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The Black Hole

How we turned a $1-million start-up award to $3 million

In this guest post, Damien Wilpitz details how to negotiate a start-up package that reflects your needs.


There are, of course, nuances to formulating a budget, and it’s highly advisable to consult with someone who is experienced and understands the politics of the department you are applying to before committing. To help, Jonathan Thon has asked Damien Wilpitz of Experimental Design Consulting to contribute a number of articles on the details of negotiating a start-up package, keeping track of one’s expenses, and hiring. This is the first of his posts:

I’m here to talk about getting you started off on the right foot with resources that you need to succeed in your science. Those resources have a precise monetary amount. i’ll help you to define that amount.

Full disclosure: I can’t name names nor provide exact details about the negotiations. However, I can talk about the process and how that conversation took place.

My client was in the middle of negotiating what she thought was an already great deal for a little over a million-dollar start up package. However, when we actually started to work through her budget, she quickly found that she was going to need a lot more capital to achieve her research goals. What would you do? Have you ever had to negotiate a large sum of money to start a venture? How does one come up with a dollar amount? What do you say to ensure that you’re not getting the short end of the stick? How do you not upset the other party, which can lead to losing the whole deal itself? These are some of the questions that went through her head and are quite common during negotiations.

Before engaging with the institute any further, my client and I had a conversation about what it would take to make her research successful. This would become the foundation of her negotiations with the institution’s recruitment committee. Our conversation focused on three main criteria:

  1. Being clear on what she needs to be successful.
  2. Communicating her perceived value.
  3. Understanding what the mission or goal of the institute when they hired her.

At this point, we sat down and went over her needs and her goals.

1. First, be clear about your resource needs, not your financial needs. Engaging in discussions about money is never the easiest thing to do. It tends to create emotionally charged discussions. Having a conversation about how you arrive at a number is more useful than discussing the number itself. For example, state simply: “These are my goals … These goals will require these items…” Pause. “Does your department have these items and/or will I have access to them?” Wait for an answer. If they answer yes, then no need to discuss those items and you can cross them off your list. With the remaining items, if they don’t have them, ask: “Is there a way I can get access to them through another department?” If they offer to purchase the items, then discuss the cost. If they don’t offer, then assume this purchase will come out of your start up award and write it down.

2. Second, personal value is more than just your science. Be sure to let them know what value you’re bringing to the department in networking, expertise, or even your own funding (if you have it). It’s up to you to illustrate and demonstrate your value by offering up solutions to current weaknesses they may be experiencing.

3. Third, understand the institute’s mission and goals. The institute will have many focuses and goals. A discussion with the chair or dean will help you understand where they are taking the department. Have frank discussions about what some of the challenges they’re facing. These challenges could be a number of things, like, creating a patient sequence database, or a high throughput chemical screening platform, or even recruiting new funding models for the department. Their issues or goals can be numerous. It’s up to you to think critically on how you can use your current skills, knowledge, and resources to add value toward their goals. Create a clear outline of how your work can add to their vision. This will highlight your skill set and spur a comfortable conversation for both parties.

My client described these conversations as nerve wracking and scary, but also found them to be remarkably exciting and a relatively creative process. Once the institute could see what she needed, they understood that her success was their success. I advise developing a creative mindset about the negotiations. It is not a win-lose discussion, but a win-win dialogue.

To summarize, we arrived at a $3-million start-up package that better reflected her needs through three simple criteria: (1) We were able to articulate what resources we needed to be successful and we provided a clear dollar amounts for those resources. (2) We were able to illustrate how we would increase the value of the department, i.e., the return on investment. (3) We were increasing the collaborative rapport between the new institute with our own extended successful network connections (potential project grant collaborations and cross-institutional networking).

There are many ways to negotiate that can be either adversarial or cooperative. However, within a community that has a natural shared value of new scientific discoveries, those conversations can be enjoyable rather than dreadful.

Do you have experience negotiating a startup award? How did that conversation go? Share your story with the rest of us. We can all benefit by sharing our experiences. Like my dad (and J.F.K.) used to say, “A rising tide lifts all boats.”

Jonathan Thon
Jonathan Thon is a serial entrepreneur and founding CEO of STRM.BIO. Before STRM.BIO Dr. Thon founded Stellular Bio where he served as CEO and chief scientific officer. Before Stellular Bio, Dr. Thon was an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School.
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