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How to Plant Yourself in a New Field

What can a guy with a Ph.D. in lasers and physics tell you about getting a job in the growing agricultural biotech sector in North Carolina?  Well, if that person is Heiri Gugger, he can tell you a lot.

Heiri is former president of Syngenta’s Crop Protection business, having held senior positions in the merger string of Ciba-Geigy, Novartis, and Syngenta.  Since that time, he has been CEO of several life science ventures, including Paradigm Genetics here in RTP.  Currently, he is the Managing Director of the RTP office of Kincannon & Reed, a retained executive search firm with operations around the world.  Heiri served as the Jobs Network speaker in March, sharing his thoughts and experience on what it takes to transition into the ag biotech arena from other life science sectors.  Coming from a former laser researcher, these lessons should be applicable to anyone!

Heiri’s key points focused on knowing yourself and the roles you are interested in.  “Do you have a passion for this industry and its mission?” he asked the audience. If you don’t, then you will struggle to be successful, he believes.  Heiri commented on some of the major drivers of the ag biotech space, highlighting the global food challenges of increasing populations, rising middle-class that demands more protein and convenience, constrained natural resources such as land and water, and the pressing need to protect the environment.  These challenges represent opportunities, but getting into a related job takes work – for those already in the ag tech sector or others who are interested in transitioning from other life science sectors.  The basics of a good job hunt apply, but the bar is even higher if you are seeking to jump from one field to another.

Heiri asked:  How do you “re-pot” yourself for this exciting space?  What are your career anchors?  What are the weaknesses in your armor?  Which of your skills are transferable?  What are you going to do about them?  Some suggestions from Heiri include:

  • Remember that a job search is a full time job.
  • Focus on and expand your network.  This is not a “flash in the pan” process.  Rather, it requires continuous effort.  Find and connect with people working for companies of interest.
  • Don’t ask for a job – ask for advice and guidance.
  • Remain visible, participate in relevant events.  Get involved in your field of interest.
  • Use social media as a multiplier.
  • Keep yourself marketable and have your materials updated.
  • Have your elevator speech ready.
  • Narrow down your field and roles of interest.  Look carefully at lateral moves.
  • Customize your job search materials for each opportunity you apply to.
  • Develop a plan B!  Build a pipeline of opportunities.
  • Take full responsibility for your career.
  • Stay positive, come across as energetic!  You want people to know you are going TOWARD an opportunity, not AWAY from a bad situation.

Some suggestions which are unique to the ag biotech sector:

  • There is a great need for regulatory talent.
  • If you are mobile, you have a great advantage.  Willingness to relocate goes a long way.
  • Consider how to position your transferrable skills from one domain to another.
  • Ag will always be smaller than pharma.  Pharma has a higher pay scale, and there is a perception that pharma is higher class than other life science sectors.

When targeting a company of interest, Heiri recommends:

  • Do your homework!
  • Network with company employees.
  • Think through answers to potential questions from employers.
  • Consider – Why are you interested in this company?
  • Ask yourself – Why do you think you’re prepared for this?
  • Be prepared to position your past experience in a new field or market.

For someone with almost no background in crops and chemicals, Heiri demonstrates that even a physics geek can have a successful career in the agricultural and biotech industries.  While many of Heiri’s suggestions are applicable to any job seeker, his experience in transitioning between fields should be inspiring to those looking to enter the ag biotech arena.


Thanks for sharing your professional knowledge Jacob. I just saw the NC Biotech networking free events on the last Monday of the month opportunity; what a great resource as well.

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