By Deanna M. Petersen, CBO of AVROBIO, as part of the From The Trenches feature of LifeSciVC
One of the most common questions I get asked is how I got into the business side of the biotech industry, and in particular business development. My career path did not follow a predictable, straight line. I had not set out intending to become a chief business officer at a biotech company. It was a combination of the decisions I made and risks I took over the course of my varied professional experiences that led me where I am today.
I can identify five lessons based on those experiences that might be helpful for anyone eyeing a path toward business development in biotech, and especially for women: challenge yourself, stay curious, get exposure, take risks and be confident.
Seeking out situations that require steep learning curves – be it a new job, project, or opportunity – is how we continue to grow. If we do not challenge ourselves, it means we are stagnant. And you cannot reach your goals by standing still. Taking control of the course of your career or shifting a career path requires you to accept new challenges.
I started out my career as a high school science teacher. Although I loved teaching, two years into it I began to itch for something where I could make a bigger difference in human health. I decided to leave my career and pivot to a new one, working as a researcher in a lab that studied molecular biology. Challenging as it was, the pivot away from teaching was the first step I took to uncovering the right path for me.
Several years later, after a stint in a biotech start up and while working as a molecular biologist for an academic lab at the University of Iowa, I took on another challenge: the decision to get my MBA. I loved science, but I discovered that I wanted to be responsible for the success of an organization and impact change. It meant I had to go back to school. Making that decision as an adult, with two small children in tow, was no walk in the park. It was a serious commitment, but furthering my education eventually opened up a whole new world of possibilities and was the best professional decision of my life.
Curiosity can lead people to new paths they may not have recognized previously. It is critical to stay curious throughout your career. Learning more about the world (or industry) around you helps you make more informed career decisions. And we never stop making career decisions, no matter how high up the ladder we climb in our field.
Throughout my entire professional life, I took every opportunity I could to ask people about what they do and their career and their path to getting there – and I was better off for it. While I was working as a molecular biologist at the University of Iowa, my father sent me a newspaper clipping about a local biotech company in Iowa. I knew nothing about biotech, but curiosity got the best of me, and I cold called the company asking to meet with the CEO. My goal was to learn more about biotech companies. It was not supposed to be job interview, but I somehow got hired into the research department. After just a few weeks working there, I knew biotech was the place for me – all thanks to a simple cold call I made to explore my curiosity.
Throughout my career, I have sought out extra classes and opportunities to learn more and strengthen my understanding of many aspects of biotech. While working at the University of Iowa I took patent law classes. While working at my second biotech company I took immunology classes. A commitment to learning as much as possible and collecting information along the way by staying curious enables better understanding of professional goals and aspirations, and, more importantly, it can lead to unexpected opportunity.
During my time at my first biotech company, I had a lot of exposure to the CEO. We used to have staff meetings under a mulberry tree outside the office, where we had deep discussions on strategy, philosophy, corporate culture, and other topics. That exposure helped me learn so much by diligently listening to the CEO and being part of those important conversations. At my second biotech company, the CEO and I were the first two people hired, and again I got exposure to corporate strategy and other big-picture thinking, while also getting experience running nearly every department in the company until we were in position to hire experts. I cannot say enough about the value I discovered of working for a small company to really learn the ropes and get as much exposure as possible to the different aspects of a business.
But it’s important not to get comfortable in one place for too long, especially early in a career. My career course ultimately took me back to academia, another early-stage biotech, a late-stage biotech and then pharma. Exposure to different types of companies can give you a well-rounded skill set that ultimately will help you better navigate business deals.
A career path devoid of risk will not be as fulfilling as one with it. You do not want to look back on your life and your career and wonder, “What if?” Pick what you want to accomplish and don’t stop until you accomplish it – risks are part of the journey.
While I was working in academia at the University of Iowa, there was an invention a professor created that had potential for broad application in the life sciences. He got seed funding to build out a company based on the invention – I knew the professor and asked him if I could write the business plan. He said yes, and I created my second business plan…the first was in MBA school. A year later, a CEO was appointed to the company. When the CEO read my business plan, he wanted to hire me. My dream had come full circle, but it meant taking a pretty big risk: picking up my two children, moving to Boston and working in a business role and being more responsible for the success of my company, my dream coming true.
You cannot be too shy for too long in business or you will not find the opportunities.
I always considered myself to be a little bit shy as a child – boldness did not come naturally to me. I had to talk myself into it and practice. I have found that business conferences are a great place to practice your social skills…introducing yourself and making good use of networking receptions, meeting experts and developing professional relationships, and speaking publicly.
My ability to make career pivots or uncomfortable decisions, like moving my family to Boston for a career opportunity or going back to school, is something that I attribute to my carefully nurtured sense of confidence.
I feel very lucky in my career – business development in biotech is the perfect role for me…it not only keeps me close to the science that I love but also allows me to utilize the big picture thinking and business skills that I also love. But it was not luck that got me here. It took some hard work, determination, and the application of the lessons I’ve just shared. To take charge of your career path and effect change, take these lessons learned and employ them yourself. I am willing to bet that you will be infinitely more satisfied in your career if you do.