Monday, November 8, 2010

How bad do you have it? How bad do you want it?

When I was interviewing for positions, I was lucky enough to score an on-site interview with a little start-up. During my conversations, it was beginning to become very clear as to what working at a super-tiny company would mean: lower salaries, less-than-fantastic benefits, but the chance to make a lot of money (yeah, right) and a World War II belly gunner's shot at making it all the way to Phase I without losing your job.*

It was all brought home to me when I asked about their instrumentation capabilities. Do you have a NMR? No, we use a courier service for one of the commercial NMR sites with a 12 hour turnaround. Do you have a LC/MS? No, we don't. (Seriously, a well-run, working LC/MS is worth every penny.) But, [CJ], "TLC is a very powerful technique." You know what? My interlocutor was probably right. That being said, I'd rather have an on-site NMR than not.

It seems like every start-up has a story like that. "Why, it used to be just us two and this garage", and that sort of thing. But it reminds a person about the humble beginnings of most of the large companies that we hope to work for, and the conditions and the courage it takes to work there, in the beginning.

*I hasten to note the benefits of working at a small company: independence, a lack of bureaucracy and extreme organizational flexibility. And sometimes, free Diet Coke and peanut butter and honey sandwiches. 

8 comments:

  1. What I enjoy about a small company is that you play a huge role in the success and failure of it - you perform or you are out. There is nobody to hide behind, no place to slack off, no HR beaurocracy to delay the outplacement. If there are 10 people, you are 10% of the profit/loss. If there are 100,000 people, you are 0.001% of the profit/loss, as in nobody will ever notice a thing you do.

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  2. I passed on interviewing at a custom synthesis kilolab after I found out they had no NMR but they were still doing "GMP certified" stuff. They were other discouraging factors for not working there too, but this one was that tipped the balance: not having a possibility to watch for a solvent co-crystal in a product, nor being able to follow an unstable intermediate by NMR made me wonder how they were ever going to be able to optimize and control their chemistry process - which was what I was supposed to do there - or guarantee quality of the individual batches.

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  3. Another advantage of working for a small company is that you may be able to get experience outside your official "job description". I was interested in process chemistry, but in big pharma I wasn't able to move from the research side to the process side because I didn't have experience. I moved to a small company and it was much more flexible - everyone did a little bit of everything.

    On the other hand, you can spend a lot of your time doing tedious things that you don't have to deal with when you're working in big pharma. We had to do everything from ordering supplies to waste disposal. The most frustrating thing for me wasn't the NMR or LC/MS - it was not having prep HPLC or even ISCO systems. Purifying 50 grams batches of material using a silica gel column and Erlenmyer flasks is incredibly tedious.

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  4. I also hail from a small custom synthesis outfit. They always seem to be tucked away in small corners of small towns, behind a wall of trees in a low-slung building (maybe to benefit waste disposal or protect from unsavory interlopers who want to steal glassware for "home projects")

    We share jobs like trash, ordering, safety, much like any academic lab would. But the benefits are also immediately obvious: flexibility for small families, direct contact with CEOs, very low bullsh*t threshold, etc.

    I like it, but I could understand why it wouldn't be for everyone. Plus, you never know if you'll be bought or go under, but I suppose every pharma and biotech experiences that now, too.

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  5. I guess I worked at a different kind of small company. We were very well set up in the bureaucracy department - out of 20 9 had desk jobs, which unfortunately was not enough to insulate us, since every blow up at the CEO level reverberated in the labs. We did have a working LC/MS, it's just it has always seemed that the analytical chemist was hired mostly for his ability to produce full color data matching chief scientist's prediction.

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  6. I work at a little startup too. I don't like it. It was founded by an academic, and the company combines the worst of academia and industry. Also, with little companies, there is too much temptation for management to micromanage.

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  7. TLC sure can't tell you what your byproducts are - they can give you an idea of what their polarities are, and probably (based on the expected mechanism) what they might be, but that doesn't help if you don't already have copious experience. If your compound goes anywhere, you're going to have to get that data sometime.

    Other than the high stress and likely low payout of small pharma companies, I sort of figured that their business model is predicated on doing as little as possible before you get to Phase II. This only seems like a method of transferring risks and costs to others (your employees, the companies that buy your drug in Phase II), which doesn't really seem like a sustainable business model.

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  8. Kay, would you be so kind as to e-mail me at chemjobber -at- gmaildotcom? Thanks!

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