When I first started my career as a PhD student, I was confident that my path would lead to the pursuit of a career as an industry researcher. With time, I slowly discovered the different career paths that I could purse with a PhD in Pharmacology. Besides going into academia, I could go into industry, work for a government agency, or go into science policy. All Graduate students in the biomedical sciences at my university are encouraged to fill out an online individual development plan (“myIDP”) to help us get a better idea of what careers fit our interests and help us set goals that allows us to achieve them. After having completed “my IDP”, one of the top career paths matched to my profile was to be entrepreneur. I really was not expecting this and did not even know how to go about it. Not seeing much information out in the internet about what the profile of a scientist-entrepreneur looks like, I decided to do my first blog post interviewing one. Dr. Rodriguez Orengo is a prolific researcher in Puerto Rico, a role model, and a self-described scientist-entrepreneur.
I first met Dr. Rodriguez Orengo as the coordinator of my first year Graduate Biochemistry course. He came across as an eccentric figure always dressed in a suit with a colorful bowtie and a personality that could be described as a mix between Marc Cuban and Bill Nye. At the time, I was more worried about doing well in the course than getting to know more about the background of the professors that rotated through the course. It was not until I began to search for people that I could interview for this blog piece that I came across his work and interesting career path. Dr. Rodriguez Orengo has occupied a position at one point or another in each of the potential careers I mentioned earlier. He has and continues to investigate in academia, he started his own biotech company in pursuit of bringing a product to market, has contributed greatly to multiple governmental agencies, and foments the use of science to tackle problems in the Puerto Rican community.
His story starts with strong motivations to study material science after completing his B.S. in Chemistry at the University of Puerto Rico’s Rio Piedras Campus. He published 15 papers in the field of Material Science over the course of his PhD in Chemistry at Texas A&M University and his time as a Post-Doc at Cornell University. As a Post-Doc, he became a Ford Foundation Fellow where he met Dr. Braulio Jimenez, faculty member at the University of Puerto Rico Medical Sciences Campus (UPR-RCM), where they discussed Mass Spectrometry and the demand the School of Pharmacy had for a faculty member with dominion of such techniques. Lo and behold, Dr. Rodriguez Orengo was invited over for an interview. His expertise convinced the Dean of his capacity as an investigator and he became an Assistant Professor.
With no background in the biomedical sciences, nor what pharmacists investigated, he spent a good amount of time learning what were the demands of the department and adapting his skillset of electrochemistry, HPLC, and mass spectrometry to biomedical science research. As a new faculty member, he was Co-Director of the study made to determine the extent of lead poisoning in the Puerto Rican population. His results demonstrated that children in Urban environments where at higher risks of lead toxicities and the government was informed. The work done in his lab impressed the government which later influenced their interest to invest in the development of the first anti-doping labs for when Puerto Rico hosted the Central American Regional Games. Once again, Dr. Rodriguez Orengo had to adapt his expertise to a new field and set up facilities to be able to handle the samples quickly and efficiently for the games. He received training for this at the Olympic labs at UCLA for 4 months. When he returned to Puerto Rico, he trained all Pharmacy students to use the new equipment. The students would make up the bulk of the workforce needed to handle the samples during the games.
While the work done by the anti-doping labs continued to be relevant for the equestrian sports in Puerto Rico, the work became routine and monotonous for Dr Rodriguez Orengo. Looking to branch out, he started working with Dr Clemente Diaz, a pediatrician researching HIV treatments. Dr Rodriguez Orengo points out “My work with Dr. Clemente Diaz was pivotal towards my development as a Pharmacologist”. To train for his new endeavor, he flies off to receive training at the NIH for 2 months and then spends the summer of 1995 working at St Jude Children’s Hospital to learn biochemical pharmacology.
While working at St Jude Children’s Hospital, he published several papers testing novel therapeutic agents against HIV. This allowed him to gain traction with NIH and soon after was awarded his first R01 in 1996. During that same year, Dr. Rodriguez Orengo was hired by the Department of Biochemistry, School of Medicine. In 2000, he receives his second R01 to study intracellular pharmacokinetics interactions between HCV and HIV combination treatments. He began publishing 7-8 articles a year. He rose up the ranks to become Associate Director of the Department of Biochemistry and served as Laboratory Director at the Puerto Rico Clinical and Translational Research Consortium.
Unfortunately, his success as a scientist came at the cost of his personal life. He noticed that he needed to shift his attention and find a better balance between work and life. This led him to take a leave of absence from his facultative position at University of Puerto Rico’s School of Medicine and accepted a position as director to Puerto Rico’s Institute of Forensic Sciences. He was in charge of the forensic pathology, investigative and laboratory services for the government of Puerto Rico. He developed multiple protocols and recruited capable minds that would foment the application of the scientific method in their studies. Once he saw the department was in capable hands, he moved on to become the Director of the Bioanalytical Laboratory at FDI Clinical Research, a private company.
He was pivotal to the design of FDI Clinical Research laboratory and develop the facilities to sustain FDA-regulated Phase 1 to Phase 4 clinical trials and bioequivalence studies. He currently serves as CEO and CSO of the company. In 2013, he came back to UPR-Medical Sciences Campus as acting Chancellor and implemented a number of policies that benefited both medical and graduate education. He is a consultant to the Puerto Rico Science Technology Research Trust, a government non-profit organization that invests, facilitates and builds the capacity to advance Puerto Rico’s economy and its citizens’ well-being through innovation-driven enterprises, science and technology, and its industrial base. “I want to foment entrepreneurial endeavors in the island” commented Dr. Rodriguez Orengo when discussing his role at the Puerto Rico Science and Technology Research Trust. He recently found that one of his co-workers developed a patent of a potential anti-cancer drug. After hearing the science, he sought out the funding and helped create MBQ Pharma; a biotechnology company developing a product that has promising ability to block breast cancer metastasis.
While his original research focused on the biochemical pharmacology of antiviral drugs in HIV infected patients, he has participated in the direction of several clinical trials and was the clinical pharmacologist for the AIDS Clinical Trials Unit (ACTU) in Puerto Rico and Pediatrics ACTU. He is working closely in nutritional studies conducted by Harvard University, where 300 patients were interviewed, and samples collected at three sites in the Metropolitan Area of Puerto Rico. He was Co-investigator of an R01 granted to assess cardiovascular diseases in 2400 volunteers in Puerto Rico and an R21 to analyze the privations to accessible food and water, and the social coping strategies to mitigate these after the passing of hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. He is also finishing up clinical trials consisting of 16 human patients testing to see if inhalation of a specific Cannabidiol:Tetrahydrocannabinol (CBD:THC, well known active components of Cannabis) composition is able to ameliorate acute pain.
If this clinical trial goes well, he plans to continue testing its ability to test chronic pain or post-surgery acute pain in the hopes to replace or diminish the use of opioids. He also provides courses for physicians curious as to the realities of Cannabis and what they can reasonably recommend it for according to the latest National Academies of Science reports, peer reviewed publications, and clinical trials. Since 2000, he has been working as coordinator of student development processes at PR-INBRE Science and Technology Competency Enhancement Core (STCE). Dr Rodriguez Orengo is really proud of the results PR-INBREs training but to this, he adds: “although PR-INBRE has changed the focus of their professional development strategies of our students over the years, I am happy to introduce entrepreneurship and data science components to our program. This will stimulate a new generation of scientists in the Island capable of creating their own job environment”.
By this point in the interview, I am in awe of the achievements and the number of projects this man is able to manage. After going through his life’s story until now, I ask him how he sees himself in ten years. “I see myself investing. Investing in young investigators, and in science. I recently co-founded a company with a graduate student looking to learn how to invest in Biotech stocks (Jirau Capital Management, LLC). I find the resources and the student makes the investments. We have had our ups and downs, but I am proud of this endeavor and look forward to seeing where it leads us”.
When asked for advice for graduate students that wish to become scientific-entrepreneurs, Dr. Rodriguez Orengo recommends: “Take risks. Face obstacles head on and have faith in your abilities. Sometimes you need to take a leap of faith.” When asked what he wishes his legacy to be, he adds: “I want to be remembered for being a good person that produced quality science.” I for one think Dr. Rodriguez Orengo has already accomplished his goals, and then some. This is the story of someone the scientific community in Puerto Rico admires and a story that should be told.
I started this interview in the hopes of getting a clearer idea of what path one needs to follow in order to become a scientist-entrepreneur. After writing this up, I see that there is no such thing as a typical career development for a scientist-entrepreneur. It is a series of short-term goals that lead to your growth. As you mature as a scientist, you will be able to recognize when an opportunity is approaching. This is when we must be able to take the leap of faith Dr. Rodriguez Orengo was talking about and seize the opportunity. I like the idea of becoming a scientist-entrepreneur, but now I know that it is not necessarily something I can force to happen. Instead, I can simply continue to develop my skills, expand horizons, discover gaps in knowledge, and learn to see how basic science can lead to translational research, and capitalize from my intellectual property. I am humbled to have interacted with Dr. Rodriguez Orengo and will be applying what I learned. I hope you find this as useful as I did.
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