How to Successfully Launch a Career (and Company)

Wildcat Q&A
Sean McClain

UA alumni are doing ambitious things all over the world. In this series, professionally accomplished Wildcats share their secrets to navigating the occasionally choppy waters of career success.

Recently named to the Forbes list of 30 Under 30 for Science, Sean McClain has made his mark at a young age. His company, AbSci, is a global leader in drug discovery and manufacturing for the biopharmaceutical industry. Its next-generation microbial protein production platform, SoluPro, allows new drugs to get to market sooner by cutting out entire steps of the drug discovery process.

McClain has never been one to approach problems conventionally. After graduating from the University of Arizona, he jumped right into the entrepreneurial landscape, co-founding AbSci in 2011. We checked in with the young CEO to learn how he got so far in so little time.

What would you say to UA students and alumni about how to be successful?

First, success isn’t defined by how smart you are, but by the grit and resilience you have. It’s about waking up day in and day out with a positive attitude despite the overwhelming obstacles and setbacks, and finding a way to solve that day’s problems.

Second, hire people smarter than yourself.

Third, trust your gut and know who is giving you advice. Seek advice from those you aspire to be like; advice is cheap and often incorrect.

How did you get your career off the ground?

After graduation, I moved back to my home state of Oregon, which has some biotech, but it’s fairly limited compared to areas such as Boston or San Francisco. I really had to get out there on my own and find the right resources.

I started by securing a low-budget lab at a local business accelerator, and from there I was able to meet other CEOs and founders in my area who helped facilitate introductions to venture capitalists, attorneys, etc. But I would say the key to making this work was to be fearless about asking for introductions and being clear with people what the ask was. Often, people stumble around looking for the perfect time to ask for help. There is no perfect time — just know what you are asking for and ask!

"Success isn’t defined by how smart you are, but by the grit and resilience you have."

What does AbSci do?

AbSci partners with large pharmaceutical companies and directly integrates SoluPro into their commercial manufacturing processes, which ultimately brings down both the research and design and manufacturing costs associated with the development and production of these much-needed breakthrough therapies.

AbSci defies established protein production conventions and continually invents new technologies and approaches, which introduce efficiencies and cost savings to the biotech industry.

Did you always know you wanted to go into biotech?

I came to the UA with the thought of getting a degree in mechanical engineering. As a part of my undergrad degree, I ended up taking a 100-level chemistry class taught by John Pollard and knew right away this was the field I wanted to be in.

I have also been passionate about entrepreneurship since I was very young. In middle school I started mowing lawns for my neighbors and ended up growing it into a real business that supported me through high school and helped me save up for college.

I graduated a year early from the UA with a bachelor’s degree in molecular and cellular biology to start AbSci. I founded the company as the sole full-time founder with support from friends and family.