A technical founder’s journey: an ag-biotech startup CEO with a vision

Dr. Fatma Kaplan
Nov 23 · 5 min read

I often have to convince people that I am the right CEO for Pheronym, an ag-biotech startup.

Dr. Fatma Kaplan, CEO of Pheronym

Frequently I hear, “You would make a great CSO.” I know I would be a great CSO, but I am the only one who can be Pheronym’s CEO.

Let’s start with “What does a startup CEO do?” Everyone knows that the CEO is the person in charge, but what does that mean for a small startup? Startup CEO’s can play very different roles depending on the type, stage, and founding team. For example, digital healthcare, digital agriculture, biotechnology, consumer-facing and B2B startups all have different needs. Furthermore, a startup is expected to create something visionary that will transform the industry or create some new and novel technology. So the startup needs a CEO with a vision.

It’s always been my belief I had the vision required. In 2005, when I accepted the position to identify the model nematode’s (Caenorhabditis elegans) sex pheromone, I knew how these discoveries could revolutionize agricultural pest control for nematodes. Soon after we published the work in Nature (2008), the USDA-ARS recruited me to apply this discovery to control agriculturally important nematodes. After all, pheromones had been used to control insects successfully for decades. Why not for nematodes? When I was at the USDA, I won the 2011 American Phytopathological Society Schroth Faces of the Future, Nematology Award for my vision of using pheromones to control parasitic nematodes. Then, in 2014, my article on the future of the nematode pheromone field won an essay contest sponsored by the Genetics Society of America and was published in the GSA Reporter. When I started thinking about filing patents and commercializing my discoveries, I realized that I was the only one with the knowledge, passion, and vision to make it happen.

With this vision, I built a multi-institutional team that won multiple grant awards (2017–2020). Within 2 years, we were able to show that our technology works. For biotechnology product development, this is fast. Our team’s progress has been recognized by both the business and science communities. In 2018, Pheronym won the 2018 Sacramento Region Innovation Award for Food and Agribusiness. This award recognizes the people and organizations that advance new products, services and processes from the Sacramento area. In 2019, “Pheromone extracts act as boosters for entomopathogenic nematodes efficacy” was selected as a Research Highlight by the Nematode Division of the Society of Invertebrate Pathology. While we are very focused on bringing our first product, Nemastim, to the market, we are looking at future markets as well such as indoor agriculture and space agriculture. Pheronym is sending “the first agricultural biocontrol experiment in space” to the International Space Station on December 4, 2019, aboard SpaceX CRS19.

Don’t let my degree fool you, I know how to run a business. I managed our family farm, a 40 acres hazelnut orchard. Both small farms and startups require budgeting, discipline, strategizing and planning, prioritizing, organizing, teamwork and execution to be successful. If you notice that my number one is budgeting. That’s because we can’t do anything without money. In short, no money, no business! There is one big difference, however, between the two organizations. A small farm has a product that makes money. A startup has a vision for a product that requires money to develop. This is where my skills running a small farm and academic background combine to bring revolutionary technology to the market.

I understand my end-users, farmers, and their pain points. I grew up on a family farm. I am very familiar with farmers’ pain points when growing a crop. Without pest control, farmers can lose 30–70% of their crop. When I was a kid, conventional pesticides were popular, but when I graduated from graduate school, farmers were interested in organic, eco-friendly sustainable solutions for pest control. Nematode pheromones address to farmers’ needs.

As a startup CEO, I have to constantly learn new skills to effectively move Pheronym to the next stage. So far, I utilized business incubators, accelerators, and mentorship programs very effectively to develop the business skills I need to accomplish technical, legal, financial and business milestones. In one mentorship program, I met a pioneer in the biopesticide field who have taken a biopesticide company from concept to IPO. With the help of our mentors, I developed a strategy for product development and market entry. With our marketing advisor, I developed a marketing strategy for branding. For example, I prepare posts for Pheronym’s website and newsletter. You may be surprised but it takes a lot of money and effort to develop a product like Pheronym. So I learned and read about Intellectual Property (IP) to protect Pheronym’s IP and worked with an IP lawyer to prepare patent applications. I coordinate the business and corporate development efforts, investor relations, presentations at conferences or pitch events with my co-founder and COO, Karl Schiller. Pheronym will transform how pheromones are used in agricultural pest control and I am the right CEO to make it happen.

Author: Dr. Fatma Kaplan is the CEO/CSO of Pheronym, an entrepreneur, and an accomplished scientist with experience in both biology and chemistry. She has a Ph.D. in Plant Molecular and Cellular Biology and postdoctoral training in Natural Product Chemistry with a focus on isolating biologically active compounds. Dr. Kaplan discovered the first sex pheromone of the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans and published in Nature. Then she discovered that pheromones regulate other behaviors in both parasitic and beneficial nematodes. She has very high impact publications and her dissertation (beta-amylase’s role during cold and heat shock) was cited in textbooks within 5 years of publication. Dr. Kaplan worked as a scientist at NASA, the National Magnetic Field Laboratory and the US Department of Agriculture — Agricultural Research Service. Dr. Kaplan co-founded Pheronym to bring nematode pheromone technology to the market and to provide effective, non-toxic pest control for farmers and gardeners.

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