Starting a startup in school: an opinionated scientist’s point of view
Hey guys, I’m Shak, and this is the first time I’ve tried a blogging/share my thoughts online kind of thing. Apart from dumb Facebook statuses or bad startup jokes, but I digress. I’m a scientist, not a writer, but I’ll try to dust off my old IB TOK/Literature vocabulary and put it to use.
At Avro, we’re developing transdermal drug delivery systems, starting with a medicated sticker to deliver seasonal allergy meds to children. I’ll start with a bit of our history, then share my thoughts on starting a startup while in school.
I co-founded Avro Life Science in first year with a good friend, a guy who was kinda a good friend, and a dude who I barely knew (Jiwoo, Keean, and Tom respectively). Jiwoo and I had met through mutual friends, rides on the Viva Blue, and math/science competition rivalries, and spent the better part of our grade 11/12 years roasting each other’s college application essays. I met Keean through Jiwoo and other debauchery that first years engage in, and we quickly discovered we were part of the same religious sect. Kinda cool. Tom was Keean’s friend from Pharmacy, and probably caught the startup bug before all of us.
Our motley crew applied to Velocity Science at the last minute, a hastily-typed application at 11:59 in DC library kind of thing — we were lucky to get an interview, and managed to convince Marc Gibson, the old head of VSci, that we had the technical skill to make something of our idea. I came from a background in tissue engineering research at UofT, Jiwoo was a gene researcher, and Keean and Tom were part of the 20 person cohort accepted to UWs Conditional Acceptance to Pharmacy program, which is pretty much the closest thing to direct entry in Canada. Overall, decently bright for a bunch of first years.
I’ll fast forward a bit — the first couple months in the lab were pretty crappy. I didn’t come in much, or do much of my job as a technical lead. Our patches looked like gooey, flakey messes. There was serious tension within the team between Tom and I, each of us thought the other wasn’t doing anything to contribute (I was probably more at fault tbh).
We won the Velocity 5K fund, which was cool, though I couldn’t honestly say to myself that I had done much to help, since I was in Toronto on co-op. I was just happy to be part of something and put another thing on my resume. It was the classic “yeah I’m a co-founder and my Velocity hoodie is disruptively bonded to my skin, how about you?” scenario.
During the summer of 2016, things started to get more serious. We were in an ad campaign with Microsoft (still no idea how this happened), and Tom started putting the gears to me. I technically had the most theoretical knowledge of what was up, but didn’t have the drive or conviction to wake up every day and go to the lab, or class for that matter. We had tough conversations, once ending with tears all around, and Tom telling us a couple stories about his past that changed my views about him a lot. I realized how important communication is between co-founders, especially in the early stages of something that could be great. Tom eventually left Avro, and UWaterloo due to some things going on in his life, but he taught me a lot about self accountability.
Startups are kind of like sine waves — there are times when you’ll feel on top of the world and start dreaming about the future, but there are also a lot of shitty times when you wonder if you’ve wasted so much of yourself on something. The whole “be an entrepreneur and be your own boss” thing is great, but there’s also a reality to it. You have to be willing to put your life into something if you really want it to succeed. You have to let it take over most of your thoughts, every other waking second, and actually care about it. You have to know that if you don’t work hard enough, you probably won’t be able to pay yourself! We started Avro really early in our university careers, which is kind of a double edged sword. We get more shots at competitions and awards, and more time to learn from our seniors, but we also get passed on for grants etc due to our age and perceived knowledge. I still think we’re at a super early stage, despite having a functional MVP and LOIs, so I hate it when my family brings up the success that we’ve had to date, because it’s really nothing so far. I’d like to be able to discuss Avro with them once I can recognize it as a success in my own eyes.
I know it sounds cringy and I’ve read it a billion times, but until that point happens where you snap and decide that you’re all in, it’ll keep sounding cringy. At some point, if you get really excited about an accelerator, like YC or IndieBio, you might fall asleep listening to Sam Altman or Michael Seibel’s or Ryan Bethencourt’s talks, or while reading one of PG’s essays. It wasn’t until later into the summer and early fall, when I rejected a position at Harvard Medical School to work on Avro full-time as part of the UW E-coop program that I realized I was ready to get serious. I know my friends Kevin and Peter from 6Club quit their high-paying Cali jobs to work full time, and had a great time. I’ve made a lot of sacrifices, in terms of my social life, my marks, and my potential co-op earnings, but all totally worth it.
Anyway, my thoughts on biotech + tips for student founders.
Biotech is waaaaaay different from software. Don’t get me started on software. Anyone can learn to code from an early age nowadays, which is awesome — some of my friends have been coding for over 10 years. I’m glad that people are getting exposed to such a powerful branch of STEM so early in life — it’s just not my cup of tea. I feel like there’s an app or site for everything nowadays, and every time I hear the term “disruptive new app” or “Uber for ___” or “Airbnb for _____” I die a little on the inside.
The sciences, however, are the complete opposite. It’s tough to do research before university, and even tougher to do meaningful research that doesn’t consist of being a PhD student’s data analysis slave. I’ve been involved in research for about 5 years now, under Rhodes Scholars and Canada Research Chairs, and had my work published a couple times. That’s still nowhere close to enough scientific clout to convince a third party or investor that I actually know my stuff. The following advice applies largely to student biotech founders, and student founders in general.
- Prepare to be doubted! A lot. Most people think that if you’re not a PhD or Post-Doc, you can’t come up with something new or useful. Not true, but having good experimental results, patents, and tangible proof of your work helps.
- Don’t take yourself too seriously. Be a chill person. You’re a student — its easier to talk to people, and it just makes life easier. Don’t get the attitude that because you have a startup or something, you’re God’s gift. Go to parties, talk to people normally, and talk about your startup if it comes up. There’s nothing worse than a startup founder who won’t stop going on about how their company is going to change the world, and disrupt everything in sight. Other than YouTubers. Those are even worse.
- Have fun with your startup. Learn cool shit, meet cool people and better yourself as a person. Make memes if you want, but stay humble and stay hungry. You’ll meet amazing people along the way, and develop a lot more than you might expect. Learn from those who came before you! Some of our best advice and assistance has come from older, more experienced teams, like Suncayr, Ourotech, Acorn, ExVivo, etc who (I think) took a liking to us because we were friendly people who didn’t act like we were better than everyone else, and worked hard to achieve our goals.
- Never get complacent. Where I come from at UWaterloo, the Velocity program is great for students, but it can also lead to a false sense of security. It’s easy to work on an idea forever without much actually coming out of it. Set aggressive deadlines and goals for yourself, and make sure that your business is progressing. For biotech founders, understand that you have to move quickly too — you can’t iterate as fast as a software company or show traction like one, but you can talk to customers, get LOIs, gather valuable survey data, and show meticulous planning.
- Get ready to be rejected, ignored, and everything in between. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve spoken to or traded business cards with that will say “I’ll get in touch!”, or the tons more that have told me “you’re too early for us”. It doesn’t really stop, so get used to it, but always learn from rejections and prepare better answers to people’s questions. Find a way to get people excited about your idea, even if they know nothing about the space. And remember, there’s always someone more knowledgeable than you.
- Incorporate early! Key for grants, esp. gov’t and/or research specific. We kinda messed up on this one, didn’t cash our 5K from March until December…
- Prepare to take some Ls. That lab you were supposed to go to? Advisor meeting. That tutorial you were going to attend? Gotta finish a patent draft. 5 weeks of assignments you were planning to do? Game of Thrones and an investor call. You’ll miss out on fun times, but you’ll have your own times where you get hyped over a new breakthrough, or the potential of actually building something that people everywhere will see, or even better, benefit from. It’s very much a work hard play hard lifestyle, and as things get more serious, the work hard part piles up. Sometimes stuff out of your control goes wrong — once we had an awesome potential investor who had a lot of money in cryptocurrencies, and then ethereum crashed, so what can you do :(
- Pick your founding team well. It’s easy to just say you’ll do something with friends, and that doesn’t always work well — you should work with people who you’re compatible with, but bring different perspectives and ideas to the table. I think a large part of our early troubles was the distance between myself and Tom. Keean, Jiwoo and I went on to become the best of friends — I lived with Jiwoo for 8 months, we won 25K together, and by the end I could immediately recognize his daily W-L record in Overwatch from his mood. Even though he’s no longer with Avro, we’re best buds, and will be living together again next term. He still helps us out with stuff every now and then, and even recommends vape-juice-bottle-filling robots for us to use in scaleup (http://robocapliquidfiller.com/). Keean and I learned that we were related, and between talking about Indian stereotypes and always being late to meetings and our preferences in rap music, we became great friends and occasional wingmen. Now he’s working full-time on Avro at Bayer’s head office while I make fun of him for not knowing how to add signatures to Word docs, and we seamlessly transition from talking about Lil Yachty to our future hiring plans.
- Most importantly, please don’t start something to call yourself a CEO/Founder. Do it because you love it, or could see yourself spending the next 5 years on it. Don’t just add another line to your resume, do something that you can take real pride in, and learn from. I was on board with Avro from the start because I’ve suffered from allergies my whole life, from eggs to nuts to dairy and gluten, and especially seasonal allergies. It’s a medical field close to my heart, and I’m excited to work on something that could have even the slightest impact on it, because I’m also a huge chem nerd. I’m so happy that I got my shit together and started taking a real interest in Avro because I’ve learned much more than I ever thought I would, and I’ve had a great time while doing it. My class attendance record might not look great, but the feeling of taking something from an idea, to winning some competitions for an idea, to actually having a functional prototype is tough to describe — it’s scary but also incredibly exciting. The journey for Keean and I is only going to get crazier as we raise our pre-seed round, but we think that we’re ready for it. That being said, with startups you’re never ready, you just gotta roll with the punches.
That’s all from me for now, but I’m always happy to chat about startups, and the stuff I’ve learned!