Welcome to our new Alumni Spotlight Series. These stories will seek to regularly update our community on the accomplishments of our very talented alumni network. We all have found varying degrees of success in our career paths thus far and we can learn from one another about what works, what doesn’t work, and how we can all continue to solve today’s Gaps in biotechnology. If you have someone in mind (including yourself) please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A lot of us are in the same boat when we go to the GapSummit. Over 50% of GapSummit attendees are currently working on, or have recently finished, their Ph.D. in a biomedical science but we don’t necessarily think the academic career suits our entrepreneurial spirit. Dr. Ben Portney (Ph.D. in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology from the University of Maryland Baltimore) already had the entrepreneur itch when he attended GapSummit 2017 in Washington DC.
Ben had already co-founded the Entrepreneurship and Innovation Network at University Maryland Baltimore (UMB) and was a UMB President’s Entrepreneurship Fellow. The EIN (https://www.umbein.org/) is a student group that is dedicated to promoting entrepreneurial and exposing students to the world of start-ups while the President’s Entrepreneurship Fellow program provides students with hands-on training in commercializing scientific discoveries.
Ben was grinding away on his thesis studying an embryonic development gene and how it is reactivated during cancer. He went through the standard trials and tribulations of academic science. He “rode the wave of research” as he went through the many setbacks that accompany basic research, as he and his colleagues tried to pull out a mechanism for his work. With the bad came the good. Ben’s involvement with the EIN and the UMB President’s Entrepreneurship Fellow program led to the creation of a co-working space specifically to promote entrepreneurial activities and he finally figured out the mechanism behind his research project during the last two weeks of his time as a graduate student.
What did you like most about GapSummit? What experiences did you take away from it?
Ben: I wasn't sure what to expect heading into the event (GapSummit), only that I was excited to meet and hear speakers that I couldn't hear elsewhere.
What I took away most from the event was the feeling of community. That there are young professionals all over the world who are interested in the same things I am.
I enjoyed most interacting with the other attendees. My favorite experience was sitting at a bar and sketching a new drug idea on a napkin. That was so much fun. The GapSummit put faces on the people who I could imagine working with in the future. It also informed me about the amazing things other people are doing.
Tell me more about this bar napkin.
Ben: We struck up a conversation about our research and what we found to be most exciting in the field - synthetic biology and immunotherapy.
We quickly turned to a series of "what if" questions bouncing back and forth, relying on areas we each had some background knowledge in, and ended up with a literal back of the napkin sketch of a new therapeutic concept.The idea eventually ran into some IP roadblocks, but it was incredibly exciting and to me captured the best parts of what GapSummit really is.
What did you do after you finished your Ph.D. at UMB?
Ben: After I defended my thesis in May, I moved to Cambridge, MA for a summer fellowship at Flagship Pioneering, a venture capital firm. Flagship is not a traditional VC firm in that many of its companies are conceived of and developed in-house, as opposed to traditional firms investing in startups that pitch to them. My job over the summer was to conduct “explorations” in brand new areas of science. We presented our explorations to the Flagship leadership team and if it was a good idea, it could be turned into a company! It was an intense and exciting experience and I made a lot of good friends over the summer. I was fortunate enough to be offered a position as an Associate after the summer ended.
Now I’m living up in Boston. As an Associate, my job is to still do those explorations but also to help start and run these early stage companies that have arisen from explorations.
The job essentially packs years of entrepreneurial training into a short time frame. I am constantly learning new things and being stretched.
What was the most important thing you did to identify what you wanted in your next career step?
Ben: I think the most important thing in identifying and getting the new job was that I just followed my passion. That probably sounds really corny, but I think I would end up doing what I am doing now one way or another. It just so happened that what Flagship does and what I hope to do aligned. I also got out of the lab a lot in grad school to try new things. I started a student organization, did a business development internship, and went to entrepreneurship events.
Those experiences helped me realize what I don’t like as much as what I liked.
How did you find your new job?
Ben: I found this new job just by being completely absorbed by innovation in the biotech space. I would read about news in the field and who was doing what. That’s how Flagship popped up on my radar initially. Luckily I had a friend who did the fellowship a year before me and suggested I apply.
How did you know you found a good spot for you?
Ben: In grad school, I spent a lot of time coming up with new concepts for companies and doing thought experiments with friends, and found that Flagship has developed a structured and proven way to do it. So in many ways, it felt like the right next step.
What advice would you give yourself back when you attended the GapSummit to expedite your career development?
Ben: I’d suggest to myself to enjoy and celebrate successes along the way. I still struggle with that. Maybe I’m projecting here, but GapSummit attendees seem so driven and wired to complete the next thing and the next thing, that whenever something good happens we might not be acknowledging it enough.
“Look up” from your work and side hustles. Take a step back to see the big picture. How I’m doing, what’s happening in the field, where it’s going, and how I fit in.
If you’d like to get in touch with Ben to learn more about his career path, you can contact him via LinkedIn (https://www.linkedin.com/in/ben-portney/)
You can learn more about the Flagship Fellowship here (http://flagshippioneering.com/careers/#fellowship)