By Katelyn Richards
“Whoa, this place is huge and there’s so much happening here,” I thought to myself as I entered AveXis, a start-up gene therapy company where I worked for a year and a half as a Bioprocess Engineer. On my first day, the enthusiastic atmosphere was contagious, surrounded by energetic colleagues scurrying around the office and the manufacturing floor. Moments later, my colleague burst through the office exclaiming: “We have the highest titer yet!”. Applause erupted through the building as the news spread about the recent success, and I was filled with the feeling that I had made the right choice. The news: we had the highest titer of a gene-therapy aimed at curing a horrible genetic disease that kills infants, called spinal muscular atrophy (SMA).
Why did I end up working for this super start-up?
Well, like many of you, four years passed by in the blink of an eye and I was graduating with my Bachelor’s. A mixture of fear and excitement filled me as I realized I was entering the “real” world. I had no idea what field I would pursue in graduate school, although I knew I would one day go back. I decided to plunge into the working world first and found AveXis, which was aiming to produce one of the first FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) approved gene therapies. Spoiler alert: We were approved in 2019
One thing I loved about working for a start-up company was that I was able to wear many hats. In general, I mainly worked in cell culture and maintenance of the bioreactors used for our product. However, as with most start-ups, the company grew rapidly with expanding needs, so I took on extra responsibilities to learn more. For example, I also helped write standard operating procedures and worked on investigations. Some people from my department even went on to start a new investigations department. There was always something to be doing, and there was always the opportunity to learn something new!
Moments later, my colleague burst through the office exclaiming: “We have the highest titer yet!” and applause erupted through the building.
I recommend start-up cultures for anyone looking to really throw themselves into something and take on many responsibilities. However, larger biopharmaceutical companies may offer more perks, established roles and a bigger network. Both scenarios have their advantages and disadvantages, but I believe it is important to be working for a company where you are passionate about what you are doing!
Academia or industry: what’s the difference and why did I go back?
I like to think of academia as your kitchen at home and industry as Chef Gordon Ramsey’s industrial kitchen, famous for the consistent quality. In your own kitchen, you often get to follow your own recipe (protocol) and experiment with it. However, in industry, there is a certain commercial expectation in place, i.e. the FDA/ EMA (European Medicines Agency) quality regulations. Both systems are necessary for an entire idea to come to reality, and often academia works hand-in-hand with industry. A recipe out of the kitchen can become the next “big thing” served in restaurants all over the world!
In a start-up there is always something to do and always the opportunity to learn something new!
AveXis was a great beginning, but I wanted to further my education. My experience working in industry inspired my interests in conducting novel research that could potentially lead to a cure or a therapy for diseases. After all, the academic research of Dr. Brian Kaspar turned into a cure for SMA and ultimately AveXis! I am doing my Master’s in Biomolecular Sciences for my own personal development and to explore these interests further. While I am still not sure whether I will pursue a PhD, I do know my Master’s will expose me to new fields of research and help me grow as a scientist!
About the writer
Katelyn Richards is a first-year VU Biomolecular Sciences Master’s student from the United States. She is interested in disease-related research in the fields of immunology, oncology and genetics.