Bootstrapping a lab

Today I’m going to talk about setting up a lab from a 10,000 foot view. I got thinking about this because my social media feed was recently filled with people announcing acceptance of positions, and I know several people going through big moves (myself included). This post is about how to nail the big stuff so that you can build a productive team within a short amount of time. I won’t be speaking about the science – you know that better than nearly anyone.

I’ll mostly talk about an academic setting, but this can be translated to industry and academic groups in a variety of environments and sizes. Terminology and the degree of control you have might differ. Think of this as a framework on which to build your particular situation.

Start early

Several of the items in this blog entry are things that you should have been thinking about before you even got your position. You probably leveraged some of them in your proposals and interviews. How are things different now that you have the job? What should you really do?

Read a book

All PIs should read books on the high-level philosophy of starting a business. Labs are basically small businesses. You manage talent, you build a culture, you have a budget, in the case of an academic lab you need to raise capital, and so on. The market for books on starting a lab is relatively small and is mostly written by academics. As such, it’s stiflingly narrow-minded. But there are many books on startups in a diverse range of markets. Read them, translate them into your particular setting, throw away what doesn’t sound right, and keep what sounds good.

Decide what kind of a lab you’re going to be

You wrote a proposal and described your research to land this job. But what kind of lab do you want to run? By this I mean all aspects including size, makeup, culture, pressure level, hierarchy (or lack thereof), and much more. You might have talked to people about your thoughts on this, but revisit it very deeply before you do anything. Because this vision completely defines everything else. Only start the actual work of setting up a lab after you’ve really defined what you want your lab to be. What are you doing? What are people in your lab doing? How are you feeling? How are they feeling? What do other faculty think about your lab? What do students not in your lab think about your lab? It’s easy to emulate your postdoc advisor’s lab or just keep doing what you did in your previous environment, but doing so is only a good idea after an explicit decision. Putting yourself in a situation you don’t enjoy is not going to be fun for anyone.

Write your lab plan down, but don’t share it

You need a vision, but you also need to be able to roll with the punches. Write down your vision. Format and length doesn’t matter, so long as you record your thoughts in a way that you can interpret later. Then store this document and revisit it occasionally. But don’t explicitly share it with the lab. Because your vision is going to change and it might change in a big way. Instead of sharing the document, evidence the changes you want to see with actions. Your lab members don’t need an archaic document holding them back, and will respond better to demonstrations of why the new way is better. This advice is a bit different from other PIs who find that a detailed lab manual helps them with management, so your mileage may vary.

What talent do you need to be productive?

Every lab has different needs according to its science, infrastructure, and culture. Who do you need on your team to become the kind of lab you want to be? Be aggressive about talent, and balance hard and soft skills. A lab full of milquetoasts is rarely productive, but neither is a lab full of diva rock stars who can’t get along with one another. You need the rarest of breeds – high-performing people who love working with other high performing people. You want people whose excellence feeds off each other. And you need them in every role. You need your admin to be as on top of things as your best postdoc. And you need each person in your lab to buy into its unique culture. A brilliant team player in the wrong cultural fit won’t perform to their highest potential.

Talent is the most critically important aspect of a lab. No matter what any PI thinks about their own talents, they are nothing without the people in their lab. All of that is easy to say and hard to do. Finding great people takes a lot of time, and getting the best people in every position is rarely possible. Plan to spend a lot of time screening talent. Always have your eye out for good people, at poster sessions, at meetings, and over coffee. Go after people you want. Show them why your lab will be an inspiring place to do great work.

Obsessively plan out everything you will need

You thought you arranged for much of this when you negotiated your startup. But you probably planned the capital equipment and sketched everything else. But make a spreadsheet and start writing down absolutely everything you need. Pipettes. Tips. Microcentrifuges. Eppendorf tubes. A microwave. Lab pens. What brand do you want for each? What amount? What is the catalog number? Don’t go overboard on supplies when doing your initial purchasing. Buy just enough to get going and be prepared to buy more  very quickly. But take advantage of lab startup deals on equipment with big supply clearinghouses like VWR and Fisher. You can save a lot of money if you buy a critical mass of everyday essentials all at once. Especially if you do so late in the year and sales reps need to make end-of-the-year sales targets. Again, don’t buy over-buy everything all at once! You don’t want to end up sitting in a lab stuffed to the brim with things you thought you might need but are actually collecting dust.

Execute flexibly

You’ve spent a lot of time planning. How do you know that your plans are perfect? Don’t worry, they never are. Get started and revise along the way. Don’t let crazy situations and stress derail plans you made carefully in a calm state of mind. But if something isn’t working and is creating that stress then change it as soon as possible.

Jacob Corn

Jacob Corn is the Professor of Genome Biology at ETH Zürich. Follow him on twitter @jcornlab.


    1. Jacob Corn Post author

      I’m a huge fan of Creativity Inc, the history of Pixar. It outlines how to build a team whose job is to be as innovative as possible while still producing a concrete outcome. So many parallels to an academic group!



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