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Laura Hales, PhD Chasing the Entrepreneurial Dream

Your thesis defense approaches. “What are you going to do with your life?” they ask. “Get a postdoc position!” you say. Four (OK, maybe five or six) years go by. “What are you going to do with your life?” they ask. “Get a faculty position!” you say. Wait - maybe not. But, if not, then what happens next?

The rigors of a tenure track faculty position at a prestigious university are not for everyone.  I, like many scientists, decided it was not for me either. I really wanted to make the jump from academia to industry, but I wasn’t sure how to do it, especially with a microbiology degree at a time when all the big pharma companies were shutting down their anti-infective groups.  So I applied for every job I could find out of my postdoc. Not only as a researcher at various pharma companies, but also as things like a staff scientist at a non-profit institute, a clinical sample laboratory manager, a scientific writer, and an instructor at a local college. The problem with these other options was convincing them (and myself) that this was the path I was committed to following in my career

And, like many scientists, I got lucky. I became scientist #5 hired into a brand new cancer immunotherapy group that grew to 35 (see details about my career path here). How does a microbiologist get hired to do oncology research? The answer to that became my first career-building lesson: wherever you go, be sure to gain broadly applicable, transferrable skills. It was a solid molecular biology background that they needed. It didn’t matter if I was manipulating bacterial viruses or humanized antibodies. And I definitely boosted the attractiveness of my CV by choosing a microbiology postdoc where I could learn tissue culture and cell-based assays. 

Then suddenly, the honeymoon was over. I learned my second lesson: always keep your CV updated. I hadn’t looked at the thing in almost five years. What a project it was to try to sift through and remember everything I had done, while feeling the gamut of emotions one feels after being laid off. I got back on my feet, and six months later, landed a position as scientist #2 hired at a venture capital funded startup biotech company. Typical of many startups, we had a solid two-plus year run, then crashed. Lesson number three: it’s not personal, it’s business. In the end, it just doesn’t matter how many long, hard stressful hours you worked, with people who became your family, and the fact that you cancelled your vacation to Paris and abbreviated your maternity leave all in the name of company business.

I regrouped. I applied for what seemed like a bazillion jobs in multiple cities.  Then I realized that I didn’t even want most of those jobs. What I really wanted was to be my own boss. So I started three companies. Amazed? Don’t be. It’s easy. After unsuccessful attempts to obtain funding from a few different sources for a company called Tracertech, Inc., I started Extend Biosciences, a company with  a drug delivery platform for biologics that I’m currently looking to fund using SBIR grants. In the meantime, I also started The Isis Group, a scientific consulting and communications company. I had always been the one that my fellow labmates went to for assistance writing and editing their manuscripts and grants, and having worked at startups and now being an entrepreneur, I had been asked to consult for a few startups, mainly spinning out of academia. So I signed on some colleagues as consultants, and decided to make the editing and consulting an official business. Which leads me to my final lesson: a career in biotech is like a roller coaster ride – lots of twists and bumps, and may even turn you upside down! But what a great ride it is!

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