So, You Want to Join a Life Science Startup?

Why You Should Consider Workplace Culture Before Taking the Leap

The startup mythology has its origins in the tales of geniuses like Walt Disney, Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos’ going from small California garages to world domination. And the startup mystique became part of popular culture with Silicon Valley companies like Google and others creating workplace cultures where employees skateboarded down hallways, enjoyed yoga and meditation sessions onsite, and blew off steam with breaks at the company-provided vintage arcade and craft coffee bar.

These startup stereotypes bely a stark reality, however: Most startups are risky and operate on tighter budgets until they survive long enough to mature and raise ample funding.

If you get in at the right inflection point, the spoils of joining a startup can be life-changing. Regardless, leaving an established life science company for a bioscience startup is a tough decision defined by the high-risk, high-reward nature of these fledgling companies fighting to win funding and bring its product to the market.

For those in the early stages of their life science career, joining a bioscience startup could be a no brainer—there’s likely a lot less risk and so much more to gain. For the less experienced, stock options are not the only potential windfall; startup culture will likely furnish development opportunities to less-experienced workers not readily available to them in larger, established biotech or big pharma organizations.

It’s a far different scenario for senior manager, director, executive and c-suite veterans that have far more risk to consider when assessing if a startup opportunity is right for them.

Ashley Nash is the Director of Recruiting and Talent Engagement for Workforce Genetics, a recruiting and employer brand consulting firm that works with startup and growth-stage biotech companies.  Her advice to candidates considering joining a startup is to do your own research, know what your long-term and short-term goals are, and know your risk tolerance ahead of time.  “Before joining a startup, or any company for that matter, do a little soul-searching to figure out whether the job is right for you,” she elaborated. “Think about the culture and how well it aligns with your values, how strongly you believe in the science and its market potential, and ask about the financials.”

When it comes to life science startups, taking a smart, calculated risk is the best you can hope for before taking the leap into the unknown. There are many factors to consider, including the science behind the startup, it’s funding, the leadership team, investors and overall network and support ecosystem.  You also need to evaluate the compensation package, which is often on the lower end, but often includes stock options that have the potential to yield life-altering returns.

What’s sometimes overlooked by those weighing an offer from a startup is its culture. 

Not all startup cultures are the same, but they are sure to be markedly different than what you’ll find in big pharma and larger bioscience companies. Where a stronger process, established governance and relatively predictable work hours might be the norm at a larger biotech company, startup culture might be driven by a lack of initial processes in place, thinner governance structures and unpredictable work schedules that are designed to facilitate innovation, maintain velocity and promote agility.

Often, a startup’s culture will reflect the vision of the founder and/or CEO. The smaller the startup, the more likely its culture will be heavily influenced by a leader’s personality, values, and vision. As companies grow and mature, the initial startup culture will evolve as it is influenced by myriad factors not present when the company was in its infancy.

Experienced industry professionals weighing a startup offer sometimes neglect culture as part of their due diligence. Determining if a startup’s culture is the right fit starts by asking the right questions and researching leadership’s values and approach to doing business. All startups deal with high levels of ambiguity; that’s the nature of the beast. However, each startup culture will handle operating in the startup world differently.

You want to find the culture that best fits your style, and, perhaps more importantly, how you are willing to invest your time into the company’s success.

For example, two different but equally successful approaches to startup culture were expressed at BioBuzz’s final CEO Talks event of 2019.

Dr. Murat Kalayoglu, serial entrepreneur and CEO at Cartesian Therapeutics, values a startup culture and team driven by the mission: “With Cartesian, I’ve found it particularly difficult to motivate folks that look at careers not as a mission but more as a job. You can’t know that until a person starts working with you…Different people look at work differently. To build a culture based on mission is a real challenge and something I work at every day. The upside of getting people to look at their careers as a mission is enormous.”

“It’s an approach to life and a relationship to work that is very much immersive where it’s okay to do work at 10 pm…where the lines between your personal and work life are completely blurred and you’re okay with it. That kind of attitude is critical. People who try to put a line between the weekend and weekday, day and night, they tend to struggle; not that they can’t do a good job, but long-term it grinds at them and it might be better to go to a bigger company that’s more established,” he added.

Matt Mulvey, BeneVir CEO at The Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies of Johnson & Johnson, had a completely different take on startup culture. When BeneVir was in its startup phase, Mulvey emphasized planning and execution: “I look for people who have track records of success. I look for people that have good publication records and that have clearly demonstrated the ability to go from concept through to execution and completion.”

“The way we structured our operations was with a very clear plan. We conceptualized the exit and built the plan from that endpoint. We hired people for different modules of that plan. And we were very clear with people that we wanted them to work 9 to 5 and have the balanced life they need to make it over the long haul. Our plan was seven years. You can’t be a sprinter you have to be able to go the full 26 miles,” he added.

Greg Merril, Adaptive Phage Therapeutics (APT) CEO, builds his company culture with an approach that is somewhat in the middle and has his own recipe for what makes the right hire. “I look for people with passion.  It’s critical to find the right people and build a team that is passionate about the mission,” Merril shares.

APT is not a research-based company. They are doing clinical trials to get FDA approval and take their technology to market, but not early R&D.  “Scientists who come out of an academic environment love research, but at some point, you have to put your pencil down and take that one idea and push it all the way through. They often want to explore new things or ideas, but that’s not going to get you down the road and that’s not the type of people we hire,” Merril described. “It’s a different mindset here than at some other (biotech) companies.  Employees here need to understand the mission and work towards it every day.”

Three very different views of culture from three very successful, prominent entrepreneurs. The question is not which approach is right or wrong, but rather which of these cultures (or perhaps another that lies somewhere in between) is the best fit for you, an experienced life science professional looking to make a smart decision.

Of course, culture is not the only factor to look at when assessing whether or not a startup is a match for you. Where the company spun out of, the quality and experience of the leadership team, the depth and quality of its pipeline, its access to capital and investor network, its commercialization strategy, the learning and career growth potential you could have there, your compensation and benefits, and the company’s exit strategy are critical data points that you need to take into account.

That said, one can make the argument that strong employee alignment around workplace culture, brand values and expectations is a major driver of startup success. Similarly, veteran life science professionals that join a startup where there is a culture match are more likely to succeed than not.

“There is a reason that investors put so much weight behind the importance of people and good leadership at a startup.  The culture of a company can make a big difference in its ultimate success or failure so it should be one of your top factors when considering joining the company,” shared Nash.

Life science startups all believe in their respective missions and strive to achieve them, but the culture and environment in which the work is done can be vastly different. Find the startup culture that is right for you, and if the risk-reward landscape looks promising, take the leap—it could be the best decision you ever make.    

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