Female Founders: Melinda Thomas of Octave Bioscience On The Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder

An Interview With Candice Georgiadis

Candice Georgiadis
Authority Magazine


Spend time on the documents. A lot of people just want to sign documents really quickly because they’re awkward or they’re complicated and confusing, but the documents can also be there to aid in a difficult conversation and to make sure your expectations are all aligned. Some people think it’s no big deal, I’m just going to sign it, because that bad thing will never happen. Well, guess what? If you don’t address things up front, it is more likely to happen and when it does — that’s when you need the document. So spend a little time and make sure they are done properly.

As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Melinda Thomas, COO, CO-Founder, Octave Bioscience.

Melinda has over two decades of experience starting and leading health companies. Using her expertise, she wraps a company around a technical/scientific team so they can focus on meeting the company’s milestones. Melinda built CardioDx, a molecular diagnostics company specializing in cardiovascular genomics, and ParAllele, a high-throughput sequencing and SNP discovery company from the foundation point. ParAllele was acquired by Affymetrix in what one investor said was their best investment of the decade. Previously, she served as the Inaugural Entrepreneur in Residence for New York City, solving problems for aspiring entrepreneurs, and as Chair of the Board for the Save the Redwoods League. Prior to ParAllele, she guided Molecular Dynamics Manufacturing, building it from an 8 person to 85 person manufacturing organization. Melinda holds an MBA from Harvard and a BS from UC Berkeley.

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?

I grew up in Palo Alto, a university town in the heart of the Silicon Valley, so I was surrounded by bright people doing amazing things. My father was an engineer/economist with a PhD from MIT who focused his life on how to be the best person he could be and to share those talents to make the world a more just and peaceful place. My mother was all about finding opportunities and making things happen. Both of these role models were critical to my work as an entrepreneur in the life sciences. After graduating from The University of California at Berkeley, I thought I wanted to get my law degree so I could practice public interest law — I wanted to help save the world. I took the LSAT, applied, and got into a good school, but as the time to leave neared, I knew myself well enough to know that I was having doubts about whether that was my path to follow. So, as my way of testing to see if I actually needed the law degree, I picked up and moved to Washington, DC to do public interest work. While I was in DC, I ran into Bob Noyce of Intel, and I had the opportunity to explain to him what I was trying to do. He told me that instead of law, I should go into manufacturing — that bright minds were needed there. Since I’m a STEM girl, and I like science, math, and processes — all represented in manufacturing — I took his advice and moved back to the Bay Area, where I worked at a manufacturing organization while I was applying to business school.

After I graduated from business school, I went back to the Bay Area again, knowing now for sure that I wanted to work in life sciences. I basically apprenticed at a health care manufacturing company, helping to scale that organization while learning my craft and the industry until I was ready to start my own first company.

I was part of the team that launched and led ParAllele and CardioDx before starting Octave Bioscience, my current company. At Octave, we’re developing a care management platform for neurodegenerative diseases — starting with multiple sclerosis — and our goal is to improve patient management decisions and create better outcomes while also lowering costs for the health care system.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

When I left ParAllele, I thought I would never have that great an experience — of starting a company — again. Then I felt the same way about CardioDx. It was also terrific. So I was really surprised that Octave is 100 times better than even that. I have an amazing business partner in Bill Hagstrom, our CEO. We have an extraordinary Board of Directors and investors. Really most amazing of all is how each person we hire has felt immediately like a part of the team. We say an Octavian, as we call ourselves, runs at the problem, truly believes that we will figure it out, and is very food motivated. We just have to point people in the right direction and watch the wonderful things that get created.

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?

This was a hard one for me to answer because I have a hard time calling things ‘mistakes’ — things may have not gone the way I planned when I started, but it’s all a learning experience. I often see how things turn out as it just went a different way. So now you are going down a new path and you learn from that and keep moving forward. This is something you encounter a lot when you found a company or work in the startup world. You have no choice but to move forward.

The funny part is that I once asked my family and friends what funny stories or mistakes they thought I had made in my career, and they had plenty of opinions to share with me about that!

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?

In my first job out of business school I had a tremendous mentor in Bruce Leisz. Two things he did that were very important. 1) He really knew operations and how to do it well. He was focused on setting up best in class processes so we could always deliver. 2) He let his team try out their ideas for how to do things with one exception. He wouldn’t put us in a situation where we could make a “fatal mistake.” That framework of being surrounded by the best practices with the opportunity to learn by doing was also critical in my training to be an entrepreneur. I was able to bring all that to my first company.

Now 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?

My work as the inaugural Entrepreneur In Residence for New York City was about being a mentor and role model to aspiring entrepreneurs in the life sciences in that city, suggesting that a lack of both of those holds anyone back. A big part of the early days of a company is getting funding. Studies show that funding of female founders is not on par with that of male founders. The number of funds being founded recently focused on addressing this disparity is another sign that it is a real problem. Funding is all about assessing risk and reward. People naturally tend toward thinking something is less risky if it is more familiar to them and/or they can pattern match with something that has been successful before. This gives the edge to companies that look, historically, like other companies have.

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?

To build on my last point, anything that gives the opportunity to someone who maybe isn’t what we are used to seeing being a founder of a company, would create more success stories. We need to focus on the skills and abilities that really make companies successful like strategic thinking, perseverance, adaptability. We need to do the hard work of digging down to understand those factors when assessing an investment rather than just relying on what we have seen before. We as a society are actually pretty adaptable if you think about what has fundamentally changed in the last 10, 20 30 years. We get accustomed to new things over time until they seem “normal”. The reason there are more investment funds being started by women who focus on women led companies is that they, through their own success, know there is untapped potential in the market and they are going after it. Lastly, it’s great that publications like yours are communicating the success stories.

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?

At my current company, Octave Bioscience, one of our areas of work is to map the clinical journey a person living with Multiple Sclerosis goes through; what are the decision points, what are the outcomes. We understand that each journey is different and the data on many peoples’ paths can teach us how to develop better solutions for better outcomes. This idea of learning from different journeys to get to better outcomes suggests that we need to embrace this moment in history where we are hopefully moving beyond group classifiers like gender and race, and moving toward understanding the power of personalization in areas like medicine and startups.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder. Can you explain what you mean?

The biggest myth I have heard: “If you’re a founder, you have control.” Throw that out the window. Even in everyday life you rarely have control. It is about working with others to get to a common goal. It would be ridiculous to think I could walk in to a meeting, tell everyone what to do, expect them to do it, and expect good outcomes. You need to walk in to that meeting understanding the goal you are trying to achieve and trust you have a team that can work together to figure out how to achieve it. Your view is just one view on how that could happen. Together you usually get an even better result than any one idea alone. As a founder you have more responsibility, not more control.

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?

The number one trait that is necessary for a founder is initiative. It is looking around you, seeing problems or things that need to change, and taking the initiative to do something about it. Not everyone wants to be challenged like that every day. And it is every single day in a startup. Nothing was there before and now you have to build it all.

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.)

  1. Don’t rush the important decisions. Startups by nature are working at increased speed because you need to accomplish a lot with the money someone else has given you before you go to ask for more money at a higher valuation. This “need for speed” sometimes causes people to think that everything is urgent. Not everything is urgent. Some things are just really important. For example, we fall into the trap of needing a new person “yesterday” because we’re on a deadline, or there’s funding coming up, or a conference. But on the important decisions, you need to take the time to do them well. This includes the people you bring in and maybe most importantly the people you start with. I sometimes get asked why I chose to work with another serial entrepreneur, Bill Hagstrom, and my response is that I knew I could ride the roller coaster with him. The startup world is a real roller coaster ride and whatever your business plan was five years ago, you’re going to laugh looking back at it. Things will change and it’s important not to have rushed the big decisions and to have made sure the right people are on the ride with you.
  2. Think about the long game. For example, a startup rarely does one round of funding. So what should each round look like strategically, in terms of type of investor, and amount raised compared to other similar companies. If you don’t play the long game you can make some mistakes early on in terms of your cap table that will hamper your fund raising efforts later. Bill is brilliant at this.
  3. Spend time on the documents. A lot of people just want to sign documents really quickly because they’re awkward or they’re complicated and confusing, but the documents can also be there to aid in a difficult conversation and to make sure your expectations are all aligned. Some people think it’s no big deal, I’m just going to sign it, because that bad thing will never happen. Well, guess what? If you don’t address things up front, it is more likely to happen and when it does — that’s when you need the document. So spend a little time and make sure they are done properly.
  4. You don’t have control — you have responsibility. I’ve said that one before and I will say it again!
  5. This is really fun. It’s the best! I love building things from scratch; I love doing things that require all my talents. Everything I have ever done in my life has brought me to this moment where it’s taking everything I’ve ever learned to take on this big challenge — and it’s a really big challenge. We are trying to change a care and measurement paradigm for a neurodegenerative disease! It is so enjoyable every day, well almost every day, and I never get tired of it.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

Any success I have had in life needs to acknowledge that I was, to use a baseball analogy, born “rounding third”. Not that I haven’t worked really hard at running for Home Plate, but I definitely have been given many gifts in my life that gave me a head start. To me that head start obligates me to do the best I can with it; that sense of responsibility to the greater good. It is part of what drew me to the life sciences and health field. What you are working on is fundamentally about improving the human condition. Outside of my companies I have also been involved with philanthropic organizations, most notably the Save the Redwoods League as Chair of the Board of Directors. I always like to say that when I enter a redwood forest, I really feel like they are saving me, not the other way around. They are terrific at cleaning the air and water as well as bringing a sense of hope and peace to anyone who is lucky enough to spend time in them. They are also extraordinary biologically sound which is why they can grow so tall and live so long. There is a lot we can learn from them. So I brought my business skills to an extremely well run organization and hopefully helped take it up a notch as well as continue to help it with its mission.

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.

I think great influence is an overstatement although I do have my unique story to tell. Financial literacy is a cause I am really interested in right now. At the end of the day, when people speak of inequality, it is usually around economic inequality. It is about having the resources to do what you want to do in life, and in my case, in a startup as well. How do we educate people to know not only how to access and build resources, but also manage them well? You don’t get this in school, not even business school, if what we are talking about is personal finances. In the early stages of a company, it is about how you manage your cash. You don’t want to run out. In my first company I created some simple charts and spreadsheets around what the drivers of the cash burn were. They showed we understood where we were using the cash, and therefore how we were prioritizing decisions within the company, and most importantly, when we would run out. One of my VCs asked if they could share it with their other portfolio companies. I was surprised because I thought, “Doesn’t everybody do this?” I have used them in every company since the first.

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.

My husband and I have actually had this conversation before. We talk about what the best dinner party would be, and our invite list includes President Obama, Stephen Colbert, Steph Curry, and Adele. The reason is because these people are just so smart — they’re value-driven with integrity and authenticity, and they’re funny. So we think we would have a really fun dinner — we wouldn’t be trying to optimize how much information we could get in that moment, but instead we would be building a relationship that would allow us, over time, to do great things together.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this



Candice Georgiadis
Authority Magazine

Candice Georgiadis is an active mother of three as well as a designer, founder, social media expert, and philanthropist.