Jeff Allen did a PhD in analytical chemistry at Arizona State University before transitioning to a career in technical marketing for several large life science companies. He left this career to found TumorGen MDx, a biotech startup with a novel cancer diagnostic platform. We caught up with Jeff to learn more about his career path and his advice to young scientists looking to transition away from the bench.
You did a PhD in analytical chemistry at Arizona State University – why did you decide to leave academia?
I decided to go straight into industry because I thought industry was more exciting. The job I went into right out of graduate school was for a company called Waters which was owned by Millipore. They made HPLC equipment. I got to visit many different pharmaceutical and bioresearch companies and talk to them about their science. It was exciting having that variety.
Your first industry job was Lab Manager / Technical Support Representative at Waters (owned by Millipore Corp). How did you get that first industry job? What did you do in that role?
They approached me because when I was doing my graduate work I was using HPLC equipment from Waters. The sales rep and regional manager knew me. They had an opening and when they found out I would be graduating they asked if I would be interested in applying. I was the lab manager, technical support applications specialist. I talked to potential customers that the sales force had identified needed help with their applications. I also ran training seminars on how to use our HPLC and capillary electrophoresis equipment which was new at the time.
What did you learn during your PhD that helped you with that first industry job and what did you have to learn on the job?
During my PhD I learnt a lot of background information on biochemistry, molecular biology and separations science that was very useful when I needed to understand our customers’ work.
What I learned on the job and what was a shock to me was that just because a technique is better and can provide higher resolution doesn’t mean customers will want to use it. Sometimes I would bring in a new technology where the customer could isolate 30 peaks instead of the three they saw with the old technology. Now they would have to identify each of those and work out whether, if those individual peaks vary, does it affect their product? Some customers didn’t want to do that additional work. I had a perception that in science we’re always progressing and that more information is always better but that is not the case. I learned to listen to the customer and understand what they want.
What was your biggest challenge in that first industry role?
The travel. I had to cover and support sales people in seven different states and that gets old. Driving to LA from Orange County, well that got old real fast. I was travelling 60-70% of the time. My next job was in-house marketing with 20% travel. Then I moved into tactical marketing where travel was back up to 60% of the time.
After your first job in technical support, you moved into marketing, working as a Product Marketing Specialist and Market Planning Manager at Beckman Coulter, Senior Product Manager at Gen-Probe Incorporated, Director of Marketing at AutoGenomics and Associate Director of Strategic Marketing at BD Diagnostics. How did you get these jobs, what did you do in these roles, how does marketing differ from sales?
I found all my jobs through connections. My first job was through people I knew at graduate school. The second I found out about because someone at my first job had switched to Beckman and they were forming a new department and needed people.
My first job in technical support, I wasn’t developing products. When I moved into marketing I was developing products. A lot of it was the same – you are talking to customers, who are other scientists using the technology. They had problems they were trying to resolve and you had to address those problems. Technical marketing was still talking to customers but now it was about translating their needs and finding a scientific or engineering solution to give them what they wanted. I was learning how to make products and launch them out the door.
What kind of person would life science marketing jobs suit?
You need the ability to listen and understand what the customers are talking about. You have to be able to understand the technical language the customer is speaking. If you aren’t technically trained, it’s very difficult to understand what the customers are talking about and what their needs are. Even if you are very good at talking to people, if you don’t understand their science, I don’t think you can be successful. You also need to be able to take what the customer is saying, which is probably quite technical, and turn that into a message that the company can understand and turn into a product. PhD training is critical for this.
Why did you leave your marketing career to found TumorGen MDx?
Fifteen years ago, I lost my wife to cancer. I didn’t see enough progress happening in cancer research. I had to do something myself to fight this deadly disease and save a mom or dad so they could raise their kids.
Was it difficult going back to research after years in sales and marketing roles?
It was frustrating because suddenly I’m back in the laboratory and there’s all this new technology and equipment I’ve never used plus I’ve been out of practice for years so even doing simple things like pipetting was hard. I hate making mistakes - they cost time and money. Making simple little mistakes was really frustrating. However, I’ve gotten a big kick out of being back in the lab. When we make those big incremental leaps there are a lot of endorphins circulating for me.
How has your experience in the industry helped you to found and run TumorGen MDx?
My experience means that I am technical enough with instruments, chemistry and biology to look at a problem across a wide range of issues and work out what I can to really make a contribution.
The problem we are trying to solve at TumorGen is ‘What really kills cancer patients?’ The answer is metastasis which is the growth of secondary tumors. That has to be caused by some kind of cell circulating in the blood or lymph system. To solve this problem I learned about circulating tumor cells and the more deadly Cancer Stem Cells (CSCs). I looked at what technology is used to identify those cells and then found out people use flow cytometry. That is the rate limiting step in cancer research. Flow cytometry instruments have a single capillary so it takes two days to run a 10ml blood sample through the machine. Also the CSCs exist in the body as clusters or spheroids and these are what cause metastasis. These spheroids have to be broken apart to fit through a flow cytometry capillary. This means breaking apart an important physiologic aspect of the cluster which is the intercellular communication within these deadly spheroids.
With microfluidics, we can have as many channels as we want on a chip and we can collect the cells and spheroids intact so we can do single cell sequencing and drug susceptibility testing on live cells from patients.
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