Impact in More Ways Than One: Tony Coles on The Long Run Podcast

I’m happy to introduce the latest guest on The Long Run podcast — Tony Coles.

Tony Coles, co-founder and CEO, Yumanity Therapeutics

He is the co-founder and CEO of Yumanity Therapeutics, a Cambridge, Mass.-based company doing drug discovery work against neurodegenerative diseases. That means Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease).

This is a fascinating time to be focused on neurodegenerative diseases. The biology of these diseases is still in its infancy. The pharmaceutical industry has spent — and continues to spend – a ton of money pursuing a narrow set of hypotheses, particularly with Alzheimer’s disease. It hasn’t worked out well.

This is a time for fresh thinking in R&D. Coles and his team are taking a fresh approach to the science, and to drug development strategy.

There’s also much more to Tony Coles than what he does in his day job at Yumanity.

Coles happens to be an African-American executive in an industry that doesn’t have many African Americans in leadership.

We’ve known each other since 2011. At the time, he was CEO of Onyx Pharmaceuticals, and that company developed a couple of important cancer drugs. I wrote a magazine-style profile about him, asking about everything from his childhood upbringing, to his decision to become a physician, to his various career moves in industry.

His life experience is quite different than mine and most listeners of this show. One example – when he was 8 years old, attending elementary school in Washington DC, Martin Luther King was assassinated. He remembers being sent home from school for his own safety, as officials were fearful of riots. “There was a tremendous sense of loss,” Coles told me in that 2011 interview. “I wondered, how could this happen?”

Coles struck me then – and continues to today — as an exceptionally thoughtful person. He wonders about the how and why of the world. You can see it in the rich variety of boards he chooses to serve on – Johns Hopkins University, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture The Metropolitan Museum of Art; the Council on Foreign Relations, and as a member on the Harvard Medical School Advisory Board.

Many people saw his strength as a leader last August. At the time, Merck CEO Ken Frazier, also an African American, resigned from a Presidential panel of business leaders, after the president’s equivocating response to the hate speech and violence that erupted that month in Charlottesville, Virginia. Coles stood up for Frazier, writing in a STAT op-ed about his “moral leadership.” Coles wrote: “There are not “many sides” to what happened in Charlottesville. There are only two: justice and the fact that all men and women are created equal on one side, hatred and bigotry on the other.”

Biotech is an industry with a mission to improve human health. That means everyone’s health. But for biotech to live up to that promise, it’s important to pay attention to underserved groups, and to try to understand what it’s like to walk in another person’s shoes. I tried to take a few steps with Coles in the latter half of this show. I hope it helps encourage others in this industry to keep the conversation going.


So You Want To Get Into Biotech…Part 2: Banana Peel? What Banana Peel?

Although learning more about the many ways in which one can get an interview and first job in biotech and pharma helps, that’s not where it ends. Everyone I know in biopharma has stories of dealing with co-workers who just didn’t get what the industry is about, in the interview or during those pivotal first years. This despite a system that generally tries to help you succeed once you get in the door.

Photo of TR Contributor Kyle Serikawa

Kyle Serikawa

Understand: hiring takes a huge amount of time and resources; interviews and evaluations alone can take up dozens of hours of the hiring manager’s and human resources’ time. Opening a position is rarely done lightly. A full time equivalent (FTE) position represents a clear decision that a person is needed for the long term. The team on the company side has a strong interest in helping a new candidate interview well and, if hired, succeed. But still. Mistakes happen.

As I did with useful industry skills, I asked my colleagues about common missteps they had seen, either in the interview process or while a scientist made the transition to industry. Several themes stood out:

Key problem behaviors when interviewing and starting a jobNumber who highlighted (N=26)
Not learning and networking19
Ignoring the strategic way in which your project fits in the bigger picture with respect to the critical path13
Trying to go it alone and ignoring teamwork13
Not knowing and learning about the company11
Showing inflexibility10
Ignoring the nuances of the specific environment you’re in–academia versus industry and big versus little companies8
Trying too hard to impress6
Wasting growth/change opportunities6
Taking the path of least resistance rather than the job you really want6
Not presenting your work5
Missing out on mentors4
Telling people industry is your fallback position4
Not keeping your eyes open3


What a minefield! But fear not, forewarned is forearmed, so here’s a closer look on what people have observed so you can avoid these problems.

Chris Larson

When applying, networking is hugely important. Chris Larson, Vice President of Drug Discovery at the Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute, felt applicants often don’t quite grasp how to apply to industry. “…most people still rely too much on simply applying for ads, and…confuse the ease of online applications with this route being effective. In my career, when I have posted a job ad, I have generally gotten many hundreds of applications, and several times have received more than one thousand. Applicants need to have a strategy for how they are going to get to being among the 10 out of 1000 that are paid attention to.”

“Never be afraid to ask for introductions,” said Sam Blackman, Senior Vice President at Silverback Therapeutics. “New positions are often considered and…internal candidates or referrals are screened first before the positions are publicly posted.” A Senior Scientist at a small private biotech company agrees: “I hate doing it, but networking has helped increase my visibility as an applicant for maybe half of the jobs I’ve held. Even if the referring person is a friend-of-a-friend who doesn’t know you directly, it’s still helpful to some degree.”

Irena Ivanovsca

Irena Ivanovska, Director at Celdara Medical, LLC, suggested a specific approach. “Tap into the network you already have – did any professors, postdocs or grad students from your PhD or postdoc institution transition to industry? Often, departments have ‘alternative’ career symposia when alumni share their experience – those are probably the best people to reach out to.” This approach was echoed by Laura Strong, Founder and CEO of Propagate Health. “People often want to work with people they already know – a known quantity. That means they are often reaching out to recruit colleagues as soon as they know a position might be opening up. Keeping your former classmates up to date on what you are doing and whether you are looking is an important and relatively low intensity way to network.”

Another element is preparation. Strong described it this way. “Getting a job is essentially a research project similar to your thesis. You need to learn about the different kinds of businesses in the biopharma industry and then about the different jobs that exist depending on stage and scale of the company and the products.” Chris Winrow, Senior Principal Investigator at Ironwood Pharmaceuticals, had similar thoughts. “It’s actually stunning to see people who come in for an interview with fantastic resumes but don’t know very much about the company or the position for which they’re applying. There have been times where I’ve asked: ‘So, what’s one thing in the pipeline that most excites you’ and they have no idea and may not even be able to name one of the drugs the company manufactures and sells.”

Stewart Lyman, owner and manager of Lyman Biopharma Consulting, also found this perplexing. “When I used to interview job candidates I would ask them if they knew which drugs Immunex made (easy question: we only had one marketed drug). I was shocked at how many people had done what appeared to be zero research on the company and could not answer that question.” Jim Watters, Vice President of Biology at Relay Therapeutics had some additional tips. “The vast majority of applications are more like form letters, where it is clear that the applicant has not taken the time to learn about the company and the opportunity they are applying for. Applicants should take the time to really learn about the company they are applying to — what makes it different? What are the core values? What are some important events that have happened recently? Before the interview, the applicant should take the time to learn about the people they will be interviewing with. Ask questions that are tailored to each person’s background.”

Cathy Thut

One last thing about interviewing: don’t present yourself as looking at industry as a fallback. “A common mistake new scientists coming from straight from a post-doc make is telling interviewers that they are looking for an industry position because they don’t think they’ll be able to find an academic position,” said Cathy Thut, Executive Director BD&L, Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research. 

Once a scientist is in the door, pitfalls still await. Many of the people interviewed for this piece emphasized just what a learning and growth opportunity biotech and pharma can be, and how sometimes new scientists don’t seem to realize this or take advantage of the environment. At my first biopharma job, my supervisor told me within the first week that there were a vast number of opportunities for learning and growth inside and outside of research at the company, and that biotech and pharma companies are somewhat unique in having the ability to transition among and between functions. Joe Wahle, Director of Immunology at Verseau Therapeutics had this to say. “(Biotech and pharma) is so much more than just working at the bench and generating data. The pharma industry is where business and science collide to sometimes hilarious results. (While) this can be seen as an impediment, for those with an entrepreneurial spirit this means there are a wealth of opportunities beyond just the bench. If this is a path you are interested in, explore them all and use your strengths to your advantage.”

Johnna Wesley, Associate Director at Novo Nordisk, also sees the environment as hugely helpful for growth. “(New scientists) still have so very much to learn…the diversity of knowledge and technical skills around you will be extensive. Take advantage of this and learn from your colleagues — listen to their input and ask questions. The technicians you work with will often be some of the best and they can likely do an assay better than you — accept it. Also, there are a lot of excellent scientists that don’t have a Ph.D. in industry. You can learn a lot from them.”

“Seek to understand all the types of science conducted in biopharma,” advised Bill Arthur, Director of Target Validation, Research & Development at Seattle Genetics. “Many (new scientists) focus on opportunities in the early pipeline or discovery research. However, there are many fulfilling and impactful career paths in translational sciences, process development, and other functional areas.”

Another pitfall for new scientists is the tendency to view their work through an individual lens and not taking a team-based approach. Chris Ramsborg, Vice President of Technology Strategy & Innovation at Juno Therapeutics, see this firsthand. “In my current role, I am building teams to develop very complex biological products. These products are beyond the ability of single person or department to fully understand. In this environment, overconfidence in one’s narrow area of expertise can lead to suboptimal decision making and team dynamics.” Wesley added, “(you should not have) the belief that you are solely responsible for the success/failure of a project. You’re not a post-doc anymore, you’re part of a team and multiple people are responsible for the project success or closure. You depend on many and many depend on you.”

“I’ve seen scientists transitioning to industry from academia struggle with the teamwork mentality,” said Jennifer Cox, Assistant Director of Biology at Inception Biosciences. “I am currently on a project team where we make decisions together, we have successes together, and we have failures together. There has never once been blame for making a wrong decision because we are all accountable on the team.”

And, possibly more than in academia, flexibility is valuable. Science as a business is fast-moving and initiatives can change quickly, even if the science is going well. “It is…helpful to demonstrate flexibility in the types of research you can perform and/or are interested in performing because you don’t have as much control over the selection of projects you will work on as you do in academia,” commented Thut.

On a practical level, “don’t be afraid of job insecurity – yes, restructurings will happen, projects/departments/sites will close, and the first one (or few) will be painful, but you’ll get over it,” said Ivanovska.

Related to this is that industry focuses on results and the critical path to a product, something that can be jarring to academic scientists accustomed to following where the science leads. “One of the things that distinguishes a good industry scientist from one struggling to make the change is that good industry scientists (clinical or research) are problem/solution oriented,” said Blackman.

“It’s easy as a scientist to fall into the trap of answering questions for science’s sake,” agreed Wahle. “Although that is a noble and fun pursuit, companies need to make drugs, and those drugs need to make a real difference in people’s lives. Figuring out how to drive towards that while still employing deep scientific rigor will take a person far.”

And once you’re there—relax. Trying too hard to impress can sometimes backfire. “Everyone in industry has been in academia – so don’t get overwhelmed about making the transition to industry – it has been done many times before,” said Ivanovska. Sonya Franklin, Director of Global Regulatory Sciences at Monsanto, recalled her response when new scientists want to move to a level for which they’re not quite ready. “When someone comes to me and says, ‘Give me a team and I’ll lead,’ I respond, ‘No, lead, and I’ll give you a team.’” In her experience at times new scientists can try to do too much before understanding the lay of the land.

New tools can help with learning, making connections, and getting your name out there.

Ethan Perlstein, CEO and Founder of Perlara PBC favors Twitter. “Hands down the most effective (and enjoyable) networking I do is on Twitter. I usually engage with folks online in a targeted manner first and then we meet in person to reinforce our mutual interests, or to explore potential collaborations or business opportunities. Without Twitter I don’t see how Perlara would have ever progressed beyond the idea stage.”

Jeffrey Reid

Jeff Reid, Executive Director of Genome Informatics at the Regeneron Genome Center, agrees. “Use Twitter as a platform for science communication and collaboration. In some ways Twitter is the ideal network-building tool for young scientists because it is a great equalizer in that it enables anyone to participate in the key scientific discussions that are propelling the field forward.”

Industry newsletters can help. “I have been advised to ‘follow the money’ – i.e. if you read (in FierceBiotech [or the Timmerman Report! Ed.], for example) that a company just closed a multi-million dollar financing, they are like to be hiring in the near future,” said Ivanoska. Cox agreed: “Anyone interested in a career in biopharma should be reading the industry headlines daily.”

Last, whether in your initial job or as you learn more about the industry, know yourself and keep working toward the job that fits best for you. “Develop a vision for what you want to do. It’s ok if it changes over time, but start with a goal in mind and try and steer your work, in any way you can, to prepare for that,” said Jared Odegaard, Senior Research Scientist at Gilead Sciences. Stewart Lyman, a consultant, agreed: “Be open to many possibilities, and take the job you want, not the job that others think you should take. Remember, if you take a job because someone else thinks you should, that person will not be taking your place if it doesn’t work out. It’s your life and your decision; you must find your own path.”


So You Want To Get Into Biotech…Part 1: Many Stories, Many Paths

When I’m contacted by young scientists finishing up their postdocs or PhDs, far and away the questions I hear most are about the biotech and pharma industries. How do scientists break in, exactly?

Photo of TR Contributor Kyle Serikawa

Kyle Serikawa

There’s a lot of interest out there—not simply as an alternative to academia but as a primary goal for bright people wanting to make a tangible difference to human health. And while I have some general advice to give based on my own experience at small and large companies in Seattle, I’m also a big fan of crowdsourcing and diversity of experience. I reached out to several colleagues across organizations and compiled their responses to several questions. In this and a companion piece I’ll be sharing their thoughts and experiences, and looking for trends.

The first question I asked was “What was your first position in biopharma and how did you get it (that is, were there specific experiences, research expertise, or other factors that helped you)?”

Below are excerpts from each person’s experiences (edited lightly for clarity) and some general themes.

Theme 1: Sometimes cold-applying to advertised positions works! But persistence helps…

“My first position was at Dendreon…I applied online and went through the whole interview process. I was originally told that they’d decided to go with another candidate. A few weeks later, I noticed that the position…was still up on the company’s job site and (I) emailed the hiring manager. I said that I noticed the job was still posted and knew from the interview that the team had a great deal of work to do and not enough people and deadlines were approaching, so, I volunteered to work as a limited term employee to help the team out while they looked for the right candidate…I met the hiring manager for coffee the day I sent the email and he offered me the position. Basically, I was persistent and took a chance…and it worked!” – Dr. Johnna Wesley, Associate Director, Novo Nordisk.

“My first position coming out of an academic postdoc was at startup Immune Design, just after their announcement of Series A financing. The job description lined up reasonably well with my experience, which was in in vivo animal models at the time. I was excited to apply for the position, which turned out to be a good fit.” – Dr. Jared Odegaard, Senior Research Scientist, Gilead Sciences.

“My first job was as a scientist at Novo Nordisk. For me I think it was a case of the right skill set at the right time. My immunology base coupled with a deep knowledge of immuno-receptors fit the need of the company at the time. For me there was a lot of luck involved as I didn’t have a lot of connections to help me make first introductions.” – Dr. Joseph Wahle, Director of Immunology, Verseau Therapeutics.

Theme 2: …but more often networks and contacts can open doors.

“I totally got my (first) position through nepotism. My hiring manager knew me from graduate school. Also my expertise in autoimmune diseases and working with human samples made me a fit for the position.” – Dr. Philip Kong, Associate Director, Translational Medicine, Alector LLC.

“My first position in biopharma came in 2001 and was at a small (~ 25 – 50 employees) biotech called CEPTYR, which focused on drugging tyrosine phosphatases. I was brought in to lead the target validation group. I am quite certain that I got this position based on the fact that I knew both the founder (Nick Tonks) (and) the head of the Scientific Advisory Board (Ben Neel) quite well from my graduate school days…Nick and Ben both organized an annual meeting on tyrosine phosphorylation through Cold Spring Harbor…When it came time to apply for a position, I was already well-known to both Ben and Nick through years of attending and speaking at their meeting.” – Dr. Richard Klinghoffer, Chief Scientific Officer, Presage Biotherapeutics.

Ethan Perlstein, founder and CEO, Perlara

“My first position in biopharma was as an intern working at a small company called Sunol Molecular in my senior year of high school (1996-1997). My step-grandfather was Dr Ron Cape, the founder of Cetus. He was on the Board of Sunol and he opened the door for me to apply for an unpaid internship…Around that time emails were just beginning to appear in papers as a means of correspondence with the authors. An email exchange with Dr. Ron Germain at NIH led to multiple internships in Bethesda during the summers in college. You can draw a straight line from where I am today to my internship at Sunol over 20 years ago!” — Dr. Ethan Perlstein, Founder/CEO, Perlara PBC.

“My first position was Research Scientist in bioinformatics. Before I got it, I was working at the University of Washington as a research scientist but my position had limited prospects. I let my friends know I was looking for a job in the industry, and one of them gave my resume to a hiring manager who had difficulties finding someone for a position. It turns out I was a perfect fit, so he contacted me to ask me to apply for the position.” – Senior Scientist at a large agricultural biopharma.

“My first position was as an assay development scientist in a tiny start-up company on the opposite coast (from California)–I’m sure that my technical background was a strong factor in getting the position, but the fact that I used networking to get my resume seen probably helped a lot (I got in touch with a professor I had interviewed with for a postdoc, since this person knew one of the company’s founders and kindly submitted my resume to him).” –Senior Scientist at a small private biotech company.

Theme 3: Don’t forget serendipity.

“My first experience was atypical. I took a post-doc in a lab that was working on ways to make drug discovery more efficient. My boss set the vision for a technology and said we want to show a such and such a result…After some work, we showed that result to some consultants. Before the advisory meeting they said it wasn’t possible. But when I showed the results, they said “Stop everything and start a company.” So my first position in biopharma was when I joined that company…You could say it was being in the right place at the right time, or you can say it was by the hand of God.” – Senior Principal Scientist at a large biopharma company.

“I was a postdoc at the Salk Institute in San Diego, and I had the opportunity to work with Digital Genes Incorporated. That was a nice project to do some expression analysis in the early days of those types of technologies and it was a very small startup company and I got to see how a platform company functioned. So that was a good experience to understand, what’s important in building that type of a company and then from there…I joined a larger company in Merck.” – Dr. Chris Winrow, Senior Principal Investigator, Ironwood Pharmaceuticals.

Sam Blackman, SVP and head of clinical development, Silverback Therapeutics

“My first position was as an Associate Director in Experimental Medicine/Oncology at Merck. It’s a funny story about how I got it. I was a 3rd year pediatric oncology fellow…at Dana-Farber. The 2008 financial crisis was looming and my wife and I had just started a family, and I was worried that I wasn’t going to get a tenure-track position. So when a headhunter called to pitch a job at BMS to me, I figured, ‘What the hell.’ I knew nothing about what it meant to be a medical director in pharma…But I took a chance and went on an interview to BMS (and they) offered me a job, but before I took it I called Stephen Friend who was running the oncology franchise at Merck. He was a pediatric oncologist who trained at Dana-Farber and after talking he encouraged me to consider a position at Merck and facilitated the interview. It resulted in a job offer, which I accepted.”– Dr. Samuel Blackman, Senior Vice President, Silverback Therapeutics.

“I somewhat backed into it, so to say. I had studied using electronic devices to measure chemical species and learned that others were using similar devices (biosensors) to make measurements on biological samples. I became interested in biosensors and took a post-doc position with Paul Yager (now at the University of Washington) at the Naval Research Lab to work on a device to detect neurotoxins. From that position onward, I continued to work in measurement technologies in the biosciences” – Dr. Thomas Fare, Director Strategic Alliances, Planet Connect.

“My current role, head of genome informatics at the Regeneron Genetics Center, is my first biopharma job. I suspect I got it mostly by working in the right area (large-scale genome sequence production computing in the cloud) at the right time, but one thing that helped a lot was experience handling budgets, timelines, project planning, execution, and management from being at a large-scale sequencing center” – Dr. Jeffery Reid, Executive Director, Genome Informatics, Regeneron Genome Center.

“I never intended to be in industry…It just wasn’t on my radar. I was a tenured professor and you would think, ‘why on earth would you leave academia and go into industry after being in academia for the first many years of your life?’ For me, the push was that I was at that point where, although I loved my work…I also felt like my ability to learn and think and do interesting science was becoming more and more narrow, more myopic. So I was in a place where I was looking around…and I got a call from a recruiter, and he said, ‘Hey, there’s this really cool job doing protein structure-function work and design, are you interested?’ And I was like, ‘what the heck, here’s my CV.’ Then the call came, and I was so impressed by the quality of the science (at Monsanto), the breadth, that sense of ‘we need to get over there and figure it [the science] out!’ And so my first position was to move from a protein design and engineering and structure lab as a PI to leading a small protein sciences group.” – Dr Sonya Franklin, Director, Global Regulatory Sciences, Monsanto.

Theme 4: Specific skills and expertise help…

“My first job in biopharma was as a staff scientist at Immunex. I was hired (along with a number of others) because the company had struck a deal with Kodak to screen many of their photographic chemicals to see if any of them might be suitable drug candidates (the answer was no)…I was specifically hired because I knew how to do site-directed mutagenesis and also (because of) my familiarity with receptors.” –Stewart Lyman, Ph.D., Principal and Founder, Lyman Biopharma Consulting.

“My first position in biopharma was as a Systems Engineer at a medical device company developing hematopoietic stem cell therapies…When I applied for the job, I had just finished a year of bioreactor design research at the Technical University of Berlin as a Fulbright Scholar. I’d also completed internships at BASF in Germany in large-scale polyurethane manufacturing and at a material science company developing non-linear conducting gels to protect telephone equipment from lighting strikes. I’m a chemical engineer by training. The medical device company was German and the job required travel to Germany, so I think my industrial internship experiences as well as my knowledge of German language and culture helped me get the job.” — Christopher Ramsborg, Ph.D., Vice President, Technology Strategy & Innovation, Juno Therapeutics

“I obtained (my first) position after six years in graduate school and four and a half years as a postdoc. My postdoc project focused on T cell development in the thymus…My efforts on this project led to several publications and established connections with the research lead at Rosetta Inpharmatics (a subsidiary of Merck). Upon completion of my postdoc, Rosetta was looking for someone to join their efforts to use gene arrays to identify novel immune regulated genes and characterize their function. It was a good fit and progression from my post-doc project, so I took the job.”—Dr. Michael Carleton, Director, Translational Research, Bristol-Meyers Squibb.

Theme 5: …except when they don’t.

“(My first position was as a) Senior Research Biologist at Merck & Co., Inc. A Rosetta employee and I had both done our postdocs at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center (in different labs). He contacted my advisor about my candidacy and the resulting recommendation eventually led to an interview. I learned later that my offer was largely a result of recommendations from colleagues at the Hutch, the perception of my seminar and communication skills, and the potential value of a mechanistic biologist (experience in unraveling molecular mechanisms of signal transduction and tying that to cell biology/phenotypes). To be clear, I was NOT hired for deep expertise in a particular technique or field of research.” – Dr. Bill Arthur, Director of Target Validation, Research & Development, Seattle Genetics.

“My first position was as an entry level scientist in small public biopharma (500 people). I identified the opportunity through networking (a graduate student a few years ahead of me was already working at the company). At the same time, I identified other opportunities through ads in scientific journals…Like most people straight out of a postdoc, I lacked experience in specific disease areas or specific areas of biology on which the company focused, so I assume I was hired more on the basis of general scientific credentials and interpersonal display.” Dr. Christopher Larson, Vice President, Drug Discovery, Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute

“I was part of a cooperative education/internship program during my undergraduate degree at the University of Victoria in Canada. We would interview for work terms lasting 4-8 months and my second internship was at a small company called AnorMED Inc. Getting the job wasn’t very difficult–I interviewed alongside three other students with similar levels of experience as me (pretty much none!). It was probably my good attitude and strong understanding of enzymology that set me apart.” Dr. Jennifer Cox, Assistant Director, Biology, Inception Sciences.

Theme 6: And sometimes what it takes is having a plan and a vision.

“My first position was a research scientist position at Merck (individual contributor, PhD entry level scientist). There were a few things that helped me get this position, involving both research expertise and networking. I realized shortly after entering graduate school that academia was not for me. So for my postdoc, I chose a lab and a research project that I thought would be most applicable to the types of research performed in biopharma. In my case, that was understanding how genetic variation impacts drug response (pharmacogenetics).” – Dr. James Watters, Vice President, Biology, Relay Therapeutics.

“I went straight from my PhD to consulting. To get the job, I spent a lot of time over the last two years of my PhD pursuing opportunities that would expose me to the business side of the life science industry — this included taking courses, participating in part-time internships, and working with student-led consulting and biotech clubs. These experiences, the ability to communicate an understanding and interest in the life science industry, and lots of case prep helped open up consulting opportunities when I graduated.” –Dr. Matthew Murphy, Consultant, ClearView Healthcare Partners

Laura Strong, founder and CEO, Propagate Health

“I started my career in industry as the first employee of a biotech company based on  technologies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I defended my thesis one week and started the company the next week. I “got the job” because I was willing to step out of my comfort zone of chemistry. While I was in grad school, I took on a number of projects that strengthened my communications skills (presentations at conferences, writing review articles). Those skills were critical for me to take the leap.” Dr. Laura Strong, Founder and CEO, Propagate Health.

Across this anecdotal survey it was clear that no single path always succeeded, nor that a given approach (for example, cold-applying) was doomed to fail. Experiences were more nuanced. A big theme, however, was that having an industry position as a goal in itself and preparing accordingly increased the probability of success (so, by the way, does understanding the phrase “probability of success” and how it applies to business projects).

I also asked these diverse scientists about the kinds of skills and experiences they felt industry is looking for today. The consistency of their thoughts intrigued me and I compiled a rough tally of how often certain topics came up:

SkillNumber who highlighted (N=26)
Being flexible and adaptable and able to learn new things16
Able to work well in teams15
People skills–Emotional intelligence12
Being able to communicate11
Strong scientific acumen (experimental design, analysis and interpretation)11
Specific skills (eg, bioinformatics)7
Ability to finish what you’ve started7


It fascinated me that the top desired skills related to flexibility and teamwork. For many commentators, industry has been moving rapidly and doesn’t have the luxury of the academic approach in which a given problem can be lingered over (as long as grants continue). “Having an open-mind and willingness to learn new areas will serve you well should the company decide to move out of a particular area and into another,” said Cathy Thut, Executive Director BD&L, Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research.

A similar perspective came from Chris Winrow, at Ironwood. “If you look at most people who’ve worked in the industry, they’ve likely worked across a number of different disease areas, certainly across a number of different targets, and you know maybe have done a number of different jobs within a company, so I think that openness to try different things and be adaptable and responsive to the landscape is important.” Dr. Irena Ivanovska, a Director at Celdara Medical, LLC, had this to say: “Flexibility is key – being willing to switch projects, departments, and geography can be really helpful (if not essential) in securing a job, keeping it, and for career advancement.”

As for teamwork, Chris Larson of Sanford Burnham Prebys commented, “…we are centuries past the point where meaningful scientific progress is made by individuals, although the publishing and publicity paradigms in science still tend to obscure this situation.”

Teamwork may not be cultivated in certain academic labs, but it’s essential in industry. Mike Carleton, at Bristol-Myers Squibb, pointed out how important teamwork is to growing one’s career in biotech and pharma: “You must be able to work collaboratively and productively across groups and areas of expertise. If you are a person who likes to own your work and draw a fence around what you do, you will likely struggle to advance in biopharma.”

In addition to these primary skills, the soft skills of emotional intelligence and communication were highly valued. Dr. Peter Linsley, who has held several scientific leadership roles at companies including Merck and Regulus Therapeutics, indicated, “People skills are very important,” when asked about what he looks for in industry scientists. Dr Sam Blackman, at Silverback Therapeutics, emphatically stressed emotional intelligence. “High emotional intelligence is critical. You’ll interact with a far broader group of people, especially in pharma. Or if you’re in biotech, you’ll interact with a smaller group of people but with much higher stakes. Knowing how to read and adapt to the needs of people is critical. High emotional intelligence requires high self-awareness – especially if you’re looking to grow. One of the main barriers to growth in your career in industry is an inability to see your own limitations, flaws, and areas for development.”

Others called out communication at several levels—to your superiors, peers and reports; to external and internal stakeholders; and in both written and verbal forms. Matthew Murphy of ClearView Healthcare Partners stressed how this comes out in the initial interview. “Communication — this is an important aspect of any industry job…and being able to demonstrate the ability to distill information and clearly communicate key points is critical during the interview process.” Rich Klinghoffer of Presage added: “The ability to communicate in a biopharma setting is ridiculously important on so many levels. If you can’t communicate well, it hampers your ability to contribute to your organization.”

It was also striking that scientific acumen, while important, was not one of the top skills most frequently mentioned by survey respondents. This may be because a decent scientific training and background are such a basic prerequisite for getting an interview and a job offer. A few respondents pointed to the importance of scientific skills. Jared Odegaard of Gilead Sciences stated that, “there is no substitute for the ability to design experiments and interpret data.” Phil Kong said: “Of course being a good scientist is a must,” but he also went on to add, “(still), super-stardom is not necessary (though always helpful). You are not gunning for the Nobel when you go into biopharma.”

With these concepts and ideas on ways to approach getting into biotech and pharma, an applicant can, with some luck, get her foot in the door. But how to avoid messing up the interview and the first year or two? That’s a topic for part 2.


From Hoop Dreams to the Biopharma Big Time: Rob Perez on The Long Run

Today’s guest on the show is Rob Perez.

He grew up in a lower-middle class household in Los Angeles. Had some hoop dreams that never quite materialized. No big deal.

Perez found he had a knack for sales, and paid his way through college by working at fitness centers.

Rob Perez

Chance brought him into the pharmaceutical sales business. He liked meeting doctors, learning about medicine and how it could help people. He rose through the ranks, and ended up succeeding beyond his wildest dreams at Cubist Pharmaceuticals, the antibiotic developer acquired by Merck in 2015. Now he’s recruiting fellow biotech executives to put some of their money and talents to work on big, broad-based societal causes, like poverty and homelessness.

When you hear this personal story, I think you’ll see how this industry draws talented people from many walks of life, and how it can make an even bigger impact by simply remembering that fact. How can biotech do some more effective things to bridge some of the gaps in our society, to help some of the have-nots? He has some creative ideas to share on this score, and a model to study called Life Science Cares.


Re-Starting a Company, Keeping Hope Alive: Chip Clark on The Long Run

Today’s guest on The Long Run is Chip Clark.

Chip Clark, CEO, Genocea 

He’s the CEO of Cambridge, Mass.-based Genocea Biosciences. This vaccine platform company got into a jam last summer. It completed a Phase II trial with its lead therapeutic vaccine for genital herpes. Clark tried to insist the trial was a success and the product had a future. The market disagreed. The stock tanked. Cash ran low. Morale ebbed.

Something had to be done.

How did Clark think about re-starting the company – pivoting, as he says – toward a new future as a personalized neoantigen cancer vaccine developer? Clark was pretty candid about this difficult stretch at Genocea, and I think many entrepreneurs will be able to relate to the experience and learn from it.


Charting His Own Entrepreneurial Course: Ethan Perlstein on The Long Run

Today’s guest on The Long Run podcast is Ethan Perlstein.

Ethan Perlstein, founder and CEO, Perlara

He’s outspoken on social media, unafraid to occasionally rattle cages with the industry powers that be. He’s followed an unusual entrepreneurial path, starting a Public Benefit company, raising money from non-traditional sources, embracing ‘radical transparency,’ building an unusual model-organism based platform for drug discovery, and using his Internet savvy to mobilize partners to help him come up with treatments for rare diseases.

At the core, this is a guy who questions basic assumptions about the world and isn’t afraid to roll the dice and do things differently. I think you’ll enjoy hearing his thought process.


What Can You Do With Genomics and AI? Alice Zhang on The Long Run

Today’s guest on The Long Run podcast is Alice Zhang.

Alice Zhang, co-founder and CEO, Verge Genomics

Let’s start with some basic background. Zhang studied systems biology at Princeton, graduated with honors, enrolled in an MD/PHD program at UCLA/Caltech, stayed there five years, quit, moved to Silicon Valley, and co-founded a company dedicated to using her knowledge for neurodegenerative drug discovery. She has been named among the Forbes 30-under-30.  

You get the idea. She’s smart. And young.

That’s nice, but what makes her more interesting to me as a guest for this show is her thoughtful approach to combining genomic data with artificial intelligence to improve drug discovery for complex multifactorial diseases. Specifically, the neurodegenerative kind. There are people out there thumping the tub, and drinking the AI Kool Aid, but I think Zhang has a pretty wise sense for what the AI can and can’t do. I learned a few things listening to her, and I think you will too.