I loved my PhD.
As I am sure is the case with many other candidates, when I started my PhD in 2003 I had almost no understanding of how to navigate a career in research, but I possessed a great deal of enthusiasm, a passion for research and a determined outlook. My PhD supervisor had returned to Australia from a fellowship in the US and she was setting up her lab at the Burnet Institute in Melbourne. She was focused and determined, and I was thrilled to be her first PhD student. We took a strategic approach to my PhD, designing three focused research projects, varying from low to high risk, and we set up collaborations with trusted research experts in the US. We had a shared commitment to me successfully gaining my PhD and I could rely on my supervisor for honest constructive criticism—sometimes cutting but never harsh and always fair.
So, following my PhD and with three publications under my belt, I was relatively confident about my potential to succeed in my postdoctoral fellowship at Northwestern University in Chicago.
Unlike my PhD experience, I didn’t love my postdoc years. My ‘ghost supervisor’ provided all the materials and equipment a large well-funded lab could afford. What I lacked was support and engagement, both of which were only made available towards the end of a series of technically challenging experiments, complicating data or at the end of the writing process. So, while I was offered an opportunity to join an exciting new project in HIV/AIDS ‘translational research’, I was emotionally and physically exhausted by my experience with the academic system. I had collected endless amounts of data that, in truth, wasn’t used in a meaningful way. Having worked with several HIV/AIDS community groups in Chicago, I was more interested in delivering immediate impact into the community. It was only later in that I realised how the interaction with my PhD supervisor had given me such high expectations for my research career which, to be honest, were not being fulfilled. So, after four years of postdoc work, I made the decision to leave academia and return to Australia.
For me the biotechnology industry was an appealing next step, being an industry in which I could apply my research skills in a purposeful way. But where to begin? I was basically beginning a new career from scratch, with few industry connections in Australian pharma and biotech. Following months of video interviewing for various consulting roles back home in Melbourne, a contact on LinkedIn suggested I apply for the role of Australasia Technical Specialist with global biotechnology company, Life Technologies (now part of Thermo Fisher Scientific). During my interviews for this role, one of my strong selling points was my skills in collaborations, teamwork and meeting deadlines. I spoke of my positive outlook, my genuine interest in others and my keenness to listen and learn, which all sat alongside an outgoing personality—strengths my US friends and colleagues had said would hold me in good stead for a consulting career. If you’re going to make a career leap, having a network of cheerleaders who support your efforts will get you through those times of personal uncertainty!
So, I accepted an offer to join Life Technologies and relocate home to Melbourne. The role would see me travel throughout Australasia, chatting (yes, chatting) with researchers about their work, dissecting and troubleshooting their project challenges with them, running workshops and showcases, and creating and implementing sales and marketing plans. While the jump from academia to industry was quite significant, I wasn’t overwhelmed by it. Far from it, my lack of ‘business’ knowledge, as it related to my role, was quickly overcome by the training that the company invested in their scientist-turned-sales consultant recruits.
After a year, Life Technologies proposed that I take on a Perth-based role within the company, where I would develop my consultative sales skills. Having just settled back into Melbourne, starting again in Perth wasn't really for me, so I took this as an opportunity to seek a role in a small biotechnology company where I could gain some real hands-on experience in the sector.
I researched biotechnology companies listed on the AusBiotech member directory webpage. Genera Biosystems was one of a handful of companies that piqued my interest. Genera, initially a spin-out of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, is now a publicly listed company that develops and commercialises multiplexed molecular diagnostic tests. Having no contacts at Genera Biosystems (at this stage my networks didn’t cover Australian biotech companies), I simply emailed Genera’s founder and chief scientist officer expressing my interest in working at the company. As it turns out, they were looking for a Portuguese speaker with research skills to help negotiate a partnership with a Brazilian diagnostic company and develop new diagnostic products—that was me!
At Genera, my job title of ‘Product Scientist’ belied the many hats I wore. There was just so much going on that we all had to get involved across the whole business, which was great for me! I was responsible for developing new diagnostics in close dialogue with Genera’s key clients, but I also had a hand in production, QC processes, operations, technical manual writing, client relations, end user training and company strategy. There was constant collaboration and prioritising decisions across the whole business, the technology and, importantly, interaction with the end user. It was rewarding to be part of small team, seeing on a day-to-day basis how my efforts had a direct impact on the company.
Around this time, I met Sid Verma and Matt Hallam, two medtech entrepreneurs who founded the meetup group, Peak15 HealthTech (formerly Startup HealthTech). It wasn’t long before I joined the group as an organiser and helped the Peak15 team run a series of bimonthly events. Through Peak15, I connected with like-minded entrepreneurial individuals eager to exchange ideas on how the digital world could help solve pressing health care problems. Most important, through my work with Peak15, I began to see the possibilities that come from bringing together digital health innovators from startups with patients, health consumers, caregivers, families and entrepreneurs. Now in its third year as Peak15 HealthTech, we have amassed a membership of 1000+ and offer opportunities to our members to connect to startup resources, potential clients/consumers and to the healthcare sector at large.
After five years at Genera, an unexpected opportunity came up thanks to a contact that suggested I apply for—a project manager role with MassChallenge, one of the top global startup accelerators. I felt it was the right time in my career to expand my skill set, so in 2016 I took on a home-based nine-month project manager contract to run the inaugural Bridge to MassChallenge program in Victoria. Here was my opportunity to continue to help build the startup ecosystem in Australia and, through MassChallenge, expose the program’s 15 selected high-impact startup entrepreneurs to mentoring from an amazing pool of local and international experts.
In the beginning, the role was a little terrifying—lots of moving parts to manage, budgets to keep to, over 40 mentors to secure for a three-day business bootcamp, a launch event to organise, stakeholders to keep in touch with, deadlines and deliverables to achieve… and so much more. Having said yes to such an all-encompassing role was a great learning experience and I gained valuable lessons on project and people management. There were things I could’ve done better, but I know this only because I gave myself the opportunity to learn and improve in this type of role. I had a new sense of confidence that came from stepping out of my comfort zone. Better still, I met so many interesting and promising startups and eager founders, here and abroad, some of whom I am grateful to still be in contact with, and I have seen their entrepreneurial progress.
About seven months into the role, I was thrilled to learn that I was pregnant with our first child. I took on a six-month maternity leave role in the business development office at the Hudson Institute that filled a gap between my role at MassChallenge and my impending delivery. I have always considered myself an academic person so working at the Hudson Institute was a great opportunity.
It’s fair to say technology transfer is an exciting and dynamic area! Each day offered something new, from reviewing contracts, negotiating terms, creating spin-outs (two in fact!), strategy talks on active patent applications, creating marketing collateral, preparing drafts and final versions of a variety of documents and agreements, and providing advice and support to new and resident staff on intellectual property matters. Perhaps the most challenging aspect of the role was not always being certain we had realised the full commercial potential of a particular technology with the resources at hand. However, the best part of the role was being routinely presented with intriguing ideas from entrepreneurial scientists who were open to funding possibilities beyond NHMRC grants.
Following the birth of our son, I joined gemaker, a commercialisation company that helps researchers and innovators bring their ideas out of the lab and into the market. As Commercialisation Advisor, my focus is to expand the client base in Melbourne and to guide and support new and ongoing clients, be they researchers, inventors, startups or expanding businesses, through the many stages of commercialisation. Especially rewarding is being the conduit between researchers and industry, as new ideas and technologies are transferred from the lab to become real-world applications and solutions that improve lives.
It’s been a decade now since I overcame the fear of stepping outside of academia and reinvented my career. It’s been a great journey and I’m really excited to continue the evolution of my career, working with great people and learning more and more about the business and commercial world in the pharma and biosciences sector. The research skills I gained in academia have provided a great grounding to find creative ways of working, to examine what I need to know about a company or a sector and to uncover exciting new projects to work on.
Whether you take a career leap into a completely different sector or take your time building additional skills, first invest in finding out whether you’re on the right career path.
© 2021 Australian Academy of Science