18 months ago I was a washed up postdoc. Today I’m a biotech entrepreneur, indie scientist and aspiring orphan drug discoverer. Here’s Part One of the story of my professional reinvention.
I won’t lie. There were moments during the raw winter months of 2013 following my exit from academia when I flirted with relapse. A second postdoc was out of the question but maybe, I thought, I could claw my way onto the tenure track as an adjunct or associate adjunct or some such vassal at a university that wouldn’t have my CV right away but would grow to love me. I’d seen friends from my peer group do it, and after 7-8 years they’d made it to the Assistant Professor Promised Land.
What’s another decade of auditions when a lifetime of intellectual freedom awaited me?
“If they can do it, I can do it.” “I’m going to give it an honest go.” Precisely the kind of thinking that gets a lot of trainees into trouble. Those mantras combined with a systemic oversupply of PhDs relative to academic job openings, Malthusian grantsmanship, and a relentless publish-or-perish imperative forged Generation Postdocalypse. But this is not a fight for one person. So I convinced my wife to pack up our 1-bedroom New York City lives into 30-odd FedEx boxes 13 months ago, and we set a course to sunny drought-ridden, startup-drunk Northern California.
With my risk tolerance and her risk aversion in equilibrium, what could go wrong?
Since arriving, I’ve used my blog as a professional travelogue, commemorating milestones. Like when I searched for and found temporary lab space last spring to keep momentum going on legacy academic projects, and to sort out how to do what I and others (Jacob Shiach, Cindy Wu, et al) were calling “indie science.” Or how I landed on my feet as a part-time consultant and blogger for Experiment.com (formerly Microryza), a crowdfunding platform for science, and witnessed firsthand the exhilarating and stomach-dropping ride of a young startup.
Or how I learned about the orphan disease space, connected with patients and advocates over Twitter, and came to realize that evolutionary pharmacology could be an alternative to gene therapy and enzyme replacement for the simplest of genetic diseases, which are caused by a single broken gene. Or how Linda Avey graciously hosted a salon for me 11 months ago, where I first pitched the idea of a mission-driven, patient-centered biotech startup that could be seeded by angels and patrons.
Then my blog went quiet starting last fall, when I left Experiment to devote myself full-time to writing a bona fide business plan for Perlstein Lab. That process kicked into high gear when Wendy White, founder of Siren Interactive, and a cousin of one of the guests at Linda’s salon, invited me to the 2013 Global Genes Patient Advocacy Summit in Newport Beach. I reconnected with advocates whom I first met six months earlier in Bethesda at Rare Disease Day 2013, and I also made new connections, especially in the lysosomal storage disease space.
The foundation for what became Perlstein Lab was actually laid in my first few weeks as a Bay Area transplant, when my brother, Henry, and I spent hours brainstorming about each other’s proto-startups. It was like our very own Y Combinator — though fewer Paul Graham sightings. I got the idea for incorporating Perlstein Lab as a benefit/B corporation from Henry. So by the time I began soliciting peer review for the first draft of the Perlstein Lab business plan, I’d already spent months rolling it around in my head.
That peer review process consumed the entire fall of 2013. I was confident about the science, but not as secure about the business side. One of the first reviewers was Adam Scott Bristol, a life science VC who first reached out to me by email in May 2013 in response to my Twitter and blogospheric goings on about indie science. In the end several life science VCs reviewed the plan, including David Grainger, another life science VC tweep, and Carrie Mantha, who went to college with my best friend from childhood, and worked in venture capital but now runs a fashion tech startup. Most of the reviewers are folks I met on Twitter, which is the part of my story that is most generalizable.
Grizzled veterans of Pharma, like Martin Eglitis and John Alan Tucker, also weighed in with comments specific to medicinal chemistry and cautionary tales of attrition rates of drug candidates. Cathy Tralau-Stewart, who ran Imperial College’s academic drug discovery shop, not only read over the plan but also met me for coffee, and has made several key e-intros since. Adam Shaywitz, Medical Director at BioMarin, commented on primordial disease models. (Even though Adam and I connected on Twitter, I knew his older brother David from my first graduate rotation in Doug Melton’s lab at Harvard in 2001!)
It was also important to me to get feedback from patient advocates, and two in particular deserve a shout-out: Oli Rayner and Sean Ekins. Oli is a cystic fibrosis advocate and self-described “double delta F508-CFTR mutant.” I had the privilege of meeting Oli in person in London last October. Oli helped me ground some of the more stratospheric elements of the plan. Sean is the first ex-Pharma scientist I met with a passion to solve orphan disease puzzles, and one of the first scientists to take me seriously on the heels of academic rejection. It’s through Sean that I met Jill Wood of Jonah’s Just Begun and Lori Sames of Hannah’s Hope Fund, two of the most inspiring rare disease Moms I’ve met on my journey so far.
Without those many hours of free counsel (presumably worth thousands and thousands of dollars) that I received from this amazing crew I couldn’t have possibly contemplated fundraising from strangers. I officially kicked off my fundraising tour at Partnering for Cures in NYC last November, thanks to an unexpected invite from Faster Cure’s Kim McCleary, who per usual found me on Twitter. I can remember after the first night of the conference thinking: “I have no idea how this will play out, but I know that somehow I will raise the money.” The next day I had professional speed dates with players in the orphan disease space, like Cristina Csimma from Cydan. They were uniformly nice but universally noncommittal. They told me that Perlstein Lab sounded like a cool idea but that it was “too early-stage.” Come back to us in a year, they said. (I later realized that early-stage to them meant Phase 1a).
The last day of the conference I woke up with a song stuck in my head that no amount of subsequent YouTube replays could vanquish:
I flew back to California with that damn song on a loop. I wasn’t really deterred though. Years of being an experimentalist inured me to failure. But the 2013 holiday season meant fundraising would grind to halt. Part Two of the story resumes on 1/1/14 with – you guessed it – the tweet that changed my professional life…