The biopharma startup job search

Richard Murphey, 1/24/2018

For those looking to move out of academia, working at a startup can be a promising alternative to working at a big company or consulting firm, going to get your JD or MBA, or even starting your own company. However, the job search in early-stage biopharma has almost no structure, and it can be difficult to figure out whether a particular company is right for you, let alone to get your foot in the door.

Fortunately, the last few years have seen an unprecedented growth in the number of high-quality, well funded startups. Increasingly, interesting science is happening at startups rather than big pharma, and the startup path is not as risky as it used to be (although certainly not without risk!).

In this post I'll:

  • Describe why now is a good time to work at a startup, and why you might want to
  • Discuss some ways you can evaluate whether a particular startup is right for you (this article by Luke Timmerman does a great job of this, but is from 2013 – things have changed a lot since then, so I’ll just comment on new developments)
  • Offer some ideas about how to find a job at a startup

Why work for a startup?

Working at a startup is not for everyone, but for some people, once you work in a startup environment you can never go back to a large company. One can make a reasonable argument that today, the path to having your own lab and managing your own research lies in a career at startups, not in the tenure track. If you are a self-starter and like a bit of uncertainty, it can be a great field for you.

Of course, the main downside to working at a startup is the risk. A tenured professorship is one of the most secure positions you can have in the economy (if you can get it). Big pharma does not offer the same security it once did, as large companies have been outsourcing R&D to startups or foreign contract research groups, but they still offer significantly more security than startups.

However, in recent years working at a startup has become a less risky career move. Startups today are incredibly well funded (meaning competitive salaries and at least a few years of cash to fund operations), and there is an increasingly well-worn career path wherein you climb the career ladder by moving from startup to startup (especially in Boston or the Bay Area), just as you might move to a different team within a large company a generation ago. A job with a high-quality startup with an experienced, supportive leadership team and top-tier investors can open a lot of doors (and pay you a living wage) – even if the startup fails.

To illustrate with numbers the shifting sources of life science R&D:

  • In 2017, over $15B was invested in life sciences startups. In the first three weeks of 2018 alone, $1.2B was invested into biopharma startups.
  • Of the venture funding invested in life sci startups in 2017, over $5B was invested in California.
  • For comparison, $3.7B in NIH funding went to California in 2016 (the UC system got $1.9B; Stanford got $427M). The total NIH budget was $33B for 2017.
  • For a very rough sense of what big biotech and pharma companies might be spending in CA:
    • Amgen spent $1.0B on early-stage R&D in 2016. They don’t disclose how much was spent in CA versus elsewhere, but they have been downsizing their headcount at their CA headquarters. They have four U.S. R&D locations: Thousand Oaks, CA with 100 R&D employees; Greenwich, RI with 600 employees (most of them are in manufacturing); Kendall Square in Cambridge, MA with at least 400 employees; and San Francisco (not sure how many employees).
    • Gilead spent $5.1B on R&D in 2016. Again, no breakout of CA vs. elsewhere, clinical stage vs. earlier, internal spend vs. outsourced to CROs.
    • Roche spent $10B on R&D in 2016, but much of that was in Europe where Roche is headquartered. The Genentech subsidiary’s R&D is not broken out.
  • California received $144M of SBIR funding. This is the most of any state, but clearly dwarfed in comparison to venture funding.

So if you follow the money, startups are actually funding the lion’s share of early-stage R&D, at least in California.

Is a particular startup right for you?

It is important to note is that every startup is different. A startup can have one employee or 100. Some are high-science biology platforms while others have a single asset they are pushing through clinical studies. Even two startups that are working in the same scientific area, with the same level of funding and comparable leadership teams can offer dramatically different experiences.

The best way to figure out whether a startup is a good fit is to do your homework. Spend as much time as you can with the people, call up others who have worked with the team in the past (especially those who may not have had good experiences) and do whatever research you can online. For a really good guide on how to evaluate a startup, I’ll refer again to this article by Luke Timmerman.

In addition to making sure a job is a good personal fit, you’ll want to make sure the business itself has potential. You probably won’t get rich from your first job at a startup (you probably won’t get too much equity, and even if you do, the odds of that equity becoming cash in your pocket are pretty low), but you want to make sure the business has at least a few years of cash in the bank and that the team is well connected and experienced enough to execute on the plan.

Of course, working for a less well-funded startup can be just as, if not more, rewarding than working for a well-established one. You can have much more responsibility and develop strong relationships with very experienced people, but you just need to do more homework to make sure it’s a good fit.

Finding opportunities

One efficient way to do find opportunities is to keep up with the major venture capital funds. When startups raise money, they start hiring. And if a top-tier venture capital fund invests a large amount of money into a startup, there’s a good chance that company would be good to work for (almost assuredly the science and leadership team will be top-tier) and will be around for at least a few years, and often many more.

Staying up to date with these funds just requires subscribing to a few news sources and knowing the right google terms. In this case, the google terms are the names of the most active venture funds in life sciences.

The news sources I'd recommend starting with are as follows:

  • Endpoints News (the source of the list of VCs above)
  • FierceBiotech
  • STAT News
  • LifeSciVC: Bruce Booth’s blog (partner at Atlas Ventures), one of the few biotech VCs who blogs. Not as helpful for finding job opportunities, but one of the best ways to learn about biotech startups.
  • You can also periodically check the funding tracker on this blog. I’m hoping to track most major financings in 2018.

If you see a headline about a company raising money, take a look at the website. If the science interests you, try to find a way to get in touch (see the next sections).

In addition to following industry news, look at the websites of venture funds. They all have a section called “companies” or “portfolio” which has a list of all the companies the fund has invested in. If you see an interesting company, check out their website and see if they have any open positions, or if you know anyone working there. Some funds even have a “careers” or “jobs” section on their website where you can look at all job listings for their portfolio companies.

Getting your foot in the door

So you’ve found an interesting opportunity, or at least one that seems interesting online. What now? You can certainly submit your resume through an online portal. But if a position receives a lot of applications, it is easy for yours to fall through the cracks, no matter how strong it is. And what if you found a company that you absolutely love, but they don’t have any job postings?

This is where networking comes in. I am far from a networking expert, and there are plenty of other online resources that provide helpful tips. However, I’ve listed a few very basic ideas below with a focus on life science startups:

  • Warm introductions are incredibly valuable, and in some cases (with particularly busy people) they are essential. However, not all warm intros are created equal. The person making the introduction needs to know you well, and also know the person you’re being introduced to well enough for the recommendation to carry weight.
    • Think through how the people you want to get in touch with might prioritize their inboxes. Who would they respond to first? Who would they get excited about hearing from? If you can get a warm intro from one of these people, you’re off to a great start.
    • A scientific advisory board (“SAB”) can be a good start for finding a warm introduction, especially for PhD students or postdocs.
      • SABs advise companies on scientific direction, and are often comprised of influential scientists.
      • The members are often published on a company’s website, making it easier to figure out who you might be connected to.
      • These people might be your colleagues, teachers, mentors, or even your advisor!
    • Successful entrepreneurs are also great connectors. Many of these folks were PhD students or postdocs not too long ago, and they may be involved in your university as lecturers, guest speakers, advisors, etc even if they are not full-time faculty.
    • Investors can also put you in touch with companies that may be hiring.
    • Cold emails can work too (depending on how many emails the recipient gets) but do your best to get a warm intro if at all possible. For cold emails, it is that much more important to be concise and add value
  • If you are at a leading research institution, you will almost certainly be able to get in touch with some of these folks. For tips on how to find time with them and begin to develop a relationship, I’d recommend reading this article from Steve Blank about getting meetings with busy people. Some key points:
    • Respect the time of the person you are reaching out to: write concise emails, make it as easy as possible for someone to act on your message or forward it to someone who can
    • Try to help people as much as you can: out of respect for the person’s time, try to offer something in addition to asking for something.
      • People generally want to help, but if someone has a million people asking them for things, she’ll probably focus on helping those who offer something of value.
      • This can be sharing expertise or knowledge on an area of common interest, offering to make an introduction to someone they may be interested in meeting, or as simple as expressing sincere appreciation or admiration. If you are so moved by someone’s work that you can’t help but email them, say so!
    • Establish credibility or commonality upfront. If you are associated with a recognizable institution, went to the same undergrad, have mutual connections, etc., briefly mentioning this can help establish a connection.
  • Don’t get discouraged! People are busy, and often won’t have time to respond, or may respond late, or may provide a terse response. Finding a job is a numbers game, and it can take a lot of patience and rejection to accomplish your goal. However, it only takes one good connection to get you an amazing opportunity, so don’t give up!

Right now is an incredible time to work at a biotech startup. But that path isn’t for everyone, and there are many other attractive career options for talented scientists, including in consulting, banking, tech, public policy, government, law, finance, and many others. If you are interested in learning more about these other options, contact me and I’ll try to provide some relevant resources for areas where there is enough interest.