Jonathan J. Hernández earned a PhD in Physiology from UW–Madison in 2016. Hernández completed a bachelor’s degree in biotechnology with a minor in agricultural sciences at the San Martín University of Panama. While applying for graduate school, he worked at DNASolutions, an Australian company that opened a lab in Panama. He then got a job at Medistem Panama, working in a lab that isolates and cultures human umbilical-derived Mesenchymal Stem Cells to study the effect of those cells on treatment for autoimmune disorders. His boss at Medistem Panama was a UW–Madison alumna. Through her, Hernández learned about UW–Madison’s good reputation in the field of stem cells. Interested in researching stem cell modeling for arrhythmia, Hernández applied and was accepted to begin his graduate program in 2010.
Two years into his graduate study, his advisor, Héctor Valdivia, got an offer in the Department of Internal Medicine at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. While he stayed enrolled in research credits at UW–Madison, Hernández also moved to Michigan to continue his work in Valdivia’s lab. After receiving his PhD, Hernández worked as a postdoc at both the Department of Pediatrics Cardiology at UW–Madison and the Department of Internal Medicine at University of Michigan Medical School before becoming Chief Scientific Officer at Riordan Technologies in 2018.
What do you do in your current role?
I develop products for the company, and study the function and properties of placental-derived tissues and their parts, such as Mesenchymal Stem Cells derived from the umbilical cord (UC-MSCs). The goal of this lab is to understand the mechanisms of action of these tissues and cells in order to file an Investigational New Drug (IND) so we can start doing clinical trials in the United States using them.
My work here at the beginning was to design and set up the research and development lab. Since it’s a startup company, we’re not always just doing research. We also do design and think about the flow of work that we’re going to have in the laboratory.
I also work with the marketing department. I educate the team, write informative papers, give them data from the lab to show the viability of the product and explain the goal of Riordan Technologies. I also give talks to doctors, clients, and customers. I go to conferences, give talks, and stay in the company’s booth when [clients] want to have one-on-one interaction. We want to provide this service to our customers, so they talk to a scientist, not only to a marketing person.
Currently, in the lab, we have 3 research assistants, a laboratory assistant, and one undergraduate student. We have an internship program with the University of Dallas. We pay undergraduate students to work in the lab. In a lab at a university, we have undergrads and they get paid to do the work and get an idea of how to do work in a research lab. It’s the same thing we have here.
What are some differences working in a lab in industry versus at a university?
We need to be very secretive with everything. Since we’re developing products, we are not able to share the information. The other thing is the timing – they want things fast and accurate. When we have an idea, we need to test and develop it fast because investors could lose interest.
Also, you need to know how to talk to people, how to engage with customers, how to transmit your values and your commitment to them. What we’re doing here not only makes money but also helps people. That’s the part that I try to share with all the doctors. I’m very interested in how their patients are doing, if they are doing better with the product. I think [in industry] it’s more translational, more bench to bedside than in academia. In academia, a question that you are trying to answer will help someone in 10-20 years. Here, we want it in a year or two.
What skills from graduate school are the most useful to you in this job?
It’s how my mentor guided me to really understand how to direct research. Rather than [how to] use a technique, it’s more “which question can I answer with this technique?” [He also guided me] to realize what [career path] was better for me. He knew academia wasn’t for me. I was good as a leader and not a follower when I graduated because I had so many ideas that, sometimes, were not fitting in [the PI’s] current research. I was not doing things that the lab was doing all the time. I was creating new protocols because I was the only one doing stem cells in the lab; everyone else was using animal models.
What advice do you have for current graduate students interested in working in industry as a Chief Scientific Officer?
They need to have experience in industry, and they need to realize what they really want. Working in industry, it’s not only [research] direction, you also need to do other roles in the company. You need to communicate with other people. You need to know how to socialize with people because as an executive you’re going to be talking to other directors, going to conferences, and talking to doctors, owners, and partners of the owner. You need to show that you are proficient in everything you do. That takes practice. What I recommend is if [students] really want to pursue industry, to start looking for industry jobs as a research assistant. Show everyone that you are good. Then, you start growing in the company. It’s discipline. It’s commitment.
Also, you need to be brave because when you change fields, when you move from your comfort zone, you will feel the challenge. You need to be prepared for that. [Our company wants] someone that really wants the job and wants to show me and the owner that they’re good. It’s like a postdoc in industry, [getting that first job].