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10 Questions w/ Hani Goodarzi — Asst Prof @ UCSF

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Hani Goodarzi

Born in Tehran, Iran, Hani Goodarzi pursued studies in data science and biotechnology at the University of Tehran, where he undertook and published research analyzing mathematical properties of the genetic code. His work — which combined meta-analysis and genetics — conceptualized new ways of understanding the evolution of coding DNA. Hani then received his Ph.D. under the mentorship of Saeed Tavazoie in Molecular Biology from Princeton University. As a graduate student, he generated the first map of regulatory perturbations across different human cancers, providing a systematic approach for understanding the cancer transcriptome.

Upon completing his graduate work, Goodarzi joined Sohail Tavazoie’s Laboratory of Systems Cancer Biology at The Rockefeller University as a postdoctoral fellow. In the Tavazoie Lab, Hani focused on studying the molecular basis of cancer metastasis. With an interdisciplinary background in computational and experimental cancer biology, he implemented an approach to determine what causes cancer cells to metastasize. He developed an algorithm that identifies structural regulatory elements in RNA sequences that independently of their coding capacity also impact the RNA life-cycle through interactions with key regulators in the cell. Applying this computational platform to data collected from cells with differing metastatic propensities, he identified a novel regulatory pathway that contributes to breast cancer metastasis. More recently, he also played a pivotal role in discovering and characterizing a novel class of small regulatory RNAs known as tRNA-derived RNA fragments that play roles in cancer progression.

Today, Hani’s goal is to identify and characterize the regulatory networks that are co-opted by aggressive cancer cells. Cancer, fundamentally, is a disease of disordered gene expression. Cancer cells rely on deregulated expression of oncogenic and tumor suppressive pathways to initiate and maintain the transformation process. Thus, delineating how cancer cells achieve such pathologic gene expression states is a crucial step towards understanding and ultimately treating cancer as a disease. Towards achieving this goal, his laboratory employs a systems biological and multidisciplinary approach that integrates computational and experimental strategies to identify and characterize key regulatory programs that underlie cancer progression. The systems-level frameworks implemented in his lab ensures a truly unbiased and systematic approach to studying this key biological challenge. Such bottom-up and agnostic approaches are crucial for discovering pathways that fall outside of our prior knowledge of regulatory interactions and would otherwise remain hidden in a top-down reductionist framework.

Learn more about Hani’s work on BIOS Frontier Science:

We sat down with Hani Goodarzi to ask his viewpoints on everything from entrepreneurial lab culture, what he looks for in new research topics, to advice on building companies…


What advice would you give to founders working with University Tech Transfer looking to spinout out a company?

“The reality is that Tech Transfer Offices have their own cultures and your experience may be quite different depending which University you are approaching. Their involvement starts from the time you disclose your invention to them and culminates in a licensing agreement with a 3rd party entity (which may be your spinout). The best OTMA administrators act as custodians of your intellectual property and are there to support you throughout this process and safeguard your interests as well as that of your home institutions. While the interests of the OTMA and the founding team are largely overlapping during the “pitching” phase of venture formation, the final step of signing a licensing agreement can at times become slow and adversarial. My advice is that as a co-founder you should be open and honest about your intentions and the value of the intellectual property to your venture. Considering OTMA as part of your team has the added benefit that you signal to potential investors that while an agreement may not have been signed, you are on the same page about the overall mission. Ultimately, most licensing agreements are market driven and follow an overall rubric. But remember that the IP you have generated through many years of work and investments is valuable, but determining the exact form of that value can be a bit complex. Between upfronts, equity, anti-dilution, royalties, and etc, there are many moving parts. My recommendation is to work with lawyers who have worked with your OTMA before and have built a personal rapport.”


Can you describe your process for vetting new ideas to pursue in your lab?

“Bacteria use a strategy called run-and-tumble to pursue nutritional sources. I take a similar approach to the projects in my lab. Every researcher who joins our lab goes through a 6 months to 1 year of scientific training and adventure, during which we explore at least four to five ideas. We identify and focus on the key experiments and analyses that can make or break any of these ideas. Ultimately, we land on two or three of these directions, which at this point are largely derisked, to build a comprehensive research program. Our goal in the first ‘tumble’ phase is to fail quickly and fail gracefully, before switching to the ‘run’ phase. I should also note that our goal in academia is not limited to research; we have a dual mandate: both research and mentorship. So, the ideas that we pick are designed to challenge the folks in the lab and teach them new concepts and expertise. I would argue that this is as important, if not more important, to a vibrant scientific journey.”


How do you establish an effective entrepreneurial lab culture?

“Contrary to popular belief, scientists are very much entrepreneurial. They work lean and mean and often build a project from the ground up with minimal support. First and foremost, my role as a mentor is to make sure the folks in my lab internalize this entrepreneurial nature of our work. Furthermore, I work with them to risk manage their portfolio of projects and to prioritize where their efforts should be focused. As I mentioned earlier, our mandate is to split time between learning and productivity and a successful research career in academia effectively balances these two.”


What advice would you give to professors trying to entrepreneurialize their labs?

“I am not convinced that everyone should strive for this. Entrepreneurs take the final step in a journey that likely started decades ago; building on discoveries other scientists have made. And a diverse lab will have a mix of researchers and scholars; those who are interested in taking their research out of the lab and get it as close to a marketable product as they can, and others who prefer to publish their work and move on to the next idea (with the implicit hope that someone else will build upon their work). I think both of these approaches to science and research are equally valid and my job as a mentor is to ensure that my lab has access to resources and support that they need to succeed in either path.”


Outside of academia, what is one seemingly random activity that helps make you a better researcher?

“One of the gifts/curses of being an academic is that “outside of academia” becomes an increasingly small space. This is because the job can expand to encompass your interests, and more and more what is a hobby can become part of the job. For example, if you like hardware, you can build your own servers for the lab (which is what I like to do for example). But one thing I have found helpful is setting time aside for reading around seemingly random topics in areas outside of your immediate interests. There are often nuggets of knowledge that can impact how you approach your work in the lab. For example, some of the tools I use to prioritize projects in the lab come from portfolio management.”


How do you identify the point at which a scientific discovery is ripe for commercialization?

“There are two stages to developing a scientific platform: (1) de-risking and validating the core concepts, and (2) optimization and scaling. The academic research environment is especially well-suited for the former but not so much the latter. In my view, the transition from (1) to (2) is the right time to think about commercialization. But that is just one component; there are many other questions that need to be answered. For example, is the right team in place to take this on.”


What advice can you give to academics raising their first round of venture funding?

“Resist the temptation to develop a pitch that every investor likes, instead focus on finding the one or two investors who love your pitch and agree with your vision. Ultimately, this is not just about raising money. You will be on this journey with your investors for a long time and it is vital to be on the same page about the direction as well as the destination.”


What advice would you give to business professionals looking to get in contact/help commercialize startups spinning out of academia?

“Get involved in the process as early as possible, even while the science is still maturing. At that point there is still room to incorporate your ideas and provide you with the ammunition you need to enter the next phases of venture formation with as much data in your hand as possible. And during the entire process ensure your foundational science is rigorous and make sure you understand the underlying data in its entirety.”


What advice would you give to professors in balancing founding a company and continuing to pursue academic research?

“My advice is that “your job is not to start companies; instead, your role is to enable your trainees to build ventures based on their research”. It is nearly impossible to effectively run a lab and start a company on the side; and you should resist the temptation. Both aspects will suffer. Instead, focus on finding the right team, a mix of your trainees and outside experts, who will form the full-time founding team. This is especially important because as scientists, we sometimes overvalue the contribution of science to the overall success of a venture. While science forms the strong foundation on which we can build, there are other aspects that are needed to be considered, and a founding team with diverse backgrounds is better positioned to tackle various challenges that invariably arise.”


What has been the most helpful piece of advice you received throughout your career as an academic entrepreneur?

“At the height of the 2008 recession, while jobs were evaporating everywhere and prospects seemed bleak, my PhD advisor (Dr. Saeed Tavazoie) used to tell us: “… there is always room at the top”. This is originally a quote from Daniel Webster, but Saeed always knew the right time to repeat it! And this is advice that I pass on to my trainees as well.”

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Alix Ventures, by way of BIOS Community, is providing this content for general information purposes only. Reference to any specific product or entity does not constitute an endorsement or recommendation by Alix Ventures, BIOS Community, or its affiliates. The views expressed by guests are their own and their appearance on the program does not imply an endorsement of them or any entity they represent. Views and opinions expressed by Alix Ventures employees are those of the employees and do not necessarily reflect the view of Alix Ventures, BIOS Community, affiliates, and content sponsors.

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