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On "Join a Startup"

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MaRS Discovery District, Toronto, Canada This ...

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In my humble opinion, Deepak’s latest posts lacked a little bit of whatever his posts had in the past. First he comes with the original idea that funding science is important. Then he claims that if you don’t want to stay in academia, you should join a startup or start one.

I agree with both his posts. But this is not what I want from Deepak, I want more and these don’t deliver. It’s not because I’m (or half of me) in academia that I think science funding is important. Science funding is important in any aspect of life, and it’ll always be. That’s what drives the economy of a country, innovation, and innovation comes from science, either in academia or in industry. But, I’m not here to write about funding. I want to write about joining a startup, and I have two stories to tell.

The first one is personal the second not so much. Early in 2004 I decided to look for a job in a company. I was a little bit frustrated with my scientific results and I might have realized at the time that academic life was not for me. I tried searching companies in Canada and Europe, and didn’t have much luck in either place. But a couple of months after I started searching, I found a nice startup in Europe with a fancy website (for the time) and what looked like a promising future. At least from what I saw on the website, they had some money from the government of such country to use on bioinformatics research. I contacted the person responsible for the company and had a great reception, and we exchanged a good number of emails for more than an year, trying to find ways to find moeny so I can spend some time at the company and see if we connected. I had at the time an impression that company, even though being only a small startup, was solid and they were planning for a bright future. Then later in 2005 I found the opportunity to meet with the owner of the company. There was a conference in Europe and I was awarded a travel grant, which would cover 1/3 of the costs of going there. Everything was set with the person and we were to meet at the conference.

When I got there, I searched and searched for the person. Then I remembered that a couple of months before he would be doing some kind of internship at one of the best European’s bioinformatics institutes. I asked around and learned that he was a lab X at such institute and he wouldn’t come to the conference due to some “last minute problems”. OK, I thought, wait and see. I wrote a polite email when I got back, and ceased any type of correspondence with such person. Early in 2006, I learned that he closed the company and accepted a position in another institute. And much later he found a position in another company.

Lessons? Yes, at least one, or maybe many. Joining a startup is risky, and will give you less stability than joining a big company, like Amazon. Don’t trust everyone in a startup (as you shouldn’t trust everyone in a big company) even if they have governmental funding. Joining a startup will give more intellectual flexibility, that’s a a give, but you have to calculate if that’s a pro or a con. As anything in life there’s two sides (or multiple), and this has to be a well thought decision, to avoid being lured by promises and frustrated with no delivery.

The other story comes from a lecture I watched a couple of years ago. The lab I was working at the time moved to the MaRS complex in downtown Toronto. MaRS is also an incubator and to foster new entrepreneurship, and one of the activities is an 101 seminar series. One of the seminars was what were the difficulties oof creating a startup in clinical/medical research. I remember the slides of this woman and each company she had created and sold after a couple of years. She gave the name of at least eight companies there had been absorbed by large companies, which were then absorbed by even larger companies. And she talked about this for more than an hour. Lesson? You can get very lucky if the startup you’re in gets bought by a larger company. But remember, large companies might not be interested in you, or you might not be long enough in the startup to receive any dividends of the incorporation. As in the previous story, be careful and check everything before accepting anything.

So, these were my stories with startups. A final lesson: if advice were good, people would sell it, not publish for free on the internet. Use the two cents I gave you the best you can.

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