From Academia to Entrepreneur
Gary Pasternack earned his MD and PhD from The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in 1978, and then trained in Pathology and Anatomic Pathology at Yale. In 1984 he returned to Johns Hopkins and served as Director of Molecular Pathology and Director of the Graduate Program in Pathobiology through June, 2005.
Dr. Pasternack is the CEO of Asklepion Pharmaceuticals, LLC, and a partner in Aqua Partners, a strategic advisory firm focused on the life sciences industry. He founded Intralytix, Inc. and Culterra, LLC, and holds fourteen US patents.
Dr. Pasternack provides excellent advice to those interested or considering an alternative career in industry.
Can you describe your current position?
I am CEO of Asklepion Pharmaceuticals, which develops and markets orphan drugs for rare diseases, particularly in underserved populations. I also keep a hand in another company I co-founded, Intralytix, which has obtained FDA approval to use bacteriophages in food safety and is developing phage-based therapeutic products for human and animal use.
You spent a considerable amount of time in academia. What motivated you to change focus to the private sector and industry?
I've been interested in how discoveries move, or more often, don't move from the lab to the bedside since the late 1980's, when I founded my first company, now defunct. I managed to play a dual role with a foot in each camp for a long time. By 2005, however, a number of forces conspired to make me re-evaluate my situation. Progressive decreases in NIH funding had me focusing on safe, predictable, fundable projects that I enjoyed far less than the riskier work I had been fortunate enough to get funded in the past. I also found myself spending increasing amounts of time on administrative drudgery. On the other hand, I had become familiar with life in the private sector over the years and felt comfortable that I could make a transition if I wished.
What were some of the obstacles you faced in making such a transition?
The initial challenge was to find enough consulting work to sustain me while figuring out whether I would start another company or would join an established one. Consulting work, as with life, is not spontaneously generated. It took some considerable effort, lots of handholding at home, and some time – about six months – to assemble a critical mass of consulting work. It was clearly the right thing to do, since my current position evolved rather quickly from a consulting assignment. I had thought that I might find the waning weeks as a full-time academic difficult as I closed down my lab, but actually found that part to be quite easy.
Academia and industry are often seen as being mutually exclusive entities, what challenges have you faced in bridging the gap between the two scientific environments?
While about half of my time is devoted to business and financial issues, the other half is all about science, which is more than most department chairs get to do. While in academics, I had to deal with difficult journal reviewers and intransigent study sections, here I deal with FDA and the European Medicines Agency. No further elaboration on the parallels should be necessary for that point. What is different is that I operate on a compressed time frame by academic standards, and that open dialogue and rebuttal are fully possible.
Earlier in this response, I mentioned department chairs. In my current role, I am much like a chair or even dean who has significant resources at the ready and can use them to orchestrate different scientific initiatives, conducting science much like music is conducted.
What are some of the inherent risks associated with a career in industry, and what are some of the benefits?
The risk of failure is present in everything we do, whether academic or private sector. The main difference is that industry is more efficient in weeding the garden.
What kinds of opportunities are available for young scientists in industry?
One can do everything from bench science, development work converting discoveries into robust products, analytics and manufacturing, intellectual property, licensing and business development, regulatory affairs, to management at mid- and senior levels. It depends on several axes – how much risk one can tolerate, people skills, personal goals, and many other intangibles.
For those interested in a career in industry, do you recommend a small start-up company or a large pharmaceutical company as a first job? Why?
Large companies will provide a more secure environment and more disciplined training in many areas. On the other hand, they tend to be process-oriented and less nimble and less entrepreneurial than small companies. Ultimately, in order to be successful, you will need to understand and respect both cultures and acquire a working knowledge of each environment. There are good and bad points to each route.
When considering a non-academic career, what are some ways that a trainee might prepare him/herself for this path while still in graduate school?
Try to take a month or two (if you can bargain for the time) and arrange for an internship in a company that you might eventually like to work in, regardless of whether the future really leads there. Speak with the sales reps you encounter – they can refer you to resources within their companies. This is particularly true at national meetings where senior personnel will invariably be present. Keep a contact list – that's what business cards are for – don't toss them. And use your list. Develop and use your own network.
What advice would you offer young scientists interested in exploring careers in industry?
Much of it is about confidence in yourself and your abilities coupled with shots on goal.
You have been a member of ASIP through all your different career changes. How has your involvement with ASIP changed, and why was maintaining your membership important and/or beneficial to your career as a whole?
The IP in ASIP stands for "investigative pathology." For me it is a way of life. What I do is in spirit not so very different from what I did in the lab. Instead of the tools of molecular biology, I now more commonly use the tools of clinical trial design, biostatistics, pharmacokinetics, and measures of efficacy. Yet, the goals – understanding the origins and pathogenesis of human disease - gain in import as I use them to facilitate new treatments. Besides, I like seeing my friends at meetings. Some of my involvement has gone full cycle – I've just agreed to go back onto the CCDWM, which is where my serious engagement began some years ago.