Sage Aronson: Founder and CEO of Neurophotometrics
In 2017, Sage founded Neurophotometrics, a small company that 3D printed fiber photometry systems. He expected that the company would be more of a hobby at first. “I didn’t really see it changing my day-to-day,” Sage tells Nick. At the time, Sage was a graduate student in Neurosciences at UC San Diego; he had his eye on a postdoctoral fellowship after graduation. That original vision is now far in the rearview mirror. Neurophotometrics has far outgrown the living room in which it began and now occupies a sprawling warehouse with a full staff of neuroscientists. It may not have been his intention, but the thriving startup has completely changed Sage’s day-to-day, and has sold systems to over 100 labs internationally.
From Bench to Business
When scientists make the transition away from the lab and into the businessworld, many are told to expect to feel removed from the scientific community. For Sage, however, the experience has been quite the opposite thanks to the ethos of his company. To the outside observer, it may seem like Neurophotometrics is simply another manufacturer of scientific equipment. In practice, the central mission of the company is to support junior researchers by reducing the redundancy that is all too common in scientific tool development.
As a graduate student, Sage needed to build a fiber photometry system himself. There was a commercially available option at the time, but it was expensive and only allowed you to effectively record from one brain region. It took around 6 months, but he was able to MacGyver a system that would work for his research. By Sage’s own admission, it was a far cry from user-friendly — “nobody was going to be able to use this [system] but me.” Junior researchers commonly find themselves trying to build new tools (of many varieties) from scratch for their projects, with nothing but sweat and another lab’s published parts list at their disposal. As Sage learned more about optical engineering and additive manufacturing while building his own setup, he recognized that he could make a difference in the lives of his fellow researchers by producing a high-quality fiber photometry system that was not only affordable in monetary terms, but would also save scientists valuable time that would otherwise be spent reinventing the wheel, so to speak. No parts list, no assembly — just plug it in and get back to the science.
Perhaps a graduate student or postdoc’s most valuable resource is time. When this precious commodity is spent re-developing tools, it might be at the expense of developing expertise in that researcher’s intended field of study. As Sage puts it, “your ability to build one of these optical systems does not make you a better biologist,” yet plenty of biologists find themselves tinkering outside their wheelhouse to facilitate their work. While many scientists are eager to learn about things outside their own research, early career science is an exercise is depth, not breadth. A graduate student’s “goal is to become an expert in a very tiny sliver of biology,” Sage explains, and there is only so much time available to accomplish that goal.
Not a Question of What, But a Question of How
The question of how scientific questions are answered has long been Sage’s favorite part of the scientific process. At its core, this is really the business that Sage is now in. He and his team visit labs all over the world to train people to use their fiber photometry system. In turn, he gets to learn not only about all of the incredible questions his fellow scientists are tackling on a daily basis, but how they approach them as well.
Unlike many other scientific device companies, Sage’s team routinely builds close relationships with their customers as they work together to optimize the experimental design of the projects that utilize their systems. This ends up being a boon for both the lab and the company. Neuroscience moves fast — “if you’re reliant on what’s published, you’re 2-4 years behind,” Sage explains. As the team helps customers make the most of their new fiber photometry systems, they’re also learning what those scientists need the most to facilitate their research and seeing what essentially amounts to the beta versions of future technologies as they are born in the lab. As a result, customers have become published collaborators with Neurophotometrics on several occasions, working in tandem with Sage and his team to constantly improve upon existing technology to advance the field. The upcoming second generation fiber photometry system from Neurophotometrics is a direct result of this constant communication with labs, identifying what the field needs with the help of the junior researchers who know the daily demands of their science better than anyone.
If it’s a particularly hard decision, then it probably doesn’t matter what thing you pick.Sage Aronson
Sage did not set out to build a big biotech company straight out of graduate school. Rather, things grew organically, and he stayed open to the possibilities as they presented themselves. Planning a course for your career is a challenging one, and can be stressful to say the least. In STEM, there are so many options that you can choose for your career path. “At any given point in your trajectory, you’re thinking about a dozen different potential futures that you could have,” Sage says. It’s easy to stress over picking the right choice, because we often present the question to ourselves as having a right answer. But Sage would take issue with this way of thinking. You may think there’s one right option, and this can lead to a sort of paralysis when it comes time to make a decision.
Sage’s advice on managing this career decision paralysis is simple: “when the decision becomes particularly difficult, instead of closing down and feeling anxiety about that, I kind of flip the question — if it’s a particularly hard decision, then it probably doesn’t matter what thing you pick.” When you work hard, you open up a lot of good options for yourself. Pick the one that feels right; the rest will follow.
Sage’s Favorite Books
Once a Scientist is made possible by support from our listeners! Each week, we ask our interviewee to tell us about their favorite books. If any of these reads catch your eye, you can support the show by using the links below to buy a copy for yourself!
- Catch 22 by Joseph Heller
- Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino
- Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami
- Nausea by Jean Paul Sartre
- A Heartbreaking Work of a Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers
Notes for this episode were written by Caroline Sferrazza.