Leveraging Academic Training in Industry: Q&A with Professional in Residence Annie Tsong

On a sunny Friday morning graduate students and postdocs gathered in a conference room in Stanley Hall to have an intimate and frank conversation with Annie Tsong, PhD. Tsong is the chief strategy and product officer at Amyris, a company based in Emeryville, CA, and founded out of UC Berkeley’s Jay Keasling’s lab. She obtained her PhD from the University of California, San Francisco, before continuing her academic journey at UC Berkeley as a Miller Fellow.

Tsong then transitioned into the biotechnology industry in 2008, joining Amyris, which uses yeast and fermentable sugars to generate an array of high value bioproducts. Covering more than 20 years as a scientist in the Bay Area, she spoke to trainees attending the Professionals in Residence program about her career trajectory and answered questions about her training in academia and her transition into industry.

The road to Amyris

Annie Tsong stands outside.
Annie Tsong visited UC Berkeley as part of the Graduate and Postdoc Career Development office’s Professionals in Residence program. Photo courtesy of Annie Tsong.

Tsong started her scientific career working on the evolution of Candida albicans and Saccharomyces cerevisiae in the lab of Prof. Alexander Johnson. She then came to UC Berkeley as a Miller Fellow to continue her postdoctoral studies in Prof. Michael Eisen’s group and started a project around protein evolution.

It was at UC Berkeley that she heard the rumblings of a new company called Amryis started by a UC Berkeley professor, Jay Keasling, and a few other postdoctoral scholars. Fortuitously, they were also looking for a yeast geneticist to join their team who had her specific skillset. During the Q&A, Tsong recalled her reaction to the opportunity: “No way! This is not happening!”  At the time, only a few companies were using yeast to make bioproducts; to suddenly have this opportunity was “interesting.”

The industry question

Tsong had the same question as many other graduate students and PhD holders, “Should I go into industry?” She thought that if she joined industry, she might not have the freedom to do the type of research she wanted to do and would be forced to focus only on pragmatic projects. It was her mentors who told her that she could potentially do more science in industry than in academia, because she wouldn’t have to write grants and conduct administrative work. In addition, they told her that transitioning between industry and academia was becoming more fluid and more common. It was not a “one-way trip,” and she could return to academia as a professor in the future, if she wanted. This was the advice that convinced Tsong to go into industry and join Amryis as employee number 154.

A scientific reframe

Once the decision to join Amyris was made, Tsong faced obstacles as she transitioned into her new industry role. In addition to overcoming her feelings about leaving academia, she needed to learn how to conduct research in industry.

In academia, she was trained to present a story with a final big reveal, but now, in industry, she needed to relearn on how to get to the key piece of data, as well as its importance and impact as fast as possible. She needed to reframe her scientific questions to consider the relevance with the overall project before proceeding with an experiment. In addition, she needed to not only get used to the constant feedback she was receiving from peers but also learn how to give feedback to her peers, something she felt her experience in academic research did not train her well to do.

Considering the entire pipeline

Overcoming the initial challenges, Tsong steadily rose the ranks in Amyris, taking on her mantra, “I really love to do new stuff.” She started as a scientist at the lab bench full time for almost five years during which she started managing a small team of two to three people. From there, she started managing projects consisting of five to 10 people before eventually working up to managing Amyris’s largest program consisting of multiple projects. At a certain point, she needed to decide if she wanted to manage another program or take on a different role. She realized that a lot of companies were having difficulties in getting their products onto the market, and she decided to leave her comfort zone and take on a program management role to commercialize Reb M, a no-calorie sweetener. Now, instead of thinking about just the science, she was thinking about the whole pipeline on how to bring a product to market such as the regulations, intellectual property, and even the safety at the plant where they were commercializing their product. She then switched roles again as a strategy and product officer. In this role, she needed to figure out how Amyris could use their own in-house technology to bring their own product onto the market, instead of partnering with another business as they had previously done. Here, she needed to think about what consumers wanted, and their purchase behavior, as well as bringing products to scale, and even package design. Eventually, this led to her seeing her products on the shelves of Sephora and Target.

Navigating change

Unfortunately, Amyris could not keep up with its growth and has undergone significant reorganization under Chapter 11, starting August 2023. This has brought many changes to the company including reducing the number of employees from almost 1800 to now ~600, but also removing a lot of the consumer-based projects Tsong was working on. When students asked Tsong how she handles the challenges of job insecurity, she noted that big, established companies are not necessarily more secure than smaller start-up companies. In addition, academia trained her well in asking the right questions and how to navigate research areas in which she wasn’t as knowledgeable. From her training, she leveraged this skill to gain experience in her various positions and to be able to work well and collaboratively with her colleagues.

She also advised trainees to leverage their networks. But what if you are not a “network-y” person or “self-doubting” as Tsong would describe herself? She said, “People change jobs with some frequency in industry, and if you’ve worked well with someone before, they’ll want to work with you again.”

Annie Tsong, PhD, is the the chief strategy and product officer at Amyris, Inc. Over the past 20 years of her career, she gained expertise in not only on how to conduct impactful research as a scientist but also commercializing scientific discoveries. She has PhD from the UC San Francisco and conducted her postdoctoral studies at UC Berkeley as a Miller Fellow.

Helen Liu is a Plant Biology PhD student in the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology and a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program fellow.