Indie science update

November 28, 2013

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..

 

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  • Emily Shumchenia

    Hi Ethan,

    I find these updates really interesting! I’m in a similar situation, only a few months behind you (and with a more marine environmental focus, not biotech). I hadn’t heard of B corps until you mentioned them. Intriguing. How are you going to set up for tax purposes (if you don’t mind me asking)? I’m considering setting up an LLC with S-corp status (hiring myself as the sole employee, for now). Currently I’m doing mostly consulting to make ends meet, but I’m hoping to leverage that into more robust research opportunities. If I’m lucky I’ll even have a few papers out soon on some of my last 6 months of work. I’m really hopeful that this “science business” model could work – and happy to have others out here doing the same!

    • Ethan O. Perlstein

      Hi Emily,

      Thanks for the comment! So interesting to hear about your story. I just checked out your website and the seafloor mapping project looks really cool! In my biotech bubble I lose sight of the fact that there are non-biotech young scientists out there who don’t want to abandon their science, either. Conventional wisdom says that it’s harder for the non-biotech folks to go indie because you can’t patent the environment, but the consulting model seems to be a generalizable solution to keeping folks in their science (and in their homes).

      Right now there aren’t any tax advantages to being a B corp. So, investors don’t get a savings, nor do the founders. But I suspect there will be changes to the tax code to encourage investment in B corps once it goes mainstream. (As of last count I think there are only 830 B corps in the US). Right now I believe on 20 or so states have B corp laws on their books, but 10 more are expected to follow suit within the year. One of the more recent states to add it is Delaware, the famed incorporation oasis for many.

      I’ll be doing a post on legal stuff soon, but what I recommend is getting some free 15-30 minute consult calls with lawyers who have some kind of experience in corporate and environmental law. If you ask focused questions, you can learn quite a lot. Once you’re more informed about your options, you can then use a site like Lawdingo to hire a lawyer for microtasks, like document review. Most lawyers on Lawdingo show their billing rate per 5 minutes!

  • Jordi Tauler Vaillet

    Hi Ethan,

    I’ve discovered today your lab website and this website. I was intrigued by a conversation that I had yesterday about new independent labs in California. I think what you did is awesome.

    I think I am in the same path but really behind you at this point. Although some months ago we founded Innovation Cancer Reseach (http://innovationcancerresearch.org) to focus on new innovative projects in cancer research specially in under funded and low survival cancers. We think that the way grants and the academic system work is to avoid risk and go for secure projects leaving innovation behind. We’re in the first steps of our new foundation but I am also thinking about other ideas.

    Right now I’ve managed to secure a part-time position at University of Illinois at Chicago but this is not good enough. It might change to a full time position but at this point in my career is very frustrating. So, I am all for exploring new options and maybe become another independent scientist very soon.

    Anyway, I want to congratulate for all your work and amazing results. Maybe one day we can talk about other crazy ideas.

    Best

    Jordi