As we write about how to make the transition from academia to the business world, it would probably be useful to know some background about us and why we have a unique perspective on this. For starters, I have an academic background very similar to many of you. I got a B.A. in biology from St. Olaf College and then got a Ph.D. in biology from The Johns Hopkins University studying microorganisms that lived at high temperatures. At that point, I was pretty seriously committed to pursuing the academic track, although the idea of working in industry was interesting. From there I did a post-doc at Ohio State University in the Microbiology department. It was there that I started seriously questioning academics as a career. At Ohio State, I got to see a couple of new professors try to establish their labs and began to realize that being a professor had very little to do with research and everything to do with being able to land grants. Most new professors were spending huge amounts of time on grant writing instead of research. So rather than pursue something that was becoming increasingly uninteresting to me, I decided to go into the private sector and do research for a company. To tide me over while I looked for a job, I took a second postdoc at NIH and started looking for companies in the Rockville area.
Needless to say, making that transition was phenomenally challenging. But, in a testament to the power of networking, one of the resumes I sent out just happened to land on the desk of a former colleague. While I was overqualified for the position she had, she did know of someone else in the company looking for someone with my credentials. Fortunately for me, the hiring manager and I got along well and I got the job at IGEN International doing assay development for their line of electrochemiluminescent (ECL) detectors.
During my stay at IGEN, I had many lessons in the differences between academic and commercial research. The project I was originally assigned to was in an area where there was lots of intellectual property that had to be avoided. That’s a problem you almost never see in academic research. It was definitely an eye opener to run into situations where I knew there was a solution, but I couldn’t use that solution because IP positions from other companies would prevent us from selling the product. It was also during this time I got a crash course in the idea of “royalty stacking” (another problem academics never face). Royalty stacking is where you pay several licensing fees to various companies to use their technology in your product. I also got introduced to the impact corporate reorganizations can have on research. In my four years at IGEN, I reported for four different managers and the projects I worked on changed just as frequently.
While at IGEN, my network struck again, and I found a position as a Scientific Application Specialist at Celera Genomics. Given how new and exciting genomics was at the time, it was an opportunity I simply couldn’t pass up. In retrospect, this was also one of the best moves I could have made because it opened up my eyes to how science backgrounds are used outside of the laboratory. The SAS position was a fairly unique one at the time. Our responsibilities were to understand all of the products Celera had and use that knowledge to help the sales force win customers and then help the customers make the most out of their purchase. This led to a great deal of interaction between the SAS team and the scientists and developers at Celera since those interactions revealed all sorts of strengths and weaknesses. These interactions led directly to my understanding how fragmented the commercial research world could be. In dealing with customers, it became very clear that they were struggling to deal with a wide array of products and services that didn’t interact with each other at all, leaving the scientist to try to figure out how to get them to mesh. All too often that meant scientists were spending inordinate amounts of time pasting numbers into spreadsheets. In other words, the products that scientists were trying to use almost never took into account how scientists went about their daily work, and that left the scientists swamped and confused. I think it is a sad testament to the state of modern biology that Excel was, and is, the most important bioinformatics tool for most bench scientists.
As the experience at Celera came to an end, my colleague Randy Ribaudo and I realized that there was a good chance that the marketplace needed the kind of workflow-based perspectives and approaches that we had started at Celera. We knew from our experience that many products fell short when they finally reached bench scientists and if we could properly market our talents and services, we might be able to make a go of it on our own. So in 2005, we founded Human Workflows LLC on the premise that better understanding how scientists work is immeasurably beneficial to product development. The fact that we are still here five years on suggests that we were right.
As we pursued developing Human Workflows, one of the realizations we came to was that the success of the company, and the SAS group at Celera, was based upon a number of capabilities that scientists are never exposed to during their degree and postdoc years. It isn’t that scientists don’t have these capabilities. It is just that they aren’t considered a priority when compared to research. Unfortunately, this makes the transition from academics to industry harder than it needs to be. As a result of this realization, Randy and I teamed up with Larry Petcovic, and began working with NIH to develop a way to expose postdocs to the kinds of thinking and capabilities that commercial companies value and need. Those classes we developed eventually lead to the creation of the SciPhD.com website, where we try to expose people with scientific backgrounds to the kinds of skills that are valued, and to get them to recognize how their current skills can be expressed in business-friendly language. So in future blogs, we’re going to examine this process in more depth. I’m very much looking forward to the process.