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SBN Mentor in the Spotlight: Natalie Dakers

Jeffrey White - Sunday, November 27, 2016

This month’s Mentor in the Spotlight is Natalie Dakers! Through her many successful start-ups, Natalie has become a prominent figure in the Canadian biopharmaceutical industry and is regarded as one of BC’s most influential women. Currently Natalie serves as the President and CEO of Accel-Rx, Canada’s national health sciences accelerator, and also as a board member for several organizations including BIOTECanada and Augurex. In this interview I ask Natalie about her career path and how young scientists can venture into the business world.


        


1) Over the course of your career you have founded and built four successful companies within the biopharmaceutical industry and have received numerous honors and awards, including StartUp Canada’s Entrepreneur of the Year Award in 2015. With a background in marine biology, what lead you to transition into the business side of science and how did you develop the business skills necessary to achieve such success?

One of the only jobs I formally applied for was to be a technology transfer manager at the University-Industry Liaison Office (UILO) at UBC.  At the time my background in science as a marine biologist, coupled with the positions that I had held to date including working as a research biologist at a publically traded company in the aquaculture industry, allowed me to break into that world.  They were looking for someone more in the environmental sector that could support technology transfer activities in that area.  I had experience doing research in a publically traded company in addition to previous work in more of a contract research outfit, and so had some clue about what it might mean to do commercialization. However, looking back I really didn’t. But my philosophy has always been to do the absolute best at whatever you are doing and it will only go better. I stayed with the environmental side for a while but it was the technologies out of the biotechnology sector that really captured my interest and I ended up spending most of my 9 years at the UILO working in the biopharma area commercializing technologies either through spin off creation or licensing.

I was very interested in the intersection between business and science, and working at the UILO I was exposed to so many different aspects of business including intellectual property protection and management, project management, contract negotiation, licensing and spin off creation.  I became involved in more complex intellectual property files and learned the ropes of technology commercialization from the ground up.  It gave me great insight into the sector, and because the volume was so great, I experienced great depth and breadth of different technologies and processes associated with the business of technology transfer.


2) Many graduate students think of a potential business idea related to their studies but never seriously pursue making it become a reality. How do you recommend students take that first step in turning their idea into a viable venture?

Talk to as many people as possible to understand what might be the commercial “pull”.   If you really want to understand if your idea has business merit, you need to see where it fits into the business world.  You can only do that by doing your homework on what differentiates your technology from what else is out there, and by talking to individuals that really understand the commercial opportunity in that field. You can save yourself a lot of heartache by doing the work upfront. Too many ideas get started on not enough understanding of the market.  If you take an insular approach up front, you will hit a wall that could really set you back.  Surround yourself with smarter people. It will be more fun and effective that way.

3) For science students who want to pursue a business-related career, would you suggest doing an MBA or is there an alternative path you would recommend?

It’s an option but I would say that if students could get some work experience before jumping into an MBA, they would likely get more out of the MBA.  It’s important for science oriented students to test out what they are interested in as it relates to business. I think they feel that they need to bolt on an MBA to get a job but doing so without any kind of work experience may not position them to fully benefit from an MBA.  Further there are many choices today when doing a business degree and so to help choose the right business path can only be facilitated with more knowledge as to what lies ahead in the business world and what their preferences are.

There are so many programs out there now for students to better understand their choices.  Every student should take full advantage.  One of my favorite organizations for young people today is StartUp Canada. They have so many different activities, mentoring, and networking events going on.  There is something for everyone.

4) Many students have broad interests and are unsure of which career path to take after completing their studies. When you were an undergraduate student, what was your career plan and how has your career path been different than you expected?

I’d love to say that I had a plan but I truly didn’t.  I did think I would pursue a career in science, get my PhD and then go from there.  But I never got there. I ‘created’ my first job and off I went on my journey.  I can’t say that I planned out my career, but rather I pursued my interests and broke new ground doing it.  It turned out that I was comfortable in that uncertain world and so it all worked for me.  But that path is not necessarily for everyone.  You don’t really know you are a risk taker until you try. I think folks are looking for a clear understanding and path for their career. Today there are even more options but unfortunately the competition is tough.  Lots of smart people are getting multiple degrees and bringing them into the work force thus the pressure is on to compete on that playing field.  I think you have to figure out what your passions are, be creative and courageous and ‘go for it’.  I know that sounds cliché but it’s as true as it comes.  In other words, get comfortable with options and explore. Co-op programs should be fully taken advantage of to seek out different jobs so that you can get a taste of what you like and are good at.  Join mentoring programs so that you can build a good network.  Volunteer in different kinds of organizations to do the same.  Break through your comfort zone!

 

Do you have any questions you’d like to get answered by one of our mentors? Let us know at director.communications@thesbn.ca ! Also, if you’re interested in one-on-one mentoring from industry experts like Natalie Dakers, apply to the SBN Mentorship Program today!

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