I am a researcher, currently working on a short-term project at a university in Sweden. Recently, I have been approached (via a colleague) by a biotech/pharma startup, with a really cool and ambitious project. We had a lunch meeting where I met one of the founders, and a larger more formal meeting where I met both of the founders together, and heard more about the company. It appears as if they want both me and my colleague, for covering different areas of the work based on our expertise. It is perhaps worth noting that we have almost entirely disjunct expertise from each other, thus no immediate competition between us in terms of what we bring to the table.
As of now, it's just the two of them, so if we get employed we will be the first employees. That alone gives me some uncertainties but I understand that it's a part of the entrepreneurship. In general both of the founders have good credentials; they both have research experience at prestigious institutions, published in quality and quantity, and worked at respectable companies. One of the founders (the one who's more senior) has also been involved in several startups himself. So far so good...
The part that feels fishy is that in the process of negotiating, the senior founder followed a rather pushy approach (IMHO) where he told me what was better for me, what I should be thinking etc. all the while not giving me any concrete numbers on what they expect out of me and/or what they are willing to give in return. A lot of focus on vision and enthusiasm, and essentially asking to see if I'm on board without giving me a well defined offer.
To make the matters worse, the few people I confided in left the impression that in a company like this there is close-to-none job safety and that it is a ton of risk, not only by the nature of startup but also that the partners may want to take advantage of me at any moment. It feels like I am out of my depth, swimming with sharks, without a cage... (couldn't resist the dramatic metaphor :))
My question, after this lengthy intro, is what can I do to ensure that I don't end up in a less-than-favorable situation, or let's say minimize the risk of being taken advantage of?
Specifically I am concerned about:
- salary/benefits being less than optimal (as first employees, not sure what to expect)
- being "boxed out" of the future of the company, when/if things start to go well
- being abruptly put out of a job, if the budget/timeline doesn't go as planned
- being legally bound in an unfavorable way
Is there anything else I should be wary about? What are some typical deal-breakers from my point of view?
I am genuinely excited about this possibility and I think we can do good work, not only good business but also good science which will hopefully lead to better care for patients in the clinic. But being in the academia for my entire professional life, I feel like I need to be on my toes.