Nikolai Braun, Author at Revolution Bioengineering

All posts by Nikolai Braun

About Nikolai Braun

Nikolai grew up outside of Washington D.C. and has always enjoyed exploring the outdoors and experiencing nature first-hand. He studied biology at Virginia Tech, and earned a Ph.D. in Biophysics from UC Davis in 2007. Nikolai trained as a post-doc at the Biochemistry Department at the University of Manchester as well as the Biology Department at CSU. When not pursuing scientific or business enterprises, he can be found climbing mountains or playing with his two cats.

01 Jul

Lessons learned from a business accelerator: contracts

spine

A business accelerator is a fun and competitive (and crazy) experience.  You will definitely learn a lot over the course of one.  But remember, the accelerator itself is a business for the VC firm, exactly like your fledgling business.  It’s not a charity.  It’s not community service the VC firm does for the benefit of the community.  It only exists to make money.
So if you are lucky enough to have you and your business selected to participate in an accellerator– What does that mean?

It means you need to start fighting.

JDoyleBox

The VC firm thinks that your business has a decent chance to become a profitable company.  They think that their investment of $20,000 will yield returns of millions in a few years.  They think that their business accelerator program will give you the training and the opportunities to achieve that business success.  You might be surprised and flattered at this – we were.  We liked our cool little idea, we thought it was nice that someone else was willing to give us a chance.  We didn’t really take to heart that this was a business transaction where each side commits to making this a successful venture.

Our advice to you?  Make them put their commitment in writing.

When we were first selected for the program, we signed a letter of intent, a brief 1.5 page document about our responsibilities to the accelerator. The responsibilities of the accelerator to us were not documented here, and we expected to see them in the detailed contract which was forthcoming. This 7 page contract was more detailed—but only about the nature and type of shares that we would give them in exchange for their financial and material support. Very practical, and, from our limited experience, reasonable. After all, it makes sense that these guys would want to protect their investment.

However, we also needed to think about protecting our own investment. We were leaving jobs, moving overseas, and committing fully to a program we would be dependent on for the next three months.  Aside from the words ‘material support’, there was not another or further defined responsibility for the accelerator in the contract.  No mention of the mentors or training that would be provided, no description of the facilities, no outline of the opportunities they would provide. Under our current agreement, there are many ways that we can be in violation of the contract, but it is impossible to hold the accelerator accountable. We are entirely dependent on their sense of fairness and goodwill – a dangerous place to be as a new start up.

So, when you receive the contract, start asking questions.  Question yourself, your business partners, and question the accelerator. Identify your framework for success and express it confidently. If you require specific materials, facilities, mentoring, or consulting to be successful, verify that they can provide it and make them commit to providing it in writing before you sign.  If you feel the terms are unfavorable say so, and have the research at hand to back it up. Reading the contract start to finish isn’t enough.  You can read the whole thing, understand everything in it, and still not know what it means.  Instead, try reading a section, then restating that section out loud to your business partners and advisors in your own words.  You might see some obvious and trivially easy adjustments you can make to protect yourselves and your company.

Another note – absolutely everything is negotiable.

ReaganGorbachevtreaty

We negotiated. We agonized about it and spent hours drafting emails and worried that we’d be rejected from the program outright, but we shared our concerns.  And as a result, we reduced the equity exchanged for their investment by 30%.

Remember your position at the negotiating table if you get a contract like this.  They chose you.  They think your idea, your business, your team has a chance of hitting it big.  Their business depends on finding ideas and teams and businesses like yours, and they depend on you being a success.  You need to address items that are important to you and work out contract wording that makes you confident in this partnership. A good business partner will respond to your concerns, a bad one will dismiss them with “that’s not important.”

It may very well be that this is your only shot and you have to take it regardless of the terms – that’s fine.  Such is life.  But it never hurts to stand up for yourself. You will need that backbone to make it in the business world.

26 May

Why does Genetic Engineering call himself Synthetic Biology?

One day Genetic Engineering started calling himself Synthetic Biology.  It was weird, but I let Genetic Engineering do it because he is an angsty teenager with something to prove to the world.

But then everybody started calling Genetic Engineering by his nom de Pubmed—Synthetic Biology.  Even people who have known Genetic Engineering since the 80s started calling him this.  Everybody knows who Genetic Engineering is.  Nobody can tell you (or at least nobody can agree on) who Synthetic Biology is because he doesn’t exist.

Black is the new LB

Black agar allows the yeast to fully comprehend the futility of its existence.

(Caption, Crabgrass; Photo from Sylvia Huttner’s bioart at Pavillion35 – please visit her site for original context)

Somehow Genetic Engineering thinks that just because he is now “applying engineering principles” to biology (what do you think he was doing before?), or getting codon optimized DNA synthesized, that he is all of a sudden doing something totally different.  Let me be the one to tell you.  He isn’t.  Genetic Engineering is on the same trajectory he has always been on. He’s just learned a few new tricks he is inordinately proud of.

Genetic Engineering has always been learning things from his buddies Molecular Biology and Biochemistry, then rationally designing and testing novel biological systems to introduce new functions in living organisms.  Remember back in the 70s and early 80s when Molecular Biology told him all that stuff about promoters and what a lactamase is good for? Genetic Engineering used that information to make a whole bunch of cloning plasmids with antibiotic selectable markers, and he threw in a pretty sweet multiple cloning site too.  Then, after Biochemistry figured out how to make DNA in a cell-free system by adding polymerase, a pinch of nucleotides, and some temperature cycles (That was so totally like Biochemistry to invent that)– Genetic Engineering was on a roll and to this day is still exploring the applications of this technology.

30 year old science, still impressive today.

Could we do this without synthetic biology? Well…yes. This picture was taken in 1986.

See the original paper and this timeline from GlowingPlant

Genetic Engineering has so much lot to be proud of – he’s made some huge advancements – but now he’s hiding behind this new name. Rather than rtPCRing off of some mRNA to grab a gene, he’s calling up a DNA synthesis company and getting codon-optimized genes mailed to him—and calling himself Synthetic Biology.  Now that Molecular Biology has given him a whole palette of characterized promoters and repressors, Genetic Engineering is making a toggle switch—and calling himself Synthetic Biology.  Now that Biochemistry has learned so much more about protein folding that he can create novel enzymatic activities, Genetic Engineering is popping these genes into a pathway—and calling himself Synthetic Biology.

What’s fundamentally different about what Genetic Engineering is doing today and what Genetic Engineering was doing 10 or 20 years ago?  There are more pieces involved now, and the supporting technologies are better, but it’s essentially the same thing. Genetic Engineering is growing up, and he doesn’t need to call himself something different just because he has some new toys.

So lets all agree to call Genetic Engineering by his real name, and not this contrived nonsensical name.  Take off that mascara too.  You look ridiculous.

05 May

First meeting with the Boss

Logo thought

We had our first meeting today with Bill Liao, the head of SOS Ventures and the entire Synbio Axlr8r summer program.  This was our first real conversation with anybody anywhere about business thinking and strategy for a science company.  It was really eye opening, and it made it clear that some of our scientific planning and preparation we did ahead of arriving in Cork was time wasted (but certainly not all).

And it was also clear that the amount of work we have to do is staggering.  So much of success is going to be based on how much of a web presence we have, how many people are our tweet friends, (or however that works), how many people are seeing our webpage, and how many are talking about us in teh interwebs.

Developing a media/web profile for the company is a daunting task, and pretty far outside the skillset I have thus far developed as a scientist and in life.  However I have a summer to do nothing but devote all my time to developing this business in every dimension, so let’s see in three months how things have gone.

04 May

Taking a chance


Keira and I are at O’hare airport for a 7 hour layover. Denver to Chicago, Chicago to Dublin. Then a train ride to Cork.

We are taking a big gamble in a lot of different ways. Not only are we are trying to start a biotech business, we are flying to Ireland to do it. There are simpler businesses to start, businesses which require less capital, lower investment, and can be done in your spare time while you keep your full time job. We are jumping in with both feet into a high risk, high reward proposition. But being able to take this chance, uncertain as it might be is a victory for us.

Keira and I worked in the same lab at CSU, and we have a certain kind of enterpreneurial synergy. We spent lunches and evenings talking about businesses to start, what the next big thing is definitely going to be, and how we would ride that wave to riches.

Lots of ideas spun out of this collaboration. Many bad, some quite good. I tend to be pessimistic about ideas, Keira optimistic, so we ended up having lengthy discussions about ideas; the bad ideas always fall, and the good ideas rise. Eventually we started formalizing our daydreamy talk and began having regular journal clubs.

Our fledgling biotech startup limped along for a bit. I had full time paid employment, Keira was a graduate student, and we did what we could in our free time, but it wasn’t much. Keira graduated, and was able to devote a lot more time to our company. Things started moving at Revolution Bio, and then I got word that the contract at my job was ending.

Keira could manage to work for some period of time earning nothing trying to get our company going. I didn’t have that luxury. So when I heard that I only had 4 months left at my job, I had to devote my free time to a job search, not into company development. To find a job in the biological sciences, that likely meant that I would have to move far away from Colorado, ending this partnership before it really began.

Keira was also running out of steam – the first contract we landed was time-consuming, frustrating, and poorly compensated. Her husband had recently moved for a dream job in Ohio, and despite contacting multiple agencies and partners, we just hadn’t had any bites at that point for any of our ideas.

Then Keira came across SynbioAxlr8r, a biotech start-up accelerator program focusing on synthetic biology. It was right up our alley, and it was in Ireland. When she asked if I was interested into going to Ireland, I never responded to her email. We weren’t getting in anyway, so why bother thinking about it.

I barely had a hand in shaping the application– my free time was devoted to my job search. Still, when Keira forwarded me the application materials for the accelerator program, I made comments and corrections.
Lo and behold, we got an interview for the accelerator. A week later we got an email confirming our acceptance, and we were on our way.

So I quit my job a month-and-half before it was anyway slated to end, we got an apartment rented in Cork, and we came up with a three month science plan. We are flying there now.

I really hope this is the opportunity we were looking for, and leads to continued opportunities for us to grow our business. I think both Keira and I will be busting our tails this summer to make sure we give ourselves the greatest chance to succeed.

04 May

Ireland: Days 1-5

Logo thought

It’s been a busy several days, even though the accelerator hasn’t truly begun yet. We have spent a great deal of time getting our apartment cleaned up, and getting basic items purchased. It’s given us an opportunity to do a lot of walking around town and exploring the beautiful city of Cork.

We live on Blarney Street, and that makes both Keira and I happy. It is an old street, incredibly narrow and steep, with beautiful houses, shops, and pubs shoulder to shoulder along the length of it. So much of the city center of Cork is pedestrianized – you can walk anywhere you need to go – and there are shops of all sorts everywhere. There is a great temptation to purchase lots of things– I will probably walk away from this summer with a new tweed blazer– but we have limited money and can also foretell that our entertainment budget may have to be expanded because pubs can be fun.

We had a few meetings on Thursday and Friday with the accelerator program where we went over safety issues and the locations of things around the microbiology department. The main value in those meetings was finally meeting other participants in the program: the Austrians, working on low cost DNA synthesis technology, MuuFree, developing real vegan cheese by producing milk proteins in plants, Hyasynth, working on THC production in yeast, and UCC’s IGEM team, who will be working on a new biomaterial based on hagfish slime. Friday’s day of meetings and orientations of course culminated at a pub where great merriment was had.


This summer will be a ton of hard work, but I think it’s going to be really fun as well.

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