Dropping Science

The delta between academic lab projects and a commercial product is huge and often underestimated. Similarly, the challenge of moving from a science-based culture to a product/commercially minded one is equally daunting. I’ve found myself working this set of issues for almost a decade. Recently, I’ve learned that the problem is more acute in companies that have a biological component to the product.

In my web and hardware days, we hired “engineers.” In biotech and bio-diagnostics (like Novophage), a disproportionate percentage of job candidates call themselves “scientists.” This distinction is more than just a name, it suggests to me that there’s an inherent lab bias in the culture and training of today’s biotech community. The desire to think in an applied manner hasn’t permeated this community as strongly as the software or hardware communities. Some of this may stem from the state of maturation of biological sciences relative to other fields – perhaps it’s more like the web circa 1995.

I’ve also observed that bio-based companies tend to speak much more about platforms than products. This is an interesting paradox to me. I would have expected a focus on solving constrained problems given the sheer complexity and lack of understanding of biological processes.

As trite as it seems, I think the physical barrier of a separate lab impacts this mentality as well. In my previous ventures, our office was a giant open bullpen where marketing guys and coders were a few feet from each other. However, with a physical lab, you’re forced to separate those in the lab from those outside the lab. There are good reasons for having a separate lab (e.g. spilling pathogens in the conference room is not usually a good idea) but the barrier translates both physically and psychologically.

At Novophage, we’ve worked hard to address these issues by taking a somewhat unique approach to company building. We keep our burn lean by avoiding high salaries and buying used equipment. We’re building a mindset around short-term milestones that translate directly to market needs. We talk about products and specific value creation to a customer as opposed to general platform capabilities. That’s not say we neglect the ultimate long-term value of what we’re building, but rather our day-to-day activities are focused on specific goals. Just as I’ve done in previous ventures, we have daily huddles where everyone quickly shares what their goals are and relevant updates for the group.

Changing mindsets and cultures is not easy work, however, I think it’s critical for commercial success. For the first time in my career, I believe I am not simply trying to build a great new product, but also bring a different development philosophy to the field of biological tools. That’s pretty inspiring.