Combining Business and Science: “GRO Your Career 2020 Industry Conference” Day 1 Session 1

  • November 5, 2020
iJOBS Blog

By Natalie Losada


The GRO Biotech Industry Conference was held by the Graduate Research Organization for biotechnology and took place over three days to prevent the infamous “Zoom fatigue.”  The aims of the GRO-Biotech align very well with the aims of the iJOBS program; they try to act as the bridge between academia and industry by helping students understand and prepare for the different career options they have, as well as understand what is expected of them in those careers.  Since 2015, they have actively tried to connect students to leaders in various industries, much like iJOBS does, through networking and informational events (including this event!).  During this conference, the speakers, panelists, and workshops managed to discuss careers in and around the life sciences that exemplified the industry's depth or breadth.  The speakers undoubtedly inspired students to explore more career options that can challenge them to apply their scientific methods to new problems. 

Day 1 Session 1:

The session Drawing and Sharing Insights may sound vague at first, but the topics and panelists could not have been more fitting.  The panelists discussed venture capitalism in science, transitioning from academia to industry, science communication in industry, and some thoughtful career tips.  The session was so full of advice that you might not believe there were only two panelists.

Photos of panelists taken as a screenshot from the GRO-Biotech Conference moderator’s slides.

The first panelist, Arthur Klausner,

earned his B.A. in biology from Princeton and after graduating became a biotech magazine writer because it combined his passions for biology and writing.  While there, he was exposed to the business side of biology and found passion in that as well.  He earned his M.B.A. from Stanford before breaking into the biotech venture capital and start-up world where he was able to explore science topics in the depth and breadth that he desired.  He is now the President and CEO of Goldilocks Therapeutics Inc., a start-up biopharma company focused on undertreated kidney injuries and diseases. 

The next panelist, Dr. Julie Wolf,

earned her Ph.D. in microbiology from the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities and was previously a Features Editor at the American Society of Microbiology.  She now works as the Communications Director for IndieBio, a biotech start-up accelerator that provides custom assistance to small biotech companies—think bigger than a garage set-up, but not yet national—to grow and succeed.  IndieBio is backed by a venture capital firm, but they are similar to venture capital investors, except IndieBio does due diligence with start-ups in a rigorous 4-month program that works as a true risk assessment before the VC invests money. If you’re interested in learning more about how venture capitalists (VCs), scientists, mentors, and experts work together, Dr. Wolf mentioned she was part of a short Youtube Series called “Knowledge - Webinars, Conversations and Presentations From Across the SOSV Ecosystem.”

Since Dr. Wolf and Mr. Klausner both had experience working in a venture firm, this became the first topic as the predominantly academic audience was mostly unfamiliar with it.   

Venture Capitalism in Science

One big difference between academia and industry is what they aim to accomplish.  Academia usually aims to answer specific fundamental questions of a larger research project, while industry usually aims to scale up products or services for public investors or consumers.  Occasionally, these aims are switched, such as the development of the CRISPR-Cas9 system, and sometimes these roles are combined, like in many biotech start-ups.  To go from an idea to a product or service that is widely used, a start-up company needs an investor, who becomes a partner in the company.  It might help to think of the investors on the TV Series Shark Tank and how they question the service/product’s marketability, growth and potential, and overall logistics.  The investor understands there will be no immediate returns (profit used to pay back investors), so they want to know if they are making a decision that will lead to a successful long-term relationship with the start-up.  As the start-up grows, its goal is to diversify its efforts and decrease any risks.  For example, if you had a product used on human patients, your goal would be to work on clinical trials and gather safety data to decrease investor risk and increase company market value.

After understanding the VC world better, the next questions were how and why does one enter the biotech venture capital (VC) world? 

After understanding the VC world better, the next questions were how and why does one enter the biotech venture capital (VC) world?  Mr. Klausner’s quick response to “why?” was that you have leverage—there are not many venture firms in the biotechnology industry and the ones that exist are not large.  VC firms will hire someone with an MBA and technical background, or even just an MBA, however they will only hire people they know.  However, it is difficult to get to know venture capitalists, so if you want to be hired and you find a VC networking event, great! Otherwise, try to find a way to work with them. Find jobs for Biotech companies that are already venture-backed or volunteer for their firm.  Dr. Wolf shared a networking event that her company attends, run by 50 Years, and is called “Ph.D. to VC.”  The next event date is TBD, but you can read all about their last “Ph.D. to VC” from 2019 on their website!

To play the scenario, let’s say you work at a VC firm and are thinking of investing in a biotech start-up.  One of the first crucial steps is thinking about and planning your “exit strategy.”  At first, it may sound like a plan for the worst-case scenario where the start-up biotech doesn’t succeed, but it’s quite the opposite.  If everything goes well and the start-up grows into a large self-sustaining company, the VC investors need a plan to one of three things: allow the company to be independent, sell the company to a larger company, or form an alliance that becomes a partial exit.  However, more important than the choice in strategy for the VC is the planning and execution of the strategy.  Mr. Klausner and Dr. Wolf agreed that the start-up companies should have ideas for an exit strategy when investors ask questions about it in later stages, but it’s not a main focus for the start-up.  The start-up will focus on growth and decreasing investment risk and the VC firm will learn enough about the company to ensure they are making a good investment.  The goal is to make a synergistic relationship that can benefit everyone involved.

Transitioning from Academia to Industry

The panelists were broadly asked aboutthe transition from being grad student or postdoc to working in industry.  Mr. Klausner and Dr. Wolf discussed their personal experiences, but they understood the transition is not for everyone.  Whether or not to take the leap away from academia isn’t straight forward, like most things in life.  Still Arthur Klausner provided a general guideline to help with that decision.  He suggested asking yourself: Do you want to be constantly learning?  Or do you want to be the expert in the room?  On the one hand, constant learning can feed a natural curiosity to understand a broad range of topics.  On the other hand, it might be fulfilling or exciting to use your expertise to help others with your in-depth knowledge of one topic.  The two panelists’ transitions to industry actually support the fact that you will likely experience both the “learner” and the “expert” states in your career regardless of your path.  After academia, Mr. Klausner, like most, was in a “learner” state as he entered the world of industry but held some “expert” positions along the way.  In contrast, Dr. Wolf left academia exuding confidence in her “expert state,” but found herself humbled in her current position. The communication style changed (see triangle photo below), and the experts were largely unknown to her, but she enjoys the challenge.  Career panel discussions are a great way to understand how there is no “one size fits all” in a career path, and you have to experiment along your journey to find what you most enjoy doing.

Science Communication in Industry

In academia, reliable information and the newest advancements in the field come from peer-reviewed articles in journals.  In the biotech business world, there has been a shift to platforms frequented by and accessible to customers.  So, where do the science communicator and biotech CEO look for updates?  Predominantly social media and email newsletters.  Dr. Wolf explained that Twitter is vital for keeping up with the latest science and having active discussions about the research, provided you follow scientists you can trust.  And even when the scientist is trusted, Mr. Klasuner reminded everyone to always check their cited sources because, in the end, leading scientists are still people who can make mistakes.  If you’re interested in keeping up with your field, you can check Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn.  If you want to know what’s happening outside your field, you can subscribe to an email newsletter that provides a broad selection of articles.  A large part of science business roles is communicating with people from various backgrounds, and staying updated on current events and publications can prove to be an invaluable asset.

If you’re interested in getting into science communication to any degree, it’s important to find opportunities to practice writing.  Knowledge of a specific topic studied during a Ph.D. won't usually help you.  Still, if you can take that knowledge and learn how to communicate outside of academia, you can apply it wherever you like.  Dr. Wolf suggested learning a writing style for the platforms you most often use, e.g., write blogs if you enjoy reading blogs!    

Photo is taken from:, which the coalition adapted from Nancy Baron’s  Escape from the Ivory Tower. It describes the different communication styles of researchers and the public.  Information needs to be described starting from the top and working to the bottom.  You can explore the AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) site for other writing tips, programs, workshops, and social media links.

Wherever you end up writing, it’s important to keep your audience in mind...Arguably, most communication is about trying to get others to understand why they should care.

Wherever you end up writing, it’s important to keep your audience in mind.  Academics in your field want to see all supporting details and more.  Academics outside your field need some background and still want supporting details.  The public or business people outside your field will actually need the most background, but want a version that will lead them immediately to why they should care.  Arguably, most communication is about trying to get others to understand why they should care.  The triangle diagram above is just an outline of each extreme on a hypothetical scale of communication methods. It is most likely that you will need to adapt a combination of the two triangles that will properly introduce the topic, but keep everyone’s eyes on the prize, which should be your main take away from your talk or article or presentation.

This blog article merely scratches the surface of careers you can find in the field of biotechnology.  If you’re interested in being part of it, especially if you’re unsure, take some time to think about what biotechnology really is and discuss it with your friends or colleagues.  Is it technology that incorporates nature? Or nature that incorporates technology?  Is it contained to one particular STEM field?  Does biotechnology refer to tools, methods, or practices?  This thought exercise just might help you find a new passion. 

What really is biotechnology?  Is it technology that incorporates nature? Or nature that incorporates technology?

Last-Minute Tips!

The ones who like writings...

  • Practice actually writing – it’s hard to take ideas and bring them to a conclusion, so practice!
  • Promote your work on social media – a valuable tool!
  • Get experience as a professional editor!

The ones who want to pump up their resume...

  • Volunteer as a scientist to teach students, e.g., Genspace, a community biology lab where people learn and work on biotechnology.
  • Depending on your knowledge and interest – volunteer at a museum!

For everyone…

  • Use the Mixmax software to apply to jobs when there are over 30 people to email – can upload your CSV and track emails.  Otherwise, copy-pasting an email with a great two-line introduction works much better. 
  • Face-to-face networking is so valuable.  It might not be doable during a pandemic, but the effort is key.  When not in a pandemic – nothing compares to getting to know people over a drink and good conversation.
  • Remember their name! Use whatever weird trick you can to keep it in your head later.

This article was edited by Junior Editor Janaina Cruz Pereira and Senior Editor Samantha Avina.