From neuropeptides to financial services technology solutions? A case demonstrating the value of transferable skills

Written by: Abhiram Pushparaj

I first met Reuben De Almeida during undergrad at the University of Toronto Scarborough (UTSC), where we were both specializing in Neuroscience. After graduation we went our separate ways but saw each other occasionally as we both pursued graduate studies in the Life Sciences at UofT. Recently, I had the good fortune to connect with Reuben again and to my surprise, he was now employed at Davis and Henderson (D+H), a financial technology solutions firm, as an Innovations Intake Coordinator. Being as intrigued by his career path as you likely are, I sat down with him for an interview to discover the whole story behind where he is today.

Q:  Could you give me a brief background on your education thus far?

A:  I was always interested in biology throughout high school and decided to pursue a Neuroscience Specialist degree for my undergraduate studies at UTSC.  One of the courses I took during my degree was an advanced neuroscience laboratory course that exposed me to some of the skills and thinking behind neuroscience research. I was very interested in building my critical thinking skills and really liked the process of developing a focused question and then planning and executing experiments to determine an answer.  With that in mind, I decided to pursue a Masters in the department of Cell and Systems Biology with Dr. David Lovejoy.  My thesis was entitled “Modulation of Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) Axis Parameters by Teneurin C-terminal Associated Peptides (TCAP-1)”.  I learnt many new molecular biology techniques and my research generally went well, for the first six months at least.  And then I hit a period of time (likely experienced by most graduate students!) where it just seemed like nothing was working!  One can imagine the stress of the situation, but worse still was the fact that the reason for the failed experiments was not clear.  I eventually worked things out and was able to conclude my research and defend my thesis, but I realized that the serendipitous nature of research was something I just didn’t know whether I had the stomach for.  Though I initially wanted to pursue a PhD, I decided it might be better to try to get some work experience before making the decision.

Q:  How did you find the job search process after graduating with your Masters?

A: I honestly didn’t have much of a plan before graduating and only really started looking into options and opportunities once I was out of grad school.  I initially started looking for work positions in hospitals and research institutions and was focused primarily on the Pharmaceutical industry where I saw more positions available.  I thought that I could try and leverage the technical skills I gained during my graduate research but found that I wasn’t really getting many interviews.  I started to realize that employers weren’t really interested in my publications and I would’ve been better off having had some level of work experience in the pharmaceutical industry even at the summer student or co-op/intern levels.  Networking is something I definitely could’ve used if I had gotten to it during my graduate studies. Finally, through the LSCDS Annual Career Day, I networked with people at the Ontario Centres of Excellence and realized an interest in technology transfer and innovation.  I found the process of evaluating the potential of research for business development really exciting and thought about trying to find a position there.  Unfortunately, those positions seemed even more difficult to get without some level of work experience. All in all, I realized that my initial idea of a Masters education being enough just wasn’t working out and I needed to find a way to get some non-academic experience to enhance my employability.

Q:  What did you decide to do to gain some non-academic experience?

A:  I decided to start slow and began looking for volunteer opportunities to get some experience with the tech transfer process.  After a fair bit of searching I finally got a volunteer position with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in their Industry Partnerships and Technology Transfer office.  Our office was focused on “reactive innovation” which is essentially looking at potential commercial value of new research coming out of CAMH laboratories. My position there was focused on peptide drug development, which fit nicely with my graduate education, and there was a need to fully understand all aspects of the research we were looking to develop.  I very quickly began to learn a lot, such as performing market research to gain insight on current pharmaceutical development, learning the patent application process, preparing non-confidential summaries of CAMH therapeutics for potential partners,  understanding the process of building industry partnerships and licensing opportunities, and making pitch presentations to potential partners.  During that time, I also decided to take a project management course from the UofT School of Continuing Studies.  After several months as a volunteer I was offered an internship position (sponsored by the Ontario Brain Institute) which allowed me to expand my involvement at CAMH and gain different skills with regards to intellectual property due diligence, competitive landscape analysis, and evaluating market need and economic potential.  I found a lot of excellent resources through the Licensing Executives Society and the Association of University Technology Managers.  Overall, this experience really gave me an understanding of the full process and different frameworks behind commercializing research.

Q:  How did that experience help you land your current position at D+H?

A:  I was literally just looking around at positions posted through LinkedIn and came across the Innovations Intake Coordinator posting from D+H.  The description was definitely not up my alley. I had no education or experience in finance or banking much less financial technology, but I did have the basic skills required; analytical, organizational, research, presentation, and communication skills.  I decided to apply and to try and leverage the experience I gained during my CAMH Internship and my fundamental research skills from my graduate education.  I focused on the transferable skills applicable to innovation commercialization, whether for scientific research or financial technology, where the basic framework for evaluation involves identifying market needs and economic potential.  In my interview they were very impressed by my understanding of the evaluative process for innovation and generally thought highly of my Technology Transfer experience at CAMH.  They specifically noted that the experience was something that put me on a completely different level from all the other applicants.

Q:  Can you give us a basic outline of the Innovation process and your role as Innovations Intake Coordinator at D+H?

A:  Innovation is the process of sourcing, assessing and testing new ideas while Commercialization is the process of taking a tested idea and turning it into a market ready product and executing on launch, sales and go-to-market strategies. My role as Innovations Intake Coordinator is to focus on taking new ideas through the three stages of innovation: Ideation, Assessment and Testing. The Ideation stage involves meeting with the originator of the idea (ie. an employee, client or partner) and creating a description of the idea with regards to value, market needs, market segments, time/cost. These ideas are prioritized based on potential revenue, complexity to develop, and capacity to build. High priority ideas with capacity then move on to the Assessment stage where they are further explored alongside key opinion leaders, potential sponsors and stakeholders with regards to researching market segments, customer value proposition, competitive landscape analysis, sales/delivery channels, pricing models and revenue streams, high level solution design, identifying risks, and validation strategies such as prototyping. A successful Assessment stage culminates with the approval of seeding funding and the backing of a sponsor. The Testing stage involves product testing/validation through strategic design and building of a minimum viable product to be tested which, if successful, is then followed by development of a business case, a build/buy/partner strategy and a roadmap for commercialization.  My job is to coordinate with the various individuals involved at each stage and ensure ideas flow through the innovation process smoothly.

Q:  I know you just started, but how are you finding your new position?

A:  To be honest, it is like trying to drink from a fire hydrant.  There is so much information to take in, but I really enjoy it.  I’m constantly learning something new, either about finance, banking and technology, or about the evaluative process for innovation.  D+H has a much larger Innovations and Commercialization office compared to the Technology Transfer office at CAMH.  Many more people requires a much greater coordinated approach, so my role is critical in ensuring all of these pieces are working together.  I am really gaining a lot of skills and knowledge with respect to business development and understanding a much more complete picture of innovation and commercialization.  I am just getting started, but I can really see how this is going to be a hugely beneficial experience for me.

Q:  So are you giving up on Life Science?

A:  Definitely not.  I find finance and banking interesting, but I’ve always enjoyed biology.  For now, I see myself learning from my new position for at least a year if not more.  Once I feel like I have a really strong foundation in business development, innovation and commercialization I’ll likely try and see if I can leverage those skills and return to the field of Life Science.  I could see the skills I’m developing here at D+H being useful for venture capital, private equity, or within business development departments in Life Science companies.  I think that my choice to leave Life Science in order to develop a particular set of skills will only help in driving my career when I do return to Life Science.

Conclusion:

As you can see clearly from the interview above a conventional approach to skill development is not always what can give your career momentum.  Sometimes looking for opportunities to develop skills outside your direct field of study, those that can be applied broadly, can be beneficial for pursuing a career in your field of choice.  This is not to claim that everyone will be as lucky as Reuben, but that without an open mind and willingness to “drink from a fire hydrant” you may be limiting your opportunities for finding that position you truly desire.

 

By |2018-09-06T21:02:50+00:00October 23rd, 2014|Abhiram Pushparaj, Personal Stories|0 Comments

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