Have you got what life science start-ups are looking for?

My first job was as a Production Biochemist at Collaborative Research (now part of BD Biosciences). Having no practical experience in protein purification, other than in my college courses, I was delighted to learn the protocols for transforming a mush of homogenized mouse submaxillary glands into vials of epithelial growth factor used by researchers all over the world to help cure cancer. After about a year, I asked my boss “So, why did you hire me?” He answered something like you went to a good college and you come across as a quick learner. He never checked my GPA or other achievements, but seemed to value my ability to jump right in. Although my GPA is arguably also a measure of my ability to learn, employers are often looking for more.

Last month, Thomas Friedman wrote an editorial in the New York Times called “How to get a job at Google”. Most of what he writes about mirrors what early-stage life science companies are looking for in my opinion. So what are the top traits they’re after?

Learning ability: In the context of fast-moving companies, this is your ability to “process on the fly” and integrate divergent information and perspectives in an effective way.

Leadership: Are you focused on what is the best way to solve a problem? Can you take charge when required, but also able to step back when necessary? This is not necessarily a measure of how well you can lead armies, but your ability to have conviction in your contributions and ideas.

Intellectual humility: You should be able to create opportunity for others to contribute; to have an open mind for ideas from others; and to assimilate multiple points of view to create the best end product.

Ownership: This is your ability to take responsibility for making sure things get done right and on time, even if it is not your direct responsibility. The best start-up companies are often made up of small teams with individuals that represent different skills but who all have strong ownership for the deliverables.

Expertise: Interestingly, this is the least important skill at Google. They believe that if you hire someone who has “high cognitive ability, is innately curious, willing to learn and has emergent leadership skills” they can come up to speed very quickly and often can contribute new ideas. The idea is to avoid a situation where people are stuck doing repetitive piecemeal work. I like that idea but in my opinion expertise is high on the priority list for life science ventures. Although many jobs (in even the most fast-paced Life Sciences companies) are not immune from monotony at times, building teams with people of varying levels of expertise to maximize creative thinking and synergy is important.

All in all, it’s a quick read and good fodder for self refection.

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