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What I learned after leaving the corporate MedTech world for a startup

Luminate Medical makes devices that prevent the side effects of cancer treatment. Declan Loughnane is a Principal R&D Engineer at Luminate and the first to write for our ‘Inside Startup' series. For more information on careers at Luminate, click here.


Hello! My name is Declan Loughnane, and I am a Principal R&D Engineer at Luminate Medical. I have been working in Luminate for over 6 months now and it is a good time to reflect on my experience with joining the team here, and more broadly on joining a start-up. For my entire career, prior to coming to Luminate, I worked in very large multinational medical device companies. So, for anyone in that same position, perhaps my experience and thoughts might help you make a decision on taking that plunge, one way or the other.


Throughout my career, I’ve been given fantastic opportunities and had some amazing experiences while working for multinationals. One of the highlights was working with an interventional cardiologist to implant a heart valve into a sheep. This was probably the closest any engineer can realistically get to the real-life scenario of implanting an invasive device into a patient. Throughout that time, I was working on cutting edge technology and had direct access to world-leading equipment. I was also lucky in that I had some amazing managers and mentors throughout my career, something that is not universal in any company.


So, why leave? For one, I came to a point where I felt that the pace of my learning and development had slowed. I needed a new challenge to push me out of my comfort zone. And another thing had started to bother me: I hadn’t had the opportunity to work on a product from the early stages. Most of the opportunities I had to work on in multinationals were projects where the products had proven clinical efficacy. That meant the devices were already well fleshed out, and I wasn’t getting exposed to that initial “zero-to-one” phase. So, I told myself that if the right opportunity came up, I would go for it.


Declan Loughnane, Principal R&D Engineer at Luminate

I laid out what I wanted from a new role. I wanted to be able to have a real impact on the design of the product I was working on. That meant an early phase team in a multinational or a start-up company. It needed to be a highly technical role with a big design element to the job. It needed to be a clinical need and device I really believed in and believed could do well – in one sense “backing the right horse”, but in another, I’ve always found it’s easier to work on something you believe in. Finally, if it was a start-up, it needed to be well funded.


About a year before I applied for a job with Luminate, I happened to see our CEO, Aaron Hannon, give a presentation on the Lily Device (Luminate’s product for treating hair loss during chemotherapy). It resonated with me instantly and I told myself that if a suitable job came up there, I would apply. As luck would have it, around the time I started looking, a Principal job was posted, and I applied.


After 6 months of working at Luminate, did I make the right decision? Absolutely! It’s been a whirlwind 6 months. The pace of life in a start-up is definitely faster than in a larger company. There is a shared sense of purpose and ownership over the company that is invigorating.

Honestly, I definitely had a lot of apprehension about joining a start-up and those fears were stoked by people I spoke to before I left. Things like, “The hours will be crazy”, “There is no budget for anything”, “There is a “cowboy” approach to quality”, and “You’ll be working on everything and have no job security.”


"In a startup, the individual really does have the ability to affect how the company does"

Mostly, these concerns have proved to be unfounded. I don’t work any more hours than I did in the multinationals, though I probably get more done in the week. That’s due to a combination of me really enjoying what I’m doing again and my colleagues, from all functions, being in the one room. I think the budget and job security issues go hand in hand – we’ve all heard stories of the poorly funded start-ups where there are approvals required for buying a pack of screws or people not getting paid. It was something that I was very alert to before I applied but fortunately, it’s a pretty easy one to vet a company for. Funding rounds are generally well publicized, and I could see that Luminate had raised a lot of funding over the last few years. On the quality approach, I was pretty surprised by the quality management system and ethos in place at Luminate. It’s well beyond what I would have expected of a company at this stage and I think that is testament to the Quality team and the experience they bring to the table.


Being honest, there is some truth to the sentiment that you’ll be working on everything in a start-up! It’s a small team, and you do pitch in where needed. Where this differs from previous experience, for me, is that because of the pace of development, even if you are doing something you don’t particularly enjoy, it doesn’t last long. You might even have to write a blog post! Overall, I think the benefit of this aspect of the job long-term is that it makes you a more rounded engineer.


Are there downsides to working in a start-up? Of course. There are some benefits to working in much larger companies that you just don’t have in a start-up. The access to experts in specific areas is something that is very useful in a large multinational which isn’t easy to replicate elsewhere. Similarly, while we have a good R&D lab here at Luminate, it pales in comparison to what the multinationals have where really you have every tool for every job. 99% of the time this isn’t an issue, but occasionally it can be frustrating.


From what I have seen myself, and through friends and colleagues, it’s a mixed bag wherever you decide to go. Whether start-up or multinational, if you join and have a poor manager or a team that aren’t gelling, then it’s probably not going to be enjoyable even if you do really buy into the product or the role. I’ve been lucky in that I’ve generally worked for excellent managers in fantastic teams and that’s no different in Luminate. The bonus here is that I’m working on a product I really believe in and I’m doing work that excites me. And the icing on that cake is that with a start-up you have a real stake in the company. If the company does well, you do well, both financially and in your career. And in a start-up the individual really does have the ability to affect how the company does, which is something, certainly as engineers, we all strive for – to make a real difference.


Luminate Medical is currently hiring for a number of open roles. Visit our Careers page or contact founders@luminatemed.com.

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