Setting your sights on startups: advice from Ivan Liachko, cofounder of Phase Genomics

By Elizabeth Mahood

For a biosciences grad student like me, the idea of working at a startup can seem downright exotic. Many aspects of the startup world are in stark contrast to academia. The biggest difference is probably this: where academia can hire professors for the entirety of their career, many startups only “live” for less than a year. While the uncertainty inherent in the startup world is definitely a downside, the upside to it is salaries and other benefits that are usually not found in academia.  Many other characteristics distinguish startups from academia, and even from larger businesses, such as the intimate work environment, overall job market, and general business models. Due to all these differences, if your training thus far has come from academic environments, working at a startup can seem like a completely different lifestyle.

This post is designed to give students and postdocs that are, like me, well-rooted in academia, a glimpse into what applying to a startup may be like. This glimpse was provided by Ivan Liachko, a graduate of Cornell’s GGD program, who is now the co-owner and chief scientist of a successful, 5-year old biotech startup called Phase Genomics. Dr. Liachko, through BTI’s Post-Graduate Association and Careers Beyond Academia, recently visited the Cornell campus to speak about his company’s research and his experiences starting and running his Seattle-based startup. He shared personal experiences, and offered insight on how employment works at a startup. For the grad students and postdocs who are exploring careers outside of academia, or are just beginning to look at what is beyond the university, here are some major takeaways on applying to a startup.

1) The application process is unique. When Phase Genomics has a position to fill, they have a clear picture of the skills that an applicant needs in order to fit well. If they do not already know of someone who fits the position, they will make the application public, and review the skills of the applicants. This reveals two important considerations for those thinking about working at a startup: have a big network, and make your experiences and skills easy to find. The first one is a no-brainer, and is important for any type of job search. The second one, however, can set apart a startup’s application processes from those in academia. For instance, when applying to an academic position, having demonstrable eagerness to learn new information or skills may be as important as prior experience. This is often not the case when applying to a startup, as they want to quickly know your expertise—skills and prior experience should go front and center on your resume. Having an informative business card, a LinkedIn or ResearchGate profile, and just “making yourself Googleable” is essential.

The next phase of the application process—the interview—really differs between startups and academia. According to Dr. Liachko, for startups, “it’s like dating”. The majority of startups have a small staff, so appraising how your personality will fit with everyone else’s in the company is important. The interviewers also want to know how you will fit in with the business. Unfortunately, it is often the case that startups go under, or get close to it, and the interviewers may want to assess how you will act in those scenarios. The intimacy of this process differs from academia, where positions are generally more stable and work forces are typically larger.

People standing and conversing with Dr. Liachko.
Cornell grad students and postdocs network with Dr. Liachko, left. Photo courtesy of Susi Varvayanis.

2) Hustling can get you places—if you are willing to move quickly. Dr. Liachko shared the story of how he hired his head of marketing. It started at a conference, where both Dr. Liachko and the Future Head of Marketing (FHM) were presenting posters. FHM had heard Dr. Liachko explain his poster so many times that when he stepped away, she explained his poster to interested passers-by. When he returned, they spoke and he mentioned the open marketing position at his company. FHM gave Dr. Liachko her business card, emailed him after the conference, and stressed her interest in the position. Impressed with FHM’s credentials and personality, Dr. Liachko offered FHM the position, on the condition that she move across the country to Seattle. FHM took the position, filled her car with her belongings, and moved to Seattle. This story is an example of how important skills and personality are for startups, and reinforces how the hiring process for startups differs from academia. Many academic jobs require recommendations from established members of the field, but those may be less required for startup positions.

3) Tidbits. Other tips were shared at the meeting. Here are several about startup funding and Cornell resources.

  • Business cards: Cornell print services offers 100 business cards for $25 for students, faculty, and staff. On your business card, it is more informative to put your field of expertise down as your profession, rather than “Graduate Student” or “Postdoctoral Researcher”. Extra points for putting your picture on the card.
  • Startup funding: For those interested in creating a startup, the first round of funding often comes from the “Three F’s”, friends, family, and fools. After that, there are several grants available for startups, some from large, academia-associated foundations like the NIH (check out their SBIR and STTR programs).
  • Internship opportunities: Cornell’s Careers Beyond Academia program offers internships at many small to mid-sized companies, which give program participants a chance to see firsthand what working at a startup is like. Head here for more info on internships.