Indie science update
A journey from academia to startup land, and all the pit stops in between.
My first day in the “real world” was January 1, 2013. For the previous 12 years, I inhabited the blissful cocoon of academic research. First as a graduate student in a big lab rife with funding and collaborative opportunities, and then as an independent postdoc managing a small group and a research program. Like many of those on the wrong side of the 7 to 1 ratio of trainees to faculty jobs, I succumbed to #postdocalypse. In my case, after two job-cycle bites at the R1 assistant professor apple.
The above figure is reproduced from a recent article in Nature Biotechnology. Academia is empirically broken. Stating that fact doesn’t make me a sore loser, or diminish the achievement of those who luckily swung a full-time academic position. In the life sciences, my domain, 80% of PhDs don’t land on the tenure track. Imagine if 80% of MDs didn’t go on to practice medicine?
Now according to conventional wisdom, failed postdocs like me who don’t get a faculty job of their choosing — or any offers at all — are supposed to abandon science gracefully. Unless of course they get a staff scientist position of one rank or another in industry. But then they have much less control (if any) over what kind of science they do when shareholders exercise veto power.
It is also acceptable for recovering academics to colonize the periphery of active research, as communicators, editors, policy wonks, administrators, among others. While I think all of those non-research jobs are wonderful options and vital parts of the grand scientific enterprise, none of them are a great fit for me. I still want to be directly involved in a research program of my choosing, day in and day out. Outside of a university or an existing biopharma company, my only recourse was entrepreneurship, i.e., starting my own company.
So I set out on a path of professional metamorphosis that continues to this day. At the outset, it took me weeks just to get my bearings. Twitter was my rock. I started following people in the startup world, including founders, investors and commentators — even a few wantrepreneurs for balance and levity. I started following the rare/orphan disease community in order to inform my new scientific mission. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met in IRL over the last 11 months because of a Twitter conversation.
By the end of February, I had secured a part-time job as a consultant/blogger for science crowdfunding startup Microryza. By April, I had relocated to the San Francisco Bay Area, and I started calling myself an independent scientist, in the tradition of Peter Mitchell, Carolyn Porco and others. By May, I had posted an open proposal that described prototyping experiments that bridged my legacy academic projects in psychopharmacology to my burgeoning interest in rare disease drug discovery. By July, I was doing experiments again at temporary lab space in a quasi-academic research institute in Berkeley. By August, I was tweeting and blogging about the project I call Yeast de Résistance. By September, I had attended my first rare disease conference (the Global Genes Summit) as an invited speaker. And by last month, I was passing around a draft of my business plan for feedback.
I still call myself an independent scientist, but now I’ve added another title: founder of Perlstein Lab, B Corp, a mission-driven biotech startup focused on personalized orphan disease drug discovery. Much more to come on this in the weeks ahead..