by Maximilian Lamb, WH & SEAS ’14
This summer, I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to work for a startup in San Francisco called Adamant Technologies. Adamant is a new company in the biotechnology space working on some very exciting medical diagnostic technology, and I was able to work closely with the CEO and founder, Samuel Khamis. It isn’t hard to look back and find many valuable lessons from those nine weeks.
Lesson #1: Skills for the Biotech Space
One of the first valuable insights that I took away from this experience is the type of skills needed in the biotech space. Obviously, strong technical knowledge is very beneficial. Some days, the CEO would need information on a particular type of manufacturing process or a specific material that he was thinking about using in a device; my fellow intern and I would have to comb through scientific literature to find this information. Insight number two is that research skills always come in handy. In addition to understanding the literature, it is also a skill in and of itself just to find the appropriate papers and information by knowing which resources to utilize. The last major “skill” that I used is simply being flexible. As an early stage startup, there were always many tasks that needed to be accomplished on the business and technology sides, and you have to be able to respond to unique situations.
Lesson #2: Context is Everything
Besides useful skills in the biotech industry, I learned multiple important lessons covering a wide range of topics, from starting a company to going to graduate school. One of the most important ones was to not listen to anyone’s advice. This gem was given to me by Naval Ravikant, the founder of AngelList, at an event where he was speaking to interns during my second week in San Francisco. In life, every situation comes down to context. Thus, it is extremely important to tailor that advice to a specific situation. Break down whatever piece of advice you are using and try and find the fundamental assumptions and beliefs behind that advice. If those assumptions and beliefs are valid, use them to your advantage, but make sure that you’re ultimately following the best path for your particular situation.
Lesson #3: Challenges with Starting a Company
In the age of the Internet, is seems like all you need to start a company is some coding knowledge and maybe a small amount of capital. However, a second lesson is that starting a startup is extremely difficult. This fact was brought to my attention by Mr. Ravikant during the same talk in which he delivered piece of advice #1, and the best way to experience the truth of it is to go work for a startup. There is so much more involved than just making a website, from deciding which people to hire to getting funding and even finding furniture for your office. It’s very rewarding to be able to build a company and pursue a vision, but be prepared to deal with a lot of challenges along the way.
Lesson #4: Graduate School
Another piece of advice that applies to the biotechnology industry is to be very, very good at a specific skill set. Sam and I discussed this at our last meeting as well. This piece of advice can be applied to a variety of situations, such as getting a job, but we were discussing it specifically in the context of grad school. If you can come into a lab with a valuable skill already developed, you’re much more likely to get accepted to the group. In terms of a career, it’s also much more valuable to have someone who is great at a skill that is very important and will provide immediate value to a company, rather than someone who is a jack of all trades who may need time and training to develop the necessary competences.
Final Lesson: Business vs. Tech Guy
Besides these lessons concerning life and startups in general, I also learned some lessons specifically pertaining to undergraduates interested in the biotechnology industry. The first lesson is to decide whether you want to be the business guy or the technology guy, because it can be very difficult to do both. If you want to be the technology expert, graduate school is usually in the cards; this entails a slew of advice, starting with making sure you like the team that you’ll be working with. If possible, try and arrange a visit that can act as a two-way interview. The team is looking at you and your specific skill set that should provide immediate value, but you’re also making sure that you will mesh with them. You also want to go to a lab where you can take a leadership role in order to gain experience and have the chance to develop your own projects.
If you want to be the business guy, the only piece of advice I have is to dive in and be passionate about the company you’re working for. Prior work experience, recommendations from previous employers, and contacts in addition to knowledge and a skill set seem to go a long way in the startup industry, and there’s only one way to gain these things.
Needless to say, I learned an incredible amount last summer, and I can’t thank everyone at Adamant Technologies as well as everyone else I interacted with in the Bay area enough for the experience. This summer has made me extremely excited and optimistic for the future, even though I’m only slightly closer to knowing what I want to do. I know that discovering where my passions lie will surely prove that the rewards aren’t in the destination, but rather in the journey.