Dr. Angela She: Career Pathways in Biotech
Published 09/16/2020 in Alumni Features
by Angela She |
The Biotechnology industry generates $140 billion in revenue every year, and currently, U.S. biotech firms employ 1.66 million people. With an ever-increasing need for rapid innovation, the demand for skilled professionals in this industry will continue to rise. But what types of jobs or careers are out there in the field? We caught up with Dr. Angela She, MS '08, to help answer this question.
Milken Scholars: A typical conception of careers in biotech is of scientists in lab coats working for medical device or pharmaceutical companies. I know it has to be more broad than that, so can you speak to some possibilities and what types of careers can be out there for someone with a biotechnology degree?
Angela: Biotech is at its core, a way to commercialize interesting technologies that involve some aspect of biology. This definition is obviously super broad and while much of biotech surrounds pharmaceuticals and medical devices, it can also encompass alternative energy, agriculture, and technology development that is essential for moving research forward in all these areas. A career in biotech then is also super varied. One can set down roots in Research and Development and choose to focus on spaces from early discovery (closer in nature to academia) and preclinical/clinical development, to manufacturing and clinical or field trials. Or, one can choose to not don the lab coat and focus in project/program/portfolio management, operations, business development, corporate strategy, communications, intellectual property, marketing, and any other area that a business needs to run. Because biotech companies range in size from 1 person to hundreds of thousands of people, there are many choices out there depending on where and how a person wants to grow their career.
What do you do now in the biotech space and what was your pathway to get to there?
Angela: My roles in biotech thus far have all been in biotech startups and have encompassed a mix of strategy (what should we do/what should our path be) and operations (let's make it happen). I originally got my PhD in chemical biology because I wanted to learn more about how chemistry could be used to interrogate biology and what I found was that there was a whole industry trying to use newly discovered science to better the human condition. I found through my PhD that while I was very detailed-oriented, I really liked looking at the big picture and how we can get from point A (i.e. cell culture flask) to point B (a better life for another human being). So, I decided to try to learn what it takes to start a company that could do this. I did a fellowship at Flagship Pioneering exploring different fields of science and coming up with crazy ideas for new companies, and subsequently spent 3 years in one of their portfolio companies in an R&D strategy role. Within this role, I got to see a company grow from 4 to 75 people and got to wear a bunch of hats. Among other things, I have had the opportunity to lead drug programs through preclinical development, build up portfolio strategy and management systems, and craft internal governance systems to help keep everything on track. I recently started a new position at another early stage startup, Viridian Therapeutics, where my role involves generating and evaluating ideas for new projects within R&D as well as working on the corporate side (financing, building pitch decks, diligence for potential business development deals, etc.).
How would one go about identifying promising startups to try to work for?
Finding startups at the early stage can be challenging, and, like any industry, networking is going to be key. Referrals are common in biotech so if you have a connection at a company you're interested in, that goes a long way. A lot of early stage startups will advertise positions on Indeed and/or LinkedIn and just forming a connection with people even if the right position isn't available can be helpful. There are also biotech incubators/VC incubators that could be a good starting point. It's also always ok to cold apply to positions! You never know when you might find a fit. In evaluating whether the startup is promising, ask many, many questions. 1) Does the science make sense to you? Early stage startups love to be forward looking. They'll talk in generalities and projections while they're working on gathering the data. Does their hypothesis make sense to you and do you think that it's got a chance of working? 2) Do you believe in the team? Do they seem like they have a strategy and know what they're doing? Do they morally align with you and your values? What about funding; what is the runway? 3) Can you see yourself fitting in? Startups will undoubtedly go through ups and downs and people will be stressed. This can really impact team dynamics when the team is small. Are you ready to weather the storms with these people?
What are some important skills to hone in preparation for a career in biotech?
Communication, communication, communication, and agility. Biotech is ultimately made of humans, so forging a human connection is really important. For technical communication, understanding the right language to use with any particular audience and delivering the message with confidence can be key in getting others seeing you as an expert. Otherwise, even if you are an expert, people might underestimate you, which can feel frustrating. As well, when things aren't working right, finding the right words to have those tough conversations when emotions are high can be a challenge, so having that in your mind can really help salvage a relationship. On agility: things in biotech tend to turn on a dime and lead to a lot of uncertainty. Finding methods for yourself to cope with change, even if you end up going into a larger, "more stable" company, can be very helpful when these things inevitably happen.
What do you wish someone had told you before entering the field?
1) Everybody is figuring it out, responding to changes in the world and in the science. Even people who have been in the industry for years are learning and adapting all the time and there are no cookie cutter ways for biotech success. 2) No one is going to advocate for you as hard as you advocate for yourself. If you don't feel like you are getting what you need to succeed, speak up and don't be afraid to start looking elsewhere. Seek advice, but don't let other people's perception of how to get to your goal dictate the steps you eventually take to get there.
Anything else you'd like to add about working in biotech?
There is a lot of innovation happening in biotech, both in what is being done and how things are being done. As such, there is a large variability in companies and in people's experiences. Because of this, I encourage people pursuing biotech as a career to talk to many people and get many perspectives. Happy to chat with anyone who wants to learn more!