Thirteen young people bucking the odds, finding paths to break into biotech

December 8, 2016 Guest Contributor

Guest post by Luke Timmerman, founder and editor of the Timmerman Report, and a regular contributor to Forbes and STAT News.

Walking around San Francisco’s Union Square during biotech conference season in January—during this time of industry prosperity—you might expect it to be crawling with brainy young people. You might expect hot startups to come from students and postdocs, like in the tech industry, with VCs scrambling to get in on the ground floor.

But that’s not how it works in biotech. Venture capital tends to line up behind people with gray hair in their 40s, 50s, and 60s. Young biomedical scientists with first-rate academic credentials face a tough job market: openings for new professors are few, and the pharmaceutical industry is quite picky, preferring to hire people with years of experience. The average life scientist is now 35–40 years old before obtaining his or her first permanent job, according to the National Research Council. You get your first peer-reviewed NIH grant, on average, at age 42. It wasn’t always this difficult—the average first-time NIH grant winner was age 34 in 1970, as I found in researching my new biography, Hood: Trailblazer of the Genomics Age. When it comes to vetting job candidates, the biotech and pharmaceuticals industry is the slowest, according to a 2014 survey by Glassdoor.

It’s discouraging.

Some young scientists, however, are taking matters into their own hands. Ethan Perlstein, a Harvard University-trained molecular and cell biologist who did a postdoctoral fellowship at Princeton, saw the dim job market firsthand. Rather than getting discouraged, he started a rare-disease drug discovery company, Perlara, in 2014. He also became a vocal activist for young scientists, raising awareness of the supply-and-demand problem, which he and others dubbed the “postdocalypse.”  

Two years later, Perlstein is more optimistic that grad students have gotten the message. Students need to prepare themselves to apply their scientific training in unexpected ways. Too few institutions are taking steps to deal with the problem, and until many more open their doors earlier with a commitment to training, it’s on students.

“A lot of this is cultural,” Perlstein said. “Even today, it’s almost this sense that the parent is disappointed if you don’t follow in their footsteps and become a PI (principal investigator).”

Today, I’m looking at young scientists who aren’t afraid to “disappoint.” They’re putting their training to work in different ways. Some have created their own jobs as entrepreneurs; others have found creative ways to make early-career contributions to industry as consultants, venture capitalists, patent agents. For this project, a collaboration between Timmerman Report and EBD Group, I’ve sought out nominations from more than a dozen sources nationally to start providing you a picture. This issue is worth discussing further, though. I hope you’ll join me in doing so during a panel on industry diversity at Biotech Showcase in San Francisco Jan. 9–11. Register here.

Here are 13 young people overcoming the odds—and how they did it.

Armon Sharei. As a grad student at MIT, working for Klavs Jensen and Bob Langer, Sharei co-invented a technology for “squeezing” materials directly into the cell cytosol, a persistent challenge for drug development. Now he’s co-founder and CEO of Cambridge, Mass.-based SQZ Biotech. Langer’s connections to venture capital, and his strong recommendation, helped get SQZ Biotech off and running with a $5 million Series A round in June 2015. The deal came with a rarity in biotech, a CEO under 30. Perhaps to mitigate any VC fears of handing the keys to reckless youth—or at least someone who wasn’t proven management—Polaris Partners’ Amy Schulman was brought in as executive chairman to work closely with Sharei. A little more than a year later, the company continued to progress, closing a $24 million Series B. “Armon is brilliant and incredibly driven,” Langer told me. “I remember him coming to my office one day when he was a doing a postdoc. I said, ‘What is your dream?’ And he said [he wanted to see the work he did for his PhD thesis become a reality to help patients.] So I said, ‘That’s what you should do.’ And he has. He is committed to making SQZ great and helping people.”

Vyas Ramanan and Andrew Warren. Nearing the end of their grad school careers at MIT, these two were part of a small group of students who saw a need. Despite its outstanding track record in biomedicine and history of entrepreneurship, MIT didn’t have a student association focused on connecting students with the vibrant industry across the street in Kendall Square. They joined with a few friends to start the MIT Biotech Group. Within a few weeks, they had more than 500 students and postdocs from various research groups sign up for their newsletter. Once they knew they had an audience, they gave students something to keep thinking and talking about. They invited a steady drumbeat of guest speakers from industry (I was happy to be one) to share insights, exposing trainees to people and organizations that might be able to put their talents to good use.

The extracurricular work paid off: Ramanan recently took an associate job for Third Rock Ventures, working on various biotech startup projects. Warren is now the founding scientist of a diagnostics startup, Glympse Bio, that he says “uses proprietary nanoparticles that interrogate the body for certain disease states and then carry the message to the urine for analysis.”

Finding the right graduate advisor, along with networking in industry, were key for Warren. “I was fortunate to work with an adviser who enthusiastically supports non-academic careers for her trainees,” he said. “Picking a lab with a diverse culture full of people with broad interests pushed me to learn how others approach a variety of career paths, from consulting and industry to startups.”

His advice to current trainees: “Make an effort to read outside your comfort zone (after a while it will start making sense!) and surround yourself with like-minded people from student groups and other departments. Ask around for advice: most everybody will respond to a brief, polite email with specific career questions.”

Hannah Chang. Chang got her PhD in biophysics from Harvard University, an MD from Harvard Medical School, and found her way to an ophthalmology residency at Massachusetts Eye & Ear Infirmary. Realizing she was interested in industry but unsure quite how she fit, she did a common thing. She joined BCG as a consultant, and got exposed to a wide range of industry clients with different issues. “It may sound trivial, but one of the things you learn as a consultant is what I’ll call practical competence,” Chang said. “It’s that ability to say whatever problem is thrown at me, I can think about it and come up with a reasonable approach to attack it, even if I have no technical knowledge of the area. If you ask the right questions, you can get to an answer.”

This led her to one of the precious few jobs available in biotech venture capital, especially since the post-2008 financial crisis caused a culling of the herd. Chang bucked the trend, joining 5AM Ventures in Menlo Park, Calif., two years ago.

“What ends up being very useful, in venture, is that you have to do a lot of things on your own,” Chang said. “You have to be able to be pretty self-sufficient in an unbounded space. You can go in any direction and get lost. Having been a consultant has helped me think critically about important areas I need to build skills in, and at the same time, really know how to learn from other people when necessary. You gather knowledge in a constructive manner.”

Rachel Haurwitz. The headline in STAT was catchy. “At 31, she runs one of the hottest biotech companies in the country.” Haurwitz clearly was in the right place at the right time, as a grad student at UC Berkeley in Jennifer Doudna’s lab just before the CRISPR genome editing tool caught fire. She called herself “incredibly lucky” to be in a position to run Berkeley, Calif.-based Caribou Biosciences. The company has raised $40 million and is seeking to apply CRISPR for agricultural markets. But those close to the story say she’s more than lucky. “She really grew into [being CEO],” a scientific co-founder told STAT.

Miriam Boer. Boer worked as a flavor and color chemist for PepsiCo before getting her PhD in biochemistry from the University of Maryland College Park in 2011. Entrepreneurship wasn’t a cool thing to talk about in the lab.  

“I was definitely interested in the idea of starting a company, but I knew I didn’t have support,” Boer said. “I had to lie to my advisor about why I was leaving lab to attend my university’s entrepreneurial office hours.”

She’s now the founder and CEO of Sonify Biosciences, a company seeking to apply low-intensity ultrasound waves to the treatment of melanoma and other skin cancers.

“My initial intent upon graduation was to log some time in industry before starting a company,” she recalled. “However, when I graduated in 2011, the biochemistry PhD job market looked dismal. I left grad school full of doubts about myself and whether I had what it took to make Sonify work. But I figured that even if I completely screwed it up, I couldn’t possibly feel any worse, and trying is always better than not knowing.”

Raising money, like for any new company, was a challenge. Adding to the challenge, Boer faced down some rather blatant sexism as a female founder, which she spoke about openly in May for an episode of the Signal podcast I co-host for STAT.

Boer says the crude behaviors haven’t gotten in her way, and her company is finishing up its benchtop demo device. It couples ultrasonic heating with passive microwave sensing, “the same tech NASA uses to measure the temperature of the farthest reaches of the detectable universe.” That’s useful for the skin cancer treatment device, she says, because the waves can be focused on a given volume of tissue and provide real-time temperature feedback.

Sebastian Kraves. After getting a PhD in neurobiology at Harvard Medical School, Kraves took a postdoctoral fellowship. Nothing unusual there. But he didn’t stay long, taking a job a year later as a consultant at BCG. He stayed there six years, and he got exposed to global health projects. That helped inspire him to take the entrepreneurial leap, co-founding miniPCR in 2013 with Ezequiel (Zeke) Alvarez-Saavedra at the Harvard Innovation Launch Lab. They have a big idea for global health, aspiring to make “genetics and DNA analysis accessible to everyone.”

Kraves recalls that nervous feeling, the fear of the unknown, when he left academia to get on this road 10 years ago. He wrote:

“Cambridge. Winter of 2006. Less than one year into my postdoc, I received an offer from a renowned management consulting firm—an offer I couldn’t refuse. Until that juncture, I had not seen myself in a role outside of academia. The offer call came into my flip phone, the first mobile I ever owned, bought to keep my job search stealth. They could have just called me on the lab line, where I could be found 24/7. I had always seen myself following in the footsteps of admired professors. But academia just wasn’t doing it for me any more: I was in the best possible lab with the best possible colleagues, but the feeling that I was repeating myself, not developing radically new skills, was haunting me. Add to that my recent marriage to another academic and our shared desire to expand the family. It was then that I opened up to the idea of a different path, one where I could flex new muscles, seek broader horizons, and why not, significantly fatter paychecks.”

Reflecting on that leap, Kraves offered some words of advice to students and postdocs today. Management consulting firms, venture firms, and investment banks recognize the value of academic talent. “These doors are cracked—swing them open,” he says. But there are “unmarked exits” as well, as Kraves said he’s gotten to know ex-academic scientists running biotech companies, apparel companies, and exercising their creative juices as writers or visual artists. Kraves advises soaking up as much of the scientific experience as possible, while remaining curious and open to alternatives that may come down the road. “There’s no reason to obsess about the next step too early in grad school. I would not have enjoyed my work in the lab half as much had I spent those years practicing consulting case interviews every day. Nor would I have enjoyed consulting had I been seeking entrepreneurship opportunities from the get-go. As in yoga, being in the moment is the best source of productive flow,” Kraves said.

Ridhi Tariyal. Most biotech venture capitalists are white men above the age of 40. It’s pretty safe to say this demographic is unlikely to invent “the tampon of the future”—and equally unlikely to see it as an investment opportunity. But Tariyal, a biomedical engineer with a Harvard MBA, spotted an opportunity to capture some potentially valuable diagnostic information in menstrual bloodflow. With co-founder Stephen Gire, Tariyal secured some big-time visibility for their company, NextGenJane, in the New York Times. Tariyal, a Blavatnik Fellow at Harvard, made the cut at the Illumina Accelerator, a coveted program for fledgling genomics application companies.

Jason Kelly, Reshma Shetty, Barry Canton, and Austin Che. Boston-based Gingko Bioworks was started by four MIT-trained biologists during the inauspicious time of August 2008—just as the financial crisis that rattled investors to the core. The young founders were undeterred, setting out to build a synthetic biology company anyway. Some big-name biotech VC firms passed, as they usually do when evaluating founders straight out of grad school. Y Combinator, the startup incubator, however, had no such reservations. It invested early, and is glad that it did. In June, Gingko raised a $100 million financing that included Bill Gates’s Cascade Investment, among others. The goal is to make living cells for industrial biotech customers in the food, fragrance, and flavor industries. Gingko bills itself as “the organism company.” As Kelly told Forbes in June: “As a society, we need to stop manufacturing everything and grow everything.” That’s a bold ambition for a company that faced some long odds at the start.

Anasuya Mandal. Mandal came to MIT for graduate school in chemical engineering with a goal of coming up with a tangible advance for human health. She worked on a microneedle device to improve vaccine design, by more effectively monitoring immune system responses to vaccines. A native of India,and having suffered from dengue herself, she knew such an invention could also potentially be useful for many infectious diseases.

But inventing a new technology and getting it into the hands of people who need it are two different things. The latter is the domain of industry. She realized she didn’t know enough about how the biotech and pharma industry works. Coming down the home stretch of her PhD program last spring, she interviewed for a short immersion program and wasn’t conversant enough about industry. “I got dinged there,” Mandal said. A friend at Harvard Business School suggested she start reading Timmerman Report. She did, along with subscribing to STAT daily news digests and the Signal podcast. With graduation looming in 2017, she wanted to be better prepared for the next round of job interviews with higher stakes. “I had an uphill task,” she said. Her personal crash course in the biotech industry paid dividends. She has lined up a job with a boutique life-sciences consulting firm.

These are just a handful of the talented young scientists who are finding ways to contribute, rather than get stuck in a dead end. Quite a few are taking the initiative to go beyond their rigorous scientific training to educate themselves about the industry and to build their own networks. It reminds me of the old quote that’s frequently misattributed to Charles Darwin: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most adaptable to change.”

 


Meet Luke Timmerman at BIO-Europe Spring taking place  March 20-22, 2017  in Barcelona, Spain. Luke will be leading a discussion Mar. 21 on “Stirring the Entrepreneurial Pot in Europe.” 

 

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