In 2009, Dan Senor and Saul Singer christened Israel the “Start-Up Nation” in their best-selling book, a title that Israelis have whole-heartedly embraced. The book details how Israel has experienced success in the high-tech sector, seeing hundreds of software and communications businesses start, many of which have flourished.
Martine Bernstein did not know this when she decided to go to Israel to finish her MSc in Human Molecular Genetics. She wanted to combine her Jewish roots with her fascination for genetics, and knew the Weizmann Institute of Science was doing high quality research in this field. “It was a phenomenal place to study; I had some great hands-on lab experience,” says Martine.
After finishing her research and graduating from Imperial College, Martine decided to stay in Israel rather than consider further studies or a job in the UK. “I had a change of heart whilst I was finishing up the research project. I didn’t want to leave science, but I wanted to apply what I had learned in academia within a business context.”
Whilst living in Israel, Martine had started to notice the energy and drive its people had for innovation. “There’s innovation on every street corner, especially in Tel Aviv. There’s this real entrepreneurial spirit which is infectious. Everyone is seeking to innovate.” Martine had caught the start-up bug, and, in 2012, joined biotech start-up Azure PCR.
“It’s a steep learning curve,” says Martine. She quickly learned that although she was entering the field as a biologist and scientist, the nature of a start-up is that you aren’t just focussed on one role. “Immediately, I found myself also doing business development, attending conferences, speaking to venture capitalists and big players in the field.”
A year later, Martine moved on to Genome Compiler, another bio-tech start-up based in Tel Aviv. “I wanted to enter a more current field, a field that would revolutionise the way in which we treat disease and potentially solve global problems by harnessing the power of biology. For me this was synthetic biology.” Genome Compiler provides software for researchers to upload DNA in either single parts or as whole genomes. Using the software, scientists can then engineer DNA in different abstraction layers using combinatorial library design and then submit projects to DNA synthesis providers.
Joining a start-up “fresh out of academia” was a shock to Martine’s system, and took some courage. “In terms of engagement with others, the most I ever had to do during my years in academia was talk to peers and present my MSc thesis to my lab group.”
Martine found that her academic years did not prepare her for life outside of the research laboratory. “You’re often sheltered in labs, engrossed in projects. They don’t equip you with professional skills: creating a business, or how to enter relevant industry sectors and apply the skill set and knowledge you acquired over your years of study.”
In hindsight, Martine says she would have preferred to do post graduate studies that offered opportunities for personal development outside of the lab. “Something like a professional masters where you continue some academic study and in parallel learn how to harness your biotech interests and apply them to business.”
However, since Martine left university for the private start-up sector, she’s been amazed at how she has developed. “The change is dramatic. The experiences, the exposure and mixing with innovators at the forefront of the industry, it has boosted my confidence.”
“Working in a start-up is a great way to learn very quickly what might take several years to learn in a larger corporation,” says Martine. Colleagues and friends have told her that in a larger corporation everything is sectioned out, and each department has its own specific roles and skill sets. “I loved the fast-paced nature of start-ups, being involved from the onset, getting to be a part of the business development, the product development, travelling and learning all the time. Your ideas are heard and you really have a chance to make an impact.”
Joining the world of start-ups has been an eye-opener for Martine, and a chance for her to build on her skill set. “I’ve had a ball since working with Genome Compiler. I believe in the vision of the company, looking to harness the power of biology to find a way to help forge the field of synthetic biology.”
Her final words of advice: don’t be afraid to jump into the deep end. “A start-up offers a multitude of experiences and opportunities. It’s not in every business that you have the opportunity to contribute in a host of sectors and are given the chance to flourish. You can either sink or swim. With enough belief and hard work, I managed to swim.”