Learning About Business from the Lab Bench
Welcome to Molecular Ideas, and thank you for sharing your time with us! Today, we'll reflect on how basic research can inform startup operations when funding is limited. Enjoy!
I was once called into a conference room with my colleagues to be told that our lab was facing serious funding cuts after over twenty years of grants and endowments from several illustrious institutions. The PI (Primary Investigator) was unusual and subdued. It was uncertain as to whether projects would be stopped, conferences would be cancelled, and researchers would be let go. The PI pointed out that he was working with each of his post-docs to align on plans to secure supplementary funding to minimize fallouts or delays in initiatives - though cuts in certain areas would likely need to be made.
Managing money as a basic research lab or a startup is fraught with difficult decisions. That difficulty is rooted in a simple duality - while there is no roadmap for ensuring discovery or building innovation, failure is indisputably expensive.
Laboratory science forms the basis for innovation. Whether we are expanding humanity's collective knowledge or validating drug candidates in pre-clinical trials, the innovations we credit to CEOs often originate with basic researchers. These humble silent partners of science are essential to finding new ways to address unmet medical needs.
Traditional media depictions of scientists often portray a false dichotomy between those pursuing research and those aimed at commercializing it. Put another way, the worlds of science and business seem distinct.
This is not the case.
Despite the differences in culture, career path, and metrics for success between the two sides of the life sciences, there is a lot that can be learned from experiencing both. In fact, some of the tactics I use for cracking business cases with early-stage life science companies and top 10 pharmaceutical companies came from experience gained in the lab.
The common factors are how people think about problems, money, and people.
With limited money and time available to offset costs, each of us had to take a hard look at what was essential without sacrificing creativity. However, that wouldn't stop us from trying to figure out how we could have our cake and eat it too.
The first business lesson I learned was this: restrictions breed creativity.
This phrase was famously coined by Mark Rosewater, one of the world's foremost game designers. However, the general concept is also prevalent in academic studies about worker productivity. By trying to do more with less, we inevitably find more ways around the challenge.
So, how did we 'get creative'?
First, we tried to streamline studies without sacrificing scientific rigor by reconsidering how we used consumable lab supplies. While the fixed costs for equipment, utilities, and space are considerable, even a sleeve of 20 petri dishes can go for a low of $10-$15. Imagine scaling that up to a lab of five or ten post-docs, each running 5-10 experiments, with each experiment demanding 20-30 petri dishes - you'll find that the costs add up quickly. Yet, these simple disposable tools are as critical as any centrifuge or incubator.
As the junior members of the lab, a colleague and I were often sent down to the storeroom to bring up fresh supplies for the lab. We noticed that we had an incredibly high inventory for certain items, and notable shortages of others. Yet there was almost no variation in our month-to-month orders. Cataloguing our inventory would have been a good start, but only would have captured a single point in time. As a result, I proposed leveraging an inventory and order management system to quantify what we need, when we needed it, and to align spending requests with outcomes.
While this may not seem particularly inventive, it went against the grain of how things were expected to be done. As a result, the lab reduced variable spend over 20% year-over-year.
I learned my second business lesson from the lab thanks to our many post-docs - the value of connections. While basic research tends to be highly specialized, unmet medical needs always generate a community of dedicated individuals. We were able to leverage partnerships with other to offset costs and expand our portfolio of prospective papers. Even in science, networking matters.
Finally, my PI taught me one of the most critical lessons I have ever learned about leadership, and take with me to this day: a good idea can come from anywhere.
Despite having over 40 years of experience in the lab, our PI pointed out in the initial meeting that any proposal was an opportunity to succeed. As a new researcher and junior team member, this was both encouraging and humbling. It is a lesson I have taken into collaborations with experienced industry professionals and training new team members.
As a post-script, the lab is bigger and better funded than ever. If restrictions breed creativity, challenges present opportunities to learn and thrive.
What are your lessons and learnings from the lab? What about critical challenges you faced as a junior colleague that allowed you to be innovative? Sign up and leave your story in the comments below!
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