In 2021 I did something I never thought I would do: I joined Talus Bioscience, a Seattle-based biotech startup, as their Senior Data Scientist.
Two months in, I have no regrets.
In this post, I’m going to talk about why I decided to join Talus in hopes that my thoughts and decisions might help you with your career choices down the road. As you read, keep in mind that this is my experience, which may or may not reflect your own; after all, I’m writing from a privileged position and this post contains nothing more than my own thoughts and opinions. With that disclaimer, let’s jump in.
Part I: Applying for faculty jobs is… um… fun.
I joined Bill Noble’s lab in the summer of 2018 as a postdoc, with the intention to find a faculty job in a few years. Things went well: Bill was an excellent mentor, I loved my research, I learned a ton, and I met a lot of cool people (including Lindsay Pino, who was wrapping up her PhD in Bill’s and Mike’s labs at the time). By my own standards, I’d say my postdoc time was productive. I ended up with a few first-author papers in a good field journal, but no K99 or CNS papers to bolster my CV. Regardless, when 2020 came around, I decided to take my first crack at the faculty job market.
At this point you might be laughing (I would be). After all, the faculty job market was in turmoil with many universities in the middle of a hiring freeze due to the raging pandemic. So, not the best time to apply. The thing is, I am of the opinion that the goal of postdoc training is ultimately to land a permanent position somewhere—or in other words, to move on from being a postdoc. Thus—regardless of the crazy world circumstances—I pulled together my application materials, prepared job and chalk talks, and submitted completed applications to around 20 departments. Everyone says faculty job applications are a ton of work; I firmly agree with this sentiment.
Alas, the job search didn’t work out—this post is about why I joined a startup after all—but preparing for job talks and formulating my research vision was a valuable experience. In fact, I think it was this vision that piqued the interest of a friend: Lindsay approached me in the winter of 2020 and asked if I would be interested in joining a new biotech startup she had founded with Alex Federation, Talus Bioscience…
Part II: Why I didn’t want to join a startup.
I think to understand my decision, you first need to know why I had never considered joining a startup before joining Talus. Whether accurate or not, these were the preconceptions that I brought to the table:
Startups are inherently risky endeavors—and I am typically risk averse. I think this is for good reason: I have a family to support. Inevitably, many startups fail within a few years, leaving its employees jobless and their equity worthless. Is this risk something I was willing to accept?
The stereotypical startup lifestyle sounds like a nightmare. TV shows and stories tell us that joining a startup means sacrificing nigh all of your waking hours to the company. I don’t think this is a healthy or enjoyable way to live and this was not something I ever want to put my family through.
You lose academic freedom in a startup. One of the primary reasons to pursue a tenure track faculty job in a science department is the promise of academic freedom. This is the freedom to orient your research program to answer the questions that you think are most important and interesting. At a startup—or really any company—you lose this freedom, because your research must ultimately benefit the company.
Startup salaries stink, with promises of riches through equity. It’s no secret that startups pay less in salary than their more established counterparts. In part, this is out of necessity due to scarce resources. However, it is also to align employees' incentives with the company; because employees are financially invested in the success of the company, they should work harder toward its success than they might otherwise. While logical, once again this triggered my risk aversion.
Part III: So, with all of these concerns, why did I join Talus?
After reading the previous section, you might be wondering how I came around to a joining biotech startup at all. After a lot of thought and debate, here’s what I concluded:
Startups are risky, but Talus isn’t. I think that startups likely fail because of (1) technical issues with their product, (2) a poor market for the product, or (3) failure to raise funds effectively. I saw all of these as low risk with Talus. I’ve known Lindsay for years now and I can say, without hesitation, that she is the most talented quantitative mass spectrometrist I know—and she is unyielding in the quality she demands of her data. Thus, I have no doubt in the ability of Talus to technically execute our on technology. Likewise, the market for drugs targeting transcription factors—and technologies to find them—is huge. The last concern was assuaged by candid conversations about the current and future finances of Talus with Alex and Lindsay.
Even a risky startup is less risky than a postdoc position. Graduating students pursue academic postdoc positions largely with the goal of obtaining a tenure track faculty position. I think the cost here is huge and often underestimated: postdoc positions are by definition temporary training positions and often poorly compensated, even without considering the bad odds of landing a coveted tenure track position. In a way, doing a postdoc is a bit like joining the worst paying startup that you know is going to fail in a few years—often only to join another one afterwards. My suggestion is then, don’t do a postdoc unless you have another good reason for doing so, such as essential training that you will receive. I propose that joining Talus was actually less risky than staying in my postdoc position.1
Startup culture is specific to the startup. After meeting with Alex and Lindsay a couple times, I knew that Talus' culture would not demand the stereotypical startup lifestyle. Yes, we work hard to achieve our goals, but not to point of exhaustion and burnout. I think this is not only good for me and my family, but it is also critical to maintaining a healthy and efficient company—in my experience, nothing solves unsolvable problems like rest and hobbies. It’s also worth mentioning that the tenure clock exerts similar pressure for this burnout lifestyle on new professors, so it is something that must be addressed either way.
Academic freedom is an illusion. In reality—at least in recent times—a new professor is largely restricted to research projects that they can shoehorn into the topics prioritized by their favorite government grant program (in my case, this would be through the NIH). In a startup, you are restricted to the ideas that you can pitch to venture capitalists, or support the direction of the company in general. My question is, which is more restrictive? I think, there is actually more freedom as a startup founder or early employee than there is as a new professor.
My research vision and Talus' needs perfectly aligned. Along with the previous point, I was fortunate that my research vision was to pursue types of technologies that would be of immense benefit to Talus. This was perfect for me: I’ve gotten to start the exact research program that I wanted. I also have access to way more experimental expertise than I would have starting a computational academic lab.
Startup salaries are higher than postdocs positions, and often higher than assistant professor positions too. In academia, it is often easy to brush compensation aside under the argument that we’re performing a service for humanity. However, I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive. Why not take the higher salary to do the same research? We’re saving to buy a house now and I don’t think its a bad thing.
Now is the time—especially for proteomics. Venture capital funding for biotech startups is surging currently and there is a ton of interest in proteomics as the new frontier. Compared to the stagnant NIH funding levels, I don’t know if there will ever be a better time than this to join a biotech startup.
Research becomes reality faster. As an academic, you often need to spin out a startup or have an industry partner to bring your research into the clinic.2 That barrier doesn’t exist if you’re at a startup already: My research is directly integrated into the products and services that we develop at Talus.
I’ve written a lot of words for this post, but I think my decision really boiled down to this: I joined Talus because I believe in the company’s technology, mission, and founders. In the best case, I’ll have a hand in developing revolutionary therapeutics that with help countless people. While I lean toward that outcome, the worst case is that I’ll have gained valuable experience without having stayed a postdoc… forever.