The Why’s and How’s of Biotechnology Startups

Author:  Maria Zagorulya

Institution:  University of Rochester


Many scientists dream to create or join a biotech startup. Indeed, if a startup succeeds, the rewards are enticing. However, a startup is a risky business. Nine out of ten startups will fail for a number of reasons.

Gambling factor aside, some believe that involvement in a startup is not worth the stress, while others argue that the experience is invaluable. So why join a startup? What are the pros and cons of performing science in a startup environment?

Working in a biotech startup can be dissatisfying to a scientist for several reasons. First, all startup company employees must focus on the success of the company rather than personal success. Consequently, lab work requires scientific collaboration, and does not welcome bench-side competition. Moreover, often the company, rather the individual scientists performing the experiments, will receive credit for successful scientific discoveries and inventions. Thus, there is little opportunity for individual fame in a startup.

Second, a startup limits the scientist’s choice of potential research topics. Company scientists cannot explore the various directions in research and perform intriguing projects that have little chance of success and/or no potential of biomedical applications. All startups rely on funding from investors, who will only finance viable business plans, not interesting scientific projects. In a startup all science must be performed with the business goal in mind.

Third, industrial scientists rarely work for the same company throughout their career. While this is true for most jobs across all disciplines, it may be more appropriate to compare the common scientific jobs: a career in industry and a more traditional academic career. Unlike company scientists, academic scientists have the chance of obtaining a permanent position. Hence, by choosing a career in industry, scientists also choose short-term experience over job security.

While these characteristics of biotech startups seem to limit the advance of science, industry also offers opportunities for personal development, which can be especially beneficial for those at early career stages. In fact, a job at a startup can provide a well-rounded education for the scientist, who is generally specialized solely in science. A biotech startup team is generally small and contains experts in both science and business, as well as other backgrounds. Startup employees will know everything happening in both the science and the business units, and will see the CEO every day. Thus, the startup environment offers abundant opportunities to learn from the diverse expertise of the group members, and from the passion, entrepreneurship and foresight of the CEO. Such experience provides startup employees with a lot of practical knowledge in the various functional areas of the company.

Furthermore, being part of the startup team can help develop social and communication skills. While communication is emphasized in business degrees, a science education does not always underscore the importance of connecting with other people. This allows the great majority of introvert scientists to avoid public speaking and to choose independent work over collaborations. However, social and communication skills come from practice, and working at a startup presents plenty of such (unavoidable) practice for scientists.

Next, the problems and opportunities of a startup can change from one day to the next, which means that the work is never a routine. Such a fast-paced and variable environment demands the employees to adapt quickly and learn new techniques and methods. On the one hand, this is a nuisance for the employees, but on the other hand, it offers variety at work and presents an opportunity to adopt the approach of flexibility.

It is clear that a job at a biotech startup is fit for some, and not for others. For those scientists willing to take the risk in a startup culture, what would be useful skills to learn?

One very useful skill is public speaking. At a startup, it is crucial that the scientist knows how to present the new technology or drug in a convincing manner first to the team, and then to potential investors and customers. Since the foundation of the startup is the scientific product, the scientist is in the best position to argue the viability and importance of the scientific idea. Arguments will gain more credibility from the listeners when voiced by a scientist who understands the science behind the product, than by a business expert who only knows the business side of the product. Thus, the earlier the scientist becomes comfortable with public speaking, the better for the scientist and for the company.

Equally useful are social skills. The ability to resolve conflicts and get around personal dislikes is crucial in teamwork, and a startup relies primarily on collaboration to succeed. In a small group of a startup it is impossible for an employee to avoid colleagues that he or she dislikes, and the best solution is to learn to work with them. Increased open-mindedness and forgiveness can always help improve a relationship.

Adaptation, which is required for survival outside of the comfort zone, is another critical skill for working in a startup. Solving scientific problems often involves incorporation of new techniques and methods, and thus requires the ability to learn and apply these. The work at a startup is always a race against time, be it due to the limited duration of funding or competition against other companies. Hence, the ability to quickly adapt and use newly acquired skills to solve problems is invaluable.

To become involved in a biotech startup, one needs to either form one or join an existing team. However, an enthusiastic group of undergraduate students may not seem like a smart investment for venture capitalists, and virtually all startups looking to employ scientists ask for at least a PhD degree. Are there any opportunities for undergraduate students to become involved in a biotech startup?

Investors are constantly looking for fresh talent. Biotech competitions such as OneStart or BioStars present good opportunities for students to gain experience in working on a business idea. Winners are provided funding and mentorship in further development of the business, but even participation can teach invaluable lessons.

For students who have yet to come up with a biotech idea, it is beneficial to practice the skills of public speaking, teamwork and adaptation through involvement in various extracurricular activities, as well as participate in industrial research internships to gain an understanding of the role of science in industry. Also, networking is crucial, and can spark new ideas and create new opportunities.

For those who have a goal in mind, be it the creation of a biotech startup or success in academic research, there will always be opportunities. The approach that will lead to success is a proactive one, where the individual takes advantage of maximal available opportunities and constantly develops various skills to achieve personal growth.