Dr. Theonie Anastassiadis, 2017 alumna of CAMB/Cancer Biology, thought she knew what she wanted to do after graduate school. Theonie always pictured herself on the academic track and eventually running her own lab. However, in the summer of 2017, Theonie pursued an opportunity that changed the course of her career by participating as a Summer Fellow at a biotechnology venture creation firm known as Flagship Pioneering in Cambridge, Mass. After her summer at the company, she was offered a full-time position, where she now works as part of an entrepreneurial team to originate, resource, manage and grow bioscience companies that create breakthroughs in health and sustainability.
Theonie did her thesis work in Dr. Eric Brown’s lab, where she studied DNA replication fork dynamics in the context of cancer development and therapeutics. As she was finishing up her graduate studies, she heard about what sounded like her dream job during a career development information session on Flagship Pioneering and its Fellowship. Theonie decided to apply for the 12-week summer Flagship Fellowship, which is designed to provide Fellows with insight into Flagship Pioneering’s unique innovation process. It also gives them the opportunity to generate ideas that can be developed into the next breakthrough companies, to work directly with highly experienced Flagship Pioneering team members, and gain exposure to leaders in science. After completing the Flagship Fellowship, Theonie was thrilled to be offered a job, and she hasn’t looked back since.
Flagship Pioneering is an enterprise built around the idea that innovation can be institutionalized and streamlined. As such, Flagship creates biotechnology companies from scratch, beginning with seemingly unreasonable propositions and converting them into testable hypotheses, and ultimately transformational outcomes. Flagship’s pioneering process is broken into four phases. In the Exploration phase, entrepreneur scientists begin by asking “What if?” to generate novel scientific concepts that challenge dogma. Through an iterative and evolutionary methodology, they grow and shape these ideas to establish a potentially transformative new platform company. During the ProtoCo phase, these companies prototype their ideas, with an emphasis on performing proof-of-concept experiments to test the hypotheses generated in the exploration phase. If successful, a ProtoCo moves to the NewCo phase. Here, the company further develops its platform and creates value. The fourth phase is the GrowthCo, in which a NewCo platform company becomes a fully-fledged company with a higher degree of operational independence.
When Theonie started at Flagship Pioneering, she gained experience in all phases of the pioneering process. As part of a team in the NewCo stage, she learned about regulatory process, clinical trial design, target product profiles, and market research. At the same time, she ran a project in the Exploration phase, as part of which she proposed an RNA biology platform idea and oversaw the resourcing and launch of a new venture within Flagship Labs, called “Flagship Labs 63” (FL63). FL63 has a number of hired scientists and is currently in the ProtoCo phase, doing experiments to validate the team’s ideas. Theonie always knew that she wanted to run a lab and manage a team, and while it’s different from academia, she’s now in a position to do just that. Theonie has really enjoyed working for Flagship Pioneering because it provides her with the freedom to delve into unexplored research areas and to leverage newly discovered biology to make a therapeutic impact.
Theonie found that Penn provided her with a deep academic foundation that prepared her well for the scientific aspects of her job. As a graduate student, she learned how to think critically about scientific principles, carefully examine the literature, and most importantly have grit. She was not, however, exposed to intellectual property strategy, personnel management, and business operations. Although these skills were all very new to her, she learned on the job and picked them up quickly.
For those interested in a job like Theonie’s, she highly recommends looking into the Flagship Fellowship. The program is a paid three-month immersion experience held in the Flagship offices, where Fellows learn how to generate and refine actionable pioneering hypotheses with plenty of on-the-job training and mentorship. Participating in the program can also open doors for your career. Flagship Pioneering tends to hire from its Fellowship class, placing recruits in roles within Flagship Labs or the broader Flagship ecosystem. Theonie co-ran the Flagship Fellowship last year and will be coming back to Penn this year to recruit applicants. She encourages graduate students to explore all of their options; “Even if [you] think [you] know what [you] want to do, look at what is out there. It can’t hurt to know what opportunities exist, and who knows, maybe you’ll discover your dream job,” she says. Theonie’s experience exemplifies the benefits of keeping an open mind when it comes to choosing a career path.
For more information on Flagship Pioneering and its innovation process, visit their website at https://www.flagshippioneering.com/. For those interested in the Flagship Fellowship, visit https://www.flagshippioneering.com/join/fellows.