PNAS: Darren Anderson, Start-Up Chief Technology Officer

(This post is part of the new round of interviews of non-academic scientists, giving the responses of Darren Anderson, the Chief Technology Officer for Vive Nano. The goal is to provide some additional information for science students thinking about their future careers, describing options beyond the assumed default Ph.D.--post-doc--academic-job track.)

1) What is your non-academic job?

I was the founding president of a start-up / spin-off company out of the University of Toronto. The company was originally called Northern Nanotechnologies, and is now called Vive Nano. My current job is Chief Technology Officer, which means I'm in charge of anything touching technology at the company. The company has been going for about 5 years and has 18 employees.

2) What is your science background?

Bachelors of Science (Chemical Physics), Masters of Science (Physical Chemistry), and PhD (Physical Chemistry) from the University of Toronto.

3) What led you to this job?

It's funny, actually - if you ask my PhD supervisor, she'd say that I always seemed to want to do entrepreneurship. And there's probably some truth to that - in undergraduate I founded / ran a bunch of student groups, and between my B.Sc. and my M.Sc. I took a break and started a tutoring business. But honestly this career path hadn't really occurred to me - until myself and some lab-mates took a class on entrepreneurship called Entrepreneurship 101. It's actually really nice, there's a lot more resources available for entrepreneurs now than there used to be. The course we took was originally aimed at science students, but has gotten a bit more of an IT focus, but it's all available online now (see - its current home).

In any case, at the end of the course we were encouraged to give a pitch on a technology developed in the lab we were working in. My supervisor was organizing the course, so of course we volunteered. I wasn't involved in the technology development (it was invented by some other folks), but as we put together the pitch we convinced ourselves that we should start a company. So then we did - and I liked all the non-lab stuff much more than the other founders. So I became the founding President, and when we brought on board a President with some experience, I stepped back to be Chief Technology Officer.

4) What's your work environment like?

Almost all office, but a lot of offsite travel for sales / R&D meetings with either current or future potential partners.

5) What do you do in a typical day?

There is no typical day at a company like ours. In addition, I'm involved in a ton of different aspects of the business, which means my day changes because of that as well. In a given week, I will probably spend time drafting patents, presenting to potential customers, doing project management meetings with my team, interviewing potential hires, dealing with other HR issues on my team, and helping out with financing-related pitches or document preparation. It's great - I love the variety - but it is difficult to get enough time to focus on one thing.

6) How does your science background help you in your job?

Well, our business is very science-focused, and I constantly use my science training. I manage all of our projects from a scientific point of view, so I need to be able to contribute effectively and help my team with their projects. When drafting patents a scientific perspective is critical, so that you can design an appropriate patent. When presenting to new potential partners I need to be able to tailor my presentation to meet their very technical needs - and stay on my toes to adjusting to new parameters they may introduce. That's actually trickier than it sounds - it's very tempting to say 'yes' to every request, but obviously it's not practical and can be bad for the business. So you need to be able to parse requests and determine level of difficulty (as well as importance to the customer) very quickly.

7) If a current college student wanted to get a job like yours, how
should they go about it?

I always give folks interested in this career three pieces of advice. 1) Get a good education in science and engineering. It's much easier to learn the business stuff later, but it's critical to pick up the science / engineering first. It's not critical to get an advanced degree (PhD etc.), but it does help from a credibility point of view - a bit, anyway. 2) Have a team - it's lonely starting a company, and it's better to start it with others that you know. It's important to recognize if you start a company with friends, if you end up the CEO / President, it will impact the friend relationship. It's not the end of the world, but it's hard to stay very close friends with someone who's your boss. 3) Participate in training programs / courses. Most schools now run boot-camps and other entrepreneurship training, and there's a ton of online resources. Plus, this is a great way to meet your future founding team - without them needing to be pre-existing friends of yours.

8) What's the most important thing you learned from science?

That's a tough question. I'd say it's how to quickly test concepts for 'reasonableness' - how to do back of the envelope calculations to see if something should roughly work, or quick mental tests you can apply to see if a concept might work theoretically.

9) What advice would you give to young science students trying to plan
their careers?

Entrepreneurship has some significant advantages when you're young - first, your risk tolerance is higher than at any other point in your life (no kids, no mortgage, etc.). Second, you're used to making very little, which is important when you first start (you won't be able to pay yourself much). Third, at least in the chemical sciences, a lot of jobs in North America are disappearing, potentially forever. Creating a job for yourself is one way of being able to stay in a city you love (and potentially solving the two-body problem many people are faced with). Fourth, you learn a ton from starting a company - which will help you even if your company fails.

That having been said, it requires a significant risk tolerance and is a challenging lifestyle. For people who are looking at other careers, the most important aspects of career planning are (1) working hard and being keen, (2) constantly learning, and (3) being social - talking to people and networking. The third is hard for scientists, I know, but it's probably the most important of the three. Anyway, if you do these three things, you'll end up fine. (3) will expose you to new opportunities, and even if you're not interested in them, it will help you learn what you do / don't want to do . (1) and (2) will help you seize the opportunities you do want.

10) (Totally Optional Question) What's the pay like?

When I first started the company, I was making $40-$70K (depending on the stage - lower as we were just starting, then a more reasonable salary once we were able to afford it). I'm now making a relatively comfortable salary for my age (32). In addition, if the company is successful I (and all of our employees) will do very well.


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