Entrepreneur Archives - Revolution Bioengineering

Category Archives: Entrepreneur

23 Jun

A frustrating week for the Revolution

Lesson Learned

When we were developing our scientific plan for this summer, we came to the logical and obvious conclusion that time was more important to us than money. Three months is a very short time frame to do meaningful science, and we believed that spending money (purchasing competent cells, synthesizing DNA, etc.) to gain time was the prudent choice. Our accelerator provided a few opportunities to save time, so we took advantage of all of them.

First, we ordered our supplies through the university. We were told we would be receiving the university discount on all purchases, that they knew the suppliers for the area, that they had some pricing agreements we could capitalize on, and that we wouldn’t have to pay for shipping. Great! Next, we ordered approximately 10,000 basepairs of DNA through a bulk purchase with special pricing and rapid turnaround, as negotiated by an accelerator partner. That’s exactly what we needed, to save us time and kick start our project. We kept the 1 August deadline in mind when planning our experiments and our budget, and while it may have cost a bit more to order some items, we felt that it was a fair price to pay for the extra time.

Things started to go wrong almost immediately. Irish regulatory approval hadn’t been obtained prior to our arrival, so we were unable to begin work for weeks. The reagents ordered through the university took weeks or months to show up. The price agreement for DNA synthesis wasn’t actually in place when the accelerator started, the accelerator group order took three weeks to put together, and ‘rapid synthesis’ ended up meaning about four weeks or so. While frustrating, we had planned some leeway into our timeline because something like this always happens. Because we had shown up with our own DNA and our own reagents, we could start working once the regulatory approval had come in.

Last week things took a turn for the worse. We received our itemized invoice list for supplies and reagents, and it became apparent that there had been serious problems – our estimated $3000 budget had somehow exploded to $9000. We also learned we would have to extend our stay in Ireland for a month– an additional stress on a budget that was now stretched pretty thin. And worst of all, we found out that DNA sequences central to our scientific proof-of-concept had just been… forgotten. They were dropped from the gene synthesis order and we weren’t informed.

At the heart of these problems is a lack of communication and a lack of oversight.

With ordering, I failed to convey the importance of the budget to us and our goals for the summer. I made the assumption that reagent costs would be reasonably similar, but I didn’t ask follow up questions about costs, and the purchaser didn’t volunteer the information. Instead, reagents cost about 2.5x as much as they would in the US. Despite providing links and pricing for all reagents, I made the assumption that should there be a serious price discrepancy I would be notified and asked to determine the best course of action. I was not, and we received other items which cost thirty or fifty times their equivalent in the states. Thankfully, the university is now working with us to rectify the situation as much as possible, but much of the damage has already been done.

With the accelerator, I did not fully account for the fact that the program is in its first year. I did not adequately plan for potential scheduling conflicts and bureaucratic hold ups , and I made the assumption that it was important to hold to that 1 August deadline. I didn’t continue to push for information regarding the schedule and as a result, we have been surprised several times by substantive changes to the proposed timeline, all of which have resulted in the commitment of more money than originally budgeted.

And with the DNA synthesis, I made the assumption that this would be a straightforward order, conducted in much the same way that we would have done on our own, but with more favorable pricing terms. However, once again we did not communicate the importance of these items to our project, nor did we request the specifics of the synthesis agreement before committing to it. This particular lack of communication has cost us the time we hoped to buy at the beginning of the program. Without money or time, we now find ourselves working on a scientific Plan D to make something of this summer.

It has been a painful lesson to learn, but at this point it has become abundantly clear that we failed to provide the appropriate oversight for our project. Entrepreneurs, do not be afraid to ask for updates every day. Be as persistent as necessary to identify pricing, timeline, and terms of partnership. Consider what happens if the partnership fails or if the contract is not fulfilled. And if it sounds like someone is offering exactly what you need, treat the offer with skepticism until you have proof that they can deliver exactly what it is you need. Your business, your project, will never be as important to anyone else as it is to you, and while it is necessary to build a good team, that team needs to be selected based on first-hand experience of the competence and ability of your partners.

Revolution has just learned an expensive lesson. But this experience has shaped our team, helping us understand that we already had the expertise to do the best possible job in meeting scientific challenges. And, it has given us a lens to evaluate opportunities with a critical eye. We won’t make the same mistakes twice.

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.