Alexander Simafranca C’18 interned at BioCellection in San Jose, CA

2016 Startup Internship Award Winner Supported by the Rosalind (WG’76) and Roy (WG’76) Neff Entrepreneurial Internship Fund

I used to see startups as most do, a quick ticket to success, fame, and most of all fortune. But that isn’t all there is to startups, or so I found this summer. The startup market attracts young people, innovators, disruptors and dissidents trying their luck at starting a company in a highlending, high-competition environment to the point that everyone can’t help but want in. For some, this is the opportunity of a lifetime, the chance to bring a lifelong passion and idea to fruition and see it take root, with a little backing of course. But for still many others, the promise of riches has lead them afar only to become a vanishing mirage of false promises and hype.

My disillusionment with the current startup market was brought about by my first-hand experiences as a research scientist for a small startup this past summer. As a scientist, working at a startup is supposed to be a dream-come-true; work your own hours, have practically free-reign over your projects and make a more meaningful impact in the company than you would at a larger, more structured company. And, in truth, much of this turned out to be accurate. I was up by 10am, in by 11 and out by 7 on most days. As for my work, I had nearly full say in what I wanted to do next, only under the limitation of economic resources. Yet, possibly the most important aspect of working at a startup as a researcher is believing that your work will have an impact. As it currently stands, I am uncertain this last point will come to fruition.

The startup market is full to the brim of fledgling companies waiting for their chance in the sun. While some do get this golden opportunity, the large majority end up waiting until their last day. That’s not to say the startup market is “bad” or “pointless.” Such an overarching statement would be easy to fell. For a professional with expertise in their field to grow a product or service on the current investment atmosphere, it’s difficult to dislike this concept because, honestly, that’s where most all of us want to be. But the startup market also appeals to college students like me who can imagine ourselves starting a company one day but currently lack the skills necessary to take on such a venture. Yet, the tone of the startup market isn’t wait for the right time, it’s start now or you might miss your chance at success.

Before this summer, I bought into this message because of all the other college students at Penn and abroad who have taken the headlines with their startups. But I’ve since found that it’s hard to be involved in a startup if you aren’t already epic at what you do. The research I was doing this summer relied in part on organometallic chemistry, a branch of chemistry not traditionally taught until graduate school. And while I did eventually get a feeling for it, it’s expectedly difficult and stressing to learn and apply new concepts in such a quick turnaround time. I came to realize that there was a world of techniques and strategies I could have used in my project that I haven’t yet acquired. And where I did not know things, no one else did. In that sense, startup life was daunting and lonely. Assumingly, if I were highly experienced and practiced in my field I would’ve been fine with this life. I would have worked on my project and been comfortable that I am making adequate progress. But the reality of my limited expertise made startup life a less comfortable and more humbling experience.

I still dream of starting my own company someday, this has not changed. I want to start a materials company that provides advanced material solutions to our society on a large scale. But this summer’s lesson was that maybe now is not the right time. It took time to convince myself that such dreams won’t leave me if I don’t act now. In fact, I expect they’ll only grow in my ever-increasing ability to make them tangible. Over the many conversations I had with my mother regarding startup life this summer, she has slowly ingrained a lesson in me seeded from experience. She said that investors are always willing to listen to a trained scientist because a well-educated professional is a good bet towards high returns. So rather than risk it all in pursuing the hype of a college startup, I choose instead to invest my time in my education and have faith in my role as a future scientist, innovator and a good bet.

Questions:

How did you find the position?

I found the position for Chemistry and Polymer Scientist at the startup serendipitously. On a day I needed to speak with my College counselor regarding dual degree status, they of course weren’t there so I was assigned to another advisor. The advisor happened to be the advisor of one of the startup’s cofounders, and based upon the research interests cited on my student profile the advisor put us in contact. This happened around September of last year, and prior to the summer I was doing occasional work with the startup as well.

What was your motivation for working at a startup this summer?

Startups are currently all the rage for engineering and science students I feel. I wanted to work at a startup this summer in order to gain a different sort of exposure to the job market than I’ve previously had. The summer of my freshman year, I stayed on campus and did academic research in a chemistry lab. This past summer I got to experience what working for a startup is like, and next summer I will hopefully gain experience working for a larger company in industry.

What advice would you give to students interested in working at a startup this summer?

I would say go for it. There are a lot of things that can’t be learned just by hearing about other peoples’ experiences, and I would say working for a startup is one of them. Comparing my experiences to those of some friends who also worked at startups, each person’s experience is unique and tailored to their position in the startup and their overall mesh with the startup atmosphere. If you’re remotely interested in one day working for a startup or having one of your own, then I would say there’s no substitute for first-hand experience in the startup market.