As a graduate student studying photosynthesis in Poland, Jan Kieleczawa considered academia the only viable career path for him.
At the time, he says, "there were not many choices — there was no industry." After earning his PhD and completing a postdoc at Wroclaw University, Kieleczawa took on a year-long postdoc at Stony Brook University in New York. Because Stony Brook was not hiring in his field when the year was up, Kieleczawa took a staff position at the nearby Brookhaven National Laboratory. It was there he worked to develop DNA sequencing technologies in Bill Studier's lab from 1986 to 2001, with support from the US Department of Energy.
"We came up with a proposal using a string of three hexamers," Kieleczawa says. "At the time, one of the ideas was to sequence by primer-walking. Of course, one primer at the time cost $50, so if you had to synthesize few million primers, it was way too expensive."
Working with the knowledge that there are only 4,096 possible hexamers, Kieleczawa and his colleagues "found [that] under special conditions in the presence of a single-stranded binding protein from E. coli, three hexamers stick to [the] template and act as a primer. ... We got a patent for it and everything," he says. But because of its limitations, this hexamer-based method could not compete with shotgun sequencing, which became the approach of choice. When DOE funding for the Brookhaven sequencing technology work ended in 2001, Kieleczawa took a job in Cambridge, Mass., at what was then called Genetics Institute.
The institute was bought by a company later re-named Wyeth, which was acquired by pharma giant Pfizer in 2009. In 2011, Kieleczawa — who led Pfizer's DNA sequencing group — and several of his colleagues were laid off as part of a restructuring move at the company. To cut costs, Pfizer sought to outsource its sequencing work.
Losing a job can be a trying experience, but for Kieleczawa being laid off presented a prime opportunity — to start his own company. "I went to the [Pfizer] VP and said 'Would you consider us as your sequencing provider? If we start a company, would you come to us?'" Kieleczawa recalls. "Because of our reputation and our familiarity with the system, they said definitely."
Wyzer Biosciences, of which Kieleczawa is CEO, is a Cambridge-based sequencing service provider with a current staff of four. Kieleczawa says Wyzer does "insourced" sequencing work for Pfizer. "We go every day to pick up samples. The critical thing is turnaround time. They don't care that much about the money. All they want is the data, next day. So we work really hard, day and night," he says. "We don't complain [for] lack of work."
While turning a profit has taken time, Kieleczawa says business is good. So good, Wyzer plans to hire "at least one or two people soon, because we need to expand." It's his firm's personal touch that helped them to land, and keep, a high-profile client like Pfizer, he says. "We get the DNA and we do everything for the scientists — design primers if needed, edit everything, assemble it, compare it to known reference sequence. … We don't just do sequencing, we [are] what we call a level-three sequencing group," Kieleczawa says.
Established versus startup
Weighing the pros and cons of working in industry, Kieleczawa says the salary and benefits are great, but the job security is not. Compared with academia, "industry is a completely different beast," he says. "The biggest part is the red tape and unnecessarily slow decision-making." Consolidations are also common, he adds. In industry, reorganizations occur around "every six months," he says. "You're never safe, because somebody always wants to change something and there's no long term. …That's really a distraction."
Now his own boss, Kieleczawa considers himself fortunate to be calling the shots — and having no unnecessary meetings. Working alongside his partner, Tony Li, "we both decide what needs to be done, take ten minutes, decide yes or no. We don't spend hours on meetings and PowerPoint presentations," Kieleczawa says.
For entrepreneurial-spirited PhDs who'd like to launch their own business, Kieleczawa suggests finding a non-management position in industry first. "Get a few years of work in and get to know the people you need to know. If you come as a complete novice, nobody will trust you," he says. "Spend a couple of years [working], and if you can find a niche that you can work and establish [yourself] as an expert [in]. Otherwise, you will have a hard time."
Overall, Kieleczawa says, establishing expertise is important. "If you want to make it, become an expert first," he says.
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