A life science careers blog for early career researchers
This blog aims to inspire early career researchers exploring different career options. We provide interview-based profiles of life scientists working in diverse science-related careers and articles on a broad range of career-related topics, with new content added on a regular basis.
David Jackson, CIO at Molecular Health, recently gave a talk about innovation in personalized medicine to postdocs at EMBL. Following his talk, we took the opportunity to interview him about a career that took him from a wet-lab PhD at EMBL to leading bioinformatics innovation in biotech.
According to David, working in startups and biotechs offers the chance to work where real innovation happens. The start-up environment can suit scientists who love connecting ideas from different areas to solve problems and have a willingness to take informed risk. As a hiring manager, David looks for applicants with both talent and compatible personality. He advises those interested in working in this area to take some time to understand what drives start-ups and to take an interest in business so that you are able to understand what ideas could have market value.
You can find the full interview below. We thank David for sharing his time and insight.
If you are interested in this career area, you can find additional resources at:
Your first role was at an EMBL spin-out – how did you get that first role?
I was doing my PhD at EMBL in the group of Dirk Bohmann, studying neurogenic signaling during drosophila eye development. I was a wet lab scientist, but had an interest in computing from a young age and I’d been using bioinformatics tools for hypothesis generation in the lab. Towards the end of my PhD, EMBL’s first spin-out company was being established – LION Bioscience. LION was a bioinformatics company that connected two distinct EMBL developed technologies. The business model involved the sequencing of genomes (mainly bacterial) followed by the use of an automated technology for genome characterization and target finding. I was always interested in business and had strong instinctive feeling that LION had the right ingredients to do something truly revolutionary. I also felt that the more directed approach to discovery, one where a business vision could be implemented through data and analytics would suit me better than continuing in lab-based research. So, I went directly to the founders of the company and asked for a job. They initially turned me down as they were strictly looking for hardcore bioinformaticians. But I knew I wanted in, so I called them up again and said, “I want in, I’ll work for nothing”. Luckily for me they recognized the value of my enthusiasm and offered me a trainee role of sorts, writing the documentation for the bioinformatics software, with the agreement that my role would be reviewed once I’d completed that initial 6 months “training”. After six months I transitioned to establish and head of the target finding group, which was later instrumental in securing and executing many of LION’s most important business deals.
Start-ups can be notoriously unstable. Did the company make it?
LION first years were incredibly successful – the collaboration with Bayer for example was worth 50$ million alone – and in 2000 we hit the stock market with >$1 Billion valuation. However, towards the end of the dotcom bubble, we faced a number of external challenges. Firstly, the appearance of bioinformatics degrees in every university was coupled with the open source availability of many bioinformatics tools. So now pharma companies were suddenly in a position to hire their own bioinformaticians to build proprietary systems. Secondly, the dotcom bubble collapsed and with it a significant amount of business trust. This was shortly followed by 9/11 where LION tragically lost its Chief Financial Officer. Despite these challenges, the company eventually merged with another Heidelberg-based biotech. So, from the simple beginnings of begging for a job to the crescendo (and fall) of billion dollar valuations, this was an enormously important experience for me – one in which a lifetime of experience in the ingredients of business success and failure were learned over a short three year period.
Since then you started a couple of companies and have been CIO at Molecular Health for 10 years. So your career has been pretty successful. What do you think has been instrumental in that success?
At the risk of sounding cliched, I guess it ultimately stems from the belief that one can actually make the world a better place – that there are better and sometimes more cost-effective ways of doing things. While I thoroughly enjoyed my research years, a fundamental difference between research and entrepreneurialism/innovation is that research converts money to knowledge, whilst innovation converts knowledge into direct value for people, while typically generating money in the process – and so the cycles begin again. To be successful you need to identify problems that really matter and then work through them so that you can develop solutions that ultimately bring value. Doing this on a grand scale can mean challenging current norms, so I believe it helps to be somewhat rebellious in nature, coupled with an innate sense of wanting to make things better. In this environment there is still a certain amount of “artistic/academic freedom” to try new ideas – but this needs to be tied to an intention to find a fit between great science/technology and people’s needs. Just doing something new is not good enough – you need to deliver value that people are willing to pay for.
You are currently CIO of Molecular Health GmbH – what does this role involve?
It’s a role whose function and responsibilities has evolved with time, but there are three main components: 1) Development and management of product innovation, 2) Innovation culture and 3) Innovation governance. In the early days, I was responsible for developing the concepts and ideas upon which we built the technology. Back in those days I spent all my time on concepts, prototypes, designs, interactions with customers, understanding their pain points, and designing/implementing prototypes. That then evolved into patent writing, and marketing our innovations. I also spent some time writing papers – although the reality of company life is that you don’t get time to do this on company hours so that was essentially a weekend hobby of sorts. As the company matured, culture, innovation governance and regulation also became important. Our software technology is classed as a medical device and with that comes regulatory requirements and standard operating procedures (SOPs). However, Innovation culture is one of the key fabrics of a start-up – so trying to balance that at a governance level is important. It’s therefore also important to think about how do you capture ideas and the technologies that support it – and how do we keep bureaucracy at bay. Intelligent people tend to be inspired by how they are developing as a person and how much their work is appreciated. We have a flexible seminar series with a mix of invited speakers and videos, for example TED talks. We finish such sessions by asking “what does all that mean for us as a company and the patients we serve?” and then capture ideas that can be pumped back into our product/prototype development pipeline.
For you what makes working in start-ups and small biotech different to pharma?
For me this environment is where the real innovation happens. If you look at big pharma, much of their innovation comes from acquiring smaller companies and many are still rather entrenched in tradition. My fear with pharma was that I would end up getting in the traditional run of the mill approach to drug development. There are companies like Roche and Novartis who are breaking down those traditions and realizing that they need to become more like data-driven engineering companies if they are going to solve the failing blockbuster paradigm. While they made a number of high-profile acquisitions lately, I believe that this is a path that they will continue along – and I personally prefer to be sitting on the side of the acquired rather than the acquirer.
What in your experience is the biggest challenge in leading innovation in startups and biotech?
In the beginning, the biggest challenge is that you need to turn off the academic mindset of doing cool stuff that provide us with knowledge and growth – but might not be of immediate real-life value to anyone else. You need to be much more focused and sometimes really just tone down the vision and realize that you need to go step by step. The concept of minimal viable product is a very important one. The way to do that is to go out there and talk and listen and work out where the key pain points of potential customers are. It’s also really important to have a devoted investor, as you often have a long runway for disruptive technology to be accepted. We are in the lucky situation to have a very powerful investor – the founder and ex-CEO of SAP, Dr. Dietmar Hopp. He has been a wonderful champion of new innovations in the biotech space, particularly in southern Germany.
And the best part about your job?
The knowledge that our innovations can positively affect both patient quality of life and potentially their overall survival is certainly the most fulfilling aspect. It is certainly a far cry from the days of my PhD where I was admittedly frustrated by the distance between my work in Drosophila and its potential to positively impact societal health over the short term. However, I have since come to better appreciate the importance of a cycle that allows researchers to convert money to knowledge, and for innovators to convert knowledge to money – each part of this cycle is dependent on the other. I personally prefer proximity to the patient and being part of a talented team that is pushing a new era in evidence-driven medicine is hugely fulfilling.
As a hiring manager, what kind of roles do you hire for, and what do you look for in applications?
We’re really looking for two things: talent and personality. We are particularly focused on attracting key talent in the data science space, which nowadays can be very challenging. It is difficult for a small company such as ours to financially compete with the likes of Google or Amazon for expertise in Artificial Intelligence (AI). But what we can offer is the chance to get more directly involved in the lives of patients and a multicultural team of experts working within a learning environment that allows people to grow with autonomy. From this perspective, we are always looking for a good balance of talent and personality. Talent is an obvious requirement (a good publication record always helps), but cultural aspects can also be a really key contribution to the company – by acting as a social framework around which successes can be celebrated and failures met with positivity and learning.
What proportion of your hires come from networking vs open recruitment?
The network route was a lot more common in the beginning. Now that we are a more established company the more traditional approach has largely taken its place. So we have open applications, with a first screening from the HR team and then the hiring manager.
What do you think smaller companies can offer employees?
Smaller companies are often synonymous with a more innovative environment. This probably has much to do with the need to move fast in a very directed manner, so trust, autonomy, team-spirit, flexibility are all critical to success. Small companies also offer more of a direct learning & high-performance atmosphere, where diversity is respected and informed risk-taking encouraged. Ultimately, I also believe that one is much closer to the customer/user – in our case this means doctors and patients, and I can think of no better inspiration and reward than developing new solutions to improve the quality and success of directly addressing human disease.
What advice would you give to people interested in going into this area?
The transition from academia to industry is not one to be taken lightly. If you are someone who enjoys generating new knowledge through basic research, then industry may not be the place for you. However, if you feel strongly inspired to get closer to the development of products that directly bring value to people, then the transition to industry is definitely worth exploring. If you follow the start-up path, you need to bring a willingness to work towards aggressive milestones and take informed risks. You also need to realize that it is not always possible to chase your ideas, unless they have been somehow validated by a market need. It’s also a good idea to look at the incentives offered by a start-up, particularly in terms of the stock options. These can offer potential returns that far exceed your annual salary, but success is key to unlocking that opportunity. This can be very much a win-win situation for investors, employers and employees and it is an opportunity that rarely presents itself in more established company situations (e.g. big pharma).
How does the work-life balance compare to academia?
I always find that quite had to answer – it depends a lot on your personal situation. While my time at EMBL often involved 7 day work weeks with long hours in the lab, things are certainly more balanced these days. This is not because the workload has somehow decreased, but I am less bound to a specific place of work, and change of context alone can be important for at least the feeling of balance. Truth be told though, when you are passionate about something, the concept of work-life balance can become a bit obsolete. For example, I recently acquired an olive grove where I have now set myself the goal of producing medicinal quality extra virgin olive oil, harboring large quantities of Oleocanthal, a natural anti-inflammatory compound not unlike ibuprofen (you can read the story so far here). So while this is something that is still related to my passion for science and art, it provides the perfect balance – it is both work and life!
David can be contacted on LinkedIn, by email at email@example.com or via the EMBL Alumni Directory.
EMBL staff / fellows can also search and contact other alumni working in industry research to seek career advice / informal mentoring via the EMBL Alumni Directory. Please see our article on informational interviews for ideas on how to make the most of such opportunities.