Dr. Saravana Murthy is a senior research scientist at the start-up company Twistnostics. Prior to transitioning to his current position, Dr. Murthy studied mechanisms of stress and tumor metastasis as a visiting fellow from 2008-2010 and a research fellow from 2010-2014 in the laboratory of Dr. Peng Loh. Dr. Murthy has kindly shared his experiences at a start-up company—and the path he took to get there—in a Q&A with The NICHD Connection:
What are your job responsibilities as a senior research scientist at Twistnostics?
Twistnostics is a start-up company, and as a Senior Scientist one has to wear several hats. My main responsibility is in the development of assays for rapid point-of-care diagnostic tests for cancer and infectious diseases. Our company was built on a revolutionary new concept called Twist-Sensor technology; with this sensor, practically any analyte can be detected at single molecule resolution without the need for PCR. Hence, each one of our jobs is to develop this sensor for various applications, be it diagnosis of cancer or point-of-care detection of infectious diseases.
What’s your typical day like?
Each day starts with a briefing of the plans created at the end of the previous day, and every day is different. Usually, half of the day is spent on developing assays in the lab. A sizeable time is spent on brainstorming sessions about designing and building our final product. Our company is small. We are just five full-time employees, hence most of the company-related work is shared among all of us, such as taking care of Good Laboratory Practices (GLP), purchasing, or maintaining the inventory. And, of course, I spend considerable time on meetings, completing assignments, reading the literature, etc.
When did you start thinking about joining a private company?
When I first started my postdoc at NIH, like most other postdocs, I was imagining a career in academia and nothing else. When I was in my second year, I experienced a very emotional personal incident and that changed my perspective on life. Then my aspiration was to be an entrepreneur. At that time, my knowledge of entrepreneurship was “zero.” I educated myself about entrepreneurship by talking to entrepreneurs and reading. The turning point came when I joined the “Innovate Program” at Johns Hopkins Carey Business School. There I learned about entrepreneurship “by leaps and bounds.” Also, in the NIH DC I-Corps program I learned the practicalities of entrepreneurship. These two programs taught me what it takes to be an entrepreneur. Given that 90 percent of start-ups fail, one important point I understood was, before I jump into starting my own start-up, I have to join a start-up and help build that company as if it was my own, and then could I fulfill my own aspirations. This would be my best bet to be a successful entrepreneur. Hence, I started looking for a position in start-ups.
How did you find your position with Twistnostics?
I posted my CV to all job sites possible, and many times I had to apply directly to the company website. I was more inclined towards diagnostics-based start-up companies and keenly looking for those companies that successfully went through a fundraising round. The idea is that if a company has successfully raised capital by fundraising rounds, the chances are that they will most likely have positions open immediately or in the near future. And if you follow those companies regularly and apply, you are ahead of the crowd and have a better chance of getting hired. In my case, I was following several companies on LinkedIn, and as soon as I found an opening at Twistnostics that matched my profile I applied immediately. The ad even mentioned “entrepreneurial, can-do attitude” as a job requirement.
Please describe the application/hiring process. Did it take a long time?
I applied to the Twistnostics job ad for Senior Research Scientist directly through LinkedIn. In my resume and in the cover letter I stressed my experience pertaining to the job requirements. I also highlighted my accomplishments at my current and past positions, rather than listing the work and responsibilities. Within a week of my application, I got a response from Twistnostics inviting me for a Skype interview. During the 45-minute Skype interview, I was asked and I shared my translational science experience and my passion for entrepreneurship. I also explained how my experience could benefit the company. Two weeks after this, I got an invitation for a personal interview. This interview was very casual (even though I dressed very formally), and there I was being educated more about the company and briefed about what my role would be, if hired. At the end of the interview I was offered the position. At the same time I was also offered a staff scientist position at NIH. It was a very tough decision to make. After giving a lot of thought and considering my entrepreneurial aspirations, I chose the senior research scientist position at Twistnostics.
Which skill sets from the lab best apply to becoming a senior research scientist?
Every skill set that I learned in the lab and at NIH I apply at my current position. Here in our company we have to juggle several tasks at a time, and I could do that with ease because of the training I got at NIH, where I was given the opportunity to work on several projects and was taught how to handle multi-tasking efficiently. I can’t give thanks enough to Dr. Peng Loh, my mentor at NIH, for giving me several translational science-based projects, and all of the experimental design and planning for these projects were based on the final applications. These skill sets are helping me tremendously to develop our product. I have to also thank Dr. Niamh Cawley, staff scientist at NIH, for teaching me the knack of setting up a good experimental design. He was instrumental in establishing Good Lab Practices and lab safety in our lab at NIH, and I follow those religiously in our company. Presentation and writing skills are other skill sets that I learned and developed at NIH. These are extremely important arts that senior scientist should possess.
On your LinkedIn profile, it shows that you have a patent from your time at the NIH. Can you describe the patent process, from identifying a patentable product to receiving the patent?
Any good experiment leading to a new product-by-process or method of production could be patentable. In my case, Dr. Loh identified the patenting potential for a biomarker for metastasis that I discovered at NIH. As soon as all the solid experimental and clinical data were in place for the biomarker, this information was sent to the NIH Office of Technology Transfer (OTT) through NICHD as an Employee Invention Report (or EIR). After a favorable decision process, OTT filed the application for the patent.
What activities or resources at the NIH helped prepare you for your career transition?
The preparation I did for the Three-Minute Talk (TmT) helped me to narrate my research experience in a very short and concise fashion during my interviews. Dr. Yvette Pittman and Brenda Hanning were very conducive for my career transition. All of the courses that I took at NIH, such as a biotech course at FAES; training programs for writing, teaching, and mentoring, designing and delivering oral presentations, and leadership and management workshops through the Office of Intramural Training and Education were all very helpful. Several courses in statistics, computer programing, desktop applications, and NIH Library seminars at the Computer Training program (CIT) were very valuable. The NIH DC I-Corp program and seminars at BHI/NIH Consultant Club lead by Dr. Todd Chappell were helpful in shaping me as an entrepreneur.
Do you have any advice for fellows who are thinking about a career like yours?
“An entrepreneur is not a person who starts a company but he is the person who actually solves a problem. It’s all about execution and it is a state of mind. A person who sees a problem is a Human Being; a person who finds a solution is visionary; and the person who goes out and does something about it is an entrepreneur.” These are the words from the great entrepreneur Naveen Jain.
I would say, decide on your career goals as soon as you can, make a solid plan, and stick to it. Paths for accomplishing your goal could/will change, but goals should remain the same. If you want to be an entrepreneur, prepare yourself for a roller coaster ride. Science and business are two entirely different “languages” and you have to master them both. Fellows at NIH are the best at science, but we are seldom taught or even encouraged about business in the lab. So go out, talk and network with people who are entrepreneurs, and you will learn how to apply your science to solve real problems in the world. There are several forums in and around the DC area, such as BioBuzz, Techbreakfast, NIH SBIR meetup, and Biohealth innovation, to name a few. I would highly recommend taking “Innovate” and DC I-Corp programs for a start.
If you have any questions, please feel free to contact Dr. Murthy at firstname.lastname@example.org.