Federal Government Essential to Survival, Growth of Start-up Companies

February 27, 2012

Biotechnology start-up companies are employing increasing numbers of chemists. These firms are dependent upon recent passage of key federal government legislation for their growth and survival. Additional federal legislation can promote increased establishment and growth of biotechnology companies. Biotech firms represent a major growth opportunity for chemistry employment.

The Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) is an organization that represents more than 1,100 biotechnology companies, academic institutions, state biotechnology centers and related organizations across the US and in more than 30 other nations. It promotes the interests of the biotechnology industry in a number of ways including lobbying for federal legislation that will support startup companies in this industry.

While there are biotechnology porter clusters (http://MEMagazine.asme.org/Articles/2011/October/Birds_Feather.cfm) such as San Francisco, San Diego and Boston, BIO President and CEO Jim Greenwood commented “Our nation’s biotechnology industry is comprised of scientists, entrepreneurs, and large and small companies in all 50 states engaged in translating the latest scientific discoveries into innovative new medical therapies and environmental products, increased agricultural production and farm incomes, and greener bio-based products and biofuels.”

2011 U.S. patent reform

Recent federal government developments impacting biotechnology companies, particularly start-up firms, include the recent passage of the America Invents Act to reform the U.S. patent system  signed into law by President Obama (see C&EN, pp. 24-28 (Dec. 19, 2011). In a White House statement, President Obama said, “This much-needed reform will speed up the patent process so that innovators and entrepreneurs can turn a new invention into a business as quickly as possible.”

The U.S. patent system is essential to the development of the biotechnology industry including the survival and growth of biotech start-ups.  Greenwood highlighted that innovation in biotechnology is based upon the strong and predictable protection of intellectual property provided by our nation’s patent system.
“Without strong and predictable patent protection, investors would shy away from investing hundreds of millions of dollars, over a decade or more, in high-risk biotechnology companies, and will simply put their money into projects or products that are less risky or offer a more immediate return but are of less value to society,” said Greenwood.

“Small biotech companies rely on intellectual property to attract investors to fund the lengthy and expensive research and development process necessary to bring breakthrough new therapies and other biotech products to patients and consumers,” also noted by Greenwood.

R&D legislation

The December 2011 passage of the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) reauthorization (as part of the National Defense Authorization Act, HR 1540) by both the House and the Senate is also important to start-up firms. Greenwood notes, “BIO and our members have long advocated for the reauthorization of, and changes to, SBIR/STTR, which are critical sources of funding for emerging biotechnology companies in the early development stages of medical research for serious and life threatening diseases; including cancer, diabetes, HIV/AIDS, and Parkinson’s.
Greenwood commented, “We especially are pleased that this Act will allow majority venture capital-backed companies to once again compete for SBIR/STTR funds, which will help level the playing field for small biotechnology companies so that they can continue to bring innovative medical treatments and cures to market. Allowing companies that are primarily funded through venture capital to compete once again for SBIR/STTR grants will increase the number of new medical discoveries and innovations available to patients.”
Future action

ACS members can support the passage of additional federal legislation that will promote the establishment, survival and growth of start-up firms by following discussions of legislation in C&EN and elsewhere and writing their congressmen and senators supporting such legislation.

John Borchardt is a chemist and freelance writer who has been an ACS career consultant for 15 years. He is the author of the ACS/Oxford University Press Book “Career Management for Scientists and Engineers.” He has had more than 1200 articles published in a variety of magazines, newspapers and encyclopedias. As an industrial chemist, he holds 30 U.S. and more than 125 international patents and is the author of more than 130 peer-reviewed papers.


The Secret to Success may be to Fail Fast

February 20, 2012

It is important to design projects so the most critical experiments are performed as soon as possible. That way, if you are going to fail, you fail quickly – and cheaply. All failures provide information you can use to redesign your project. Alternatively, you can drop the project and move on to other things.

I learned this early in graduate school. My first research project in graduate school was supposed to be a “starter project” that I could complete fairly quickly. However, I had major problems with it and wasn’t making any real progress. While pleased with my determination, my Ph.D. research advisor gave me another project that went much more smoothly.

Successful people see failing as the path to success. Consider your “failures” as lessons, signposts helping you find the true path to success.

Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison exemplified this. He kept excellent, well-detailed lab notebooks which we can look at many of them today. They provide clues about how his mind worked. When an idea didn’t work the first time, Edison made a note of exactly what he’d done and what materials he had used. Then he made a change in the experiment and tried again. And when that “failed” he made a note of that, made additional systematic changes and tried again. Thanks to the systematic nature of his changes and his careful notes, Edison kept learning from every experiment.

What did he learn? He learned all the ways the experiment wouldn’t work even though he was unable to discover why.  As Edison proceeded, he discovered all the chemicals and elements that didn’t fit together. Each failure drew him closer to finding a way that would work. For example, it took him approximately 10,000 experiments to invent a workable design for the incandescent light bulb.

Edison saw opportunity in failure. He once said, “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.” He did not give up even in the face of disaster. In 1914 Thomas Edison’s factory in West Orange, New Jersey, was virtually destroyed by fire. Although the damage exceeded $2 million, the buildings were insured for only $238,000 because they were made of concrete and were thought to be fireproof. The next morning, Edison looked at the ruins and said, “There is great value in disaster. All our mistakes are burned up. Thank God we can start anew.” Three weeks later Edison demonstrated the first workable phonograph.

This last lesson is relevant to chemists today. When Hurricane Katrina heavily damaged New Orleans, many of Tulane University’s chemical laboratories were flooded. Many research notebooks became illegible. The researchers had to pick up the pieces and resume their research.

Many Americans love sports analogies. Babe Ruth is still considered by many to be the greatest home run hitter in baseball. However, he is the biggest failure at the plate in that he struck out more than any other player in the 154 game season. He could be considered baseball’s greatest failure as a hitter, but that did not bother him. He once said, “Every strike brings me closer to the next home run.”

Your career

When thinking about your career, don’t be cast down by a lack of success or failures. Learn from the mistakes and failures, redesign your career and move on. This may require you to acquire new skills, alter the way you interact with others, change your job assignment, or change jobs. The key is to learn from your experiences and apply these lessons in the future.

John Borchardt is a chemist and freelance writer who has been an ACS career consultant for 15 years. He is the author of the ACS/Oxford University Press Book “Career Management for Scientists and Engineers.” He has had more than 1200 articles published in a variety of magazines, newspapers and encyclopedias. As an industrial chemist, he holds 30 U.S. and more than 125 international patents and is the author of more than 130 peer-reviewed papers.


Increase the Accuracy of Your Supervisor’s Reviews of Your Performance

February 13, 2012

Accurate reviews of your job performance are critical to job promotions, raises, and annual bonuses. Therefore, it is essential that both you and your supervisor get it right. However, many bosses, including some good ones, may be out of touch with your overall performance and forget to acknowledge some of your accomplishments. What should you do if to prevent this from happening to you?

Prevention – worth a pound of cure

Prepare a list of your annual accomplishments and send them to your supervisor. Ask him or her to consider them when preparing your written performance review, advises John Hoover, who leads the executive coaching practice at Manhattan-based consulting firm Partners in Human Resources International. Focus on your major accomplishments and don’t bury your manager with a deluge of minor tasks. The phrase “you can’t see the forest for the trees” is an accurate one and applies to this situation. Too much information will actually obscure your major accomplishments. Hoover comments that managers usually appreciate receiving these as it saves them time when preparing your performance review.

Does your organization incorporate a 360-dregree performance review process?  This is where your direct reports and peers, working closely with you and team leaders, prepare their evaluations of your performance and send them to your supervisor.  If so, be sure those closely involved with your work are among those evaluating your performance. When I headed new product development groups that worked closely with customers developing new products and conducting field trials in their facilities, I decided customers I worked with during the review period could provide performance evaluations of me.  Their input proved to be positively valuable to my review.  I sent these individuals copies of the standard evaluation form and asked them to complete the forms and send them to my supervisor. Not only did customers provide valuable perspectives on my performance, but I believe their input indicated to my supervisor that I was confident in my performance and showed I had a great working relationship with my customer base. After receiving the forms, my supervisor began telling his direct reports to suggest to their customers they do the same. Subsequently my direct reports did the same and had our customers send evaluations of their performance to me.

Some tips

Provide your supervisor with frequent information on your performance; don’t wait until the annual review. For example, I often see people encounter their manager in the hallway. The manager asks, “How’s it going?” The staff member replies something like “really good” and leaves it like that. Don’t delay talking about your accomplishments with your manager.  Provide more information than the simple response of “really good.”  Instead, you might say, “Really good. We completed the synthesis of Intermediate 1 two weeks early and are pressing ahead.” At the cost of 5 seconds you’ve given your manager excellent news and a good impression of your performance.

Report information in the way he or she likes to receive it. For example, does your supervisor prefer detailed written reports or short oral ones?  Practice getting to the point quickly.  One of the running jokes on the TV show NCIS is how forensic scientist Abby Sciuto reports information to her boss.  Abby will start with a detailed explanation of the method she used or scientific details of her analyses. Her boss, Agent Gibbs, will interrupt and say something like, “Get to the point, Abs.” Only then does Abby provide Gibbs with her conclusions clearly and succinctly. Far be it for me to criticize super-scientist Abby Sciuto, but she really does need to understand how to communicate the way her supervisor likes to receive information.

Reacting to performance reviews

Remember that your supervisor is evaluating your work performance and not you as a person.  You shouldn’t take your supervisor’s feedback personally and react defensively to what is said during the review.  Instead, try to understand his or her point of view and focus on the items that came up in the review process that you can work on for the coming year.  Performance reviews can be a stressful experience for both you and your supervisor. Being an active participant in the process by following this advice will increase the accuracy of your performance review; open the lines of communication, while reducing the stress level for you and your supervisor.

Performance discussions are a two way street, meaning an open conversation between the manager and the employee.  As I mentioned before, these conversations should be engaged in constantly throughout the year. Neither of you should be surprised about the results during the performance review discussion.

John Borchardt is a chemist and freelance writer who has been an ACS career consultant for 15 years. He is the author of the ACS/Oxford University Press Book “Career Management for Scientists and Engineers.” He has had more than 1200 articles published in a variety of magazines, newspapers and encyclopedias. As an industrial chemist, he holds 30 U.S. and more than 125 international patents and is the author of more than 130 peer-reviewed papers.


Is there really a shortage of STEM workers?

February 6, 2012

Every so often, this question pops up and the debate begins again – do we have too many science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) workers, or not enough?  Some people say that scientists are having difficulty finding jobs, so we must be creating too many scientists.  But there are still lots of places where technical expertise is needed, so obviously we’re not creating enough scientists.  Which is true?  A couple of recent reports have looked into the issue, and added more fuel to the discussion.

The first one, the STEM Report, was released by Georgetown University in October 2011, and argues that there really is a shortage of STEM workers in the United States, but not for the reasons traditionally cited.   These authors concluded that “innovation and technology change have led to the demand for STEM competencies beyond traditional STEM occupations”, and the deeper problem is a broad scarcity of workers with basic STEM competencies across the entire economy.  They postulate that domestic STEM talent is moving into non-STEM occupations because the core cognitive STEM competencies are becoming increasingly valued in non-STEM occupations that are highly-paid, prestigious, and more in line with worker’s interests and values.  Workers leak out of the STEM pipeline at all stages, after they have acquired varying levels of proficiency in STEM competencies.  For example, only 19% of students who graduate with a bachelor’s degree do so in a STEM field, and only about half of those actually work in a STEM field after college.  After 10 years post-graduation, only 8% are still working in a STEM field.  The authors of this report argue that the vacated positions have in recent years been filled by foreign-born STEM students, who are more likely than non-STEM students to remain in this country and become STEM workers.

The second report recent report is entitled “Jobs Americans Can’t Do:  The Myth of a Skilled Worker Shortage”, and was published in November 2011 by the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR).  This is a group that advocates for immigration policy reform, and not surprisingly their report concludes that “U.S. tech companies are cutting wages by discriminating against qualified American workers”, and that “there is no evidence that there is, or will exist in the foreseeable future, a shortage of qualified native-born scientists and engineers in the United States”.  In fact, they find that the “glut of science and engineering degree holders has caused many S&E graduates to seek work in other fields”, and foreign-born scientists who are willing to “work for smaller wages” are taking jobs away from native-born workers.

Even though the reports come to different overall conclusions, both agree that STEM-trained workers overall are leaving their field in large numbers, at all stages of their careers.  (They also agree that the academic market for PhDs in STEM areas is weak.)

However, the first report believes that the competencies of STEM workers are highly valued in non-STEM occupations, so workers are being pulled into lucrative careers elsewhere, and we should train more workers to fill both the STEM and non-STEM markets with technically trained professionals.  The FAIR report believes that the influx of foreign-born students and scientists has flooded the market, depressing wages and forcing STEM workers out and into other fields.  Specifically, what is it that makes STEM-trained workers so valuable?  The core competencies specifically identified in the Georgetown University report include critical thinking, complex problem solving, deductive and inductive reasoning, problem sensitivity (the ability to tell when something is wrong or likely to go wrong), systems analysis, and many others.  While we may learn these skills in a research lab, or hone them in a manufacturing plant, they are applicable to a wide variety of industries and job fields, both technical and non-technical.  I encourage you to check out the list, and think about which of these competencies particular strengths are for you, and which ones you might be able to add to your resume.

Regardless of which interpretation is you might agree with (and does it really matter?), the bottom line is that STEM-trained workers are valued in non-STEM fields, and that value is increasing over time.  It also means people trained with a STEM background have more options when looking for employment, which I think everyone will agree is a good thing.

This article was written by Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants LLC.  Lisa is a technical writer/editor and author of: “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists,” published by Oxford University Press.