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Laura Strong, Ph.D.

Laura Strong, Ph.D.

Scientist by training; entrepreneur by immersion. Have you ever wanted to start your own business? Are you looking for an opportunity to commercialize your technology or develop a business around your research ideas? Do you often find yourself asking these questions in addition to wondering how to utilize your skills and experience as a PhD and combine them with your entpreneurial spirit? Our very accomplished guest, Laura E. Strong, PhD, stops by ThePostdocWay to discuss her journey from bench scientist into the exciting world of business and biotechnology. Dr. Strong is President and Chief Operating Officer of Quintessence Biosciences. In this position, Dr. Strong is responsible for developing and executing the product development plan and overseeing the development of the human clinical plans for the company's drug products. Further Dr. Strong is responsible for developing relationships with current and future customers and collaborators. As a National Institutes of Health predoctoral fellow, Dr. Strong earned a PhD in organic chemistry at the University of Wisconsin-­Madison. Dr. Strong is co-author of fourteen publications and co-inventor on four patents.

Conducted and contributed by Brian | September 2013

"I think this idea of coming into a graduate school program as a passive participant is one of the issues that creates this feeling in the end of - 'now what do I do'? Come at it with the idea of 'what do I want from this experience to create and what value do I want to walk away with'? I think it can help people get on the path to a career doing a lot of different things. It would open the doors to a lot of different experiences."

Listen to the conversation podcast below (player should appear shortly).

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Featured songs: "Say That" by Toro y Moi and "It Takes A Lot" by Cloud Cult

Conversation Highlights

"A big reason [that I ended up in my mentor's lab] was her openness and reception to the fact that I wanted to go into industry and not follow the academic track. I don’t recall the conversations, but I don’t remember that ever being an issue. I have to say, it might be different now, but at that time everyone kept telling me that that you need to stop telling the professors you want to go to industry."

"I didn’t want to get part of the way down this [academic] road and then have to explain why “suddenly” why I don’t want to go into academia."

"After about three years in the [PhD] program I learned how to make molecules. I was doing some really cool science. I was interacting with some great biochemists who were using my molecules and we were designing cool projects. I realized that I was being trained to make molecules and that I would have to keep making molecules forever.This [making molecules] was going to be my specialty. I loved it but at the same time I thought, I can’t do this for the next 20-30 years of my life - what have I done? That was my ‘what have I done moment’. It was not industry versus academia, but 'hands on' bench science versus ‘something else’. At the time I had no idea what that ‘something else’ was."

"I never questioned whether academia was the track for me. At the point at which I thought I am going to keep making molecules for the rest of my life, it was more about do I want to get out of science. [I started asking myself] Do I want to go to business school or should I go to law school? Should I do something else that takes me into a different career other than ‘hands-on’ science? I had no idea what those careers looked like."

[On exploring other options] "You start to do things in life and realize there are parts that you really like and parts you are not so wild about. It is this constant of switching tracks to see if you can find more of what you like and less of what you don’t like, even if you don’t necessarily know if the next step will take you there. You give it a shot and see if ‘I am a little closer to where I want to be’ or ‘a little further from where I want to be’. I don’t know if there was a grand plan I was following."

[On preparing for starting the company] "Towards the end of my PhD [after talking with Drs. Ron Raines and Laura Kiessling about starting a business] I did take some classes at the small business development center learning how to read financial statements, how to write a business plan, and learning about all of these things I did not know about. I figured if we were going to start a company, I’ve got to figure this stuff out."

[On communicating your science and being an effective leader] "This is something I work hard on every day. In science sometimes we sell ourselves short. You could be doing the coolest, most impactful science in the world. [However, you must be able to communicate the importance] to another group of scientists whose help you may need or somebody who has funding for the product that may come out or the person who you need to participate in a clinical trial so you can get your drug to market. You can go down this list. Unless you can communicate the value of what you are doing to those people or the impact of what you are doing to those people, you really are selling yourself short - you are not able to convey why what you are doing is important. Communication about science is really important to me."

"The value of the PhD is learning problem-solving skills. However, if you come at it from a more business-oriented approach, the goal of getting a PhD really is getting that PhD. So how are you going to do that? It is by going in and finding a really interesting question to ask and collecting a lot of information. You do your best to actually answer that question. Then, you communicate that to people in your thesis and verbally in your defense and written in the final report. There is a ton of project management and [utilizing] communication skills so it is not just about the problem-solving. There are all of these other components if you use this as an opportunity to manage a very important project in your life. It is not just the 5+ years of getting the degree. It is the opportunity costs of what you could have been doing with your life during that time. You must look at it as a way to train yourself to do very large projects and accomplish something quite massive."

"My career path is not a straightforward one. It would be incredibly difficult to replicate only because there were a lot of twists of fate that happened that all really needed to happen for me to end up where I am. I would suggest to take hold of your PhD as your own."

[On advice for PhD trainees interested in entrepreneurial opportunities] [Knowing that you] "have an advisor and mentor that can help, but [you] need to decide what [you] want to end up with in the end. [For example] I need to decide that I want good communication skills and want to have good, clear project management skills. I want to be able to demonstrate that I not only have a knowledge of carbohydrate chemistry but organometallic chemistry and polymer chemistry as well – different disciplines that I want to learn. I want to demonstrate leadership capability and need a multidisciplinary project. Think about those things that you want to build as your own skill set and [ask] how do you go about creating a PhD experience where you can do those things. Of course you need help and mentors and the support of the department."