LSCDS Career Day: Spotlights

Written by Vaibhav Bhandari

On the 23rdof April 2019, the LSCDS hosted its annual Career Day. Hoping to connect graduate students in the life sciences with professionals in industry, the 13thedition of this event served as an invitation for the students to explore future possibilities outside academia.

Scientists with advanced degrees can sometimes pigeonhole themselves into looking for work environments with which they are most familiar. Representing alternative career paths for job-seekers with scientific expertise was the Spotlight Session, wherein presenters from industry introduced aspects of their own professions. The speakers presented a diverse set of options, underlining opportunities ranging from pharmaceutical marketing to banking and investment. They provided some brief insight into their respective occupational environments and informed attendees of the characteristics that their companies might look for in recruits. See below, for a summary of the information they shared about career possibilities for life science graduates.

Deep Genomics: the beginning of an AI revolution in medicine

First among the invited speakers was Amit Deshwar representing Deep Genomics, a U of T start-up that aims to lead the vanguard of artificial intelligence (AI)-based solutions in the field of medicine.

Deshwar delved into the potential and future for AI in drug development for medicine. Reflecting on the state of the current pharmaceutical industry, he stated that, “despite the incredible advancements in genomics, in systems biology, in high throughput sequencing, productivity has been on a straight decline since the mid ’90s.”

To this point he mentioned the case of SPINRAZA, a medication against spinal muscular atrophy. This genetic disease is devastating: it is among the leading causes of infant mortality, and children with the disease have a life expectancy below five years. Deshwar pointed out that although SPINRAZA has been successful as a treatment, its discovery cost billions of dollars and roughly 13 years prior to its approval for therapy. This staggering cost is often burdened onto the patients in need of the drug.

Given these issues, Deshwar summarized that Deep Genomics aims to use the power of machine learning with its AI platform to expedite research findings and identify the genetic determinants of diseases.

Acknowledging the importance of AI in their investigations, Deshwar emphasized that Deep Genomics “is not just a computational company.” As their website notes, the 35-person team is comprised of “geneticists, biologists, chemists, toxicologists and drug developers.” Looking to hire motivated and talented individuals to the team, he added that the company is “big enough that we have the resources to do the science that youwant to do.”

Bloom Burton and Co.: funding scientific research

Evelyn Pau, the Vice-President of Investment Banking from Bloom Burton and Co. (“Bloom Burton”) discussed the mingling of the financial sector with science.

Defining investment banking as an intermediary between seekers and providers of investment, Pau described the firm’s focus on healthcare, particularly in assisting “Canadian healthcare companies to raise both private as well as public capital.” In addition to working with companies across Canada as an intermediary, Bloom Burton has also helped incubate new companies. The divisions within the organization include specialties such as the science team, finance team, and institutional sales team that collaborate to make informed decisions for their clients.

Speaking on behalf of the science team, Pau briefly described their day-to-day activities. This involves looking at the potential for investment into public and private companies, with due diligence into the science and technology of companies that are candidates for investment. The information provides insight for the investors to decide on their funding. Furthermore, market research and consulting are part of their repertoire of services.

As a healthcare-focused investment group, Pau stressed that “knowledge in healthcare is really important,” when employed at Bloom Burton. Thus, while the financial and consulting teams are often composed of individuals with a background in finance, a complementary qualification in the sciences, whether a bachelor’s or master’s, can be a bonus.

The hires in the Science department at Bloom Burton are generally PhDs because, as Pau explained, they “tend to have a scientific foundation, [they’re] independent, critical thinkers.” Further adding that even though a background in consulting is useful, “we’re really looking for teachability.”

BenchSci: a start-up success story

BenchSci, founded in 2015, provides a machine learning-based online platform. It is a tool that filters through published literature to provide data on antibody usage, guiding researchers in their experimental design. Maurice Shen, the Head of Academic Relations from BenchSci, touched on the beginning and composition of the young company.

Shen recalled his involvement with LSCDS while a Pharmacology student at U of T. “We really started right here,” he said, crediting his association with LSCDS for the encounters with his eventual co-workers at BenchSci. Shen identified that in its initial stages, the interactions of the BenchSci team with mentors through the university’s incubator programs, such as the Creative Destruction Labs, were highly constructive. These interactions allowed for the refinement of ideas and for the team to come up with a business model before approaching investors.

The start-up has expanded quickly since its inception, now listing 46 members on its website. BenchSci, with an easily accessible software platform as its primary product, requires a robust interaction between scientists, engineers, and marketers to run its business successfully. Shen outlined the division of the company’s workforce into teams such as ‘operations’, ‘sales’, ‘engineering’, ‘science’, and ‘research and development’. Going over the makeup of each team, he stated that of the 15 members of the growth and sales team, a quarter were trained as scientists. Meanwhile, the same was true for two of 14 engineering team members. As the end users of the product are scientists, the engineers and sales representatives with scientific training can help communicate and translate the scientific nuances for their respective teams in the troubleshooting and marketing aspects of the business. This highlights how individuals with scientific training that have marketable skills and expertise in additional disciplines are a very valuable asset.

Klick Health: marketing and commercializationof science

Klick Health is a marketing and advertising firm headquartered in Toronto, with centers in several American cities. Representing the company and its role in pharmaceutical marketing was Rachael Harrison, the Science and Regulatory Director.

Harrison started by contextualising the position of marketing in science. Once a product has been discovered and an investment for its production made, an agency such as Klick then helps develop a strategy to best market the product to healthcare providers and, when applicable, to consumers. Harrison remarked that along with traditional routes of advertising in television or print, newer strategies have started incorporating social media.

The medical arm of the company is divided into multiple divisions including strategy, communications, and science and regulatory. These are further divided into specialized teams that cover the tasks at hand. Harrison described the science and regulatory division as “a large team of scientists and clinicians, who work really closely with our strategists to translate deep science into digestible bits of information depending on who the audience is.”

“We are the world’s largest independent health agency,” Harrison said, reflecting on the diverse set of opportunities available with Klick health. The different divisions within the organization require various yet compatible skill sets and abilities, providing opportunities for a wide range of applicants. Identifying that new hires include people at different levels of education, Harrison emphasized that, along with their qualification for the position, team members are hired for their “coachability and personality.”

Shift Health: consultancy and implementation

Analyst Youssef Hayek represented Shift Health, an analytical and strategic consultancy group with a focus on the life sciences. The company counts academic, industrial, and governmental partners among its clients.

Hayek listed that consultancy from Shift can include “research strategy, innovation strategy, investment strategy, [and] policy strategy.” Among examples of the tasks conducted at Shift Health, Hayek mentioned developing a strategy for attracting investment to the life sciences sector in the Toronto region. A second example included identification of strategies for the development of, and the business opportunities associated with, cancer immunotherapies. Hayek exclaimed that his fondness for his work comes from the satisfaction in developing a “plan and you see it actually happen.”

Providing insight into the company’s hiring practices, Hayek introduced the interview process at Shift Health and the qualities they desire in a candidate. Describing a multistage process, Hayek said that from an initial set of applicants, a select few are chosen for a second stage. This second stage requires the completion of an assignment, based on the performance of which, candidates are asked to present their assignment and interviewed for their suitability and fit into the company. As for the candidates, Hayek said that “a PhD is strongly preferred… MBA is an advantage but is not required,” adding that time management and problem-solving skills are important assets.

Hayek ended his presentation with two suggestions that harmonize with the goal of Career Day. First, he suggested that students should find a way that sets them apart from others. Secondly, he asked students to explore their options through personal interactions; “everybody says it but it is absolutely critical… network, network, network.”

Conclusion

The Spotlight Sessionreviewed here expressed the multitude and diversity of options available for graduate students in the life sciences. An expanding start-up such as BenchSci contrasts with Klick Health, an established market leader in its field. The areas of pharmaceutical marketing and strategic consultation embody a diversity in the expression and application of the accrued knowledge. The use of machine learning represents a futuristic outlook. Through the expression of these opportunities, the session illuminated the fact that the skills and expertise of well-qualified individuals with science backgrounds are highly sought after in the marketplace.

With respect to the job seekers, a point of interest raised by some speakers was the prospective employee’s coachability as an asset. To this point, Evelyn Pau expanded that a significant portion of training in finance and consulting does occur on the job with training programs and continuing education sessions available. Thus, as Rachael Harrison and Evelyn Pau explicitly voiced, the openness of a candidate to be taught new skills and their ability to quickly pick up these skills are considered valuable intangible qualities. Based on their statements, this seems to be especially pertinent when employers are considering the shift from working in a lab as a graduate student to a career in consulting, business, or finance.

Looking to set up a career after graduate school is an intimidating process. The decisions can seem difficult and overwhelming. Nevertheless, whether it be wet lab or computational experimentation (Deep Genomics), consultancy (Shift Health, Klick Health, Bloom Burton), work geared toward business and investment (Klick Health, Bloom Burton), or even creating your own start-up (BenchSci), a variety of enticing paths beckon. We recommend keeping updated on events and resources by checking the LSCDS website frequently (/resources/).

Thank you to the event sponsors: