From bioinformatics to sales – career success or a last resort?
Professionals in technological fields often have a negative view of working with customers, especially when it comes to sales. At the very least, they often have a limited understanding of the challenging nature and importance of sales work.
These kinds of sentiments were also present in the Genevia Technologies team as the company began its journey nearly a decade ago. When Professor Matti Nykter founded the company in 2011, the initial idea was to bring together the best bioinformatics professionals at the university to analyze genome-wide data sets from customers for research purposes. However, the team quickly realized that expertise in bioinformatics could be used for much more besides simply typing out code.
”It is not enough that you are able to analyze data at a high level, you must also know how to communicate this expertise to the customers and understand the algorithms which are applied to their research questions. At first, we thought that any regular salesperson could convince our customers of our skills, but we soon discovered that our customer interface requires very extensive technological expertise – in fact, it requires exactly the same expertise as the analysis side,” Nykter says, shedding light on the challenges of the field.
Even though practically all of Genevia’s customers are professionals of biotechnology research, they do not always see all the possible angles of analysis, or the full research potential of genome-wide data sets. When meeting with a customer, the main purpose of the salesperson is to understand the special characteristics of the customer’s research and the pertinent research questions, and then the salesperson should propose possibilities for analysis and tell the customer what kind of research data the latest measurement and analysis methods can produce for them. Wide-ranging understanding of science and technology is an absolute requirement for a successful salesperson in bioinformatics.
”After this epiphany, we have been looking to fill our sales team only with people whose skills in analytics equal those of our project implementers. Unfortunately, recruiting researchers for the sales team is challenging because of long-held preconceived notions,” laments CEO Antti Ylipää, who himself is involved in expert sales on a daily basis.
Natural career path leading up to the customer interface
Thomas Liuksiala was working in a computational systems biology research group at the Tampere University of Technology, conducting research with expression data related to blood cancers, when he was enticed to join Genevia for part-time work in bioinformatics.
“Thomas is a true bioinformatics specialist, but as an enthusiastic and sociable researcher he would chime in more and more on matters related to sales and business development. Eventually we had to find another analyst to replace him on the project team and make Thomas the Business Development Manager so that our company could best harness his ideas and energy,” says Business Development Director Klaus Breitholtz with a laugh.
Now Thomas has been traveling around the globe for three years meeting researchers in biology, medicine and biotechnology at universities, research facilities and companies. His main task is to familiarize himself with the research questions of the research groups and find out how Genevia could help them succeed in their work by utilizing genome-wide measurements and modern computational analytics. For this work, a background in bioinformatics research is probably the best possible education one could have.
“We want to be the best provider of bioinformatics services in the world, because in the global scientific world, being the best in Finland is nowhere near good enough. This is why we try to participate in projects where we don’t just push data through existing software, but where we get to lay out practices for the whole industry – with regard to how new types of data are analyzed, for example. Being able to participate in the scientific endeavor at the highest level in this manner, and in extremely diverse contexts, is a source of motivation for me. I probably won’t have time to dive into the coding anymore,” Thomas says and laughs.
Expert meets expert, and business development ensues
In technological fields, sales work is very closely connected to business development because sales meetings and conferences are the best opportunities for finding out what kind of problems and needs other experts in the field have. Even though not all meetings result in sales, a part of Thomas’ work is to learn from every meeting and relay that knowledge into the development of the company’s strategy. Sometimes the customers are direct about what they would buy if Genevia could only provide it. It is exactly these kinds of meetings that are more valuable than gold, and it is for this reason that at Genevia the salesperson is also the spearhead of business development.
“Discussions about science with professors and research project leaders are perhaps the most crucial part of this job. Sales happen after we have come together and succeeded in creating an enticing project plan that meets the customer’s needs. That, if anything, is technical work! I think a PhD could do well as a salesperson in this field, as long as they have a strong and persistent desire to learn and develop their expertise and help the customer succeed in their research. But it all starts with people skills – being able to get along with and talk to people – and a genuine desire to help,” Thomas ponders.
One thing is clear: a salesperson at Genevia must be an expert in bioinformatics. They must understand the work and processes of the leading operators in the field and the challenges they face. The salesperson must be able to make a quick and sharp-eyed evaluation of the problem the potential customer is faced with, and how Genevia Technologies can solve it for them.
“Because discussions with customers are beneficial in so many ways to both our company and the development of my own expertise, I consider every sales meeting to be meaningful, regardless of whether it results in cooperation or not. My job is to help the company grow in the form of new customer relationships, sometimes on the short term by selling a single project, and at other times on the longer term as we identify new potential for business,” Thomas says when asked about the source of his motivation.
Hectic travelling and serene science
An expert salesperson at Genevia must be able to move fluently within the international expert community. Most of Genevia’s customers are located outside of Finland, as are most scientific events. Regular business trips abroad are therefore an integral part of Thomas’ work.
“Every month I visit some major university town either in Europe or North America. The meetings take place during the day, so there is always time for things outside of work as well. I get to enjoy the restaurants and sights of the different cities, for example,” Thomas says about the positives of his mobile work.
“On my trips I discuss the science with the customer, make a preliminary project plan and present the customer with an offer. Then I relay the pertinent information to a project manager. The project manager then plans the contents of the project in more detail with a team of bioinformaticians at the home office and sees the project through. I myself make use of the team’s expertise especially as I’m drafting the project plan. You are never left alone and there are no shortages of knowhow. That is what the team of experts is there for.”
“When I’m at the office, I spend a significant portion of my time doing scientific background work. I study new omics technologies and computational methods and familiarize myself with the distinctive features of our customers’ research. If I didn’t do this work, I couldn’t talk with our customers on a meaningful level. This is the part of my job that allows me to learn new things about both bioinformatics and biology,” Thomas says. “I also produce a lot of different texts for marketing purposes that are used in our brochures, white papers, website, etc. As a salesperson I have plenty of opportunities to participate in business development and meetings where we map out the scientific content of the services our company provides, for example.”
Would you like to have the best possible vantage point over biotechnology research?
Thomas is looking for a partner to work with him in expert sales: “I promise to show you the ropes of saleswork and working with me together with our Business Development Director Klaus Breitholtz. The commissions from successful sales open up plenty of nice opportunities at home, but what makes the workplace great is our nice and relaxed crew.”