Balancing an academic career with entrepreneurship

 9 December 2019   Features

This month we are celebrating the ‘Humans of LMS’ and highlighting the incredible and awesome things our colleagues get up to outside of work hours, on top of all that they are achieving at work. Today we want to introduce you to one of our Group Heads; Karen Sarkisyan. As well as leading a research group here, Karen also is an entrepreneur having co-founded the companies Planta and Light Bio.

Karen leads our Synthetic Biology group at the LMS where they aim to create molecular technologies to study life and to engineer organisms with new behaviours.

“My group is focused on creating molecular tools for imaging, optogenetics – a biological technique that involves the use of light to control cells – protein engineering and other applications. Among other things, we aim to develop a new generation of bioluminescence technologies that do not require external addition of substrate and, instead, allow engineering of luminescent organisms that glow completely by themselves. We, and other groups, then use these techniques to try and answer a range of different biological questions”.

Alongside the job of being a researcher, Karen co-founded companies Planta and Light Bio, and is leading Research & Development there too.

“The companies commercialise our new technology that allows us to turn any organism into a glow-in-the-dark one. The main focus now is to produce glowing plants for the consumer market but the technology can also be used to engineer organisms that report disease progression or physiological changes with light. Our luminescence pathway has also attracted interest from the agricultural industry as it allows to perform automated herbicide screening on crops at the level of whole plants rather than single cells.”

Karen shared more about the pros and cons of running a research group and a company.

“Running a company is challenging as we still face all the struggles that any early stage start-ups faces — problems arising from the constant growth and the need to support it with resources — but it is also definitely fun. It obviously helps to have expertise in the scientific field you set up your business. I have experience in molecular biology and genetic engineering but applying it to plants was the challenge. Thankfully, our team is very competent across a variety of fields, from organic chemistry to plant biology and data analysis to patenting and sales, which was absolutely critical to get to where we are now”.

“This venture is really exciting and also gives me a more adequate perspective on the place of science and the mechanism of how exactly the knowledge is being translated into real-life products. At the same time, I am enjoying my academic career: I think it’s a real privilege to have the freedom to study anything you are curious about and not to know where your work will bring you.”