Working at a Small Company, Part 1

Working at a Small Company, Part 1One of the classic choices facing grad students or postdocs looking to move into industry is whether to join a large or small company.  For most of us, who have only academic research experience when looking for that first job, there is little opportunity to understand what really goes on in companies.  In many cases, it’s not until you accept the position and begin working that the consequences of the decision are finally apparent…for better or worse.

To shed some light on small company life, we interviewed Patrick Hillas, Ph.D. about the transition from academics to biotech, the pros and cons of the decision and the expectations placed upon new hires.

Patrick earned his Ph.D. in Biochemistry from Texas A&M University and carried out his postdoctoral research at UCSF prior to joining his first company.

What were the sizes of the companies you have worked with to date?

Fibrogen, Inc. When I started in 2000, there were 75 people.   When I left five and a half years later, there were at about 150, which is about where they are today.

Carbylan Biosurgery. When I started in 2006, there were 7 people.  They were at 10 people when I left almost three years later.

Coming from your academic postdoc, were you surprised by anything (good or bad) that you really didn’t expect in the company?

My goal has always been to be able to take a project from the beginning and follow it all the way to approval, whether in an academic setting, where you get your work published, or in an industrial setting, where you get FDA approval.  I felt my best chances to do this would be at a small company – ‘small’ to me being 250 employees or fewer.

At my first company, it felt more like an industrial post-doc at the beginning.  I did not know how a biotech company ‘worked’ beyond doing research.  Not even R&D because I hadn’t been involved in developing a product; just research.  So it was an eye-opener as to all the various groups—QA, QC, Manufacturing, Regulatory, etc—that were involved in moving a product forward.

At my second company, I was involved in taking the project from the university setting all the way through to FDA approval.  With only ~10 employees, everyone had to participate in the process.  With such a small group, everyone needed to go outside his/her comfort zone and participate in different facets of the project.  I never thought I would be writing EOPs, SOPs, working in a clean room.

Being at a smaller company must have it’s advantages…

  • More intimate environment, with more a group approach.
  • Fewer layers of management, which means you get to know the ‘higher-ups’ well.  This helps you when you want to move up the ladder.
  • Getting your hands in every part of a project.

…and disadvantages…

  • Usually these small companies have limited time/resources compared to larger companies.  So there’s an enormous strain to get the product approved with borderline crazy time constraints.
  • Not having some of the research tools and equipment that you would want.  Which means outsourcing some testing.
  • Having your hands in every part of a project.

Was there any type of “transition period” after leaving academic science?

Yes.  I would say most people in industry realize there is a transition time when somebody new comes on to a project, regardless if coming from academia or industry.  That period could be a couple weeks to a couple months, depending on your level of experience and what the project entails.

Did you feel there are any things you wish you had known that would have made the transition period smoother?

Being better able to communicate with various groups.  It took me a while to learn how to get my ideas across to coworkers who are not scientists.  That’s important when you’re having to help the Manufacturing group understand why a process needs certain steps, or to Business Development as to what properties your material has that would be helpful to Company X.

If you had to give someone 3 rules for personal success in a small company, what would they be?

  • Be willing to get your hands in everything and help others.
  • Group mentality.  You need to be willing to take charge sometimes, be a follower at other times.
  • Be transparent and a good communicator.  With heavy time constraints, having to interface with other groups is more efficient when they can see what you’ve done right—and what hasn’t worked.

Stay tuned:


In part two of the interview, Patrick provides a specific breakdown of the expectations you can expect in a small company for the first 6 months you’re there.

Have any small company experiences of your own to share?

4 comments so far. Join The Discussion

  1. 13columns

    wrote on August 4, 2009 at 5:51 pm

    i'm facing the same small/large question right now. i'm a synthetic chemist and worry that i will need to know much more about the biology of the projects in order to be successful. in other words, i don't know if i can truly "get my hands in all of the projects". can anyone speak to that?

  2. phillas

    wrote on August 4, 2009 at 11:28 pm

    Well, check back tomorrow for Part 2 of the series and we can hopefully answer some of your questions.

  3. Working at a small company, Part 2 | BenchFly Blog

    wrote on August 5, 2009 at 1:57 am

    […] help ease tensions, in Part 2 of our interview with Patrick Hillas, (see, Part 1) we focused on creating a roadmap for the first 6 months of employment: What you’ll be doing, […]

  4. cfarady

    wrote on August 5, 2009 at 9:33 pm

    So I've worked at both a start-up and a big company, and i would say knowledge outside your area of expertise is less important than a willingness to learn. So I wouldn't be worried about not knowing enough biology – i would be trying to decide whether you are interested in learning enough biology to be involved in all aspects of the project. If you like pumping out compounds and that's it, go to a big company. If you enjoy spending 2 days trying to fix a busted LC that you got for cheap from a start-up that went bankrupt, then the small company is probably for you.

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