Thursday night I had the opportunity to interact with 12 fresh-faced scientists. I guest lectured at the University of San Francisco’s Master’s degree program for Professor Jennifer Denver’s class in Molecular Medicine. Not long after the lecture, I found myself at a fund-raiser for the Pruess School, speaking with 2 UCSD undergrads majoring in biology and chemistry. In both these circumstances, the question on the many minds was – what comes next? Grad school? job in biotech or pharma? something else?
Over the years I’ve seen friends and colleagues from my undergrad, grad school and later days in science go down many different roads – med school, grad school, professorships, teaching, big pharma, start-ups, government research programs, science writing, and also into the business world from VCs to Bus Dev for biotech. When I look back to undergrad and early grad school days, many of these possibilities were not within sight. For some reasons, the straight and narrow – undergrad, grad school, post doc, academic professorship – seemed to be the only visible path forward. Now the scene is much different.
I have met many students at all levels as they leave the university and head out to many different opportunities. In the Bay Area, the start-up option ranks pretty high. So, I ask, are the programs providing the foundation for the fledgling flights?
I can’t answer this one, it’s been too long since I’ve had a good look at graduate program offerings. I was surprised by my informal survey of the students Thursday night. Almost all were learning to code. Bioinformatics is a required course for the program. Much different than my days in grad school! But it sure makes sense in this environment where analysis of big data and the ability to rein it in to your advantage has crept into more and more areas of R&D.
What I do wonder is whether the training develops the grit in these students required to take an idea from its early ah-ha moment down the long and often arduous path to product. It’s not an easy journey and certainly not one without risks.
Maybe this grit aspect comes to me as I again reflect back on the fundraiser for the Preuss School. This is a high school that focuses on low income students who strive to become the first in their families to graduate from college. I have been involved with the school for a number of years and one trait I see in its students is grit. Many of them have come from challenging circumstances. Yet they see opportunity, grab on, put in years of effort and go forward.
Can we say the same for start-up founders coming from the university programs? Some for sure. I have seen founders dedicated to a mission, a treatment for a devastating cancer, a solution to the scarcity of organs for transplantation, working with intense dedication. But I have seen a flip side too. Some seem to look at the start-up world a bit like flipping houses – starting a company in the hope that it will get bought quickly – and if that doesn’t come to pass, they move onto the next thing, leaving the earlier idea behind in the dust. Perhaps this is just a form of natural selection at work for finding who has the grit that it takes. Because looking at the number of years, the funding required, the ups and downs of research, the challenges of going from a research idea to something that succeeds in the clinic or as a viable product is a long road!
My advice to scientists at the beginning of your career – look for your strengths and also what makes you excited. I say excited, not happy, because science will always have its ups and downs. If you are truly attached to your project, you are likely to go up and down with it. But if it still excites you, still motivates, you can push through the down times and strive towards that ultimate goal. And think broadly, there’s plenty of time to try things out, whether that be a larger more established pharma or med device company, joining a new start-up and seeing if it’s a fit for you, or considering the many other options where your science degree can bring value.
It’s a long road and it doesn’t have to be a straight one.