Microryza co-founder Skander mzali (far right) demos a new internal dashboard at morning standup.

Science Breaks Free 

Startup Portrait #1: Microryza

Sep 17, 2013 · 5 min read

Startup Portraits is an ongoing series of visual stories about the founders of Bay Area startups, their visions, and what they're learning. In early September I met with the Microryza team at their office/home in San Francisco’s SOMA neighborhood. For the interview below, I spoke with team members Cindy Wu and Stephanie Halamek. I’ve edited the conversation for length and clarity. Learn more about Microryza: Company homepage, origins story, AngelList profile.

What does Microryza Make?

Microryza is a platform for discovering, funding, and experiencing new scientific discoveries.

From left: George Su, Stephanie Halamek, Skander Mzali, Cindy Wu, Denny Luan, Oscar Jasklowski, and Ryan Lower.

What’s the most delightful experience a user can have with Microryza?

For the researcher it’s when they reach 100% of their funding goal. Also, when you get your first donation from someone you don't know. A stranger who has never heard of you before and has no idea who you are, and they want to fund you? That feels good. For donors, a lot of them don't know what to expect, but when they get a really cool update, they start to see the value of the research.

If Microryza succeeds, how will the world be different?

Science will play a bigger role in people’s lives. Right now science is really closed off to people outside of academia. You're going to see scientists sharing research more openly, and see people who aren't in academia pursuing research projects. The science stack is going to look dramatically different in the next year. Now you can get funding through crowdfunding, you can outsource your projects through websites like Science Exchange, you can buy materials cheaply online. Scientists care more and more about open access publishing. However, lots of scientists don't know about these tools, but as they do, how research ideas come to fruition is going to change dramatically.

In San Francisco, no one bats an eye when you say you work from home. But Microryza takes the trend to its natural extreme: The entire company is run from a 1-bedroom apartment—and six of seven team members call the space home. When I first visited, I was amazed by what I had walked into. The team claims the environment helps them make decisions fast, and I got the feeling they wouldn't have it any other way.
Above: scenes from Microryza’s office/home—perhaps the largest 1-bedroom in the city. With six full-time residents, the space is cozy. When I first visited, an impromptu garden and/or science experiment was growing on the nearest windowsill. I turned the corner as a co-founder walked by in a halloween costume (it was September 5th). Hundreds of vintage National Geographics peeked out from an open closet door.

What behavior are you trying to encourage that your users are most resistant to?

Sharing. Researchers have been locked into a traditional method. You apply for grant funding. It’s a very regimented process. You use very technical language. With crowdfunding you have to sell yourself—it’s a behavior you don't learn in school. In academia you need to publish papers, but that’s very different than sharing your lab notes with the general public. Eventually, sharing your research and having an open lab notebook will be part of science.

What’s the most unexpected lesson you've learned about your users?

Very few researches are willing to fight the system. They want to get university approval before anything happens. But usually there’s no policy for this kind of funding. We encourage them to launch their project and we'll figure it out as we go, but that’s not something they're used to. They're used to having all the paperwork settled before they even start.

The company’s marketing budget starts and ends with stickers and t-shirts. As a point of pride, Stephanie irons every shirt she mails out. Scientists might have a reputation for poor dress, but so I gathered, they appreciate precision. Inches away, Cindy is on a call with a researcher.
After a local Texas television station reported on a project funded using Microryza, Oscar sat down to share the story on Facebook. Twenty minutes later he announced, frustrated, that he couldn't think of anything clever to write. Here, Stephanie swoops in to lay down the law. A few minutes later, a post is up that begins: “Yeehaw!”
In the apartment’s single bedroom, Oscar, who abandoned a PhD program to join the team, takes a call with a scientist who’s on the fence about using Microryza. Some companies might call this sales, but Oscar spends the first 10 minutes of the call listening. The conversation eventually evolves into a highly technical discussion of the scientist’s research.
Denny (arms up) and Cindy (right) founded the company while students at the University of Washington. Cindy: “At the beginning we were building for ourselves. Me and Denny had just developed this enzyme. We were undergraduates, and when I went to ask my professor for funding, he basically told me: ‘You're an undergraduate with no track record, and the system won't fund you.’ That was the spark.”

What’s one thing you guys did right that, in retrospect, you almost didn't do?

Focusing on launching projects. Before YC we took the approach of not launching projects until they had passed a proposal process and were perfect. During YC we removed all the bottlenecks and made it extremely simple for anyone to start a project. We had launched just five all of last summer, but once we put the focus on acquiring projects, we doubled the number of new projects every week up until demo day.Changing that mentality was really important for us.

Has that effected a cultural shift with you guys?

It made us think about startups and growth differently. I think you get different advice from people who have built something out of nothing. When you compare that advice to what you get from an executive at a large company or university, it’s completely different. They'll ask you to think about tax receipts and peer review. Those are luxury problems once you have a marketplace up and running. First you have to create problems.

Cindy takes a call with an immigration attorney to discuss a team member’s visa status. To the right is the apartment’s most private sleeping area: the upstairs closet.
On 36 hours notice, the landlord sent a crew to replace the kitchen’s water-damaged floorboards. Over the sound of constant hammering and snapping boards, the Microryza team powered through the afternoon.

If you had to cut one feature from the product, what would it be?

We wouldn't cut anything. We might heavily change some things though. Right now it’s hard to discover projects. We have project categories and a search bar, but it can be hard for people to find something that interests them. Generally though, we only build things that are necessary. We do things manually until they’re really, really painful, and then we'll build something.

What’s your biggest need right now? How can readers help?

We want people to care about science and then do something about it. A lot of people say, “I really care about oceans, or I really care about the rainforest,” but they don't do anything about it. Funding research is one way to do something about it. For us, our mission is to fund science that moves us forward. We want people to be engaged in the scientific process and take action. Knowledge should be open and be shared. This is about science for the people, by the people, and we're giving readers an opportunity to be a part of this movement.

Quick note: This is the very first piece in my Startup Portraits project. Microryza was the first company I wanted to photograph, and through no shortage of good timing and good will, their story is the first I’ve finished editing. Kudos to the team for trusting me with this.

Thanks to Miki Johnson, Denny Luan, and Cindy Wu


    Written by


    Startup utility player / guy who asks too many questions / usually excited. Vices include photo books and donuts. Cofounder at @JobPortraits

    Job Portraits

    Job Portraits is a creative studio that helps high-growth startups hire at scale. We are former journalists, founders, developers, and, yes, job seekers, working to improve the hiring experience from both sides of the table.

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