Elizabeth Higgins, Founder and CEO of GlycoSolutions Corporation shares her journey from her doctoral work with James Dennis in the Department of Molecular Genetics to realizing her ambitions to become an entrepreneur. Elizabeth highlights key memories from graduate school, and provides sage advice for trainees hoping to pursue careers in biotechnology or as entrepreneurs.
When did you first know that you wanted to be a scientist?
It was clear from a young age that I was interested in science. My parents joked that I was the only 10-year old they have ever known who knew exactly what she wanted to do.
What brought you to the Department of Molecular Genetics at the University of Toronto for your doctoral studies?
This is an unusual answer because during my undergrad I fell in love with the idea of carbohydrates and that’s what I wanted to study. There were a couple of people in the Department working on carbohydrates and I had stumbled upon one woman’s work, actually in a fourth year course at Guelph. I do remember in my interviews to get into the Department, meeting with Martin Breitman who kept asking why I was applying to this Department. I thought that I was never going to get in. But I was looking for specific research and it was in the Department.
What was the most important discovery from your studies in the Department of Molecular Genetics?
I was working on a genetic disease and there really was not much known about it at all, so I think it is kind of disappointing as you always think that you are going to have this eureka moment but instead I identified a defect in the regulation of glycosyltransferases related to the disease. I think that the most important thing (from my work in James Dennis’ lab) really was just seeing another example of where - in this case lymphocyte activation - the glycosyltransferase activities would change. People at the time thought of glycosylation as static but here you could see dramatic changes in glycosyltransferases and glycosylation with lymphocyte action, even if we did not understand the implications to the disease.
What are your most exciting memories from the Department of Molecular Genetics?
I don’t think I appreciated it at the time, but when I look back on it, it was being around such great science. I remember leaving and you go away and realize that people know the researchers in the Department. They know the scientist across the hall (Tony Pawson), and at the time Lap-Chee Tsui had just cloned the cystic fibrosis gene. I went to a company where they were actually working on cystic fibrosis and were very involved with that research. I was not involved directly with that research at Genzyme or at the University of Toronto, but it was kind of cool. I really enjoyed the camaraderie of all the other students and the interesting science and just being part of that. That’s the best part of science—being around other scientists.
How did your experience in the Department of Molecular Genetics influence your career trajectory?
I think the biggest thing was really being well prepared. And also coming from a University with such a strong reputation where people knew the researchers, so it was not an unknown.
At what point did you realize that you had ambitions to found a company?
I come from a long line of, well they would not have called themselves entrepreneurs, but my dad and my grandfather ran their own business. It was just always there. I knew going into my PhD that I wanted to get a job in industry. I was naïve at the time because I had no idea how difficult that was going to be, especially at the time. But, I managed to get a job in industry nonetheless. Everyone in the lab kept joking with me that I was going to end up having to take an academic postdoc as I was never going to find a job. It seemed really important at the time but an academic postdoc would not have been the worst thing in my life. I wrote my GMAT to get into business school before I finished my PhD, if that tells you anything. As soon as I started working I was looking for an opportunity to start my own company. I did an MBA part time, and it took forever. Especially since I took a year off to have a baby and I was six months pregnant with my second when finishing my last class. I thought that this has got to end or I am never going to finish. I then went on to found GlycoSolutions in 2001.
How would you describe the major focus of GlycoSolutions Corporations?
We are a contract lab and we help companies and the occasional academic group with carbohydrate analysis and protein characterization. Primarily our focus is to help companies get together the data they need for their filings with the FDA and Health Canada and all the other worldwide regulatory groups. The demand for these types of services is strong. Outsourcing is now understood to play a very important role in the Biotech/Pharma industry. We work with some companies that are virtual and don’t even have labs or have only very small labs and they rely on contract labs, which can be very efficient. But companies of all sizes outsource some work. The larger companies have been downsizing and that means that more work goes out the door.
What are some of the key challenges facing a Founder and CEO of a biotechnology company?
I probably don’t have a lot of the same challenges as somebody running a Biotech company developing drugs. One big difference is that I don't have to go out looking for the enormous amount of money required to fund drug development. A lot of my challenges are more similar to small business, which is interesting and points out that the Biotech industry is a lot more diverse than it used to be. There are a lot of companies like mine that don’t fall into the standard categories. We are more aligned with smaller business but we are an important part of Biotech. When I started my company the incubator I started in was really hesitant to even lease me space since they had not imagined having service companies in their space. By the time I left the incubator there were many more service companies leasing space.
I think one of the big challenges of a role like mine is being able to adapt and pick up different skills as you go, since things change a lot. It is not one of those well-defined jobs. You just really need to be able to do what you need to do, and sometimes you need to be able to do things that you have no experience doing and learn on the fly.
What do you think are the key elements of leading a successful company?
Absolutely hiring good smart people and letting them do their job. Which is really hard at times but once you start listening and allow people to try things it’s a humbling experience finding out how often other people have better ideas for solving problems.
What advice would you give to graduate students hoping to pursue careers in biotechnology or as entrepreneurs?
I have had frustrations with how our industry hires scientists. I think that one thing scientists don’t appreciate is that they tend to hire for very specific skill sets. Which makes it hard in that if you cannot check that box, they won’t look at you. This is instead of hiring smart scientists, good people, and good team players who will be able to do whatever comes down the road. Of course what happens for most scientists is that you get hired into a company and often you don’t end up doing what you were hired to do for very long anyhow. So, this is a tricky thing and it is important to be able to adapt or you will find yourself out of a job. It is also key not to get pigeonholed too much.
Do you feel that your MBA was key to success in your career?
In my experience, you would think that having the business experience and the science experience would be a good combination, but so often you are forced to choose between business and science and they don’t really blend the two together in biotech companies. I think that is really unfortunate. For founding my company, the MBA made me more comfortable with general business concepts and that really helped. One key point is that each of my degrees was an important piece of my training and has contributed to where I am today.