Hiring Scientists

A chemist, a cancer biologist, or both?

Nivien Therapeutics is the first undergrad-founded startup at IndieBio. However, unlike in tech, where college-age founders have become common, young founders can be a liability in biotech, where most founders have an MD or PhD. We knew that we would need to hire an experienced team.

We initially tried to recruit a postdoctoral fellow from MIT, but he accepted a faculty position at Yale. So with a couple months until IndieBio, we went on a search for a lead scientist with the right mix of expertise in medicinal chemistry and cancer biology.

The Ideal

We needed someone who could design molecules and optimize the systems to test them. A scientist who could predict the structure-activity relationships of chemical compounds and also interpret the results of biological assays.

Nivien Therapeutics is developing small molecules targeting the core kinases in a previously-unaddressed biochemical pathway. This kinase isn’t our target, it’s just a random crystal structure from PyMol.

This idealized scientist would have entrepreneurial spirit, veteran pharmaceutical industry experience and the willingness to work for generous equity but a limited starting salary.

While such scientists exist, they aren’t particularly common and they wouldn’t be easy to poach.

Cold Calls

We tried anyway. After failing to find a match in our network, we cold-called senior scientists and principal investigators at companies and research institutes across the US. We started with the Bay Area (our IndieBio lab is in downtown SF) and expanded outwards looking for the right fit.

We found great candidates, but almost all were happy with their current position and none took a second call. We considered search firms, but the fees were too high for our limited budget.

What if we adjusted our expectations?

At this stage in the life of a biotech company, getting answers to the biological questions is key. Can we prove this is a valid target? How will we predict potential side effects? What’s the true mechanism-of-action?

Much of the chemistry can — and often should — be outsourced to a reliable contract research organization (CRO). Novel biology, however, is typically done in-house.

Round Two

We repeated our search with this new perspective, even including a couple exceptional grad students a month or two from completing their doctorate in cancer biology. At the same time, I began talking with a few of the major CROs about partnering on the chemistry.

We continued to strike out. Cold-calling about a risky, underpaid opportunity is about as effective as you’d expect. Of the interested candidates, most turned out not to be a good fit. Many promising conversations were sunk by geography or last-minute wavering based on current employment. For scientists from outside SF, moving your entire life is hard, and if you already have a good job, it can be tough to walk out even if the new one is just a couple blocks away.

That’s when we had the simple, admittedly belated realization that we should explore the myriad recruitment platforms designed to help companies look for people actually looking for a new job.

Recruitment Platforms

We posted the opportunity on LinkedIn, AngelList, GlassDoor and a couple other websites. We also contacted the admins of job boards at universities. They were more accustomed to posts by pharmaceutical firms or other research institutes, but they were happy to diversify with a startup.

We ran into a few road-blocks. The best place for our post would be on a biotech-focused job board like the one administered by BioCentury, but it was expensive and we didn’t know if it would work. AngelList, despite having many biotech startups in its network, doesn’t have categories for biotech jobs. The help desk advised us to list the position under “Operations.” We received a dozen applications from software engineers.

After posting on LinkedIn, we received so many applicants that we had to rely on a spreadsheet. There’s a ton of interest in early-stage startups pursuing new targets.

LinkedIn, however, was an immediate success. Within a week — at $20/day — we had dozens of strong applicants. We spoke seriously with 56 relevant PhDs, 20 of whom were particularly compelling. This included six chemists, despite our prior decision to focus on cancer biologists.

We obviously should have tried LinkedIn earlier, but having never used it to look for a job myself, I’d never actually considered LinkedIn’s founding premise. It had always struck me as just another ‘social media and networking’ add-on that pushed notifications and stole time.

When you start a company with limited real-world experience, you make a lot of mistakes and learn a ton, from the profound to the banal. Realizing that LinkedIn should be an early stop in the recruitment process was a textbook case of the latter.

The Finals

One top candidate was finishing her postdoctoral fellowship at UCSF. She had a PhD in cancer biology and a BA in biochemistry. She had entrepreneurial ambitions (having previously applied to IndieBio herself) and a strong reference from her principal investigator. Most importantly, she worked with the same preclinical tumor models that we wanted to use. She was clearly the right person to lead our cancer biology.

However, another final candidate was a principal scientist from Allergan with a PhD in organic chemistry, a MA and BS in polymer chemistry, 15 peer-reviewed publications and 56 patents.

He was fluent in Mandarin and had spent the past two years consulting for CROs in China. Now he wanted to return to California and join a biotech startup pursuing novel therapeutic targets. He had three stellar references, including a recommendation from the senior vice president of chemistry at Allergan.

We’d decided to focus on cancer biology and we didn’t have enough money to hire two full-time scientists, but how could we turn away either extraordinary candidate?

The Results

At this point, we were several conversations into a potential partnership with Charles River Laboratories, one of the largest CROs. In return for committing to do our preclinical chemistry with them if we raised additional funding, the CRO would discount and defer the costs of the work we wanted done by May.

Charles River Laboratories is one of the major CROs, which can handle everything from preclinical animal trials to high-throughput small molecule screens.

However, looking at a 55-slide deck on Charles River’s integrated drug discovery programs and a 51-page report tailored by three of Charles River’s chemists to address the technical specifications of our medicinal chemistry plans, I recognized that I was out of my depth.

Did we want to do a fragment-based screen or a high-throughput screen? How much support did we want from the computer-aided drug design team? Should we include an exploration of homology models? What about removing kinase sub-libraries that had a low chance of binding?

Even though we’d be doing biology in-house, I decided we still needed someone experienced to quarterback our outsourced chemistry. On the guidance of our advisors, I spoke to a couple chemistry consultants to see if they could assume that responsibility part-time. In the end, I lacked confidence that we’d get the results we needed if we relied on a chemist without both intellectual and financial ownership of the program. That same week, we scored a small amount of additional funding.

So we took a final look at the biologist from UCSF and the chemist from Allergan and hired both. Monday will be our first day together in our new lab at IndieBio. I’ll let you know what happens next.


This post is part of a series of short essays about student entrepreneurship, VC, and translating scientific research into applied technologies. If you enjoyed reading this post check out the others below and feel free to get in touch!

Principal, RA Capital. Serve on boards of 6 biotech companies. Ex-Founder/CEO of Nivien Therapeutics. Writing is my own.

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