If you had told me last year that today I would be running the offices of Accelerator Corporation—at least for one morning while everyone is out of town—I would have probably sniffed in disdain, tossed my hair, and shuffled back to my post-doc lab bench, a free donut in one hand (magic vendor food) and a stack of cell culture dishes in the other. What you would not have seen is my furious Googling efforts to figure out what the heck your futuristic apparition was talking about. Accelerator wha? Venture capital who? Ah, Biotech. I don’t know about that. Like when Nancy Reagan admonished me to stay off drugs in junior high, my scientific training in academia had left me with the same feelings about Biotech. I felt an illicit curiosity about this dangerous thing stamped as “Business.”
Heresy of the highest order, I inherited the prejudice that biotech and Big Pharma were outposts for sell-outs or worse yet, the incompetents in science. Want your Ph.D. thesis committee to fail you? Mention your interest in business. In late night conversations, hushed tones over cold pizza, (next to the ultra centrifuge in the basement autoclave room), I speculated about what biotech might be like. “They make money? They drive cars younger than they are? How illicit! How exciting!” I had the naïve view that biotech and the business of science were havens for everyone who didn’t want to be an academic. I have discovered I was dead wrong. The scientists of biotech are adrenaline junkies who are just as brilliant and zany as any academician.
Since I’m writing this, one can assume that I did indeed finish my post-doctoral training and switched into business. During the worst financial crisis in 80 years. To the riskiest game on the block (venture capital). Like my desire to study stem cells during the Bush Administration, we’ll just file this one under “it seemed like a good idea at the time.”
In February of this year, I started my new vocation as the intern at Seattle-based Accelerator, a venture-backed incubator for biotech startups. For the record, Accelerator has no internship program. It reviews hundreds of business plans every year, and has a track record of forming three of the most promising companies in Seattle biotech of the past five years—VLST, Allozyne, and Theraclone Sciences—who have gone on to raise more than $100 million combined.
There is clue one: I am as lucky as Charlie Bucket and the Golden Ticket. In my six months at Accelerator, I have seen more scientists like me interested in transitioning to business than I ever thought possible. And I have learned that it is a very difficult transition to make, both in practice and in intellect.
Fast forward back to today. This morning I have answered the phones and doors, taken all shipments for three companies, dropped a transferred call twice on a very forgiving CEO, attempted to find the keys to a rental car in Pennsylvania, built a spreadsheet with all therapeutic antibodies originated in phage display, made three appointments to network for an upcoming trip to Tokyo, scouted technology on two university websites, edited an investment presentation, considered the effect of “Lehman Shock” on global investment liquidity, and prepared to meet a man who developed one of the top 20 drugs in the world.
When I envisioned life in venture capital, I wanted a challenging, fast-paced environment rife with new ideas requiring ultimate intellectual adaptability. And I found it indeed. And there is more to the story than high volume and brain-twisting challenges. Business requires soft skills—not something I personally felt I had to cultivate as a peccadillo-ridden, quirky geek. Fast and loose lab meetings with colleagues arguing the didactic issue of the day have been replaced with comparatively glacial, civilized business meetings—that is, to the untrained eye. I have begun to notice that from the nervous shuffling of papers to the ‘bad smell’ scrunching of my nose, I must work to control my ‘tells’ and harness my reactive nature. If I learn to listen and observe very carefully, there is a lot going on.
This was the very topic of my first meeting as member of Class 14 of the Kauffman Fellows program at the Kauffman Center for Venture Education. For someone as green as I am, I think of the Kauffman Fellows two-year program as immersion studies in the language of venture capital. My first, three-day intensive class session left me with a head full of new ideas – from what makes the ideal CEO to how many times per minute I blink – as well as 27 new friends across the globe, from South America to Ireland. Perhaps divulging their devious and brilliant social engineering skills, the Center for Venture Education selected 27 highly educated and extremely competitive people to study together. Far from killing each other, as one might expect, we ended up giddy as first-graders released from the bonds of nap time, committed to championing the cause of Innovation and the Entrepreneur.
You see that? I just dropped a few business-type words. I wouldn’t have used those words a year ago, and probably would have raised an eyebrow at someone who did. I guess you could track my transitions best by looking at my kitchen language. At first I asked for a “cup” of sugar. Then, as a scientist, I asked for an “aliquot” of sugar. And just last week I asked my husband to “deploy a cup of sugar, arguing a greater return on investment as regards cake sweetness.”
The upside: an entirely new world of interesting people. The downside: hosiery.
So this is my first report and I welcome new friends and new ideas (and some requisite hazing that comes with being the new kid on the block).
While my academic friends still take my calls, I must admit there is a palpable difference when I visit the laboratory. I no longer feel the compulsion to run to the lab bench, no longer compulsively dive in to the detailed intricacies of lab scientific conversations. Or perhaps I simply can’t hear them over the jangle of filthy lucre in my pocket. So far, so good and no regrets…but I’ll keep you updated.
“Welcome to the Dark Side…”
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