ACA Lunch and Learn Event
This post was written following the ACA Lunch and Learn Event, Opportunities in Drug Development, on July 13 with Sam Kongsamut, PhD.
On July 13th, Rutgers Newark ACA graciously hosted Sam Kongsamut, PhD, a scientist and entrepreneur, regarding his career path in drug development. Dr. Kongamut is a tall, soft spoken, knowledgeable man with a wealth of experience ranging from academia to industry to biotech start-ups. He began his studies at the University of Chicago and received his doctorate in Neuropharmacology. From there, he continued on to complete postdocs at Yale University and Cornell University. He currently works as a consultant for various academic institutions and smaller companies with Rudder Serendip LLC, his own consulting firm. In addition, he acts as an industry advisor for the Institute for Life Sciences Entrepreneurship. On top of that, he has played a role in providing mentorship for the founding of two biotech companies, Biochron Therapeutics and Neurotrope Bioscience. And, he is co-founder of BryoLogyx Inc. Phew!
From his experience, Dr. Kongsamut has immense insight into the drug development process. It is long and complex, and involves many phases of evaluation. The total cost can be up to $5 billion and take as long as 12 years. In the past, larger pharmaceutical companies focused all of their research in house. Currently, it is more common is for industry to partner with smaller companies to enhance drug development innovation. Dr. Kongsamut has had the opportunity to work on both sides of the drug development aisle; at a larger pharmaceutical company, Sanofi, and now working with his smaller start-ups. Entrepreneurship isn’t for the faint of heart. Changes occur frequently in small companies and he himself has been laid of twice. Yikes! As a consultant, Dr. Kongsamut wears many hats. He can play a role at literally any part of the drug development process from writing an Investigational New Drug (IND) application to helping with grant reviews.
From his experience with both industry and biotech start-ups, he stressed the following three points that can be applied to any career path after graduate school:
- Learn new things constantly throughout your career
- Keep your eyes out for opportunities
- Know your worth
Dr. Kongsamut covered several specific questions during the Lunch and Learn. Students asked questions regarding the role they might play in the process in Research and Development be it as a bench scientist, or as a consultant. After the event, I continued the conversation with Dr. Kongsamut to get a better understanding of what his day-to-day is like and what it takes to become an entrepreneur. Below is a brief summation of our exchange.
- What experiences during your graduate education helped prepare you for your current career?
It’s great that you have a program like ACA – such things did not exist in my time in graduate school. I was pretty much in ivory tower academia and expected to continue in academia. I “sold my soul” by joining industry. Of course, times and attitudes have changed. And Academia is not as lucrative (nor respected) as much as before. I had little to no preparation for industry; it took me some time to get used to things. I did enjoy two things off the bat though: (1) the research is goal-directed, and (2) it is multi-disciplinary. Being a curious scientist, I loved learning about other aspects of the business.
- You wear many hats and are involved in multiple projects – what does an average day look like for you?
Hmm! An average day varies quite a bit. If I am working in my home office, I will begin the day with responding to emails, unless I have a phone call, or something more urgent to attend to (grant reviews for example, or some sort of report). I work best in the morning. In the summer, in the afternoon, I will take a couple of hours off to go exercise (usually swimming, 2-3 times per week). I am usually working in the evening as well, until bed-time. While home, my wife often interrupts me to do this or that. So, I am quite busy, but my time is flexible. Other days, I may be out at meetings all day. I try to combine meetings to reduce time lost in travel; for example, I won’t go into NYC unless I have two (or more) meetings set up.
- Do you find it hard to find a work-life balance in your current career?
Yes. I have a difficult time saying “no” and hence am involved in too many things. But, since I work at home, I can be flexible with my time.
- What advice can you give to biomedical students who are interested in entrepreneurship?
Entrepreneurship is not for the faint of heart. Be sure you are passionate about the idea you want to pursue as an entrepreneur. Be ready to work 80h a week (graduate students are well-prepared for this, of course!). Be ready for many set-backs, twists and turns, but also times of utter joy when something works out (again, scientists are well-trained for this scenario). Be a good listener – balance between passion for your idea and what the business requires. Being an entrepreneur means building a business – taking someone else’s money and making a return on that investment. In biotech, one can make 10x or more return, but there are also a lot of failures.
- Any thoughts on where you might be 5 years from now?
More retired. Better balance of work and life. BryoLogyx has become a successful company and has been sold to JNJ (or other big company).
Entrepreneurship is a challenging and dynamic career path. Dr. Kongsamut could address its complexity and risk-taking as he discussed his own career decisions. The rewards can be great when a drug makes it to market after years of investment which I think this is part of the drive that keeps Dr. Kongsamut part of the pipeline. Anyone planning on pursuing a career in entrepreneurship can expect to follow a similar journey of ups and downs, constant learning, and a multitude of responsibilities within the drug development process.