March 2011

A scientist in marketer’s clothing, or vice versa?

A journey from crystallographer to marketing entrepreneur.

Mary Canady is the founder of Comprendia, a firm specializing in helping biotechnology and life science companies grow through the creation, commercialization and communication of value. She has a doctorate in biochemistry and 10 years of research experience at Duke University, University of California Riverside and The Scripps Research Institute. In 2000, Mary left academia and has worked in marketing and business development roles at Invitrogen, EMD Biosciences and ActiveSight (Rigaku).

I am incredibly lucky to have found a career in marketing that I love, but realizing my true career required a series of “aha” moments that unfolded over many years. Marketing is not about the phone calls you receive at dinnertime; it’s about developing products that meet user needs. That restriction enzyme that helped you with your cloning and that centrifuge you rely on, along with many other things you regularly use in the lab, were designed for you with a lot of help from marketers.

Aha! Well, a series of ahas …

My career boils down to three moments that I remember clearly. As an undergrad, I started school not knowing what I wanted to do. I bounced from law to physical therapy to bioengineering. However, in biology class sophomore year, I remember hearing about proteins and DNA. Wow, the building blocks of life. That was my first aha moment, and I became a biochemistry major.

In grad school at Duke University and later the University of California, Riverside, I knew I wanted to study protein function, and X-ray crystallography was the thing for me. Determine how the building blocks of life combine in 3-D to carry out biological processes? Bingo – aha number two! I also was lucky to work with some crystallography pioneers – David and Jane Richardson showed me how to take precession photographs on film and to visualize proteins. Alex McPherson, my fantastic PhD advisor, taught me how to crystallize proteins and solve structures (along with a great mentor, Steve Larson), and I even sent experiments on a space shuttle. I also started realizing that crystal structures were a great way to make nice visualizations, and I created one that was featured on the cover of the San Diego Supercomputer Center newsletter.

Aha number three was a long time coming, but I had fun along the way. In my postdoctoral fellowship, I actually moved away from X-ray crystallography because I had a fantastic project involving the conformational change of a virus. It was cool not only because I got to do a lot of different types of experiments (yes, I love working at the bench) but also because it challenged me to learn how to communicate the results. I also designed my lab’s website and found that I enjoyed it a lot. At the end of my postdoc, I realized staying in San Diego was important to me and that getting a job outside of academia would allow me to stay.

My first job was during the genomics boom working at a startup called GeneFormatics, which used protein structure prediction models to determine functions of genes. I dabbled in bioinformatics, and when the company eventually folded, it gave me the opportunity get a job at Life Technologies (then Invitrogen) as an informatics product manager in the marketing department. My aha moment came when I was learning about different concepts in marketing, such as positioning and branding. These concepts, when understood as a whole, are the basis for developing and improving products that people—in our case, scientists—need. Here was a chance for me to make a difference in life scientists’ progress.

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