CG Scientists Series: Todd Kuna, Account Director

What’s a restless life science researcher to do, passionate for science but weary of lab routine? If you’re tired of the smell of the water bath and pipetting-induced carpal tunnel, I have good news: there’s more to life sciences than bench work. Many scientists are taking note and using their expertise for a wide variety of careers: a 2013 NIH study found that 18% of biomedical PhDs work in sciences doing something other than research, and 13% have left the sciences altogether.

How can scientists hungry for more make the transition? For answers, I turned to Todd Kuna, Account Director at Chempetitive Group. Before Chempetitive found him, Todd analyzed cancer clinical trial samples at a University of Chicago core facility, experience that he leverages as a life science marketer. I sat down with Todd to talk about how he escaped the lab and found an agency.

Not many marketers come from a research setting. Can you tell us about your previous work in the lab?

I spent four years at the Human Immunologic Monitoring Facility, a core lab within the University of Chicago. The lab was a phenomenal experience. Clinical sample analysis was a far cry from my undergraduate lab work – I was performing assays such as ELISA, flow cytometry and Western blotting on real samples, first developing new methods, then collecting new clinical data, every day.

But after a few years, I realized I craved more interaction with people and exposure to more than the focus of our research. With long, solitary days working on sample prep and assays, coming in over the weekend to make sure your cells stay happy– you start to feel a bit siloed. The highlight of my day was often chatting with the women in the phlebotomy lab during a sample pick up.

Who did you talk to, to learn about options outside the lab?

Sales reps, application specialists, instrumentation manufacturers – the people coming into the lab to help provide us with scientific tools and ensure we were using them optimally.

What career paths were on your radar?

First, I gravitated toward sales. I wanted a more interpersonal job with less predictability, and becoming a rep seemed like a logical step. I would get to see all kinds of research and meet new people every day. I also thought about putting my instrumentation expertise to use by getting in on the application side of things. Touring the Midwest to help scientists with their machines sounded interesting in my 20’s. Then, I started learning more about marketing.

How did you ultimately come to Chempetitive Group, a life science marketing agency?

It was a friend who introduced me: “I know you’re a scientist, and there’s this life science marketing agency in Chicago of all places, you’d love them—they even wear jeans to work every day.” It sounded perfect!

That’s when I sat down with PR Account Director Ken Li (also from a lab background) who hired me on as an intern in the PR department. I guess that was now 9 years ago!

What is your role at CG, and how has your science background helped?

I get my hands dirty with everything, but my passion is building a sound strategy for clients. What helped me with my first accounts -including Midwest BioResearch and Fujifilm Life Sciences- was that I could look at ideas and say, “here’s what someone who’s actually used this type of equipment thinks about x, y, z.” I was only a few months removed from being the target audience.

Do you think that’s the key advantage of your previous experience – that you can put yourself in a scientist’s shoes?

Absolutely. The hardest part isn’t the marketing – it’s the science. Without that expertise at an agency like ours, it’s more challenging to meet the very specific needs of a client. We’ve managed to build a great team that includes some bright people from both the marketing and scientific background. That really sets us apart.

In what ways is agency life different from the lab?

Agency life is fast paced and extremely collaborative. A day in the lab could be pretty slow and be done more or less alone. Clinical trials take years to produce results, but at Chempetitive Group, a completely new project or even new client can go from start to results in just a few weeks. I also meet with lots of interesting clients, learn about cutting edge technologies and interact with our creative, digital and PR teams daily.

What advice would you give other life sciences researchers looking for new opportunities?

  • Talk to people. There are resources and groups for life science writers, PR professionals and marketers – go seek them out! And keep tabs on trade publications and trade shows. Just last year, I stopped by the University of Chicago booth at AACR and met Jane Kollmer – who had deep medical writing experience and is now a content editor at CG.
  • Stay well rounded. Take a journalism class in college, pick up a marketing class or check out a workshop that will expand your horizons into fields beyond the sciences.

To you, what’s the most exciting field in biotech right now?

Many of our clients are plugged into the CRISPR and gene editing trend. This technology is maturing rapidly––they’ve already edited the genome of a mosquito to prevent its transmission of malaria––and with that comes ethical questions. What should we and shouldn’t we genetically modify? Do we start editing embryos? What problems accompany the potential for ‘designer babies’? There is another field for scientists to explore—bioethics. We don’t have all the answers, but it’s thrilling to be working with companies at the cutting edge.

Catch up on the latest marketing intel from Todd, or reach out to him on LinkedIn!