Insights Regarding the Path to Scientific Start-Ups

Dr. Levi Smith, a Senior Research Scientist from Halda Therapeutics, recently visited UConn Health to talk with graduate students, post-docs, and others about his path to working at a start-up company. For background, Halda Therapeutics is a research-stage drug discovery company based out of Branford, CT. Their mission is to create precision-based medicine using novel therapeutic mechanisms to treat a number of diseases.

Prior to Dr. Smith’s employment with Halda, he earned a Master’s degree in Pharmaceutical Science and a PharmD from Butler University. He then attended Yale University to earn his PhD in Cell Biology by studying molecular mechanisms of Alzheimer’s disease. While completing his dissertation, Smith also completed a fellowship with Canaan Partners, a Venture Capital Firm. During this fellowship Smith learned how to conduct due diligence of emerging investment opportunities within the therapeutic industry. Below are some of the topics that were discussed during the Q/A session. 

How do I choose which company to work for?

Deciding to work at a large or small company (start-up) depends on your personal goals and preferences. For example, at a large company an employee might have more opportunity to re-locate geographically or within departments.  However, at a start-up, there may be more opportunities for growth and chances to diversify your skill set. 

What is the hiring situation?

Dr. Smith found that the start-up biotech industry has a “fluid timeline” for hiring and that most companies know their hiring situation about a year in advance when they determine their yearly budget. This gives you, the job seeker, more than enough time to reach out, meet someone (e.g. informational interviews), and research companies that interest you. 

What if I don’t meet ALL the job requirements? 

He encouraged students to apply for jobs even if you do not meet every requirement on a posting. Companies can be flexible on their desired experience and requirements. So, if you feel like you are coming up short, don’t be alarmed, you might have what they are looking for. Visiting a company, say during the actual interview or for an informational interview, is a great way to gauge a company’s culture and whether you are a good fit. 

What if I’m asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA)?

For background, a NDA, or a confidentiality agreement (CA), is a legal contract between at least two parties. This document outlines specific material, knowledge, or information that confidentially shared between the parties involved but not to third parties not included in the agreement. You may have experienced something similar already, without the formality of signing a document, when you visited the doctor or if you needed consultation by an attorney, priest, or bank. If during an interview, or after you are hired by a company, you are asked to sign an NDA Dr. Smith stressed that you should not be alarmed. There is no reason to hesitate signing the form. Just make sure to read it fully and understand what the expectations are. 

How do you get an industry job? 

First most, students or post-doctoral fellows whom are interested in a career outside academia should have a candid conversation with their supervisor/mentor about setting goals and achieving skillsets that will be pertinent for this transition. While completing these training periods students should devote time to networking and developing translational skills that will help their entry into industry. This could be an internship like Dr. Smith did at a Venture Capital firm. Dr. Smith suggested joining networking organizations and attending events, some of the local organizations he mentioned included BioCT, ABCT, and CT Innovations (check out our previous article about a recent ABCT and CT Innovations event on Intellectual Property). These organizations have newsletters you can sign-up for to learn about upcoming events. These events typically occur in Farmington, CT or in New Haven, CT. Attending these events and getting involved with these organizations can improve your chances of networking with companies and vendors, but also founders, scientists, and recruiters which may improve your chances of making the leap from academia to industry. 

Can you get a job right out of PhD? 

Dr. Smith disclosed some skepticism by those in industry when hiring someone straight out of a PhD program. However, marketing yourself, networking at the right events, and developing translational skill sets will aid in transitioning from academia to industry. 

How is a career in industry different from PhD life?

Compared to graduate school, his current position gives him a better work-life balance. He mentioned that his colleagues expect it to be this way. The biggest difference he noted is increase in work pace and the added value of his time. Also, during your PhD you are expected to master new techniques however in industry you work as a team or hire experts to advise you on topics outside of your area of expertise. Dr. Smith works collaboratively and overall, enjoys his current position. He enjoys sharing his experiences and offering insight to students and early career professionals interested in working for a start-up company.

Check back for information about our networking event in April! Also, stay tuned for more career insights. 

Co-written by Rachel Gilmore and Dominique Martin

Edited by Brittany Knight

Published by Rachel Gilmore

Rachel is a third year PhD candidate in the Biomedical Science program at UConn Health. She studies a rare neurodevelopmental disorder, Prader-Willi Syndrome, using stem cell and stem cell-derived neuron models. Outside of lab, she enjoys hiking, yoga, good food, lots of coffee, and snuggling with her cat.

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