Health and biotech startups are looking for doctors for these 6 roles

Feb 11, 2019

I have a number of acquaintances in the San Francisco Bay area who work for startups. I love hearing about their work and their lives. The quick pace, the rounds of fundraising, and the idea of blazing a new trail. I’m enticed by the startup culture (dog-friendly workplaces and unlimited PTO?!) and the thrill of working for a company that could become “the next big thing” within a field.

Innovation in health and medicine is huge right now, and startups looking for doctors are not hard to find. There are many young companies looking to shake up the way healthcare is delivered, empower patients to be proactive about their health, improve the way that various diseases are treated, and apply new technologies to the field of medicine.

Here are 6 different ways for physicians to get involved with health tech and biotech startups. There are opportunities for doctors of every type – whether you’re looking for a career pivot or just something new to do on the side. Getting involved with a medically-related startup is a possibility even for doctors with a busy clinical practice. I’ve included some pros and cons for each to help you consider what might be the most fitting for you.

1. Executive and senior leadership

Having a physician in an executive leadership role ensures that a tech startup is acting in manner that will ultimately benefit the patient. Who better to have as the company’s primary medical representative than a highly-educated clinician with ample knowledge of both basic science and the workings of the medical field?

Chief Medical Officer is one of the most common physician-held leadership positions at small startups. For many early companies, this is the first and only role filled by an individual with a clinical background. Chief Scientific Officer or Chief Health Officer is used by some businesses instead of (or in addition to) CMO.

Some startups with a complex product or a focus that’s heavily medical will hire more senior physician leaders than just a CMO. Look for opportunities such as Chief Medical Information Officer.

Landing one of these positions generally requires at least several years of experience in clinical medicine and/or research. Depending on the size of the company, though, high-level leadership experience may not be needed. If you’ve never been a CMO before, don’t let that hold you back from pursing a CMO position that you’re otherwise well qualified for.

Be prepared to make big decisions if you take a CMO position with a startup. You’ll wear many hats and your role may change as the company evolves.

Perks and upsides:

  • Equity in the company (which may be a significant percentage)
  • Opens doors for other senior leadership positions
  • You’ll learn a ton
  • Your decision-making will have a big impact

Challenges and potential drawbacks:

  • Salary may be lower than what you can make in a larger organization
  • Will likely work long hours
  • A lot of responsibility

2. Research and development roles for products and services

In growing and late-stage startups, physicians fill full-time roles aside from executive and senior leadership. These include vice presidents and senior vice presidents with areas of focus such as VP of Health Analytics and Research or VP of Clinical Development. Typically, these individuals report directly to the CMO or another executive leader.

Physicians brought on board to develop the startup’s product or service may also be Medical Directors or Physician Leads. They often work closely with researchers, software developers, and other nonclinical staff.

These roles can have a lot of overlap with the CMO position at some startup companies. The main difference, however, is that physicians outside of the C-suite are more likely to be “in the weeds” than focused on high-level strategy. Physicians in these positions are valuable in bringing a clinical and medical perspective to developing and launching a new product.

AngelList is a great place to explore open positions of this type or post your resume so that startups can find you.

Perks and upsides:

  • Great way to transition away from clinical medicine while still utilizing your medical knowledge and skills
  • Equity in the company
  • Full-time, employed work with benefits

Challenges and potential drawbacks:

  • Compensation may not match what you can make in a clinical position
  • Long hours

3. Consultants for marketing and evangelism

The two roles discussed above tend to be full-time, permanent positions with a startup. But physicians often work with startups in consulting roles. These can sometimes be related to early product development, but are more common when the technology is ready to launch and thereafter.

A physician who is passionate about a startup’s technology and who truly believes it will improve patient lives or healthcare delivery is a huge asset to the startup. Doctors tend to have influence and large networks of other healthcare practitioners that can really help a new technology take off.

As a consultant for a health tech startup, you might translate the benefits and capabilities of the company’s technology into terms that potential customers can understand and find value in.

This work might also involve developing strategy to help bring a technology into the existing healthcare or consumer marketplace. Your first-hand experience in a healthcare delivery setting and working with patients gives you the knowledge needed to make good decisions about selling, scaling, and carving out a need and niche for the startup’s product.

Perks and upsides:

  • Work might be part-time and flexible
  • Spend time talking or writing about something you’re passionate about
  • You can continue practicing while getting involved in a startup

Challenges and potential drawbacks:

  • If you disagree with any aspect of the company or a decision that’s made, you may not have the ability to alter or influence it
  • Compensation may be equity instead of hourly pay

4. Medical practitioners to carry out business services and operations

Many health-related startups are more than just a simple tangible product or piece of software. It’s common for them to include a service that requires ongoing medical decision-making for customers. For example, an app that helps patients manage their chronic disease might utilize lab testing that needs a doctor’s order or review. Similarly, telemedicine platforms need physicians to carry out the actual patient consults.

Working as a provider in the ongoing operations of a startup company won’t necessarily be much different than your regular work as a clinician. You might have patient encounters, sign off on test results, or review records. So, if you want to just dip your toe in the sea of the startup world, working as a consulting physician with a late-stage startup may be the way to go.

Perks and upsides:

  • Straightforward, hourly rate for your services
  • Get a feel for what it would be like to work full-time with a startup
  • Schedule and time-requirement may be flexible

Challenges and potential drawbacks:

  • If your work involves practicing medicine – either in person, by telemedicine, ordering tests, or signing off on results, you MUST do your due diligence before signing on. Ensure you have the appropriate licenses and malpractice insurance. A small startup may have overlooked important considerations for their physicians. Unfortunately, there are also businesses out there with scammy or fraudulent practices that aren’t always obvious.

5. Advisory board and board of directors members

Many physicians dream about starting their own business. You might have an idea for a medical product or a health-related services that seems like it could really flourish. But, in reality, starting a business from scratch is a tough thing to do. This prevents a lot of doctors from actually doing it. But you can experience the thrill of a young business without actually owning and running it yourself, and without taking an employed position.

The board of directors is responsible for making critical decisions for the company. These are mainly strategic and financial in nature. Be sure your own viewpoints align with the organization’s long-term goals and mission. Don’t take the decision to serve on a board of directors lightly.

Physicians with expertise in a specialty, therapeutic area, or disease state are often excellent candidates to serve on the advisory board for health-related startups. These positions have less of a fiduciary responsibility than a board of directors position; however, they don’t carry the same voting right or compensation.

Perks and upsides:

  • You can be truly influential in the path the startup takes
  • Equity in the company
  • Expand your network as you work with other board members

Challenges and potential drawbacks:

  • Investing in the company may be an expectation for board members
  • Time and effort requirements can be variable and travel may be required
  • May need to make tough decisions about hiring or firing senior management and in legal affairs
  • Your level of engagement on the board may be tied to your compensation

6. Investors

Investing in a startup is an excellent option for doctors who don’t want a career change and aren’t looking for any additional work. After doing some upfront research as you’re considering the investment, your time requirements will be minimal. All you’ll have to do is some paperwork and keep track of where your investments are, and stay abreast of any major company changes like IPOs and acquisitions.

Of course, the major risk is losing some or all of your investment. However, if you feel passionate about a startup’s product and want to help give it the best chance at success, it may very well be worth the risk for you.

Perks and upsides:

  • Your investment helps give the startup a chance at success
  • Little to no commitment of time and effort
  • Be involved in the excitement of a startup without leaving your clinical job
  • Possibility for return on your investment

Challenges and potential drawbacks:

  • You can’t influence the direction or decisions of the company
  • You might lose your investment


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