Biotech Entrepreneur Panel Recap

Post date: May 13, 2014 3:22:11 PM

by Nadia Jaber

Last week the Graduate Career Association hosted a Biotech Entrepreneur Panel to give students the opportunity to learn about entrepreneurship and the challenges of starting a company. The panel included Cynthia Bristow, MS PhD, CEO of Alpha-1 Biologics; John Robert Coleman, PhD, of Codagenix; Lolahan Kadiri, PhD, of Certerra; and Adi Zaltsman, PhD, of Plant Genetic Engineering. While the main focus of the discussions was biotech startups, the panelists also offered some great advice that any graduate student should heed. We’ve compiled a list of the most salient points:

1. Make sure you are 100% committed. Every single panel member stressed the intense work demands of a startup: it’s a 24/7/365 type of job that will require lots of sacrifices (from you and your loved ones). You will never sleep, they said. You absolutely must consider this before you decide that entrepreneurship is for you.

2. You don’t need business experience, but it helps to have some knowledge. With the exception of John Robert Coleman, who earned his MBA while completing a post-doc, none of the other panelists had previous experience in the business world. “My business experience was zero. I couldn’t sell Girl Scout Cookies to my own grandma” said Cynthia Bristow. But once she learned what a business plan was, it changed her world. While it is a learn-as-you-go process, finding an experienced mentor can help tremendously. It’s also as important to learn from other people’s failures as it is to learn from their successes: take notes on other company’s business strategies, and if they crash and burn, you’ll know exactly what to avoid.

3. Believe in your technology. “If you don’t understand the value of your technology, no one will” said Adi Zaltsman. An integral aspect of a startup is pitching your business idea to investors. If you don’t fully understand your product or why it is important for society, you won’t be able to communicate this, and investors won’t be interested.

4. You need to be able to accept negative criticism. Each panel member agreed that having a “thick skin” is an essential personality trait for entrepreneurship. Part of starting a business means experiencing lots of failures. The panelists recommended taking these failures in stride, and of course, learning from your mistakes.

5. Startups prefer flexibility over experience. John Robert Coleman of Codagenix revealed that his company recently searched for a new hire. Between two experienced industry scientists and a freshly graduated PhD, they choose the new PhD. Why? Because they wanted someone who would be more flexible and willing to learn instead of someone who had been trained and set in their ways.

6. Don’t wait! When asked what advice the panelists had for young entrepreneurs, most agreed that they wish they had started their business sooner. Many of us are familiar with the fears of leaving academia, but the panelists described the excitement and fulfillment they get from building a startup. If you are sure that being an entrepreneur is for you, don’t delay your goals.

7. Doing a post-doc is not necessary, maybe. When asked if a post-doc was a requirement for entrepreneurship, most of the panelists shrugged and said “not really”. If you decide to do one, however, they suggest making sure it aligns with your end goals. If you already have a technology idea that you want to turn into a business, do a post-doc in a related area. Lolahan Kadiri of Certerra knew she wanted to be an entrepreneur, so she made that clear to her post-doc advisor. Then, when a business opportunity emerged, her advisor knew just who to ask to join in. While a post-doc probably isn’t necessary, Adi Zaltsman suggests doing one anyway, because it will give you more options to fall back on. Keep a back-up plan in your mind in case your business doesn’t take off.

8. Re-work your resume. Take a look at other people’s resumes; now make yours look completely different. The panelists explained that when looking through a pile of monotonous resumes, the one that stands out is going to be the one they remember best. John Robert Coleman also suggests putting an “objective” or “purpose” sentence directly underneath your name. This one-liner should briefly describe who you are and what you’re all about. It will humanize your resume, making it much more personal and memorable.

9. Be authentic. Cynthia Bristow recounted a personal story about deciding whether or not to down-play her Southern accent, blonde hair and bubbly personality while giving a lecture to the top researchers in her field. She realized that trying to be someone she’s not would be much worse than embracing who she is. Use your unique traits to your advantage, and remember that you won’t get very far pretending to be something you’re not.