The Road Less Traveled

The poet Robert Frost famously wrote, “Two roads diverged in a wood and I – I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” It’s unlikely that he was referring to the decision to work in a well-established laboratory verses a new laboratory startup. However, that does not make his statement less applicable. Only a few laboratory professionals will be involved in the launching of a new laboratory in their career, and if you polled them, I think you would find that they have a strong opinion on their experience one way or another.Laboratory Startup

In my role as a medical laboratory recruiter and laboratory startup consultant, I’ve had the opportunity to present this career decision to many laboratory professionals each year. So, I decided to follow up with a few scientists who have gone to work for clinical laboratory startups in the last few years to see if they were happy with their decision, and if they had any advice for those who may be considering following in their foot-steps. I also interviewed several laboratory startup owners and hiring managers to see what they look for when hiring their core team.

Across the board, I heard four major themes running through their opinions: stress, fulfillment, risk and reward.

Much like having a baby, there is a great sense of fulfillment that comes from bringing a healthy new laboratory into the world. Manoj Tayagi, PhD, is currently in the process of launching Captiva Labs in Charlotte, NC. He shared, “Working for a startup is similar to planning and organizing a wedding and then attending that wedding. Having been involved in the conception of the plan and the selection of all the details makes attending that wedding a very different and more fulfilling experience than if you are just an invited guest who is unaware of what went into the details. When you work at a big established lab, you are like the invited guest.”

Sky Countryman, the CEO of Insource Diagnostics, a Los Angeles area lab startup that is closing in on its third year in operation echoed, “In a big company, your job is compartmentalized and you rarely see how your role impacts the larger organization. In a startup, you are involved in almost every aspect of the business.”

We can all understand that a successfully executed plan is more fulfilling if you were part of the planning team, and with a startup, you have a seat at the table that is not often afforded to lab professionals in established labs. Charles Stout, owner of DRG Laboratory, a startup in GA that uses DNA-based microbiology assays to measure the organisms of the patient’s digestive tract, compared startups and established labs this way:

“Consider a 900-foot cruise ship and a 30-foot speed boat,” he said. “Are there more, better and nicer “things” on a cruise ship than a speed boat? Of course! But on the cruise ship, you have no say in what those “things” are; how they’re done; when they’re done; and the direction and speed is pre-ordained – whereas, with a speed boat, you have the ability to control where you go.”

Also similar to having a baby is the stress involved with bringing a new lab into the marketplace. Jerry Duck is the COO of Companion Dx Reference Labs, which is a rapidly expanding three-year-old molecular diagnostic lab in Houston, TX. In his opinion, “In a startup, there are no systems in place. You start from ground zero. I have hired many techs that worked in established labs and not all of them are startup-minded people. Change needs to be your best friend, and you need to be able to see beyond the routine.” As if to illustrate his point, Jerry had to put me on hold in the middle of the interview to field a call from a garage door company because the exterior door to the lab was stuck open and rain was coming in.

Tyagi stated, “You need to be okay with not only being a technologist, but also everything else. Versatility is very important. If you don’t want to open a urine cup because you are a certifying scientist, you do not belong on a small lab team. When I am hiring, I don’t need tools that just do a specific job – I need team players that can be flexible and wear many hats. If you are a manager, but not a leader, you will not be successful.”

Probably one of the first concerns that scientists express when I approach them about a potential position with a lab startup is in regarding risk. A staff-level medical lab scientist that I placed with a new lab a few months ago had concerns about this during the interview process and wanted to know, “What if the lab doesn’t make it?” Her concerns were valid, especially since there was a major relocation involved. However, after being on the job for a few months, she was gushing with optimism when I followed up with her.

In response to her old concerns, she said, “As Med Techs, though, we’ve picked a line of work where we have the option to go into many different fields and do many different things. With so many opportunities for Med Techs, why not take the risk? You can always go back to the large hospital if it doesn’t work out.”

Are new startups a riskier bet? Yes and no. Is there a greater chance that “XYZ” Lab goes out of business before Quest? Certainly. However, it’s important not to confuse the stability of the laboratory with the stability of your job. I am contacted regularly by employees of large established labs that have been downsized as a result of realignments or mergers – still, as Charles Stout stated frankly, “Most people need their environment to tell them everything is fine and there is nothing to be concerned about. Startups are more easily disturbed by everything from vendor issues to personnel changes to cash-flow constraints. If you aren’t comfortable being self-reliant, stick with the established labs.”

The inverse relationship that exists between risk and reward is alive and well in the laboratory. Danielle McDonald, a laboratory supervisor who has worked for a few laboratory startups in Florida, considered, “Startup laboratories are full of opportunities that would otherwise not be seen in an established laboratory. Since startups are usually small in the beginning, getting in on the ground floor is beneficial not only for resume expansion and life experiences, but can be extremely rewarding as a career. Individuals who work with startups that are successful often earn promotions and pay raises sooner than they would typically see in an establish lab.” Another Medical Scientist I spoke with related.

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