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