Biomedical research is time-consuming and expensive. BenchSci, an AI-powered search engine for biomedical researchers is helping solve that problem. Founded in Toronto in 2015, BenchSci uses machine learning to translate biomedical data into recommendations for specific experiments. Their platform cuts down the time it takes for biomedical professionals to find reliable antibodies — making it 24 times faster and 75 percent cheaper than the current alternatives.
In the wake of their recent Series A announcement, we decided to help illuminate what we (and others!) see in BenchSci’s technology by chatting with co-founder and CEO, Liran Belenzon about his company, the genesis of the idea and his advice for other tech founders.
In a nutshell, what does BenchSci do?
BenchSci is a platform for biomedical researchers —for all of the scientists who are trying to find cures for and prevent diseases. They effectively come up with hypotheses and conduct experiments to discover new cures. In order to conduct those experiments they need certain biological compounds. Trying to understand exactly which one they should use in a particular experiment is a really challenging, overwhelming task. If you select the wrong compound it can set your research back months, or sometimes even a year or two. What we do is help scientists find exactly what they should use to conduct a particular experiment by applying AI to medical papers and basically teaching the computer how to read biomedical papers and extract [the correct] information.
So researchers would typically have to manually go through all of the studies to find the best way to do their experiments?
Yes. They had to read each paper — hundreds or thousands of papers — to try to figure out what was going to work. This is a process that takes a very very long time. And even when they do find something, they often have to make a decision based on that one paper they were able to find. We kind of give them super-powers because we allow researchers to read thousands and thousands of papers at once, and draw conclusions to help them.
What was the impetus behind starting BenchSci?
One of our co-founders, Tom Leung, was facing this problem when he was doing his PhD in Epigenetics and he decided to solve it. So this is why we’re all here.
You work with a lot of big pharmaceutical companies and top-tier universities. Did things come together more easily than expected? Or was is harder than you thought to get those partnerships?
Everything is hard. At the same time, it shouldn’t be impossible. That’s my conclusion from going through this experience. It’s very hard to start a company, but if you’re onto something that is truly valuable, it should be hard, but not impossible.
How many people are in your team now?
Right now we’re 23 people. Before the A round, we were 19. Now we’re growing to 36.
Is there anything in particular about the culture of your company that you’re really proud of?
The people who work at our company are very, very smart people — with PhDs and Masters degrees and so on — who are very committed and dedicated to making an impact and to solving problems and to get shit done. That’s really our culture. People want solve this problem — that purpose is what brings us together.
Do you have any advice for other founders about building a team or product? Or anything you found was harder than you expected and you wish you’d done differently?
I don’t wish I’d done anything in a different way, but what I can say is do not compromise on the quality of the people you hire. Usually you know that someone is a good fit pretty fast. If they’re not — and this is the part of my job that I hate the most — you need to fire fast. It’s not fair to the people who work in the company to have someone on board who’s not as engaged or aligned.
I also think there’s an advantage for Canadian companies to raise their A round because they’re not from the Valley. It allows them to create scarcity. In this A round, we were very strategic in terms of who we spoke to — when we started talking to VCs — and also in terms of the prep work we did. You also need to make it as easy as possible for VCs to make a decision. Give them all the information they need. If you run a really good process it can lead to very good money in a very smooth and fast way.
So what are your plans now that you have raised a series A, aside from adding new team members?
What we’re going to do is scale the team to support our growth and expand out from antibodies to other compounds.
Do you have any other advice for startup founders?
Be very thoughtful when you pick an investor. An investor is almost like another founder that will be in the company. It really matters who you pick for seed because that’s who’s going to make your A round either easier or harder. So be very strategic. I know it’s hard to look at the long-run as the CEO of a startup but be careful about who you’re taking money from for seed —who you’re giving access to your company to — because that’s really going to make a difference down the line. [It will affect] which investors are going to come in later, which employees are going to want to work with you. Because of our investors, we’ve had employees who’ve reached out and joined the company. Even though people think it’s just money, it really matters.
I’ve also learned that you can always move faster than you think you can. You always have to be a bit uncomfortable with how fast you’re going. When you’re always running and you’re almost falling — that’s the the kind of pace you have to maintain.
Do you see BenchSci staying in Toronto?
Yes! We’re staying in Toronto. I want to build the biggest Canadian success story in history. That’s what I’m inspired to do. I think that Canada is awesome in terms of the cost of doing business and the talent that’s here. And it’s pretty fast to get to the US, where most of our customers are.
It sounds like you’re on the right track.
It’s just a lot of hard work, to be honest. It’s not enough to have a good product; it’s not enough to have a good idea. The amount of work that goes into building a company is honestly insane. And we’re just getting started.
This interview was conducted by Lauren Jane Heller and was edited for length and clarity.
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