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.

In 2008 I took my show on the road, so to speak, and started a marketing consulting company, Comprendia. I bootstrapped the company, and my web and creative skills helped me get started. I also work with talented developers and designers who help me with projects that are more involved. We provide everything from product-development consulting to printed brochures to websites and applications. We do most things virtually and have partners and clients all around the world.

What does a marketer do?

Life science marketers usually split their time between strategic and tactical marketing activities. Strategic marketing is the work required to develop products that customers need and involves market and scientific research, competitive analyses, forecasting and working closely with a research and development group. It doesn’t end after the product is launched, as there is continuous competition as well as scientific advances. Life science companies stay tuned to all of these changes through their marketing department, resulting in products that always are improving.

Tactical marketing is the part of the job that you probably are more familiar with: it’s the advertising and sales portion. We need to communicate the value of the products we’ve worked so hard to make for you. Now, some people say that a good product will sell itself. That’s true to some extent, but in this crowded marketplace, scientists like to know about and understand the value of the product before they buy it.

Is marketing for me?

As you can see from my history, marketing was in the cards for me long before I even knew it. I enjoy all aspects of marketing but have the most fun with the tactical part. I love, for example, creating a web application and seeing how many scientists use it and taking the feedback we get to improve the product. To me, it’s the equivalent of standing over a protein gel waiting for it to destain. However, the activities of a marketer can be quite varied, and even if you don’t see yourself having as much fun with this aspect, there are many marketing positions that involve a lot more strategic than tactical work. Having a strong science background is of course very helpful for these positions, and the analytical skills you use to interpret your data can help you understand forecasting and planning. Marketers interface with almost every department in a company – R&D, tech service, sales and management – and it really is a very interesting job with great travel and growth opportunities.

How do I get into marketing?

You’re lucky because there is so much information available about careers outside of R&D now. There even are classes offered by the American Marketing Association in many areas of the country. Take your destiny into your own hands and find ways to talk to people who could help or hire you. As early as possible, look at companies that are hiring marketers (or product managers) and finding the areas in which they’re hiring. Remember, I got my break in marketing by being in the informatics field – could you steer your work into a hot area? I’ve met many ambitious young scientists who are proactively creating a niche for themselves while in academia. I’m also a big proponent of face-to-face networking – find (or even start!) networking groups in your area. We founded the San Diego Biotechnology Network, which now has 6,000 members and helps life scientists to connect and learn.

In summary, make those aha moments come more quickly by opening yourself up to careers outside of R&D now. I’m happy about my career path, as I was able to learn and make many great contacts along the way. Make sure you’re getting the most out of every situation you’re in and don’t be afraid to branch into other areas, as they can be very rewarding on both the individual and community level.

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