The Rise of the 10x Research Associate

10X engineer memes have resurfaced lately, for better and for worse. But what does the idea that a certain individual can be ten times as productive in tech companies mean for multidisciplinary companies in spaces like bio? Beyond the dry lab desktops, is there a 10x engineering equivalent in the wet lab — where much of the messy work of discovery takes place? 

Bio companies are usually catalyzed by scientific founders, who trail blaze and guide the trajectory of their companies. But these companies need to translate founders’ academic work into, well, a working company. In that regard, it’s actually RAs — a.k.a. research associates, usually freshly minted, entry-level scientists — that essentially power most early-stage bio companies. RAs are responsible for painstakingly optimizing lab protocols, running complex experiments, and analyzing reams of data generated by those experiments. Ultimately, RAs have the extremely important north star goal of ensuring that 1) founders’ academic research can be reliably replicated in the startup lab environment; and 2) that the underlying science can be industrialized into a robust and scalable platform.

It’s actually RAs — a.k.a. research associates, usually freshly minted, entry-level scientists — that essentially power most early-stage bio companies

The best RAs can absolutely approach 10x productivity, if not more, in terms of output and impact. This is especially true as biology shifts from a largely experimental science — where each program is its own new ground war — to an engineered discipline, where an iterative, building-block approach can have a dramatic compounding effect over time, where each advance can serve as a foundation for the next one. The importance of a capable, smart research associate shaping these building blocks is sometimes unfairly referred to as just having “good hands.” But the most gifted RAs have much more than that; they have a rare combination of creativity, efficiency, and accuracy. Their ability to problem-solve on the fly and crank through experiments to generate “clean” data is absolutely invaluable for driving programs forward. Bad data will have you chasing ghosts: projects stall or are abandoned, timelines stretch, budgets get strained.

Despite advances in engineering biology, there is still a heavy tinkering component to science. RAs, by definition, spend much of their time in the trenches, troubleshooting and creating new standard operating procedures. They often work late at night and on weekends to accommodate biology’s fickle temperament and schedule. It can be frustrating toil, but it’s also, in essence, the noble pursuit of really pushing toward frontiers of new knowledge. And it’s a front row seat in an industry that is rapidly reimagining how we diagnose, treat, and manage disease. I had the privilege of working with an RA with a virtually IronMan-like dedication and discipline (equal parts triathlete and Avenger) to his work. He was capable of producing the most pristine data under even the most ambitious deadlines. On one occasion, his superhuman efforts yielded in a week what another team had taken a month to produce. If there was a critical project that had to be done fast, this RA was usually called in first. 

The best RAs don’t blindly follow recipes; they revisit assumptions, tweak variables, and find non-obvious solutions

But this isn’t just about productivity. Science is hard. Sometimes (often!) things don’t work. So creativity is critical. The best RAs don’t blindly follow recipes; they revisit assumptions, tweak variables, and find non-obvious solutions. I once reached a total dead end in a project analyzing brain cells; our efforts in other cell types had been successful, but everything we tried for these cells was a complete zero. But then a 10x RA tackled the project. In a few short days she was able to successfully design an experiment that yielded a never-before-seen dataset, cracking the case by solving for the unique care and feeding conditions required by brain cells. 

These are the 10x RAs: the ones that trim timelines, fine-tune the foundations of transformative platforms, and turn the tide on critical-path projects. None of this is to suggest that 10x RAs are lone wolves; bio is a team sport. Since it’s increasingly being played across both the wet and dry labs, collaboration is a winning strategy. The best RAs teach other RAs how to make things work and aren’t afraid to highlight when they’ve failed, to help others avoid known landmines. In other words, 10x RAs also help raise the value of x. Add to that the fact that biology, one of the most advanced technologies on earth, can scale billions-fold by design. What’s your x-level impact if you use your ingenuity and creativity to make the impossible possible?

What’s your x-level impact if you use your ingenuity and creativity to make the impossible possible?

RAs are the lifeblood of most bio companies. The secret superpower of 10x RAs is an open one; they’re a hard fought-over resource within companies. But many of these RAs don’t fully appreciate how valuable, how impactful, they can be. As the flow of investment capital into bio companies — and the swell of bio companies being built — has turned into a deluge, the demand for RAs has exploded. So RAs today have the opportunity to work across a broad range of companies, from large, established global biopharmaceutical giants to early startups

If you’re currently an RA, or if you’re interested in becoming one, know your worth. It’s up to you to raise or reach out your hand; for RAs, it’s a seller’s market. And bio founders, if you have a 10x RA in your sights – grab them. Attracting both wet and dry 10x talent early in life will buy your company a much brighter future.