Start-ups create career opportunities for scientists – Nature.com

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Jessica Chiang is chief scientific officer at BioFab, a start-up company in Auckland, New Zealand.Credit: Jessica Chiang
Chief science officers in industry used to fit a predictable profile: middle-aged, male and battle-hardened from many years at the bench. But the template is changing: scientific start-ups are now creating opportunities for a much wider range of researchers around the world.
Jessica Chiang, for example, was hired in 2020 as a chief scientific officer at BioFab, a start-up firm in Auckland, New Zealand, with a mission to develop biodegradable materials that could replace polystyrene. Chiang has a history of big ideas. She won a top prize at the 2017 GapSummit, a conference run by the non-profit organization Global Biotech Revolution in Washington DC, in which 100 of the world’s most promising students and entrepreneurs take on some of the most pressing challenges in the biotechnology industry. But she doesn’t have the standard credentials of a science officer.
As well as running research and development at BioFab, Chiang is working through the first year of her PhD programme in medical science at the University of Auckland. Through an arrangement with the university, her research at BioFab counts towards her PhD coursework, but she still has to find the time to balance life as a student and as a captain of industry. “I like to take on multiple projects and play around with different ideas,” she says. “I get to work on the really science-y side of stuff, and I get to work on the commercial stuff.”

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Researchers looking to launch their careers have options beyond academia and big-name pharmaceutical and biotech companies. If they’re willing to tolerate a bit of uncertainty and place their bets on an unproven concept, they can find a home at a newly founded company with a potentially bright future. But “a lot of scientists aren’t aware of the opportunities that are out there”, says Matt Krisiloff, co-founder and chief executive of Conception, a start-up in San Francisco, California, that is attempting to produce viable human eggs from stem cells with the ultimate goal of treating infertility. In his view, researchers who don’t tick the usual boxes for scientific achievement can still find a good fit at a start-up, but only if they have the right attitude. “Start-ups are often willing to take bets on people based on aptitude and enthusiasm rather than specific credentials,” says Krisiloff, who also co-founded SciFounders, a venture-capital firm in San Francisco that provides start-ups showing particular potential with US$400,000 in exchange for a 10% equity in the firm.
Start-ups are inherently risky. An analysis of life-science companies spun off from US universities between 1980 and 2013 estimated that nearly half had failed or were on the brink of failure by 2017. Fewer than one in four were obvious successes and had been acquired by another company or were able to sell shares of stock through an initial public offering (IPO). The rest faced uncertain fates (P. Godfrey et al. Nature Biotechnol. 38, 132–141; 2020).
Because of this, start-ups might not suit people who have a low tolerance to taking career risks. A 2021 analysis of the salaries of Danish employees going back to 1991 suggests that relatively mature companies have generally been a safer choice. Researchers estimated that employees in start-ups earned an average of 17% less over the following 10 years than did those who joined more-established companies, partly because they tend to have periods of unemployment if the company goes under (O. Sorenson et al. Organ. Sci. 32, 587–604; 2021).
But Krisiloff argues that joining a start-up isn’t as risky as it might seem. “Companies are getting started on a weekly basis,” he says. BDO, a global financial-services company, reports that 78 US biotech companies offered IPOs in 2020, an all-time high and a 77% increase from the previous year (see go.nature.com/3s8yu2q). “If the company you’re at doesn’t work out, you can move easily because of the shortage of good scientists,” he adds. “It’s the opposite of academia, where there are so many postdocs and so few professorships.”
Just as labour shortages are plaguing workplaces such as restaurants, factories and farms in some parts of the world, many start-up companies are struggling to fill posts, Krisiloff says. “There’s so much capital sloshing around in the world right now,” he says. “Companies that are not that far along are raising hundreds of millions of dollars and have to figure out ways to justify that funding. They’re desperately looking for people.”
Matt Krisiloff (centre) with Conception co-founders Bianka Seres (left) and Pablo Hurtado González.Credit: Christopher Williams
Companies are often willing to invest in talent. Salaries vary widely from company to company and from field to field, but Krisiloff says that typical starting salaries for PhDs in the life sciences in the United States is around $120,000 a year, including full benefits. In 2020, Labiotech.eu, a media site that covers the biotech industry in Europe, reported that senior scientists, which includes many new recruits at start-ups, can expect to earn up to €70,000 (US$78,000) a year.
Last year, Krisiloff started a Twitter thread to help connect short-staffed start-ups with scientists looking for work. He asked start-ups to explain their mission and the type of people they were looking to hire. The initial tweet generated responses from companies with a wide variety of products, including gene therapy, microscopy and laboratory-grown meat.
Mammoth Biosciences, a biotechnology company in Brisbane, California, posted to the thread that it had “many open positions”. The company was founded in 2017 by two recent PhD graduates from Stanford University and two PhD students at the University of California, Berkeley. They were joined by biochemist and gene-editing pioneer Jennifer Doudna, who now chairs its scientific advisory board. The company, which uses CRISPR technology for applications in areas such as health care, biodefence and agriculture, now has 132 full-time employees (including 42 PhD researchers) and another 30 job openings for scientists and engineers, says chief operations officer Ted Tisch.
Réka Trón, co-founder of Multus, a London-based company that produces the media needed to grow meat in a lab, tweeted a link to current job openings, adding: “If you can’t find one that suits you, e-mail us. We might hire you!” The Multus website says that “your motivation is more important to us than perfect grades, university degrees and a complete curriculum vitae”.
Réka Trón is chief operating officer at London-based Multus.Credit: Imperial College London
Multus, incorporated in March 2020, now has 11 employees. Trón, who founded the company with two fellow students at Imperial College London and is now chief operating officer, says she is actively seeking someone who can serve as both a computational biologist and a software engineer. But she’s open to hearing from someone who is willing and able to learn some skills on the job. She emphasizes that she would welcome an application from any qualified scientist who is excited about the company’s mission and reducing the impact of livestock agriculture. “If someone brings a great idea or a great value to the team, we’re open to the possibility,” she says.
Multus is locked in competition for scientific talent with other firms, including the dozens working on lab-grown meat. Trón says the company still has to be discerning. In a smaller firm, there is less room for people who can’t work as part of the team or get along well with others. “Attitude is an extremely important part of hiring,” she says.

The business of science
The company was formed during the pandemic, so Trón and her team have had to rely on Zoom interviews to gauge applicants’ personalities. Candidates who live nearby are encouraged to come for a tour of the lab. She says that people tend to be more conversational and less stressed when they aren’t talking to a screen.
A ‘help wanted’ sign is definitely up at Conception. “We’re always looking for stem-cell scientists and organic biologists who are interested in our mission,” Krisiloff says. “We’re not big on credentials. We’re happy to consider someone who may not have a PhD.”
Krisiloff says that scientists who apply to start-ups often have a deep supply of curiosity and a tolerance for uncertainty. For various reasons, they also tend to be eager to leave the conventional academic career path. Not only can they find more job openings in industry, but they can also have more time to focus on their work. “It can be a much more effective way of actually doing research,” Krisiloff says. “Unlike in academia, you don’t have everyone trying to carve out their own little niches that they have to publish around.”
In the right circumstances, a start-up can be a launching point for a stable career with ample room for promotion. Twelve years ago, immunologist Laurent Poirot left a postdoctoral position to join Cellectis, a biotech pharmaceutical firm in Paris. Poirot rose through the ranks and is now a senior vice-president of immunology in charge of a ten-person team. He enjoys mixing management responsibilities and business savvy with pure research. “The most rewarding and gratifying thing is having a [therapy] in my hands that I could see being injected into someone,” Poirot says. “To be a part of that from inception to the bedside is exciting. That never happens in academia, unless you’re in a lab that does its own clinical trials.”

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The firm, which was founded in 1999 and has about 280 employees, is now distant from its start-up roots, but Poirot says it still has plenty of untested ideas for new pharmaceutical products for anyone who wants to get in on the ground floor of something big.
Poirot says he’s especially interested in hiring people who have shown when experiments or projects didn’t go as planned. “Having been exposed to failure in science is something that I find tremendously valuable,” he says. If an applicant says they have never faced real failure, Poirot will use the interview process to gauge their commitment to solving problems. “I like to challenge people when I talk to them. If the call turns into an ad-libbed discussion about science, that gets me excited.”
It’s much too early to predict the ultimate fate of BioFab, but Chiang says she plans to stay there at least until she finishes her PhD, which could take four years or so. By that time, she hopes the company will have a prototype that can generate sales. She also hopes that she’s merely at the beginning of a long career in the start-up world. “I want to stay with this company and grow it, and maybe start other companies in the future,” she says. “I’m an entrepreneur for life.”
Nature 602, 349-351 (2022)
doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-022-00343-9
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