When the Scientist Is Also an Entrepreneur

GSBS paves the way for biomedical students whose passion leads to the business world
Jaclyn Dunphy, who earned her PhD at Tufts Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences. GSBS is helping students prepare for jobs in academia, but also in research and development, consulting, and entrepreneurship.
“The things that make me a good scientist also make me a good entrepreneur: creativity, motivation, the desire to have an impact,” said Jaclyn Dunphy, GBS19, who now works at a venture-creation enterprise in Cambridge, Mass. Photo: Ken Richardson
February 19, 2020

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Becoming an entrepreneur was already firmly in Jaclyn Dunphy’s mind when she began her studies in biomedical sciences. Her passion was the potential she saw for developing new drugs for brain diseases, and she knew she was not cut out to confine herself to the lab.

“Being a bench scientist felt like I wasn’t able to make the impact that moved me,” said Dunphy, GBS19. “At the bench, you can have a profound impact at a granular level. I wanted to be the one who was thinking, ‘What are the broad strokes?’ ”

Dunphy knew she was interested in the marriage of science and business before she even arrived at Tufts Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences (GSBS). Even if most biomed students aren’t so clear on their goal, many end up following their own route into the private sector. In fact, the majority of students across the country who earn a PhD in biomedical sciences do not become academic researchers, said Dean Dan Jay. At GSBS, about 45 percent of newly minted PhDs from 1990-2016 took jobs in industrial research or a science-related position other than research.

“The tradition in graduate school is to train toward excellence in academia. And we will always do that, and we know how to do that well,” Jay said. But with graduates also moving into research and development, consulting, and entrepreneurship, Jay sees the school’s mission as training for career excellence across the biomedical workforce.

“We have a responsibility to train our students to succeed in whatever area they choose as their passion,” he said.  “For many years, the feeling was that if you didn’t become a professor, you were a disappointment. No student should ever feel a like second-class citizen because they have a different career passion.”

With that in mind, GSBS has begun to offer more resources to help students understand the process of drug discovery, learn to navigate a corporate environment, and hone their entrepreneurial skills. This includes:

  • Seminars, such as the Cultural Awareness for Career Success series
  • A daylong career coaching workshop
  • Internships at area companies
  • Courses on drug discovery and communities of practice and management
  • The Biomedical Entrepreneurship at Tufts (BEAT) series of alumni and guest speakers

The BEAT inaugural speaker was businessman and philanthropist Bill Cummings, A58, H06—“not a scientist, but a great entrepreneur,” Jay said.

GSBS has also offered a five-session short course in entrepreneurship, taught by Jack Derby, Cummings Family Professor of the Practice in Entrepreneurship Engineering Management, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship at the School of Engineering’s Gordon Institute and director of the Tufts Entrepreneurship Center.

These offerings “help students evaluate what their strengths are, and what the challenges are of pursuing an entrepreneurial path,” Jay said. The school’s Board of Advisors also plays a role: “We have people on the board who are involved in entrepreneurship and industry at very high levels to help us think about this, and how to best expose our students to these different career paths, and what kind of training they need to succeed,” Jay said.

In addition, GSBS has a robust network of alumni in the Boston area who have leadership positions in industry. “Being able to leverage our alumni who have first-hand knowledge of these career paths has been vital for the career exploration of our students,” he said.  

There’s also faculty mentoring. Dunphy, the aspiring entrepreneur, was drawn to Tufts by the chance to work with Philip Haydon, the Annetta and Gustav Grisard Professor and Chair of Neuroscience. Haydon founded his own start-up, GliaCure, in 2012. “It was really important that I had an advisor who knew from the first day that I didn’t have any interest in pursuing an academic career, but that I would need just as much support to help me get launched in an entrepreneurial career,” she said.

At Tufts, Dunphy took advantage of opportunities such as the Gordon Institute’s $100K New Ventures Competition. Dunphy and her collaborator, Allan Chen, G19, won a third-place award for their concept for Cabin Labs, a company to produce new classes of drugs for chronic pain. Dunphy now works full-time as an associate at Flagship Pioneering, a venture-creation enterprise in Cambridge, Massachusetts, that conceives, creates, founds, and funds new biotech companies.

“The things that make me a good scientist also make me a good entrepreneur: creativity, motivation, the desire to have an impact—just on a different scale,” she said. “I’m not saying the scale I’m working on is better or worse; it’s just where I feel happier.”

Jay agreed that getting a doctorate in biomedical sciences requires many of the same characteristics as launching a business: being innovative and risk-tolerant while also being a rigorous, analytic, and a quantitative thinker.

While Dunphy knew the career path she wanted, most biomedical students aren’t as certain, and that’s OK, Jay said. Be it bench science or a pharmaceutical start-up, he said, “these years are really about identifying your passion.”

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