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Spotlight on Women-Owned Businesses in Science

Biotech business owner shares her experience and lessons learned in entrepreneurship

Amanda Schalk, PhD

What does it take to start your own biotech business? An MBA? Nope. A great scientific idea? Yes and no. Any real idea of what you’re doing? Also, no. 

I initially avoided the idea of starting my own biotech business because I never had any formal business training. Thoughts of “Who am I to think I can do this?” stopped me. But I came to realize that, although helpful, formal business training is not required for starting a biotech business. Much of my business “education” was self-taught. I signed up for workshops, watched tutorials and webinars, read books, researched online, and perhaps the greatest resource, spoke to people who had started their own companies and could connect me to others who answered my questions, identified challenges ahead, and provided mentorship. 

Portrait of Amanda Schalk, PhD
Amanda Schalk, PhD
Credit: Amanda Schalk, PhD

Idea vs product

Through these efforts, Enzyme by Design (EbD) was born. We use protein engineering to design enzymes as drugs that are highly effective at killing certain tumor cells but are much safer than current chemotherapy options. Our first product was my postdoc project to develop a safer asparaginase, which is a class of drug used to treat the most common pediatric cancer.  We now have multiple oncology drugs in our pipeline that each have pan-cancer potential as being effective in both blood and solid cancers and are focused on taking a precision medicine approach by identifying biomarkers in patients indicating that they’re highly likely to respond to our treatments. 

As many scientists understand all too well, accomplishing one’s scientific goals is a real challenge—so real that most experiments in my career did not prove fruitful. After struggling for years to engineer an asparaginase enzyme, we finally started to get positive results. After a point, we couldn’t ignore the potential of improving patient outcomes and quality of life. However, a great idea alone is not sufficient for starting a company. When asked by those with business savvy, “Is this an idea or a product?”, at first, I didn’t know the difference. I later learned that a product is an idea that distinctly fills an unmet need in the market. 

However a great idea alone is not sufficient for starting a company.

When it comes to markets, size does matter. Someone must be willing to pay for it, it needs to be feasible to make in large quantities, you must know why you’re the best team to make it, and have strong intellectual property to protect your product and ensure a place in the market.

No I in team

I believe founding a biotech company is a team effort. Starting EbD would have been a nightmare to tackle solo. Luckily, our team working on this technology in our academic lab decided to collaborate to incorporate it into a spinoff. We were scientists without business backgrounds. However, I had experience as a lab manager setting up vendor accounts, buying supplies, and keeping the books up to date. These skills and those that my colleagues and I had picked up while actually starting the company transferred to running a successful business. Anyone can learn these skills, and many of you already have done so.

Another crucial aspect of teamwork is the willingness to ask for help. Learning to think about science with a business lens was new for me, and often I still feel clueless. Yet I realize that I have learned much on this journey and am excited to learn more. There are many experienced people who will happily offer advice and guidance. Your value is not in your background alone, nor your age, gender, or any other attribute. You can bring great ideas, a different perspective, enthusiasm, connections, and value everywhere you go. 

There are so many excellent products waiting to be discovered, developed, and commercialized, and anyone with tenacity and eagerness to learn and be part of a team has potential to make that happen. We don’t do it alone. We do it together and who knows what breakthroughs we can make in science, in patients’ lives, and in ourselves.