carolina. "But the term is a broad one, and it actually represents careers in several niches."

Few careers for scientists offer such a wide variety of employment opportunities. BD staff work in small companies, large companies, government centers, universities, and private institutions. The daily activities are varied, ranging from strategy and market planning to customer contact, new business development, and licensing.

Business development professionals at small companies may be involved in sales and marketing, but Brandon says that they're also involved in scouting for new technologies, developing business opportunities, licensing, and dealmaking. I think smaller companies are a great place to start a career in BD because of the varied work. You can be developing a marketing plan one day and be working on the terms of a licensing agreement with a major company the next. Small companies give you a mix of experiences, a base from which you can zero in and become an expert in one niche.

At larger companies, business-development jobs are much more specialized. "In the big corporations, business development most often refers to teams of people looking for new products, new markets for existing technologies, strategic partnerships, and the like," Brandon says. Scientific knowledge is really important in these jobs, and although there are non-Ph.D.s in business development, employers will readily pay a premium for advanced degrees. I see far more BD positions that require Ph.D.s than I do positions that require any other degree, including MBAs.

Technical know-how is also the key to another business development niche, technology transfer. "There are also BD types engaged within tech-transfer entities at universities whose job it is to work with the inventors to generate good summaries of inventions they want to see commercialized, and then find and engage prospective industry licensing partners," Brandon says. Tech-transfer positions are found both in organizations that want to license out their technology, such as universities, and in organizations that want to license in an idea to develop into a product, such as a medical device or biotechnology company.

Licensing specialists work with both "in" and "out" licensing agreements. Sometimes, a licensing specialist may add a law degree to their technical credentials at midcareer or later.

Brandon's experience and recommendations

Brandon's career is a good example of how to make a move into business from the bench. He started his professional life as a Ph.D. biophysicist in academia. After a few years, he was on the tenure track but was receiving a fair amount of funding from industry. He had developed contacts in companies and liked the applied nature of industry.

"I moved from academia into a technical role at J&J [Johnson & Johnson] in the company's flow-cytometry business unit," Brandon says. "I was soon supervising two technical teams, one involved in developing clinical protocols for a new flow cytometer and the other engaged in developing new measurement parameters to enhance an existing blood-cell analyzer."

Like many others who have crossed the bridge between technical work and business, Brandon found that the sales and marketing team didn't really understand these complex instruments. "These folks found that I was delighted to work with their clients and prospects to help them understand the features and benefits of the new technologies we had developed, and I began to do more and more of that."

Several people moved from J&J to form a new biotech company, Damon Biotech, including the start-up's chief executive officer and vice president of sales and marketing. They recruited Brandon for a product-director position with the new venture. Damon Biotech was an important biotech start-up--one of the first contract manufacturing organizations and an important building block for the Boston-area biocluster.

Damon Biotech offered contract cell-culture services to other companies, producing monoclonal antibodies for both therapeutic and diagnostic companies. Brandon went into direct sales and was responsible for sales to clients who were developing therapeutic products. He was also posted to the United Kingdom for more than a year so he could establish Damon's European business development organization.

Since those days in the early to mid-1980s, Brandon has been in or had responsibility for many business-development niches. He's worked for both large companies and start-ups, including a couple of stints as CEO for start-up companies.

Brandon didn't go directly from the lab into business development--it took a few steps to get there. This is typical for people in these careers. BD isn't a target that you can easily transition to directly; it's always better to go in sideways, by first taking a technical role at a company or institution and then taking advantage of your connections within the company.

"In my view, the most important connection to the transition from research to BD is a mentor, someone who sees your attributes and who recognizes the value that an articulate, technically competent person can bring to the business development function at his or her organization," Brandon says.

Breaking into BD

One mistake many scientists who want to go into business development make is that they try to forgo actual work experience by getting an MBA. Although some BD jobs, notably in the larger companies, may require an MBA, these jobs are in the minority. "If you already have an advanced technical degree, like to work with people, and are a good communicator in both written and spoken English, I strongly urge that you find the right company to employ those traits, perhaps even in a sales position to get some good experience," Brandon says. "Besides, your new company will most likely have a tuition-reimbursement plan, and you can get your MBA on their coin!"

If you're interested in jobs in this sector, don't just start looking at online ads for jobs that appeal to you. As I've said in many "Tooling Up" columns, you need to use your networking skills and talk to people to find out what the industry's needs are and how your skills can help to meet those needs.

"Believe me, good, articulate, technical people who want to work in business development are hard to find, even in the current economic climate," Brandon says. "If that sounds like you, one great way of landing a job is to talk to the salespeople at trade show booths. Corporate VPs are always lurking about, especially if it is a large conference, something like the BIO or FASEB meetings. With the right kind of technical background and a good first impression, you may find that a position opens up."

Photo (top): Kelly B