So, You Want To Join A Biotech Start-Up?

Tips and tricks to nail your interview

Written by: Annoj Thavalingam

Photo credit: Christina @ on Unsplash

Job hunting can be daunting, and more so when applying for positions outside of academia. If a move into industry is on your radar, a biotech start-up is a great way to begin. Below are some tips for anyone interested in working for small biotech companies, so dive in and learn about what it takes to get in.

Communication Skills
In academia, the most salient measure of success is your publication record. However, this is often not the case in industry. The ability to communicate a wide range of information in a concise and timely fashion is much more valued, as is working with teammates as a cohesive whole.

Unlike in grad school where we each oversee our own projects, in a start-up your team generally works on a single overarching project, managed through division of labour and co-workers covering for one another. Hence, it is essential to communicate with your teammates in real time, and summarize weekly or monthly results through PowerPoint, Excel or old-fashioned word of mouth (cue lab meeting presentation experience).

Whether your company of interest is a small three-person team or boasts a few thousand personnel, collaborations are an essential ingredient for their success and reputation. In biotech, this is especially true for ‘platform-based’ companies. A platform is a versatile system or entity, such as a genetic vector or bioinformatics software, that a company can apply towards a broad array of projects. An example is the set of AI engines developed by Cyclica, Toronto’s renowned drug discovery start-up, to predict ligand-receptor interactions. Their software is used by partners such as Merck and Bayer, whose internal research programs benefit from Cylica’s platform.

Collaborations are the foundation of such companies’ business models, and so these companies value candidates with experience in initiating and leading collaborations. At the interview stage, it would help to emphasize your understanding of the importance of collaborations, and to take the opportunity to highlight any collaborations you have managed, their outcomes and what you have learnt.

Sometimes competitors may be your best friends. Competition threatens a company’s chances of reaching the market first to treat disease X, but competitors can also be an excellent source of ideas and techniques. Consider researching your target company’s competition well, and then prepare a brief on where they stand, and how your company can overtake their competitors. This would be a great way to stand out from other candidates, as it is a demonstration of dedication to the company, as well as a testament to your analytical skills and foresight. Your thoughts don’t have to be top-notch insights; the important thing is to show that you have given the competitors serious consideration and want to see your company come out on top.

When you transition from academia to industry, you will encounter terminology that is generally not used in academic labs. Examples of such terms are CRO, CMO, GxP, batch analysis, QA, and so on. You can however learn these terms in your leisure time, and sprinkle them appropriately in cover letters and interviews. Any given field only uses a fraction of these vocabulary in the hyperlink, so do not feel the need to learn or memorize all that are listed.

Note: The approach may backfire if terminologies is misused, so consider this a high-risk strategy. Use the terms sparingly just to show that you can speak the lingo.

This skill is especially valuable in a start-up, where you may be asked to wear different hats every day, and sometimes more than one at a time. An example would be juggling research scientist duties while being a client-facing project manager and general lab manager, all at different points of the day. While this may seem overwhelming, you always have teammates to lean on for support. If you feel equipped to take on and conquer multiple roles, make it known at your interview and you may find yourself with an offer soon after.

Project Management
One of the most highly sought skills among employers is project management. While this may be formally learnt through certificate programs, we have all already practiced some form of it over the course of our graduate studies. Leverage the insights you have picked up from managing your own projects, to demonstrate how invaluable your experience would be at helping guide and support the many projects at your company. To learn about the basics and terminology associated with project management, try here and here.

If you’d like to kickstart your career at a biotech start-up or similar work setting, the suggestions above will hopefully come in handy. Graduate school provides ample preparation for a shift to industry; how you present yourself and your skillset will make all the difference.

Annoj Thavalingam is an alumnus of the Department of Biochemistry, with experience working at a gene therapy start-up in Toronto. Please feel free to send any questions or comments by email to or through LinkedIn.

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