Stepping Into A Start-Up

Author: Devon Sheppard Edited by: Burcu Anil Kirmizitas

Devon Sheppard is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the Dunn School of Pathology, University of Oxford.

Many young entrepreneurs dream of developing the next new great start-up, the successful start-up, the revolutionary start-up... They dream of finding that one great thing that will carry them through the development and foundation of a prosperous company.  However, the road to entrepreneurship and a successful company is not a smooth one.  Many also know the steep odds that they face in the pursuit of founding a start-up, the majority of which do not succeed and the biotech and biomedical industries are certainly not exempt from this. This is coupled with the fact that only a small fraction of pharmaceutical and biomedical products will ever reach approval for clinical use. The odds are daunting indeed.

However, the skills and expertise developed in academic training are not solely the provision of a clinical pipeline.  While every successful start-up has target consumers, having both diversity of appeal and novel products and services are hallmarks of those start-ups that transition to successful companies.  In many cases rather than a focus on a particular clinical application, the step towards entrepreneurship can involve other strengths developed with scientific training. While it is difficult to describe all the potential fields for which private industry can fulfil needs within the scientific and biomedical community, it is important for those thinking about moving towards entrepreneurship to consider a broad range of skills.

       Vanessa Gray-Schopfer

       Vanessa Gray-Schopfer

To get a better understanding of how non-clinical start-ups can work I spoke with Vanessa Gray-Schopfer, one of the founders of Omniscience, a company providing writing services for the medical and scientific fields.  Rather than focusing on developing a singular or focused pharmaceutical goal, Omniscience provides intellectual services to a broad base of researchers and organisations.  

When and where was your company founded?

OmniScience was founded in April 2009 in Geneva, Switzerland.



How would you describe your company and the role it fills?

OmniScience is an independent contract service organisation providing scientific and medical writing services to the pharmaceutical industry, biotechnology companies, and academia. This includes regulatory affairs activities (e.g. Periodic Safety Update Reports, Risk Management Plans), publications and congresses (e.g. manuscripts, scientific assessments, congress abstracts, medical scientific slide sets and poster presentations), and other activities (e.g. responses to medical information inquiries, translations from French into English, providing conceptual input, and quality control).

What inspired you to pursue this aspect of the private sector?

I wanted a career beyond a laboratory environment. With my experience in academic and medical settings, in the UK, Germany and Switzerland, I felt I had a proven track record of independently initiating, designing and managing projects in cancer and other areas of biomedical research.

Among the aspects I most enjoyed during my time in academia were communicating results and ideas to a variety of audiences at all levels of seniority. This involved preparing reports and grant applications, writing protocols, original articles, reviews, and book chapters, and presenting my work at meetings. In addition, I regularly peer-reviewed scientific manuscripts. After leaving academia, and before creating my company, I honed these skills by working as an associate program manager at Excerpta Medica in London and as a medical writer with HPM Healthcare Project Management in Geneva, Switzerland.

What were the biggest obstacles to founding your company?

Apart from building up the courage to take the plunge, finances and legal issues were initial obstacles. Approximately  £ 80k are required in Switzerland to create a limited company, and the process has to be approved by a bank and a solicitor. Other hurdles included learning the required skills to manage a company (e.g. building a client base, and various administrative responsibilities).

What is the largest difference between your experience in academia and your current work?

Since I left academia, I for instance no longer feel any pressure to show immediate and positive results, or to publish data in order to justify my position. I also have become very much used to being my own boss and to working in a non-hierarchical environment.

What is the greatest advantage of private sector work?

I enjoy the variety of the work, a flexible work schedule, and the independence. There is also a favourable work-life balance, which is convenient for parents of small children. However, I am reluctant to compare and contrast academia with the private sector; good and bad positions exist in both sectors.

What would be the biggest piece of advice you would give future entrepreneurs?

It is important to build up the required self-confidence to become an entrepreneur. Further, it is vital to choose to do work that you care about, surrounded by competent people, in an atmosphere of mutual respect. Also, there is no time for resting on laurels, and it never hurts to learn from mistakes.


While others will not be able to follow the same path as Dr. Gray-Schopfer, they may find similar success by examining their own strengths and seeing how they fit within the scientific community as a whole.  It is those with vision to look beyond the expected that can create something new and that is truly the first step towards a successful start-up.