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Startup Life: An Extraordinary Path for the Brave at Heart
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Lining Zhu

 

After graduating from the University of Southern California with a doctorate in genetics, molecular, and cell biology, Marie Rippen, PhD, joined Lab Launch as its second employee. Lab Launch, a biotech incubator startup in Los Angeles County, CA, provides lab spaces and essential lab equipment for resident companies to put their ideas into practice. Lab Launch itself is a startup, less than three years old. First recruited as the facility director, and now CEO, Rippen wears a lot of hats and wears each one well. Here, she shares her insider’s view of a career in biotech startups.

 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

 

What is the mission of Lab Launch, and how do you support that mission in your role as CEO?

 

Lab Launch’s mission is to provide affordable, high-quality resources for early stage biotech entrepreneurs in the booming Los Angeles biotech landscape. We have a facility in Monrovia, CA, that includes co-working office space and a biotech laboratory with an open floor plan. We sell memberships to our space, so startup biotech companies have somewhere to set up shop without signing a long-term lease or having to pay for a facility that is much bigger than what they really need. We also provide some essential services like hazardous waste disposal, use of conference and meeting rooms, and access to regulatory resources. In Summer 2017, we are opening a second space at Make in LA, a hardware accelerator, that will be perfect for device startups.

 

As CEO of Lab Launch, my job is to make sure we are fulfilling our mission and keeping our clients happy. Even though I also do business development, accounting, marketing, etc., my primary task is to see that the companies and people at Lab Launch can do their work in a comfortable space and feel a sense of community.

 

What is a typical day in a startup like?

 

There are a variety of tasks throughout the day. My typical day starts with answering emails, attending meetings with clients, and scheduling tours for potential partners. Our main form of revenue is generated by getting new companies on board, so my position is also a sales position. During office hours, I monitor shipments coming in so that the scientists can focus on experiments and meetings. I also work on our website and write business documents, like memos of understanding, letters of support, etc.

 

Startup companies at Lab Launch have different focuses each day depending on the stage in which they are. If they are in the process of fundraising, the CEO might be busy flying across the country presenting data to potential investors. If they have a contract with a company that wants to license their technology, the scientists will be doing even more experiments than usual to meet their milestones. Because these companies need to spend every penny wisely, they’ll spend time purchasing used equipment from eBay or other auctions, which also means researching each item so they have a good idea what condition it’s in before they buy it.

 

What are the advantages of working at a startup versus a big biotech/pharmaceutical company?

 

Working for a startup, you have more responsibility. Your co-workers’ livelihoods depend on your performance. That is part of the motivation—you will directly see the results of your work. For instance, a big company might want to buy your technology while it’s still in a relatively early phase of development, which is a huge win for a startup. In big biotech/pharma, by comparison, you might work for years on a project and then be told to drop it and start something else if upper management decides a different product line needs more of the company’s resources.

 

You also have more control at a startup company. You often create your own job responsibilities as you go, instead of coming into a job that is completely described. Although you have to meet the expectations of your business partners, you decide how to proceed. You can have control over things like company operations, culture, and whether the company changes direction when new opportunities come up. In short, you have the power to shape the future of a company when you’re at a startup. That is something you can’t do in big companies, because it’s already been done by the founders and top leadership.

 

The co-founders of a successful startup will ultimately have a tremendous payout, and not only monetarily. The feeling of being autonomous, facing challenges, and seeing your work make an immediate difference to your company makes for true job satisfaction. These types of payouts are also why some postdocs want to be principal investigators (PIs). However, being a PI, you have a lot of restrictions within the framework of departments and universities.

 

Often people in academia set the tone for their research at an early age and have to work in that area of research for the rest of their careers in order to keep getting grants. But if you work at a startup, you will often end up working in areas of science that are completely different than what you studied during your postdoc or in grad school. And then if you want to try something different, finding a job at another startup or even starting another company is probably quite a bit easier than trying to get grants for research areas you’ve never worked in before.

 

What is job security like in startups?

 

Job security is becoming less common nowadays—just look at all the freelancers in coffee shops and co-working spaces, and you’ll see that this is the case.

 

Academics who consider startups riskier than other options are usually having an emotional reaction to the unknown. Scientists feel comfortable staying in academia because it’s what they know. Although it doesn’t feel like taking a risk [to stay], it usually is. Postdocs’ appointments are not secure; they have to be renewed every year. Based on reports by the NIH, NSF, and FASEB, only about 12 percent of PhD holders in the biomedical sciences will land jobs in tenure-track faculty positions. Even then, a new PI’s job security is threatened by the shortage of federal funding and can be limited by departmental politics.

 

In a startup, your job security is based on many factors, from whether the company can find funding, to how well the money is managed, to whether the scientific milestones are met. This sounds daunting, but at a startup you are in control of these factors. You can present to investors and apply to startup competitions. You can hunt for deals on used equipment to save your company money. You can decide that it’s worth contracting out the work to meet an important milestone. Starting a company means risking some job security, but it’s less a game of chance than it looks.

 

How can postdocs prepare mentally and intellectually for working at startups?

 

I personally think PhDs are already well-prepared for starting companies. PhDs can find information and teach themselves new skills, two attributes that are incredibly important when starting a company. Job seekers coming out of academia often overlook and undervalue these abilities, but they are essential in a startup.

 

In academia, people tend to be very confident in their subject area expertise. To succeed in a startup, one big mental shift that’s necessary is to not think too much about what you already know, but more about what you have the ability to learn. It is impossible to meet every qualification listed in most job descriptions, so you must learn certain things on the job. As a PhD, your biggest skill is to learn new things quickly and ask for help when you need it. I asked the CPA on our board to teach me basic accounting, and I taught myself how to do some minor graphic design. You can find instructions and protocols for almost anything on the internet. If there’s one thing scientists know how to do, it’s how to follow a protocol.

 

As for intellectual preparation, it’s not necessarily learning facts X, Y, and Z, but more about knowing that X, Y, and Z exist and finding the right person who can teach you about them. Talking to people in business is the best way to prepare yourself intellectually. I’d suggest attending events and seminars about entrepreneurship, looking up the terms you didn’t understand, and then offering to buy people coffee so you can ask them your questions.

 

Soft skills are essential. Intellectual preparation and technical skills can be built over time but do not contribute as much to creating a good first impression. In business, your first impression is very important.

 

What are the top soft skills and technical skills that startups desire?

 

The number one soft skill is absolutely communication. Startups hire people they can work well with, and a lot of that is in your ability to communicate. Not only should you know how to communicate ideas clearly, but also know what information needs to be communicated, especially when things go wrong. You can avoid so much friction by setting expectations about what information should be shared with co-workers. Being able to pitch your company to investors is also an important communication skill to have.

 

Technical skills are actually the least important. Startups tend to advertise for scientists with a wide variety of technical skills, but they almost always hire the candidate with a few of those skills plus a can-do attitude. The ability to learn on the job is highly desired. What is most critical to startups is that they meet deadlines and their experimental results are reproducible. Half of that is hiring employees with good hands, and the other half is maintaining accurate, detailed notes.

 

What are Lab Launch’s corporate culture and social responsibility?

 

At Lab Launch, a lean operation is central to our culture. People and space are the two most expensive things for doing business, so we try to use our resources to their fullest. Our top goal is to provide good customer service to our members. Within the company, we are honest with each other. No one hides mistakes (which are inevitable in any job, especially a startup), instead we strive to fix them quickly and not repeat them.

 

Our main social responsibility is to make sure Lab Launch remains a place where startups can thrive. We take responsibility by leading by example—we keep things lean and efficient. Ideally, our resident companies become successful enough to move out when they need more space. It is so much harder to change the way you do business later than it is to set it up correctly at the beginning. I recently visited one of our graduate companies, Korva Labs. I saw that they incorporated some of the organizational habits that I use into their own operations, like the way they keep track of their chemical waste. That is really satisfying to see companies take to heart what they learn here.

 

How does Lab Launch engage local communities, institutes, and universities?

 

To return the support of the City of Monrovia, Lab Launch initiated an annual Monrovia Biotech Day and a summer high school internship program. On Monrovia Biotech Day last year, we partnered with Boys and Girls Club of the Foothills. We had three different activities for the middle school and high school students: strawberry DNA extraction, looking at slides under a microscope, and a career panel composed of scientists from Lab Launch and Xencor. We will do similar events this year in addition to showcasing the local biotechnology companies to the general public. Last summer, our first high school intern learned to do experiments with our resident company VALI Nanomedical. We also participated in LA Bioscience Hub’s Biotech Leaders Academy. They found us a great intern from East LA College who helped out both Lab Launch and Korva Labs.

 

Currently, we are working with multiple collaborators including Biotech Connection Los Angeles, Biocom, California Life Sciences Association, LA Bioscience Hub, The City of Los Angeles, Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation, California State University Los Angeles, LA BioMed, Health Technology and Engineering at USC, Larta Institute, and MedTech Innovator to form a group that promotes entrepreneurship education for scientists. It’s called the Biotechnology Entrepreneurship Coalition, and we’ve already planned some great local events. I hope we can help scientists learn about starting companies. I truly believe it’s one of the most rewarding career paths out there.

 

You can read more about Rippen’s personal path leading to Lab Launch in her article “Taking Ownership at Luck” published at Science magazine.

 

Lining Zhu, PhD, is a postdoctoral fellow at the City of Hope, focusing on developing antibody-based bioassays and anti-fungal chimera antigen receptor (CAR) therapy. She is also the VP of Communications at the Association for Women in Science (AWIS) Los Angeles/Ventura County Chapter and a Toastmasters addict.

 

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