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From Academia to Entrepreneurship: An Unlikely Story

1 Sep 2022

Hey there, I’m Joey Bose, and I’m the President and CEO of Cytonics. We’re a biotech company that is making a new drug, CYT-108, to safely repair cartilage damage in arthritic joints. CEOs tend to talk about their companies in a dispassionate, soundbyte driven way, delivering neatly packaged conclusions and intentionally glossing over the humanity of their corporate mission. I have been guilty of this at times. This is my attempt to rectify this glaring communication flaw.

I never dreamed of running a biotech research and development company. Having spent almost a decade as an academic researcher, my world was very small and I felt boxed in by my career choice. This bothered me. I felt stuck having spent so much time pursuing the life of an academic. Something needed to change, but I was flying blind with absolutely no guidance. Fortunately, I am willing to take risks and bet on myself. I’m what you could call a Class-A nerd, with a deep desire to learn how the world works by immersing myself in different spheres. In this pursuit, I have lived many lives.

I was exposed to science and technology early on in my life. I really owe a lot of my early academic success to my Indian-American parents, who pushed me very hard to perform in math and science. I was also given the opportunity to perform university level research while I was still in high school, which played a big role in shaping my academic interest in the life sciences, and enabled future achievement in college. By all external accounts, I appeared to have my life together and headed down a path destined for objective success. But the truth was that my objective achievement actually belied a disordered, anxiety-ridden internal mental state. I used academics as a coping mechanism to distract from a state of disillusionment with my purpose in life. I took solace in simply working hard at everything that was put in front of me, even though I wasn’t really sure what I was working towards. It was simply easier to ignore these nagging feelings than addressing them head-on. Obviously, this was not a sustainable solution and would have to be dealt with eventually.    

Time at UVA as an undergraduate student

Unsurprisingly, using studying as a coping mechanism is not the worst way to deal with existential anxiety. My emotionally-driven achievement in high school led to a full ride scholarship at the University of Virginia. By a wonderful stroke of luck, I matriculated to the University of Virginia the same year that Kevin Janes, anup-and-coming professor with a PhD from MIT, joined the department of Biomedical Engineering. He was looking to add an undergraduate researcher to his computational biology laboratory. My high-school experience working in molecular biology labs was my ticket in. This professor took a big bet on me and handed me a PhD-level project to work on during my next four years as an undergraduate student. I will forever be grateful for his mentorship; I can credit him with my ability to read and write scientifically, and communicate complicated science to a broader, lay audience. Dr. Janes, if you’re reading this, Thank You!


The lab became my life. I basically spent all of my time outside of class either lifting weights or working on my thesis project. I was that guy who would show up for class for the midterm, and then disappear for the rest of the semester. I skipped at least 50% of my classes in favor of getting more time at the lab bench. My grades suffered. I couldn’t have cared less. Research was more challenging, which equated to more fun.

My thesis project was more engineering focused than basic scientific discovery. I was building a new technology to profile the molecular signaling that goes on within cells, and can cause diseases like cancer when dysregulated. This involved genetically engineering proteins to serve as “probe” models of cellular cancer and tease out information … a beefy project with plenty to sink my teeth into. I spent the first few years failing miserably to engineer this new technique. Eventually, my persistence paid off, and my assay is used to this day in his lab to further graduate students’ research. I ended up staying an additional year post-graduation to publish my research, which ended up being my ticket into graduate school (my grades were not excellent!). 

Despite the academic success, I had never developed certainty on why I was working so hard. What “real-world” influence would my contribution have outside of the ivory halls of academia? This thinking really plagued me, even as I took the next steps to further my academic journey in graduate school. It’s fair to say that I continued on this path because I took it for granted, it seemed like the “right” thing to do. 

My time as a PhD candidate at Johns Hopkins University was when I really started questioning what I was doing and where I was headed. I spent a total of three years trying to find a research team to call home, and was horrified by how disengaged some of these professors were from their students. I eventually landed in a laboratory conducting research on the proteins found in the human body (if you recall high-school biology, proteins are the downstream products coded for by genes).

My research was relegated to studying a single protein found in the bloodstream. To put this into context: there are 22,000 genes that we know of.. The reality would then be that my tiny contribution to the research would most likely only be read by other academic researchers of a similar narrow scope, we’d all advance our academic careers in the educational institutions that hired us, and then we rinse, lather, and repeat the meaningless again. When the opportunity to exit academia came in the form of a finance job in biotech investment banking, I quit with little reservation.

Reflection

Looking back at my early life experiences, I can see that my struggle was both part circumstance and part character. Based on my upbringing and familial background, it is unsurprising that I went down the academic path, a field that is stunningly narrow and removed from the real world. I can appreciate that academia needs to have some distance from application in order to do the fundamental research and work that moves science forward, but for me personally that level of abstraction was discouraging. 

 

At the same time, I had been thoughtless about my career, and the lack of intention made me miserable. I was not going through life with this grand master plan that fit me, instead, taking this path for granted. To me, it was simply what you are supposed to do. And it was sufficiently challenging at the time, so I just went with it. Looking back over the course of my childhood, academic, and professional experiences, it is clear how emotionally-fueled by work has been. I find a great sense of purpose in conducting thorough, diligent work no matter the field of study or professional mandate. For better and for worse, my upbringing cultivated a lifetime habit: when the going gets tough, and the end is poorly defined or not even in sight, I hunker down and produce great work. Over the course of my academic career, I conducted thousands of hours worth of research, honing my technical skills on the bench and sharpening my scientific acumen. My knowledge of finance is entirely self-taught (financial math is surprisingly simple, regardless of what Wall Street bankers have to say!). This work ethic has permeated every aspect of my life. 

But it’s also clear that as a leader, this next stage of my tenure as CEO will require me to exercise broader, more people-oriented skills. Public speaking, managing teams, and inspiring others by putting myself out there so others know whom they are working with. My role as CEO now is no longer me hunkering down in some bio lab or research desk, churning away for hours into the late night with spreadsheets or investment memos. These skills I had acquired in my previous jobs would be critical, but insufficient, until I found my place at Cytonics, but when it did, every piece found its play. But before I found Cytonics, my professional career still had more turbulence to undergo.