By Brian Shott
After years in neurobiology, Daniel Metcalf realized that he was interested in microscopes as much as cell biology research itself. He moved to sales manager for Scientifica’s EMEA region, overseeing six product specialists.
What drew you to this job, and can you briefly describe the work?
I’ve always liked instrumentation and microscopy. I like the high-value technical sales. It’s about building a relationship and understanding the research, and helping the customer solve their research questions.
Tell me about your sales team.
Scientifica is me plus six others in sales in EMEA; then there’s a U.S. sales team of about the same size. We have someone dedicated to China. My team is split between the key European countries and Israel primarily, for example UK, France, Germany, Benelux, Spain, Italy, and Scandinavia. For some countries, like Japan, Australia, and India, distributors sell on our behalf.
We have two product ranges. One is electrophysiology: the electrical recordings from neurons and brain samples. The other is multiphoton microscopes for imaging the brain and the nervous system. Almost all of our customers are academic research scientists in neuroscience.
Can you describe a typical day or week?
I have regular weekly catch-ups, helping the team with their sales; I run team meetings and help with customer calls and visits. Before the coronavirus we traveled quite a bit—my team might spend 30 to 50 percent of its time traveling.
We often do product demos. You have to work out what experiments will be important to your client. If it’s a pre-existing project, what are the problems with their current equipment and how can you do it better? It’s a back and forth, because they might not know what’s possible with the equipment.
Particularly in Europe, you’re often talking to a customer before they’ve secured funding to make the purchase. It could be six months before they get a decision on the funding scheme. And there are tender procedures on high-value equipment. Some of the multiphoton microscopes cost £300,000 or more, and those sales can last six months to a couple of years. We have further discussions after the money comes through—by then, they might have changed their research project, so we change the specifications, give them updated quotes, pricing, exchange rates. And then these tender procurement processes can take three to six months.
You moved from academia to industry quite a few years ago. Why? Was the transition intimidating?
I was on about my fourth temporary contract in academia, getting a bit frustrated. I would just get started with projects and then have to move on to the next job.
The transition to industry happened in two steps. I moved from doing a postdoc at the Cambridge Institute for Medical Research to being a research scientist at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL), which is still quite academically focused.
I made the decision to move away from researching neurodegenerative diseases using microscopes to actually putting the emphasis on microscope development itself. I realized I was much more interested in the use of microscopy and its application than in Cell Biology and neurodegeneration research.
When a recruiter approached me about selling Nikon products and training Nikon customers in superresolution microscopy, it seemed like a natural step—I was already doing that at NPL, just not with a commercial emphasis. I wasn’t worried, though I did know that once I did it, there probably wouldn’t be any going back to academia.
There was a bit of a transition in my first few years, finishing off some projects that I had started at NPL. But I haven’t done any publishing recently. I’ve helped with research projects, but not enough to qualify as an author. But there’s definitely still an interaction with researchers.
What are the career pathways at Scientifica?
A lot of people stay in sales; there is the management role like mine. That’s mostly the linear career path. But people can move from sales into the applications or technical side of things. Or, another path is sideways into things like product management or marketing. There’s occasionally movement back into academia, into something like microscopy core facility management.
What technological advances are coming in microscopy?
One area is three-photon imaging, as opposed to the typical two-photon. It allows you to go deeper. We’re starting to sell it.
There’s a new technology that a few companies are using involving spatial light modulators. Instead of just observing, researchers can target and stimulate individual cells, even individual synapses, and control that in three dimensions. One can simultaneously hit thirty cells with light and see how they react.
How is your relationship with researchers?
The key is building a relationship. Some people are very open to having conversations; others are more reserved or suspicious until you’ve built a level of trust. They’re cynical about sales or perhaps aren’t convinced that you know what you’re talking about and think they’re just going to get misled or badly advised.
So long as you don’t waste their time and you listen to them, rather than just talk about your product endlessly, you get a nice kind of rapport going. It doesn’t always translate into sales, but over six or seven years you get to know a customer really well. You know their research; they know your product.
How much work and time goes into a quote?
If it’s a big multiphoton system, you probably want at least an hour speaking with the scientists to understand what they’re trying to do. Then it takes maybe another hour to put together a complex quote, and then we prefer to talk it through with them—there could be fifty lines of itemized things with technical jargon. For more complex configurations, we have to contact our tech support or R&D team and it could take a day to answer their questions; we may then go back and forth with the researcher a few more times to refine the details and the specifications.
Because some procurement rules require three quotes, we often get people contacting us just to get a quote to submit to procurement or align with tender requirements—they have no intention of buying our product. For low-value stuff, a camera, say, it’s Ok, it’s only two minutes of our time. We might decline to provide more detailed quotes, but you can sometimes convince someone to consider your product if they’re willing to discuss their requirements.
Your products are often made of materials from other companies.
Yes. We use Nikon and Olympus objective lenses in our microscopes. And we don’t make our own cameras—we use Hamamatsu, Photometrics, or Andor. It’s true for almost all high-end scientific equipment made by small and medium sized companies: the optics are almost always from another company. All of our products are some kind of fusion of Scientifica manufactured products plus some of those other products from other companies to make up a complete system.
Do all these different companies’ components lead to sales conflicts?
It’s a funny thing in the industry. Andor sells spinning disk microscopes and cameras. At Nikon we used to buy the Andor cameras, but then we’d be competing against them on the spinning disks. At Scientifica, Nikon and Leica might buy our stages or manipulators but then we occasionally compete with them for microscope sales. But by and large it’s treated separately.
What are the most stressful things about your job?
Meeting tender deadlines. Filling out tender documents can be several days of work. You have to stay very organized. You can miss a £300,000 sale by missing a tender deadline by just an hour. Also, as a manager, losing good team members is very stressful because it takes a while to train people.
You can reach out to Daniel Metcalf via LinkedIn.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and not that of ImagenScience.