An academic bioinformatician in the corporate world
In 2011, Professor Matti Nykter founded Genevia Technologies to help research groups analyse the genome-wide data they produced. As the cost of conducting measurements dropped significantly, there was suddenly a pressing need for experts of computational biology at the university. At that point, only a handful of people were working with bioinformatics in the private sector, and they usually didn’t work with genome-wide data.
“At the beginning of the decade, genome-wide measurements and the analytics they required were purely an academic thing. Experts of bioinformatics would usually move to different fields after graduating because there were no job opportunities in the private sector. In the span of a few short years, the situation has reversed and academic bioinformaticians with doctorates are now very sought-after on the job market,” says Nykter, giving some background for the industry.
In the corporate world, there is a real shortage of bioinformaticians with research backgrounds, since many companies in the field cooperate closely with research organizations. Cancer research, immunology, medical technology and biofuels have become focal points of product development in many companies as applications that combine genomics and bioinformatics have leaped towards the consumer market. In addition to expert employees, these companies also need consulting from top expert groups.
“We help research groups publish new findings based on genome-wide data on a daily basis. In these types of projects, the actual practical work is very similar to what bioinformaticians do at the university. In other projects we might be building custom analysis software for companies using cloud computing and the latest software technologies. The corporate environment can offer bioinformaticians a lot more support and resources than the university – while, of course, the requirements are also higher,” says CEO Antti Ylipää to shed light on the everyday work of a bioinformatician.
Genevia’s bioinformatics team consists mainly of doctorate-level bioinformaticians, some of whom analyse data sets received from the customers, some build analysis tools to support this work and others handle reporting and working in the customer interface. Whereas at the university every bioinformatician usually writes research papers, in the private sector the bioinformatician’s job description can also contain other elements, which is something that many specialists with an academic background often appreciate.
From a plant biologist to a programming bioinformatician
German-born Vidal Fey holds a doctorate in biology, and soon after completing his studies he realized that he really enjoyed conducting biological research with computers. He sought employment at the University of Turku so that he could advance medical genetics as a bioinformatician, and he spent over a decade doing just that. Then one night as he was battling with his latest grant application, he came across a job ad on LinkedIn where Genevia was looking for a senior bioinformatician.
“I was hired at Genevia even though I still live in Turku with my family and work partially from home. My work at Genevia is flexible, which is important for a family man. What I especially enjoy about the corporate world is that projects are planned out well and realized as a team that also includes other bioinformaticians besides myself. The management of the company understands family values and appreciates all the other important aspects of life as well,” Vidal says.
When working with customers in different kinds of projects, Vidal is able to utilize both his special botanical expertise and the data analysis skills he picked up at the university.
“I have done both simple basic analyses and technologically challenging platforms based on machine learning, which is something I never got to do at the university. In addition to analysis work, I am also responsible for Genevia’s servers, because besides programming I also enjoy tinkering with computers, for some reason,” Vidal says with a laugh. “I maintain and update our equipment, and ensure that we have all the tools we need to do all the required data analyses. It is important for me that the place where I work appreciates its employees so much that each employee’s work tasks are adapted to match their personal interests.”
When organized well, work leaves room for creativity
A typical workday for Vidal consists of processing data provided by our customers and looking for publishable findings. Sometimes this is done with existing analytical tools while other projects require product development to create the tools that are necessary for the job. The work of a project analyst is given structure by small work tasks arriving from the project management system. These work tasks are designed by the project manager according to the customer’s wishes.
“I get to choose the tools, programming language and other methods as I see fit. We also go over the progress of the project together with the project manager on a daily basis and talk about how we can see the project through most efficiently. We must be able to talk to the customer about the work we have done openly and clearly – and obviously, we are also under pressure to produce results at a high scientific level since our customers publish in top journals. Nevertheless, thanks to good planning, the pace of the work never becomes overwhelming and you can take breaks whenever you need them,” Vidal rejoices.
“In addition to the work, there are plenty of things about Finland that I like. It is quiet and relaxed here when compared to Germany. Dealing with bureaucracy is simpler and families are supported significantly better than in Germany. In Finland people are friendly and hospitable, perhaps not on the very first occasion you meet them, but definitely on the second. After over 15 years it looks like we’re now living in Finland permanently,” Vidal says and laughs.
A good team is more than the sum of its parts
Teamwork is a vital element in the allure of Genevia’s bioinformatics services. When compared to the work of a single bioinformatician, using a team of professionals guarantees both high scientific quality and speedy project completion with fluent communication. This is achieved by tapping into the different specializations and interests of individual team members – such as plant biology, high-performance computing, project management, multidimensional data visualization and scientific writing and oral communication. Computation tools also have a part to play and their development is crucially important in the production of a professional service.
“We strive to be ten times faster than an individual analyst – which is also what our customers, who have grown tired of bottlenecks created by slow analyses, have come to expect when they purchase a project from us. We are solid team players. Even though we are at the top of our field, we have a desire to keep learning more. We enjoy solving problems for our customers, and we can work on several projects at once if needed. Our project managers will keep the situation under control, which allows us bioinformaticians to focus on our analysis work in peace whenever that is required. Our expert salespeople find inspiring customers for us from the world’s top universities and enormous pharmaceutical companies,” says Vidal Fey.
Nearly all of Genevia’s employees, including management, have their educational background in bioinformatics. Most of them hold doctorates and have years of experience with scientific research in international research groups. These people are at the top of their game, and Genevia can offer them customer projects that are well planned and executed, freedom from having to submit research funding applications and a great vantage point over the development of the field of bioinformatics.
“We want to grow our team with the best talent, people who want to keep developing themselves continuously. Our field is changing so rapidly that we have to be learning something new all the time. Through our customers, our employees get to see and do things that even the university environment cannot provide. If you want a place at the sharpest edge of bioinformatics and life sciences, come work with us,” says Genevia’s Business Development Director Klaus Breitholtz.