In this episode of Expert Insights for the Research Training Community, Dr. John Younger, co-founder and chief technology officer for Akadeum Life Sciences, explains transitioning from academia to industry and startups, and assessing new technologies. He also describes the similarities and differences between grant funding and early investment funding.
The original recording of this episode took place as a webinar on May 4, 2020, with NIGMS host Dr. Rochelle Long. A Q&A session with webinar attendees followed Dr. Younger’s talk.
Recorded on May 4, 2020
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Welcome to Expert Insights for the Research Training Community—A podcast from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences. Adapted from our webinar series, this is where the biomedical research community can connect with fellow scientists to gain valuable insights.
Dr. Rochelle Long:
Hello I’m Rochelle Long, a division director at NIGMS, which is the National Institute of General Medical Sciences at NIH.
Today I want to start with a few announcements. First and foremost, we want to thank all personnel working in health care and public service at the time of COVID-19. Our thoughts go out to everyone who’s been directly affected by this pandemic. One thing we thought we could do at NIGMS is to create a webinar series designed for students, fellows, and faculty. For each webinar, we’ll have a 10- to 15-minute presentation followed by a Q-and-A session. We hope these webinars will offer content that’s both interesting and useful at this time of distance learning. And, finally, future seminars in this series can be found by following us on Twitter, using @NIGMSgenes or at @NIGMSTraining, or on our NIGMS homepage.
And now, today, I’d like to introduce today’s speaker, Dr. John Younger. John grew up in a small town in Missouri and did his undergraduate and medical training at the University of Missouri–Kansas City. He pursued his clinical training in emergency medicine in Orlando, Florida, and then he moved to a research fellowship at the University of Michigan. He stayed for the next 20 years, where he built a research program, met his future spouse, and started a family. In 2014, an invention stemming from John’s research showed promise as a new research tool. With the encouragement of an early group of investors, John became a co-founder and chief technology officer for Akadeum Life Sciences where he worked for the next half-dozen years.
In 2019, he relocated with his family to Philadelphia, P.A., where John is currently the vice president for science and technology at the University City Science Center, a long-standing innovation hub, startup accelerator, and investor in early technology companies. John has authored over 80 peer-reviewed publications, obtained over $4 million in federal grants, and raised over $6 million in venture investment. He has many publications, awards, and has involved, been involved in mentoring and service activities for his entire career. In fact, he was an Eagle scout.
John is especially well positioned to speak today based upon his professional interests in shepherding early-stage biotechnologies and the intersection between federal, philanthropic, and venture funding for new tools and diagnostics.
For today’s seminar, John’s talk title, is “Entrepreneurship and Careers in the Biotechnology Industry.” Now, let’s welcome John Younger.
Dr. John Younger:
Thank you very much. I hope that everyone can hear me. I hope that we’re going to have reasonably good success with the, with the broadcast today. I first wanted to say thank you for the invitation. This is really amazing. It’s a real honor to have this opportunity to speak with you, Rochelle, and to think out loud about some of these things.
I don’t know if there is a more challenging week in the history of United States to try to be thinking about what to do about our careers than this week is, but I think that there’s some useful things that we can talk about and I think maybe some general guidelines for how to approach what is hopefully a unique moment in all of our careers.
I will tell you that if you’re having uncertainty about your career as a trainee, you are not alone on that. Everyone right now is trying to figure out exactly what is going to happen next and how best can we be positioned for it professionally and personally.
So I’d like to spend the first few minutes of this talk, before we get into the questions and answers, just giving you a sense of how I kind of think about this question. So, when I think about myself and I think about you as scientists at various stages of your career, I kind of think of you as this little knowledge-generating engine, right?
And, in your job, your energy in the day is spent trying to create new knowledge, new information, and that knowledge may be highly focused on a, on an important application, that knowledge may be really for knowledge’s sake and both of those have an important role, I think, demonstrably, in what, you know, what the world is trying to accomplish. As this engine, you are driven by a few things, you have a few important characteristics. Clearly, and not necessarily always acknowledged, is you have a lot of creativity–you are thinking of new things, you’re looking at a problem and trying to solve it in a new way.
And that’s very valuable.
I think that there is a spark, there’s something that has a pile of manuscripts next to your bed that you go to sleep with at night. There’s something that makes you answer emails at midnight. There’s some drive that all of us bring to trying to do something new and then I think really importantly, but not necessarily acknowledged as it should be, is that, is that for all of us, this is really tempered and really disciplined in this idea of scientific method, right?
There are a lot of ways of looking at the world and in some of them are useful in some circumstances, some in others. But as someone who’s been specifically trained to understand and really follow scientific method, that makes the application of your creativity and your passion unique and I think important in how new knowledge is generated.
Now, this is you as an engine of new thinking. It doesn’t really comment on what the thing is you’re thinking about. Are you thinking about structural biology? Are you thinking about traffic patterns in major cities?
I don’t know. But in some ways it doesn’t matter. In some ways, you have been trained to interpret data, to generate new data, and to draw conclusions from it.
Historically, when we’ve looked at, like say, trainees and trainee grants, you would look at this and say, “Well, what’s the topic you’re working on? You know, is this topic really super important? You know, are the details of the science really key?”
And historically that’s been, that’s been the focus. I think, increasingly, in this is, you know, as an example of the MIRA program within the NIH. Increasingly, we’re looking at you as the engine and saying, “You will figure out the right questions to work on. What we want to make sure we’re doing is supporting you as a scientist and then letting you figure out where does the science need to go next.”
And because of that, you as an engine of new knowledge, can find yourselves in a lot of different circumstances, all of which could be both very helpful and also, you know, can make a great career for yourself. So most of you at this point are probably sitting in an academic institution. You’re in a university or some other research organization, and your engine is turning based on revenue that’s generated from basically three different areas.
There’s grants, which we all know about. There’s organizational funding so your school may pay you to do particular work, and there’s philanthropy. There may be a donor that’s paying to do this work and all of those funds come together to support what you’re doing as a thinker.
Surrounding all that, though, are all the things that sometimes are a boon and sometimes kind of a headache for you, which is all the other stuff inside of universities. You have teaching requirements. There are legal and regulatory things around the work that you do. Someone’s got to make sure the parking lots got lines painted on it. All those things are things that have to happen in universities.
And sometimes I think it’s easy to forget how much of a big company universities can be, but they are. And if you think about what you’re doing right now and you were to change one part of this diagram, which is where the money comes from, say, organizational funding, grants and philanthropy, and change it to commercial revenue, it’s still sort of the same. Most of those pieces are intact.
And, so, when we think about working in academia or working in industry, they are a lot more similar than they are different. And I think that’s really important. It’s important because it will temper your expectations about working in the future in one or the other, but it also should lower the energy barrier to making a jump from one to the other.
These are big organizations, many people work there, they’re trying to generate new knowledge for one motivation or another, but they have a lot of similarities. So I basically put the similarities between academia and commercial or industrial enterprises into these sort of buckets like, what’s the motivation?
So for academia, typically, the motivation is pretty basic–to generate knowledge. We want to generate new things, things that were not known before that could be really basic or it could be somewhat applied for organizations that are spending a lot of time thinking about potentially generating IP. There may be a lot of applied knowledge formation going on within an academic enterprise.
Within a commercial enterprise, it’s pretty focused on applied knowledge. This is an enterprise to try to learn something about a thing that can be commercialized, could be sold, and it can be turned into a product.
That’s not exclusively true and, certainly, once organizations get big enough even, even the most industrial commercial programs can generate basic knowledge for basic knowledge’s sake and that’s, that’s great. The revenue stream in academia typically consists of grants, philanthropy, commercial revenue occasionally, and then clinical and academic outcome, right?
So tenure, excuse me, so tuition has to be paid. There may be clinical dollars that roll back into the research enterprise. But these are the usual ways in which academia is funded.
In commercial enterprises, it’s really revenue. So, the company can spend what the company makes, and those are important differences. Now, it’s true that academia will say that a major value proposition is that the research you do is self-directed. You get to pick the thing you work on. You’re not kind of told what to work on.
That’s generally true, but it is also the case that it’s self-directed as long as you can find someone to pay for it, right? And so if you’re having success writing grants, then the research you’re doing is the research you want to do, but if you’re having a hard time finding funding you may have to redirect what you’re working on.
In an industrial enterprise, typically, there is a goal of doing something that will produce a near-term clinical benefit, something that will change patients’ lives or create a drug or create a diagnostic, and that’s really the focus, and there’s a lot of discipline around sticking to the focus.
There’s an opportunity in industrial enterprises, compared to academic enterprises, that you may get to share some of the profit, right? So if, if the product does well, there may be profit to be shared. And another thing that I think about when I think about industry versus academia, and this may seem counterintuitive, is that in industry, you actually have a lot of mobility.
So as you sort of mature in the company that you’re working for, it would not be out of the question that the company would move you into a different silo of the organization altogether, in order to make you a little bit more well-rounded, to give you some exposure to other parts of the business, and you may find yourself in several different parts of the company before all is said and done. Within academia, as a faculty member or as a scientist, you’re going to pretty much be in that role.
You may have responsibilities added, but it’s unlikely that you would, that you would migrate from, say, a research position into a completely administrative position unrelated to research in order to sort of broaden your horizons. It happens, but not that much, actually. And so in industry I think that there’s an opportunity to be a little bit more mobile.
Now the threats to both of these positions are also real. In academia, you eat what you catch. If you can generate a grant that is successfully funded, you can do that work. If you cannot, you will not be able to do that work over the long term.
As I mentioned, there may be some relative immobility in academia and, importantly, I think, you need to understand, especially in this moment, that there’s some impermanence as well, right? So academic units come and go over the course of time and if you’re in academia long enough, you’ll see whole programs that you thought would be around forever slowly start to become less important and finally disappear. Whole institution can do that, although that doesn’t happen very often.
Similar set of threats happen in industry. That is, there has to be a lot of discipline now what’s worked on and the thing that you’re working on today may not be a thing that gets worked on in the future. And so programs can be wound down because there’s not an opportunity there anymore and they may pick up in some other way. But also companies come and go as well. They may go bankrupt. They may be acquired. All those things are real and they’re not all that different, I think, between academia and industry.
So, a startup is different. So, a startup is a really completely distinct entity and I like this definition by Steve Blank. So, Steve Blank is someone from Silicon Valley who’s done a lot of thinking about startups, and sort of startup theory, and Steve describe the startup as “a temporary organization used to search for a repeatable and scalable business model.”
And what this means is that if you jump into a startup compared to jumping into, say, a pharmaceutical company, you are going to be as an engine of knowledge generation trying to apply your work towards a very limited question: Is there a thing here or not? Is there an opportunity for this idea to become a company?
It could be an amazing opportunity, you may find out that in the end what you’re working on is not all that important, or you may find out that it’s not important at all. Your job inside of a startup is different than your job inside of academia or in industry in that your job in a startup is to understand, “Is this a thing or not a thing?”
If it’s not going to be a successful thing, the goal is to find that out as quickly and as inexpensively as possible so that you can drop it. Unlike other things you’ve done before, when you work for a startup, part of the success is if you figure out very quickly it’s done and then it needs to stop, that’s a good thing, and you will actually be valued in your next undertaking for someone who can very quickly sort of cut to the chase and decide, “Is this a thing or not?”
So I put all these out here to kind of give you a framework for how we’re going to have this conversation today and sort of think about what your job is and what the opportunities are. I don’t want to spend a lot of time talking about a lot of details about all these choices but I want to just sort of say these are kind of the taxonomies that I use and the sort of general thinking that I use when we start talking about career choices and about going forward.
Now all this stuff was great and as of eight weeks ago, there were a lot of great data to suggest your decision to do a career in life sciences was a really great decision. I think that actually is still very much the case maybe, even more so than it was at the beginning of the year.
Employment in the life sciences, investment by companies in R&D, and in total investment by, you know, a civilization, by the government, by industry, by investors, all of those things have been on the rise for some time. They continue to be on the rise and I think that in the current moment, there is plenty of evidence that there is a lot of opportunity for new thinking and for new creation of both basic science and applied sciences as well. And so even though we’re in this crazy moment, this is a great field to be in and the things that you know and the strategies that you’ve learned are really great strategies to have on hand.
And so I’m actually very optimistic about what’s going to happen going forward. That said, in the exact moment not necessarily, right?
So it’s really hard to know right now as a scientist and as a dad, and just as a person, what is going to happen next? And this is sort of the moment we’ve all been waiting for, right, when we’ve read the instructions on our safety instructions on the plane a gazillion times and never really had to think about them.
Well now, actually, might be a time to think about it. And I’ve been trying that personally. I’ve been working on this with my team, with my kids. What does this moment mean and how do we sort of best prepare for it so that we can take the most advantage of what’s happening right now?
So, I think I would point out these things and I think we should probably spend a lot of the talk today thinking specifically about these issues. For moving forward, for you as a junior investigator, as a young scientist, I think the most important thing for you to do right now is to have no assumptions about anything regarding your career.
You should not assume that your job is safe. You should not assume your job is at risk. You shouldn’t assume anything. What you should do is you should make sure that you’re having conversations with your mentor or your department chair or whoever your boss is about what’s going on and about what your specific position is within the organization. Is there a long term or a short term future for you? Is it solid? Is it not solid? But you need to sort of understand, where are you? How does your organization think about you?
And it’s neither right or wrong, but it’s important to know because it will influence a lot of decisions that you have going forward. You don’t want to proceed without having asked questions about your standing and about what’s going on with your organization. You don’t want to make guesses about those things. I also think it’s really important to be very flexible.
Remember, at heart, you’re a trained problem solver, right, so you’re an engine that knows how to evaluate data and to create new knowledge. The fact that you might be doing it in structural biology right now is great, but not necessarily critical to what you bring to the table.
And so I think it’s very important for all of us to make sure that we understand the difference between what we know and what we know how to do. There’s a lot of things that you know that with enough time, I could probably Google the answers, but you as an investigator and sort of as a tenacious learner, that’s special.
And do you need to be prepared to take that specialness and maybe put it into a context never really imagined before. That flexibility will treat you very well and it’s a real asset and not everyone’s as fortunate as you to have that kind of asset available.
What I tell everyone before they start making career decisions is, “You need to make sure you have a handle on your personal financial situation.” This is really important.
You don’t want to be making decisions based on guesses or based on not full understanding about what’s going on with your life and what’s likely to go on with your life in the next couple of years.
I always encourage people to bone up on financial literacy, learn about how money works, learn about how loans work, how profits work. Just learn about money because it will be important in how you make your decisions.
You should definitely understand your benefits package in your current employment. You should understand your own personal budget. What are you likely to spend money on, where could you save money going forward?
But spending time, like honest time, studying your numbers and what’s happening in your career, that’s really valuable time spent and so I always encourage people to make sure they understand numerically Where are you at in terms of what you’re trying to accomplish.
And the last thing that I would always encourage people to do is to make sure in the event that you are not working in isolation if you have a life partner. If you have kids that you really have talked through with them your strategy from going forward.
So I’m in a two-professional household–my wife is a research cardiologist–and we have to have this talk in the event of something really unexpected happening, who takes time off, right? So if one of us is going to stay home and teach the kids, who does it? We haven’t decided that, but what are the rules by which we would decide it? How do we decide who does what and when it’s time for someone to take their foot off the gas for their career, who does it, how do they do it, what are the rules that we have sort of in the family?
As they like to say in Michigan, ultimately, it’s all about the team, the team, the team, and we’re very thoughtful about trying to make sure that we are all on the same page in terms of what we’re trying to accomplish.
So these things: Assuming nothing, making sure you’re being flexible about how you define yourself, making sure you understand your finances to the best that you can, and making sure that you’re communicating with everyone in your life about what the rules are for how you’re going to make decisions about the next step in your career. Those are all things that are good kind of on a normal day but I think you’re really especially important right now.
So with that said, I’d like to just open this up and, Rochelle, I know you have some questions. I just want to say thank you to everyone for joining today and please fire away, let’s talk about some good stuff. I urge you to ask whatever you want to talk about.
Thanks, John, that was great.
There were a few questions that I got in advance that people wanted to know about you, John. For one thing people wondered when they learned your background training, how being an emergency department physician might have prepared you for an entrepreneurial career.
So, it’s a good question. So, one of the things that I really sort of appreciate over time and probably everyone here has had this experience in a similar vein, is that I’m always surrounded by people who think very differently than I do and, certainly, there are tribes within science and there’s tribes within clinical medicine. And sometimes it can be hard to figure out how all of these things sort of self-sorted into these groups.
But I think a lot of it has to do with the sort of your intellectual style, right, and the people that do emergency medicine are sometimes, they’re sometimes portrayed as adrenaline junkies, right? I think I’m actually not an adrenaline junkie, but if you look at the practice patterns of people who do emergency medicine, they actually do everything possible to make surprises go away.
But, actually they’re not actually that into the surprise and if there’s a way to sort of minimize risk, that’s great.
But what we do as a group have in common is that, is that we are comfortable making decisions pretty quickly, right? So, in emergency medicine, you don’t get to mull stuff over for a few weeks, you know, you get about 10 minutes. You’ll know what you’re going to know and you’re not going to know, and you’re going to decide. And that decision is based on some data, some of it’s not very good.
That decision has to be both informed by and then ultimately bought into by people that you just met, right? And so you meet a stranger and you have a conversation and then, suddenly, you’re making plans that impact their entire life, like, literally, their life.
And there are people that like to do that and there’s people that don’t. That sounds great when that’s the tool that you need, that not everybody, not every circumstance calls for someone that will decide something in 10 minutes, right? And so, there’s a time and a place for deciding quickly and executing on that plan and there’s other times that I’m not the right guy for the job.
And I think for starting a company, where there’s so much uncertainty and there’s such a time pressure to make a decision, that being able to make sort of the best decision you can with really poor data in a very tight timeline, that’s a great thing for how I think. I will tell you that within my own company, there was a moment when we started to outgrow that and where what the company needed most was not someone who could make a split decision but someone who would not make a split decision.
That’s not, that was not the thing that needed to happen next. And so I think that sort of cognitive style issue comes up, I think, in a lot of fields, right, that’s how that’s how that’s how organizations are robust, they have lots of different thinkers and lots of different strategies and figuring out where you fit into that realm and where that type of thinking style is most useful will be very helpful.
Now, it took me like 50 years to figure that out so, hopefully, people will figure it out faster than that, but that’s kind of how you go about it.
You also said making decisions on incomplete data, so this is a style or a thought process, and I have a whole slew of questions here to ask you because a lot of people are interested in what you talked about.
Do you have any insight into the scientific work environment difference in a CRO/CDMO setting as a scientist versus a private company in industry?
You know, not firsthand, but, you know, but my sense is that with CROs and similar manufacturing organizations, things like that, that things where you are being contracted to get to a specific answer, that’s a very focused thing, right, and there’s some good things about that, right?
So, there is an exact question in front of you, there is an end to that question, right, so you ask the question, you’ll get the answer. Full stop. Next project.
So those things I think are good. And so if you like being able to, you know, quantize the work that you do, I think those are really great opportunities and there’s plenty of it. One of the things that’s happened in the last, you know, probably 10 or 15 years and I was part of a discussion last week to talk about this. This sense that, you know, 15 years ago, Big Pharma was all of these things at once and now Big Pharma has figured out that early research, someone else should be doing that; early commercialization, someone should be doing that; the clinical trials, someone should be doing that.
And big pharmaceutical companies have figured out that there is a lot of value in sort of trimming down the big shop and outsourcing these key things and so and so …
There are questions coming up about that, too, I see so many.
I’m going to push you a little bit just to see you get to many of them. Talk about fragmenting or separating elements of the industry. One question was, “What is the best strategy for a biomedical research scientists to move in, how is it different from startups versus large biotech versus medium pharma?”
I think it probably depends on how you want to spend your day. Are you looking for, are you looking for a lifelong job, are you looking for a five-year job, are you looking for a one-year job. Those are all things that you should understand about yourself.
So I think part of it is probably the duration of the job. Part of it is, is likely going to be, “Do you want to manage kind of the outsourcing of work to other organizations, right? So would you be more comfortable as a scientist who’s managing the work by other companies that are doing science for you and then you sort of synthesize all those results and move them forward in your company? Do you want to have a pipetter in your hand, right?”
Those are all things, and those are all these are all different approaches to being a scientist, right? That as companies delegate more of the kind of fundamental work outside of the sort of normal wall, where do you want to be? Do you want to be, you know, accumulating that information and then acting on it? Do you want to be generating that information? Those are things you have to be comfortable with.
And I will say that there is no, you don’t have to get the answer right. Try one and see what happens and then try again. So there is no loss for deciding this was what I thought I was going to do next but it turns out it’s not a great fit. I’m going to move on. That’s all fine, right, you can always run the experiment, see what you think.
So, it’s funny that you’re describing fit because we have a question in the chat box: How might we view the importance of cultural fit as we look at employers in this time of uncertainty? Is it still worth taking a position with less responsibility–let’s just start somewhere in a company we’re interested in, compared to a senior position elsewhere where you might not have been a first choice? How do you find your fit?
So I think it may be partly by trial and error, it may be, you may just hit it right but I don’t think it’s ever inappropriate, you know, before you sign to really sort of set aside all of the, you know, all the Excel spreadsheets that you have with all the pros and cons of the different jobs and to say, “Does this feel right or not?” That matters a lot.
You’ve got to get out of bed in the morning, you’ve got to go to bed happy, and thinking about culture is really important and I think that anyone that’s been doing this for a while understands that culture is certainly not the domain of academia or industry or startups, you can find great cultures at all of those spots and you can find not-great cultures.
And I think that there’s probably not sort of like evil cultures as people think. But when a culture doesn’t fit with how you view the world and what you prioritize, it seems like a bad culture. What it is, it’s a bad fit. There are places for you no matter what your style, right, and it’s really just a matter of finding that.
But I can’t tell you how important it is. You know, life is short and you will succeed in a place where you feel lined up, where you feel like you’re making a contribution, and where you feel like people kind of think the way you think about lots of things in the world and so don’t underestimate how important that is, right.
So I’d hate for someone to make a decision about a job based more on what the retirement package looks like compared to whether or not they feel at home when they walk in the door.
So speaking of retirement and finances, we did get a couple of questions that relate to money, money personally, some of the points you raised in your last slide. So one of them is: “Thanks for mentioning personal finance. Do you have any recommendations for sound resources on that topic, and, also, how do you learn about money from a business sense, especially for somebody who doesn’t have a business degree?”
Well, we can do the second one first. So, when I started doing this, I didn’t know anything, I didn’t know anything about this.
So, there’s there’s a great Web site and it’s called investopedia.com. So, Investopedia is like the investment Wikipedia and they have a word of the day. I would suggest if you can enroll in the word of the day and do that for about six months, you’ll know most of what you need to know. I don’t want to say anything about MBA programs–you learn a lot just from getting one vocabulary word a day.
But those sort of, like, passive, little bits at a time are good. If you really want to know about finance, like, you know, off line get hold of me I can recommend some, you know, chunkier tomes about, you know, about how to think about entrepreneurial finance and things like that.
But those things are fine. I don’t think it’s probably ever wrong to potentially spend a little money on a financial adviser, just a one-time look–here’s what, here’s what they think, here’s how they would proceed.
They might be a little bit better than just sort of like getting online and answering a bunch of questions on some website and you don’t know kind of what those data are going to do but, you know, just a one-on-one chat with someone to say, “Here’s where I’m at, What do you recommend?”
I think that actually could be money very well spent, right, because those people will hang with you because they’ll understand that you’re at the front end of your career and that you can be a customer for life. And so I certainly have been working with someone for a very long time and I, you know, I just email them once in a while and say, “Help me, help me think about this,” and they’ve always been very supportive.
OK, so speaking of thinking about things, I have a question in a different vein here: “There are a lot of research publications from academia that are not replicable due to ethical issues. Do you think research done in industry is more ethical since the whole downstream pipeline depends upon it?”
So, ah-hah, so I don’t know if I completely understand the question about things not being replicable because of ethical reasons to reproduce the experiment. I don’t know about that.
I mean, if things are unclear, they’re unclear and I think you can ethically justify, you know, the effort to clarify them.
I am thoughtful but I haven’t really concluded what to make about reproducibility issues and whether or not they’re different inside academia and in industry. You would, at first pass, think that industry has a lot more on the line if they get it wrong, right? Industry can find itself, you know, a company can find itself way downstream with very expensive programs and being surprised late in the game by early data is extremely problematic for them, more so maybe than for an academic.
That said, academics, you know, there’s a lot to making sure that you manage your reputation and it’s a very hard problem. I will say that the financial consequences to the organization are probably much more substantial for irreproducible data in industry. But the, you know, the reputational and just sort of, you know, other implications to academia are also really substantial.
So I don’t know there’s a right answer to that. And if I was smart I’d probably not pick one anyway.
OK, here’s a question in a slightly different career or life-development sort of vein.
The question is: How much risk do you recommend trainees to take? For example, when you start a company the future is unclear. How did you reach the conclusion that jumping to a startup position is better than staying the course. What if this move throws a person into a financial nightmare?
Ah-huh-huh! So a few things.
So, when I made the jump, so I had two active R01s. I was associate chair in my department when I quit. I resigned basically, right? And so that, that was hard.
It took me about a year to work through that decision. It wasn’t like overnight, I just decided, that was not, actually, one of my 10-minute decisions, that was a year decision. And the way that I made that decision was based in two parts.
So the first part was we did a lot of work talking to potential customers, folks that would use our technology if we could get it to work and there was so much enthusiasm by end users that said, “Yeah we would use this.
Here’s how much we would pay for it.” A lot of people said, you know, “Yes, please. We would like to see that.” That was very influential in helping me sort of do the first pass at de-risking, right?
I mean, arguably, you know the investors took a risk but the founders take a much bigger risk when they joined a company, and the early employees take a much bigger risk, right, so that the investors will walk away but the team can’t, right, and so I de-risked in two ways. One was by hearing how much customers wanted it. Well, maybe three ways.
The second was that investors were ready to come in. So, we had early investors that said, “John, if this is such a great idea, we’ll fund it, but we’re not going to fund it unless you convince us it’s a good idea by quitting your day job and coming in. And so we closed our first round of finance predicated on me resigning my position and so the investors were in.
And so I assumed, and I assumed correctly, that they knew what they were doing. So if they’re going to write a check, they kind of knew that this was a thing as well. And so I used that.
And then the last thing was, is, you know, I spent time talking to my wife about this and saying, “What should I do, and what is the actual downside risk?”
Now it’s really important, you know, as a 45- year-old tenured faculty to make, whose spouse is also a tenured faculty, for me to decide that this was worth the risk is very different than the decision right out of grad school that you’re going to take the risk. But, there’s the way that you should think about it is, “Does this fulfill a longer- term sort of experiential need that I have, right?”
You’re unlikely to get rich. You’re most likely not going to make any money off of your first startup. Most likely, I mean, clearly in excess of 80 percent, it will fail. Does it fulfill that experiential need that I have as part of my longer term plan? And am I well suited to the work?
There’s not a lot of downside if you take a job in a startup for a couple of years and it fails, you haven’t lost anything, right? And so the risk is sort of modest.
You know, the real risk is sort of taking a job in a startup and not necessarily getting a paycheck, right? So I don’t really advise anyone launch a startup and then just work for options or just work for free until something magical happens.
I don’t know that that’s very wise. But in general, I think the risk can be mitigated and if it feels right, I think you should try it.
So describe to us in your career progression, you took a couple of forays out of your conventional educational path. For example, a sabbatical you have taken was a little different than some others might have done it. How did you sort of jump in or taste the waters in different fields that helped guide your future decision-making?
So I have always tried, when looking at new opportunities, to look at the opportunities and say, “Is this a thing that needs to be done, and if so, am I passionate about this thing?” Then saying, “Well, what do I know about this thing, and do I have the training for it and if I don’t, what do I not have that I would need?”
And that’s kind of a different approach then sort of evaluating all your opportunities based on your current skill set, right? So, this is a thing that I do. These are the jobs that are available to me.
I don’t treat it like that when I say, “These are the things I believe are passionate and great opportunities. How do I sort of springboard from what I know now into this next thing?”
And I think both of those are actually very acceptable paths.
One of them feels a little bit riskier sort of on the front end, but on the back end, you get to explore a lot of other ideas and I don’t think there’s ever been a career decision that I made that I regretted. Certainly, some of them were not in the direction that anyone planned and, certainly, when I resigned from the University of Michigan, people didn’t understand that at all. But, sort of in the fullness of time people would go, “Of course that made good sense,” right?
It was the right thing to do. So I think that there’s ways.
OK. You know there’s a lot of curiosity about sort of what makes it different from academia. Here’s a couple of questions. “If I were hired as a scientist or a researcher in the company, would I still be expected to contribute to the budgetary and financial issues? Would there be an expectancy for me to know how the financial wing works within a company?” And there’s another question here: “How are the ways that you do get funding for a startup?”
So I know so you’re using Akadeum as an example. And we had people at Akadeum that were very closely tied to all the operational components because there are a lot of operational components. You’ve got to have a place where you’re going to order your, you know, your paper towels from. You’ve got to have a way of, like, filing receipts.
There’s so many operational things and within the first couple of employees of a startup, everyone’s going to do everything and you’re going to be intimately familiar with all of it because you have no choice. There’s no one else to do it, right?
As the company grows to, even probably five or six employees, there starts to be the ability to specialize in such a way that you can sort of work on the thing that you really came there to work on. And so, so there is an expectation that you sort of work within the confines what’s possible, but only at the very, very beginning are you going to be there with an expectation, you know, “Can you set up QuickBooks, so we have accounts receivable, right?”
That doesn’t happen except at the very beginning. The way that you fund it is through a few ways. So, a startup could be funded because you paid money out of your pocket. I don’t personally believe that first-time founders should be paying money out of their pocket because they’re not smart enough to know whether it’s a good investment.
If an investor wants to pay money for it, yes, you will give up some of the company but you’re taking someone with a lot of experience in the field and they’re saying this is worth doing and if they’re a good investor, they will help you. So I think drawing early investment I think is very important.
I actually think maybe more important in most circumstances than SBIRs and STTRs. There’s a lot of discussion about whether or not that is the right mechanism or not, but there is there is a certain rubber-to-the-road feel about going in front of an investor, that while you had to sacrifice part ownership of the company, kind of gets you into a very different mindset than you would get into from a grant perspective.
That said, there are plenty of reasons why you would write a grant as an early-stage company but I think there’s nothing that compares to getting someone who does this for a living to give you their money because if they’ve done that then you’ve clearly demonstrated a bunch of things that suggest that this is good going forward.
So, thanks. I want to ask a couple questions about scientific relationships, in particular, collaborations. I was asked what types of collaborations are useful to entrepreneurs and how do collaborations with entrepreneurial relationships differ from those in strictly an academic environment?
You know it’s really interesting because I think one of the things in my experience from the startup perspective, is that it became actually very difficult to have traditional scientific collaborations and for a couple of reasons, I think, you know for someone that sort of left academia, there is a sort of questions about what, what’s going on with you that you would leave?
And so it’s you certainly put yourself in a different spot, but the thing is that that there a lot of concern over intellectual property and I think far more than there needs to be.
Founders are concerned that universities are going to scoop their intellectual property and they’ll make a lot of entanglements. Universities are concerned that their faculty may give away an important idea and that an opportunity to generate some royalty revenue would be left on the table.
You find yourself in these discussions that generate a lot of paperwork and certainly generate some legal fees but not necessarily a lot of value and so I was quite surprised at how to how to recalibrate collaborating with investigators once I left academia.
And I still don’t know that I have it completely right.
It is hard, because you have to be so protective in the startup. You have to be so protective. Your IP is kind of the only asset you have. And so it just, it requires a lot of caution and that caution makes it complicated to just sort of sit down and spitball ideas with people you know because everyone just guards more. So, it’s not easy.
With bigger companies, as the company grows it becomes easy because you can sort of set expectations about how it’s going to work, but early on, especially when there is an opportunity that, you know, there might be a financial opportunity, but there’s no there’s no clear-cut boundary between what the academics are working on and you’re working on. It’s a very difficult thing, right.
Anyone that’s collaborated with a startup sort of shakes their head and says. “Oh my God, these guys just keep coming back with more forms for us to sign and negotiate.” But I’ll tell you that the startups feel the same way, right?
And it’s hard to work with universities. It’s a strange, it’s a strange dynamic.
OK, now a couple questions about timing. When is the best time to start an entrepreneurial career? Do you need an MD-PhD/post-doc or experience running an academic laboratory or are there experiences worth pursuing that may increase an individual’s marketability when they pursue positions later? What are your recommendations to young students?
So I will tell you that if you look at the data, the startups that are most likely to succeed are started by people that are over 40. And that’s, that’s just the data, right?
So, there are Mark Zuckerbergs out there. But there aren’t many of them, right?
Most startups are going to go on to succeed are being led by people that have a lot of experience and I think that’s experience in a couple of things. It’s specific content experience in whatever industry is involved, right? So if it’s life sciences if it’s, you know, if it’s, you know, I don’t know, kinase inhibitors, you do that for 20 years you sort of understand a lot of things and you can get out and go.
It’s a lot of life experience and sort of having kind of a level head and being able to sort of, you know, survey your landscape and make decisions about it. So I think there is something to be said about doing it older.
That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t. And it doesn’t mean that there’s not an opportunity to be involved but, you know, very early on, a lot of times where I tell folks is that you know if you’re in your first year out of school, unless you have an idea that’s just so compelling, and not compelling to you but compelling to other people, that’s what matters.
I mean everyone thinks their ideas are great, but if someone else tells you, “This idea is great.” Unless you have that, I would hunker down. I would get a job. I would start getting some experience and let it go.
Remember, one way to think about this is that, you know, sooner or later you have to retire. And the most important dollar you save towards retirement is the first one you save. It generates more interest than everything after that and so in some ways if you say across the arc of your career when is it important to have stability? Kind of early on.
It seems counterintuitive but early on, I think it’s actually really important to have some stability, you know, when you can. Now, some people just want to go and they’ve got to get out and they want to do startup and I get that and that’s great.
But I think, and this is my Midwest talking. I think you should be cautious early on, right, and be thoughtful about when’s the right time to jump.
So that actually segues really nicely into another question I’ve gotten in the chatbox. Do you think personality is important in surviving in the industry, or is it a learning process? Do you learn to be that kind of entrepreneur?
I think personality is important in surviving anywhere, right? And, you know, not everybody that everybody can survive in a you know, in an R1 research institution, they don’t have the personality for it, right? That doesn’t mean they have a broken personality, it means they have a personality that doesn’t work there, right?
And the same thing is true in industry. You know there are people that are finishing up their PhDs that cannot wait to get out the door, right? And they’re just, like, they’ve been sending their CVs out since their first year, just trying to make sure they can get out when it’s time because they know they don’t want to be in academia, they want to be in industry.
And at the same time, there are people that will thrive in startups and people that are, that will not. I think a lot of times you don’t know in advance, right? One of the tricks about academia is that, you know, if you’re in, you know, grad school right now, the only real structured environment you’ve probably ever been in is that environment, right, and so you sort of assume this is what there is.
That’s not true. There are many different cultures and there’s many different ways of working that don’t look like academia. But I think it’s really a matter of trial and error and getting in and seeing what happens and being able to step back and say, you know, this was a great move or, you know, frankly, this wasn’t that great of a move. I don’t think that there is much risk in taking that shot and waiting to see what happens as people think.
And people can be very scared that the minute you step away from one thing, you’ll never be back. I will tell you that I, you know, I’m on committees within a university again right now because of stuff that we’re doing with COVID-19, you know, and you can find yourself sort of back in there, sort of surprisingly.
So, I think it’s important not to overemphasize the risk and I think it’s important to understand that you give those opportunities a try to see where your personality is the best fit.
Speaking of COVID-19, talk to us a little bit about what sort of opportunities have come your way at this particular time and what attracted you to to invest effort, spend time on some of those things.
So, so a few things, and so the Science Center, so I work for a organization in West Philly that’s been an accelerator and an incubator for a long time. We also do early-stage investments. So we have several companies that we’ve either incubated or that we currently have in the companies investment portfolio that are working on specific things, and those things that came up in advance. They were already working on antivirals or even specific lung anti-inflammatory strategies that are really a great fit right now, right?
And so it’s great to sort of try to help them out to make sure that they’re seeing what, what opportunities there are in terms of collaboration in terms of, you know, federal funding to help support that.
But the other thing is, you know, for me personally, which was sort of a surprise, is because I, you know, I do have an academic and clinical background, I’ve had the opportunity to serve on a number of groups right now that are either monitoring the safety of current clinical trials and so I’m participating in several DSMBs right now because I understand the issues but I don’t have a horse in the race. I am truly arm’s length, I’m not a faculty at the university but I understand the issues. And I’ve also been helping one of the region’s universities think a little bit about how do you best allocate resources to all the different clinical trials that are being proposed.
Lots of folks are putting forward ideas. There are as many ideas as there are patients right now and, in a perfect world, all the trials will never enroll because we’ll start tamping this down and the number of patients will go down.
But in the meantime, trying to figure out as an organization how do you prioritize, how do you prioritize which clinical trials should be worked on first is a very interesting, it’s a very interesting problem and it’s been real honor to get to think about that a little bit.
We could use you around NIH right about now. People are asking questions and there are your answers to them.
I’m so close to the train station I just can’t come …
So, I saw a couple of questions here about ideas. How does one feasibly know the idea is novel or interesting enough to merit the formation of a startup? Do you need a lot of legal experience or to solicit the advice of a lawyer or investors?
Neither. Neither of those is the right answer.
So, what you need is you need to find, you need to go talk to 100 people that would be the people that would buy it and find out what they need, right?
So, at the end of the day, this is not about whether or not the investor loves you, and certainly it’s not about whether or not your attorney loves you because your attorney loves you. What it’s about is somebody wants it.
So when we started Akadeum, we had about 200 interviews in the can of people to try to understand what they were doing currently and whether or not there was a role for what we were doing. And I’m also happy to talk offline to people about the sort of the formalism for doing those interviews because it does matter how you ask.
But the thing that will decide whether or not you should go, is market pull. Full stop.
That’s what matters, is if you can demonstrate with reasonable assurance that people want it then that becomes a company, right, and the investors will follow that lead. So the investors may have a sense in advance, but if you come to an investor with data that says, “We have all these people. We know what they do now and why it’s not good enough, and here’s what we propose instead,” that will resonate, right? The investors will follow that.
But this idea, this idea is called product market fit, right? If your idea is good that it should be relatively straightforward to demonstrate that people will pay you money for it.
I think the hardest thing I ever did in my entire career so far is when we are thinking about starting our company, we took empty vials and we put labels on them of what we sort of suppose we are going to ultimately manufacture and we started walking the halls of the University of Michigan and sitting down with colleagues and sort of showing them what the technology could do and then saying, “That will be $400 a bottle, please.”
And, actually, instead of asking someone, “Do you think this is a cool idea or, you know, what would you do with this?” to ask them, you know, you know, “If you give me a purchase order, you know, I can manufacture without having to actually charge you yet. I don’t charge you until I deliver.”
But to actually say, “Would you write a purchase order for this?” that is a life-transforming moment when you talked to a colleague and say, “I need some money for this idea.”
Pay for this.
But that’s what has to happen, right? If that can’t happen, it’s not a thing, right? It may be brilliant, but it’s not a thing, right?
And in that sort of, those sort of interactions really were what got me off the sidelines and helped me make the decision to do something different.
So I sort of got a provocative question: Can you tell us about any opportunities that you have declined because you thought it wasn’t the best fit for you?
Probably. Well, yeah, sure, I guess I have one.
So when I left Michigan, it was about a year after the chair of my department had turned over to a new chairman and during that chair search I, the dean approached me, You know, I’d been in Michigan for 20 years and I was approached, you know, “Do you …do you want the chairmanship?”
And I said, “No I didn’t.” I didn’t think about it at all. I didn’t want that job.
And it prompted my wife to ask, “Well, you know, if you don’t want that job, what job do you want?”
But, but I think that was, that was probably the first time where something that looked like, you know, a sort of traditional kind of arc-of-career move, I simply, I didn’t even think. I’m just like, “This is not a thing I’m going to do because it’s not the right fit for me,” right?
And you sort of learn things aren’t the right fit by doing things and then, you know, and saying, “Oh that was a mistake,” right?
But I knew that I was not going to be a chairman of an academic department. There was just no way that was going to happen, right?
But it took some soul searching and getting comfortable with the fact that, because that was such an obvious next move, you know, that there wasn’t something broken, right?
It’s like, you know what’s wrong with me that I would ever say no to an academic chairmanship? And it just it wasn’t it wasn’t the right job for me and I still think that’s exactly the move I should have taken. I should not have taken that job.
But, but you have to get comfortable with sort of saying what are you and what are you not? Which is not easy. It takes time.
You mentioned a couple times that you have a good sounding board and a partner. Tell us a little bit about career change and how that was influenced by having a professional spouse and her requirements in the workplace, how that dictated your choice.
So it dictates a lot, right.
So, my wife is one of the directors of the Cardiovascular Institute at Penn and, and when I, when I was thinking about leaving my career in Michigan, she she was an early, early-stage faculty, was just getting up her lab, and we went out to dinner, like 2014, and, you know, I said, “I’m thinking about maybe quitting my job” and sort of laid out the case.
And she just sort of nodded her head and said, “Well, that’s what you want do, that’s what we should do.” And, she’s actually very flexible about it.
And then, sort of interestingly, in 2018, she took me out to dinner and said, “You know, I’ve been recruited to Penn. We’re moving to Philadelphia.
This five-year-old IOU came out of her purse, I was like oh I guess we are moving to Philadelphia.
There is a time and a place, right? So I think the thing is, is that you…
One of the things that we find very useful is that in a given year, if you look at the productivity of either one of us, we have up years and we have down years, right? There’s years where there’s amazing things and there is years where everything seems to drag and you can’t ever get a grip on the things you want to get done. That happens to everybody, right?
But what we do is, is if you sum over everybody’s experience and you say, “As a team, what did we get done this year?” Then it becomes a lot easier to say, you know, “We’re going to make a change because, you know, the team accomplished this this year, right?”
If you if you add up all the accomplishments in the house, then you think about things differently, right? And so in a year where … I didn’t publish any papers last year. I don’t know when I’m going to publish another paper, but we still had decent academic output out of the household, right?
And so, in thinking about summing across all the people in the house–what did the team get done? I think that simplifies things and it makes them less, it makes these sort of individual scorekeeping less of a problem. That’s still there, right?
I mean, you know, that’s, you know, having a partner means, you know, trying not to keep score sometimes. But, but making sure that you sum across everybody and say this is what, you know, this is what our address got done this year, that’s pretty good. That simplifies I think, you know, how to keep that relationship honest, right?
Well, I appreciate the team approach, there, and considering productivity as an address.
Yeah, sometimes easier said than done.
We’re coming close to the end of the hour, so I’m going to get down to the last or question or two I have one here. What are the biggest hurdles or challenges and what’s your advice for overcoming these challenges or hurdles?
I think the biggest hurdles are what you, what you allow yourself to sort of dream about what you are, right, and I think the biggest challenge is to get yourself past, sort of, self-imposed definitions about what success looks like and to just sort of say what makes me feel fulfilled and in chasing that as opposed to chasing, you know, what’s the appropriate metric, you know, that it’s very hard and it takes a lot of time and it takes a lot of reflection to sort of say this makes me happy.
It may or may not look like what, what people sort of assume sort of the median sort of behavior is but it makes me happy, it’s OK. I think that that’s a real challenge, right? And it’s true, I think, at any stage in your career. What are you trying to get done? And giving yourself the latitude to do the thing that you think is really remarkable and isn’t necessarily sort of chasing metrics that other people, you know, traditionally have used.
It’s not easy but I think that’s it, right? Giving yourself permission to do the things that you need to do is important, and it’s not simple. It sounds simple but it can be quite difficult, I think.
Oh, I think everybody appreciates that advice. It’s personalized, it’s empowering, it’s optimistic. No matter what, we thank you for the time you spent with us. We’ve come to the end of our hour.
I can assure you I had twice as many questions in the box as I could possibly give to you. I know everybody appreciated hearing from you. So, thank you very, very much John for kicking off our inaugural webinar in this series.
Best of luck to you as you approach the coming days, weeks, months, thereafter. And thanks again. Take care.
Thank you and everyone be safe. This is going to be OK.
It’s going to be amazing but it’s not going to be amazing quite yet. Please feel free to reach out to me. If there’s something I can do to help, you know, I’m here. Once people are traveling if you come to Philadelphia, lunch is on me. I’m happy to take you out and brainstorm about stuff.
But, but keep it up. It’s going to be, it’s going to be incredible. You’re going to be incredible. Just give it a little bit of time.
Thanks. And thanks everybody who participated with questions in the chat box.
Have a great afternoon.
Bye from all of NIGMS and John.
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8/9/2021 11:38 AM
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