Female Founders: Déborah Heintze of Lunaphore On The Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder
An Interview With Candice Georgiadis
The most important thing to know is that starting a company will take much longer than you expect. It’s not a sprint — it’s a marathon. But, at the same time, work-life balance is important. And while you should put your full energy into your work, be mindful that it can be a long journey.
As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Déborah Heintze.
Déborah Heintze is Co-Founder and Chief Marketing Officer at Lunaphore where she oversees marketing and product management. Prior to joining Lunaphore, she worked at the EPFL Technology Transfer Office and as a research trainee at the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology in Boston, where she developed a microfluidic platform to test drugs on cardiac tissues. She obtained a Bachelor’s degree in Life Sciences and Technology and a Master’s degree in Bioengineering at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFL).
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
When I was young, I always had a passion for both mathematics and sports. I actually placed second in an international mathematics and logics competition years back. Back then I also played sports competitively. Even now I love ultra-trail, beach volleyball, tennis, biking — I could go on. I love to challenge myself and the human body. The idea of doing something you’ve never thought you’d be able to do and then mastering it is something that’s always appealed to me.
Seeing how sports and science were connected was fascinating to me — sports are a brilliant display of what the human body can do. Similarly, life sciences and bioengineering are synergistic and two areas that I grew to be passionate about academically. This led me to get a Bachelor’s degree in life sciences and technology, and a Master’s degree in bioengineering from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFL).
But I also wanted to go abroad and be exposed to new ideas. As a research trainee at Harvard and MIT, I was introduced to the science of microfluidics applied to cardiac tissue engineering. The project was very multidisciplinary and involved engineering, physics, biochemistry, and biology. So naturally, I was passionate about the project I was working on, which would ultimately bring me to work on a similar initiative with my fellow Lunaphore co-founders.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Fundraising at the startup level was really challenging, but I learned early on that it’s vital to have investors who you like and who you know well. In the early stages of Lunaphore, we had a potential investor whose vision for the company didn’t align so well with ours. We actually decided to walk away from that relationship right before the company might have run out of money, despite the fact that we may have needed to close the company altogether if we could not raise the funds in time. We knew, however, that it was the right decision for the company, so the risk was worth taking. We had a certain vision for Lunaphore, we stuck to it, and we made it a reality.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Looking back at our first business plan, we thought that launching a product would be a far quicker process than it really was. We assumed we would launch one new product per year starting our first year! In reality, in our field, it might take around three to five years to ensure the product is mature enough before launch. But it was a good reminder to stay bold and enthusiastic, even if our initial assumptions were quite lofty.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I learned early on that you can’t build a company on your own. I am very grateful for my two other Lunaphore co-founders with whom I have a strong bond and trust. The connection we have has been absolutely essential in helping Lunaphore get to its current stage. Additionally, we worked with a business development coach who pushed us to get out on the market as rapidly as possible. While a lot of us, by nature, are very science-minded, trying to get our business plan perfect was a newer concept to us. Our coach challenged us to put ourselves out there and helped us feel more comfortable pitching our vision and business to investors.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?
As someone with a lifelong interest in science and mathematics, I grew up in an environment with predominantly men. When I was younger, I admired the guys creating cool high-tech startup companies, but I didn’t see it as a possibility for my own career. We need more role models for young women. We need more women founded startups and more women in STEM, from which many high-tech startup companies can be created, in order to foster more inspiration for young girls.
I am proud to say that we’ve been successful in this goal at Lunaphore, where women make up half of our leadership team. It has always been our vision to build a company where every employee loves to work and where we are one team with diversity in gender, race and opinion. This is what makes us strong, innovative, and impactful. I personally wanted this company to be an inclusive place where women’s careers can thrive and their achievements are celebrated. I hope that we can serve as a model for other companies in the STEM field.
Can you help articulate a few things that can be done as individuals, as a society, or by the government, to help overcome those obstacles?
Aside from more inspirational role models for young women, we need to create more incentives for women to pursue jobs in STEM. In the Switzerland startup ecosystem, for example, we are trying to create an environment where women feel empowered to pursue careers in STEM, and we are already making great strides by promoting role models and inviting girls to attend one-day introductory sessions to expose them to more mathematics and scientific courses.
This might be intuitive to you as a woman founder but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?
Diversity is integral for innovation and allows ideas to move forward. This is why things like gender equity and racial equity are so important. Diversity is beneficial within companies but especially beneficial in the larger society. It encourages diverse role models and more well rounded and equitable leadership teams. This is something we value at Lunaphore, but more specifically, it is our goal to continue building a company where people, especially women, actually want to work. Innovation is best forged through diversity of thought.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder? Can you explain what you mean?
For many, there is this perception that it’s a huge risk to start a company. Although there are risks, particularly financially, I still believe that it’s absolutely worth trying. You gain so much from the experience of trying to start a company. During the first year of founding Lunaphore, I got the chance to talk to so many executives from other companies, including some of the largest companies worldwide; this was an experience you would rarely find in any other situation.
Even if your company lasts only one year, you’ve already learned so much and faced so many different challenges and experiences during that one year. For example, you may find this experience equips you to take on a more senior role in another company. The on-the-job education, insights, and connections during the process are so unique — you can’t put a price on that kind of knowledge. Even if it does not work out, you learn the process first-hand, preparing you for the next venture or position.
Is everyone cut out to be a founder? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful founder and what type of person should perhaps seek a “regular job” as an employee? Can you explain what you mean?
I think successful founders have a few traits. You must be eager to learn and enjoy taking on new challenges and be adaptable to new situations. At the beginning, newly founded companies present so many moving parts and new challenges, successful founders must be willing and able to wear many different hats.
It’s also interesting to think about how my co-founders and I settled into our roles. I had an interest in competitive intelligence and marketing. I started picking parts of the initial business plan that I liked, as did the other co-founders. At that point, we pretty naturally settled into our roles, even as they evolved and expanded with time. I think that having rigid, defined roles early on would have slowed us down as we were trying to get the company off the ground.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- The most important thing to know is that starting a company will take much longer than you expect. It’s not a sprint — it’s a marathon. But, at the same time, work-life balance is important. And while you should put your full energy into your work, be mindful that it can be a long journey.
- It can be lonely to be a founder. Sometimes you feel like you’re the only one who fully understands the challenges in front of you and all the intricacies of the business. It’s so important to talk with others who may be familiar with the process of starting a company or with other coaches and mentors who can help support you.
- You must learn to be adaptable. There are so many ups and downs, and the only way to deal is to learn to be adaptable to the volatility of the nature of founding and running a startup. Over time, you develop a higher tolerance for stress and unpredictability — the issues that kept you up in the past may not bother you as much in the present. In some ways, it’s become a super power for me.
- Titles do not always convey the full scope of your responsibilities or skillset. In my initial role as Chief Operations Officer, I oversaw various aspects of our business including marketing, product management, sales, operations, regulatory affairs, quality assurance, human resources and others. However, people may make assumptions about your role and engage with you based on that.
- It’s incredible to see how people become loyal to your company and values and how this can scale even as we grow to more than 100 people. It truly helps you become more self-confident knowing that people feel invested in your work and mission.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
At my company, Lunaphore, we have been focused on fueling the next generation of scientific research and drug development by making spatial biology more accessible to every lab. Spatial biology is the study of tissues within their own two-dimensional or three-dimensional context. We have new research tools that can improve how cancer research, for example, is done today so that people living with cancer can have access to better therapies.
On a personal level, I strive to be a role model and empower younger women who want to pursue careers in science. I am happy that I’ve helped build a company where people are happy to work, have an impact in what we do, and also have a healthy work balance. I hope to serve as a model for other companies, and especially for the next generation of leaders.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
There is so much more we can do to improve the health and wellbeing of people. I would want to raise awareness about how food and diet impacts diseases in people. With modern research methods and tools, we can analyze data to better understand the influence of food on our bodies. I’d love to see this take shape as a global health initiative.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
I’d love the chance to sit down with either Michelle Obama or New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. These two incredible women inspire me immensely, especially in how they have managed to stay humble. I’d love to talk about something that many women face, imposter syndrome, as well as their doubts and challenges and how they might overcome them.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.