Monday, June 7, 2010

The New Talent Pool

A couple of weeks ago I was invited by a group of bioscience graduate students at The University of Washington in Seattle to give a talk on making the transition from academia to industry. It's an interesting organization - a group of UW grad students across a number of bioscience disciplines who are exploring careers outside of traditional academic roles. They receive funding from a number of academic departments and bring in folks like me who have made the transition to talk about their learnings and (hopefully) provide some insights. If you have an hour to kill, you can watch the video, although the audio is pretty bad, especially at the beginning, and until the end, it's just video of my slides. Very exciting.

Prior to the talk I was meeting with Anson Fatland of the Allen Family Foundation who asked me why I agreed to schlep across the country for a 45 minute talk. I responded that I believe the children are our future. Seriously, though, these folks are the VP R&Ds, CSOs, CTOs and for some, CEOs of the next wave of bioscience companies. I'm happy to make the investment. I only hope they took away some pearls of wisdom...

At one point, it was evident that the whole investment world was largely unknown to most of the young people in the room. I wish I had this link the week before; Rob Day at Black Coral Capital, an alternative energy / cleantech investment firm, just posted a nice article on his Cleantech Investing blog that would have been helpful. It wasn't the main focus, but it gives the uninitiated a few good handles with which to figure out a little bit about how venture capital works. By the way, If you're into green/clean, it's a great blog and you can sign up for the feed (although I must say I find the GreentechMedia site impossible to navigate - at least in IE8).

Another group focused on cultivating talent is PropelCareers, whose goal is to connect employers with academic talent. They've already had some great success connecting companies and interns, some of whom have turned into FTEs at the companies where they interned.

I guess I've always tended to see the long term picture better than the here and now. Most retained recruiters wouldn't bother spending time cultivating such early stage talent, but I see it as an investment. And I fully recognize that I'm helping current and future competitors of mine, but I believe there's enough work out there for everyone, and we'll get our share.

When I was a lot younger (when emails were produced using line editors), I belonged to “The Young Scientists’ Network,” which was an Internet-based group that in effect, was a group whine about how tough it was to find meaningful employment with a PhD. There were huge debates about which side of the fence had greener grass, but for the most part, we thought rather poorly of industry. Years later, as Director of BD at Athena Diagnostics, I was galled every year at the Academy of Neurology annual meetings when a particular immunologist used to make disparaging public comments about our technical acumen. These comments came from an academic who likely had his lunch in the same fridge he kept research samples in. We consistently had the highest possible ratings from organizations like the American College of Medical Genetics, the College of American Pathologists, CLIAC, NYSDOH and more. What happens when he made a mistake in an assay? He ran the experiment again. What happens if we made a mistake? We give a doctor and patient an incorrect diagnosis; we couldn't allow it. The stakes were much higher on our side of the fence, and there’s a big difference between running an assay in an academic lab and making a commercially viable, bulletproof diagnostic assay. Most PhD candidates and post-docs simply don’t recognize that critical difference until they get a peek behind the curtain. There are data to support this. At this year’s MassBio annual meeting, a young post-doc presented a poster showing significant changes in perception about industry employment after spending a day at a biotech company. The work was supported by MassBio, and won top honors at the annual meeting of the National Postdoctoral Association. The abstract is available as a .pdf here (link to the annual meeting program book and search for "MGH"). It is important to continue to show these bright young minds that there is true purpose in taking discoveries that would otherwise sit on a shelf in a dusty corner of an academic lab and transforming them into commercial products that can help patients.

Aaahhh, it’s so touching watching them grow up.

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