"I very rarely feel even close to being the smartest person in the room." — How (and why) to get a job at Aspect Biosystems
Co-founder and chief scientific officer Sam Wadsworth on the company’s origin, his typical day, and balancing work hours around key research milestones.
Co-founder and chief scientific officer Sam Wadsworth (photo supplied).
Sam Wadsworth had to move our call (to a perfectly acceptable half-hour earlier) in order to accommodate another chat. I was due to Zoom the Aspect Biosystems co-founder and chief scientific officer as part of our How to get a job series. I felt compelled to ask Wadsworth what the replacement call entailed. Aspect is a local biotech outfit that develops bioengineered tissue therapeutics, and Wadsworth’s email hinted that his new 11:00 a.m. had some epidemiological esteem.
It turned out to be true: the call was with one of the company’s scientific advisors, a collection of a half-dozen key opinion leaders in their particular space, ranging from diabetes and liver disease to biomaterials and stem cells. Sensing that it would be a hard act to follow, I felt relieved that Wadsworth asked for our Zoom to be before that one. Here are the highlights from my conversation with him.
This interview was condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
James Matthews: How did you end up at Aspect Biosystems?
Sam Wadsworth: It was certainly a neat experience. I’m one of the co-founders. So, I guess, either I ended up with Aspect, or Aspect ended up with me. I'm not sure which way round. I was working at a UBC lab based at St. Paul's Hospital. I was really interested in doing tissue engineering to make living tissue models of the human airway to model disease and test drugs. I met [fellow co-founders] Konrad [Walus], Simon [Beyer], and Tamer [Mohamed]. I was really intrigued by the bioprinting technology, and they were in the group that was developing it. So we started collaborating together, just academically. Pretty quickly, I think, we realized that we liked working together. The four of us all brought complementary experiences and ideas to the table. I was coming at it very much from the biological side of things. My background is cell biology (I'm not an engineer) and those guys are all coming at it from the engineering side: software engineering, and hardware engineering. We brought a lot of synergy together and, eventually, we wanted to commercialize what we were doing.
JM: What does a typical day look like for you?
SW: I have a little girl – she's three years old. So my day starts at any time between 2:00 a.m. and 7:00 a.m. — whenever she wants to climb into bed. It's actually brilliant. After some nice snuggles, I tend to get up, make breakfast, and then get ready for work. I bike to work when I can. I find that if I've done some physical exercise in the morning, then my brain just works way better. I'm lucky: I have a bike lane almost all the way.
My workday starts with a management huddle. The whole management team gets together virtually. We have a 15-minute chat to go through our priorities for the day, discuss anything that's kind of blocking us, and any challenges. It's a really good way to get in the zone, get ready for the day, organize your thoughts, and prioritize for the day. So that's kind of how we start.
My responsibility as CSO is to oversee the biological research in the company. I used to enjoy working in the lab, but it’s been years since I held a pipette. My days tend to be back-to-back meetings, some with our different R&D teams or specific project teams, others with external funders or partners. Several groups are in different timezones so my days can start early or finish late depending on where they are. I love my role because I get to talk science with really talented teams of researchers, and I get to discuss strategy at the highest level with senior leadership.
JM: How would someone go about joining the team?
SW: Well, I think the first thing is, you need to be a kickass individual. That would be step one. We want to recruit highly motivated, very talented people. We said right at the beginning: never be the smartest person in the room. Surround yourself with people that are smarter than you. So, that's what we've spent a lot of time trying to do. I think we've been quite successful. I very rarely feel even close to being the smartest person in the room.
We have roles posted on our website and we have various recruitment resources that we use. Either reach out through those resources or connect directly with one of the individuals that works here. We have a really good reward scheme for our employees who help to find new recruits. That's always encouraged. We recruit a lot of high-quality people through our own networks.
JM: Do your employees work remotely, in person, or hybrid?
SW: If the role is lab-based, they have to be in person almost 100 percent of the time. There's definitely more flex for office-based staff to work from home, although — particularly post-COVID — we really think that our company culture benefits from having face-to-face interaction. We do have guidelines on the minimum amount of time that people are expected to spend at the office.
JM: Now is the time when I usually ask “Macs or PCs?” But, I feel like that’s a tad, er… underwhelming given the hardware your team must need.
SW: Yeah, that is a fun question. I mean, for a company like us, there must be, like, 10,000 pieces of equipment that we use in our biological engineering or research and development labs. These range from standard off-the-shelf equipment to custom items that we've invented and built in house. Since that stuff is so varied, whether it's PC or Macs, it doesn't really matter. If it's a Mac, that's fine, go for it. If it's a PC, that's also cool. We don't prescribe. If it's a quantum computer, then maybe you need to talk to our CFO just to make sure that's okay. But we don't really mind Mac or PC.
JM: This one is likely more universal: What software do you use to communicate?
SW: We definitely use Slack a lot. In the old days, we did use WhatsApp quite a bit. Then we decided on that. Slack is from Vancouver, sure, but it was just a much slicker and more convenient platform for us to use from a work perspective. I would say 90 percent of our internal communication is now through Slack. I don't think we could live without it. So that's been a huge resource for us. There are obviously lots of other software tools that we use to help manage our projects or research and organize our data. They’re just brought in when we need them.
JM: How are work hours managed?
SW: We work with our teams to set realistic goals and timelines. Then we just expect our employees to put in the necessary time and effort to achieve those goals. The way that research works, sometimes that means burning the midnight oil or coming in on weekends to achieve those milestones. But, in return, we're flexible with our timekeeping. No one's clocking in and out — take a bit of time off because we understand that sometimes people put in more time than, say, nine-to-five.
JM: Any last words about working at Aspect Biosystems?
SW: We host a couple of different parties over the course of the year: a summer barbeque, holiday party, Aspect’s birthday in November — those kinds of things. We take photos at each one. When the team started off, there's four or five people. Now there's over 70 of us. And when you look at the photos, it's a really diverse group of individuals. I think we almost have a 50/50 gender balance, or not far off. People from all sorts of different cultures and races are represented in the team. It's a very diverse group of individuals culturally, but also professionally as well. We’re an interdisciplinary team. It’s an interesting mix.
That's why this culture of bringing people together on site is important, because then you get this kind of melting pot of different experiences. We have a shared goal: everybody on the team really believes that we're going to make a difference in how we think about medicine and how we treat diseases in the future. I would ask people that are looking at Aspect from the outside and thinking, ‘Is this somewhere I'd like to work?’ [to consider whether] that goal excites you. If it does, then reach out. We'd love to welcome more people and have you join us on this journey. Well, like I said, if you're a kickass individual, that is.