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As Raj Krishnan strolls through his company’s lab, very little that lies in his path escapes his dry humor.
“I’ll walk slow so it seems larger,” he says while he pantomimes exaggerated slow-motion steps.
He opens the door to the freezer in an ordinary kitchen refrigerator that holds the blood samples his company is testing for cancer.
“Sears sells these suckers for 500 bucks,” he says of the fridge. “For these samples, we can just crank the temperature all the way up.”
As he shows off the company conference room’s floor-to-ceiling wooden bookshelves and a projector screen that slides slowly into view, he cracks, “We couldn’t afford all this. The company here before us installed it.”
But while Krishnan is keen to mock everything he works with, underneath the jokes he seems proud of it all. As he should be. After finishing graduate school at the University of California, San Diego in June, the 28-year-old started his own company at a time when most people his age are looking for jobs.
After grinding for years to earn their doctorates, recent graduates in the sciences are usually presented with a limited number of options: carry on academic research as postdocs, with the eventual hope of landing a position where they can establish their own research labs, or begin a job hunt in the for-profit biotech industry.
Krishnan took a different route. Although he graduated during the depths of the recession, he decided to launch his own company. With help from his thesis advisor and graduate school friends, he has found remarkable success, winning five entrepreneurial competitions, nearly $50,000 in prize money and netting $2 million in angel investments. We are following his story to show what it takes to start a biotech company, and to catch glimpses of the challenges and triumphs he meets.
Because of his confidence and fierce independence, Krishnan always wanted to be his own boss. At the start of graduate school he had two goals: to start a company and cure cancer. So when he closed in on earning his doctorate, the decision of what to do next felt like it was already made.
“I could have tried to get a job, but I don’t think anyone would ever hire me,” Krishnan said. “I don’t have the temperament for it. I need to be able to do my own thing.”
Other recent graduates go through more of a struggle.
Roy Lefkowitz is a classmate of Krishnan’s who earned his doctorate in July. Although he’s working right now as a postdoc, he’s still deciding what he wants his career to be. And Gene Hsiao, who also just finished his UCSD doctorate, said he wants to go into the biotech industry, despite his current postdoctoral job.
“When I was a college student, I didn’t think I’d want to go to grad school, but then I came here for my masters, and then I transitioned to the Ph.D program,” Hsiao said. “While I was in grad school, I decided I didn’t want be a postdoc, and yet here I am.
“Right now I’m thinking I don’t want to be a professor, but maybe in few years that will happen.”
Graduates’ separation into academic and industry paths in some ways comes down to circumstance — what jobs are available, or what position fits with the needs of a person’s family — but it also has something to do with temperament.
For-profit science is results driven, so there is less time for independent exploration. But working in academia also requires a range of responsibilities, from teaching to writing grants to administrative chores.
“If you like working on short-term projects and meeting deadlines, industry is probably more for you,” Lefkowitz said. “While you can ponder a lot more about theory in academia, there is really no time for this in industry since you are constantly faced with deadlines. While you can work on projects of interest for an indefinite period of time in academia, it can be rapidly tossed out the window in industry.”
And then there is money.
Scientists can spend years as postdocs, earning between $20,000 and $60,000 while waiting for their shot at professor positions that allow them to run their own labs (UCSD professors can make up to $300,000, but most earn between $100,000 and $200,000).
For-profit companies offer a better chance at bigger bucks through higher salaries, performance bonuses and stock options, but layoffs and company shutdowns make those jobs riskier. (For example, Jay Flatley, the CEO of Illumina, made $725,000 last year, plus a $489,731 bonus and $6,992,500 in stock options, while the company’s vice presidents made between $366,000 and $377,000, with $153,000 to $159,000 bonuses.)
Entrepreneurs like Krishnan have different financial stakes. They risk even more — only getting paid if they raise money for their companies — but they also have the potential for a bigger payoff if they make it big or sell their companies. In graduate school, Krishnan began preparing for his entrepreneurial life by saving enough money to live off for a year.
Krishnan said making money is not the ultimate goal. It’s the answer you’d expect almost everyone to give, but the passion that shows when Krishnan talks about his science makes it easier to believe him.
“I’ve always thought about what I could do with my life that would actually help people,” he said. “At first I thought about becoming a doctor, but they only help the people they see. Then I realized I wanted to build something as an engineer, to do something cool that would help a lot of people.”
Please contact Claire Trageser directly at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/clairetrageser.