Of Rodents and Reflection
My incomplete startup experiment — why it started, what we’ve learned, and how it’s shaped my perspective on everything.
Rohan Arora, a rising sophomore at Cal and a member of SEP, shares his thoughts on building a startup and chasing experiences.
My co-founders and I started FMB Technologies at an age when we probably would have been better off starting a band — not to say there’s anything wrong with that. We certainly fit the profile: three high schoolers who needed a distraction from thinking about our futures and something to do in the spare time that is second semester senior year. Young, ambitious friends seeking fortune, rockstar fame, but perhaps most of all, a deeper, more meaningful experience than the one presented to us. A lot of that hasn’t really changed, and this isn’t really a success story (yet), but some two years in, I wanted to take a moment to reflect on the journey of creating a hardware biotechnology startup. I guess everyone has a narrative of how much they have grown and learned between their last year of high school and their first year of college, and this is a part of mine.
As founders, we were fueled by a mutual respect for each other and an itch to do something, not unique from most other founding teams. These qualities explain why we came together but not why we decided to start what we did. After all, if I had a dollar for every time given me with a puzzled look after I dropped the line “Fitbit for Mice”, or told me how “niche” this was, or even thought “mice” meant computer mice, I probably wouldn’t be worried about runway for a while.
Part of my motivation was that I’d always had a soft spot for biology; I still love to imagine all the different proteins and cells as characters in some kind of film. I’m currently studying bioengineering in college, but even throughout high school, I’d fought to gain access to the space and equipment needed to make my own contributions to molecular biology. By pursuing something technical in its development and biological in its application, I was hoping to contribute to this field I loved in the only way I figured I could without a lab and a doctorate. Now, a year into college, I don’t think a doctorate lies in my future, so I’m especially glad I pursued FMB early on.
My second reason is a bit more nebulous but more important to me. All of us have had moments where we’re not sure what we should do with our lives, and I was having my first such crisis around the same time FMB started. I’ll spare you the details, but over the course of senior year, so many different visions of the future I saw for myself fell apart. During it all, I did some thinking about some of the activities I’d pursued — acting, football, camping — even though they weren’t key components of any of these visions that were now falling apart, and I asked myself why I’d come to love them as much as I did.
Niestche was a German philosopher whose writings formalized some of my thinking by defining these visions of how we picture ourselves in the near or distant future as “true world theories”. According to him, at some point, they always fall apart, just as I’d experienced. In those cases, I learned, there was an alternative to facing crisis and turning to nihilism — the idea that life has no purpose — that had a lot to do with the questions I was asking myself. He called his alternative “will to power” and argued that rather than organize our lives around visions of a future we want to achieve, we should instead aim to maximize the types and quality of our experiences. I enjoyed the things I did not because they offered any intrinsic value, but because they allowed me to feel a colorful range of emotions. My favorite part about football was embracing the anger; camping brought forth a solemn serenity; acting quite literally allowed me to change who I was; all these things added layers of depth to my own humanity.
I decided I’d try to more consciously adapt this experience-based mindset. I thought about practical pursuits that aligned with my current interests, and at the top of the list was a hardware biotech startup. Had I been optimizing for success, I’d probably have chosen something else, but to a large degree, I pursued FMB as a life experiment. I hypothesized that everything I‘d engage with would be new, that I’d do things many would never do over the course of their lifetimes, that I was in for an emotional rollercoaster, and that it would open up opportunities for even more exhilarating experiences down the line. I didn’t tell myself that 5 years from now I want to have sold a startup — rather, I told myself that 5 years from now I want to have had the experience of creating one. For me, FMB was and still is in part a grand life experiment.
There were other reasons, of course. Someone at The Rockefeller University was willing to help us test our product from the very beginning, which we equated to market validation. On top of that, my co-founder Venkat was confident that the core technology would take a week to build. A startup with no market risk or technology risk? Sign me up.
I was quick to accept these 2 assumptions as reality partially because of my own naïveté but also partially because I didn’t need another reason to go forward and didn’t want a reason not to. Needless to say, they were the first of many assumptions that followed.
We still laugh about Venkat telling us “Yeah, we can probably grind it out by Monday.” We did finish on a Monday — 1.5 years later.
So Many Assumptions
That first summer of 2017 was us digging a million holes randomly hoping to find treasure. My garage had been the designated place to do projects throughout high school. So like always, I set up shop — this time a fold out white table with a computer desktop at the end.
Our first task was to make something we could put on a lab mouse to wirelessly transmit acceleration data. Someone told us that 10 mm x 10 mm was a decent size constraint, so that became the only constraint we gave ourselves. We figured that the hardest part about building a sensor module at this size would be powering it, since most batteries are large and we assumed coin cells would be too thick. That’s fine, we thought, we’ll just power it wirelessly. So, that first summer, while Venkat worked on designing the circuit board, Anil and I drove to Home Depot and bought a coil of magnetic wire. I’m embarrassed to even talk about how many hours we spent trying to first design our own transmitters and receivers, and then trying to find components that did the same. Our current prototype uses a CR927 coin cell, and guess what, nobody seems to care that it pushes our artificial constraints. Sure, we’d still prefer a slimmer form factor, but instead of playing around with wire in a garage, we’re handing out prototypes to potential users. What we prefer doesn’t matter as much as what our customers want — who would’ve thought?
Indeed, that summer we made a lot of assumptions; here are a few:
- the size constraints and which components to use
- how many layers our board had to have
- the superiority of our solution over other possible solutions for our customers
- whether or not our market actually even existed
We had created a financial model that predicted $1 million dollars in annual revenue by Year 3 before we could even coherently explain whose problem we were solving, much less whether or not they would pay for it. These early assumptions have haunted us and continue to haunt us. Even now, 2 years down the line, we sometimes find ourselves wondering what would happen if we increased our battery diameter from 10 mm to 12 mm — would anybody really even care?
Recently, we were faced with the reality that for many principal investigators, it’s not worth the scientific risk to adopt a new technology for “better data” alone since their current methods are so standardized. For so long, providing better data was our company’s primary value proposition, but we never stopped to consider whether there was a real market for it or not — we just assumed that all scientists would be willing to pay for the promise of better data.
The first time we placed an order for our hardware, we had 75 circuit boards manufactured and assembled. 75. We wanted to order a couple to check if they worked, but the cost for the minimum of 25 pieces was similar to 75 pieces. We just assumed there were no cheaper options and pulled the trigger. That’s the kind of raw, stupid confidence we were operating off of. None of us had ever designed circuitry before — we understood none of the complexities that came with radio frequency and antenna design, and it had probably been a couple days since we’d learned what a Bill of Materials was. The order cost us $2000 of our parents’ money, took three weeks to arrive, and not a single circuit board worked because of poor tuning parameters.
Since that order, we’ve switched an MCU that integrates an antenna on chip, allowing us to forego any major antenna design (an antenna is necessary for bluetooth functionality). We’ve formed strong relationships in the Bay Area electronics manufacturing industry that have allowed us to test our designs and prototype more rapidly. For hand-assembled prototypes, our fabrication and assembly cost is $60 and it takes us no more than 3 days. Recently, we switched to a contract manufacturer to provide higher yield for production. Even here, we work with the same manufacturers as Lyft and Tesla, but our boards are assembled faster and cheaper — under $300 for 25 in less than a week. We’ve learned to show up in person, ask the right questions, and be friendly. Most of the time, it’s a matter of understanding where the problems come from or the costs that are incurred before searching for a creative path forward. Companies do not want to take more time than they need, charge you more than you can afford, or stick with a dysfunctional board. By asking the right questions, you can figure out why things are not going the way you want them to and offer a solution.
For example, we couldn’t afford to pay $200 for every prototype to be assembled, so we asked our assembler what we could do instead. He offered to do a couple rounds for free since we were young. At the same time, we also built his company a website, which we now manage, and recently started helping him form relationships with other contract manufacturers for his more complex orders. The result is a powerful symbiotic relationship that goes beyond business. We’re friends with him: we FaceTime his kid and visit his home at least once every week. I knew when his dad was in the hospital, what his favorite Starbucks drink is, and how many girlfriends he’s had in his twenties. It’s been more than a couple rounds, but at this point, payment is irrelevant. We help each other because we’re friends, and we’re friends because my co-founders and I showed up and asked questions.
Here’s another example: We learned that over half of the costs associated with contract manufacturing come from paying workers to do quality assurance, so for our first production run, we asked if we could take care of the QA ourselves. Of course, we intend to have QA done professionally later on, but the point is that we could verify our design worked for half the standard cost, reducing our upfront risk. Moreover, everything took less time, and we established a reputation as a company that doesn’t blame the manufacturer for being too expensive but rather actively works together to find the optimal path forward.
None of this is to say we don’t make assumptions anymore. Assumptions come naturally with optimism; it’s hard to believe that you can do something while at the same time accepting that you don’t know anything. I’ve learned that making assumptions is probably my greatest weakness — I like to be confident in my conclusions and can convince myself of anything. However, as a team, we’ve at least gotten better at checking ourselves. We sometimes find ourselves silent for minutes during our calls because there is nothing to be said or done that can be backed with tangible evidence. It’s a fine line: either you don’t assume anything and become stuck, or you assume and easily move down the wrong path. This is why I count myself so lucky to have co-founders that counter my optimism with realism and facts. That’s a duality I think is important for any kind of team, anywhere.
Earlier this year, the NIH gave us funding to fully develop out our technology. We spent a portion of it on renting an apartment together this summer, and it’s added a whole new dimension to this journey. Moving in with my co-founders has made me realize how much of early adulthood will have been shaped by FMB. My first apartment is our first office, and my roommates are my co-founders. It’s crazy to be able to go grocery shopping with the same people that you go to customer interviews with. I’ve traveled to Washington D.C. to tour government laboratories, celebrated my eighteenth birthday at a conference in Pittsburgh, and watched rodents being operated on in San Francisco — all with some of my closest friends, whom I now get to live with.
It’s cliche, but the best part about working on this full-time is waking up every single day with a list of things that you actually want to do, a vision for how you want to change the world, and a team that you’re confident will help you get there. There has been constant rejection and uncertainty, but there is a certain beauty in this lifestyle that I will miss when school starts up again.
I will say, there is one downside: it can get lonely being constantly surrounded by the same two people for most of your waking hours. More recently, I’ve been trying to figure out how to better integrate into a larger community of founders to avoid social deterioration — but hey, who knows, maybe I just need a girlfriend.
One of the very first assumptions I made was that FMB would be my way of experiencing as many experiences as possible. I’ve recognized that there were some heavy opportunity costs that came with this assumption, but nevertheless, FMB has gifted me a story richer than I could have ever imagined. It’s given me an excuse to talk to and collaborate with so many smart people at the world’s greatest institutes and universities, to form meaningful and supportive relationships, and to learn more than I could have ever imagined.
I’ve come to three realizations about how I want to live my life going forward: in pursuit of whatever I want without the need for any other reason, surrounded by people who are different than me, and in a constant state of questioning. You’ll notice that these are not very unique, and I think everyone comes to realize them at some point in their lives, but they’re the first real insights I’ve had from reflecting on my own short time as an adult.
Like I said, FMB isn’t yet a success story — we still have a long way to go. We are currently running our first pilots at Rockefeller and UCSB and will have our first white papers very soon. This September, we’re submitting a grant application with UCSB and Indiana University as subcontractors to use our technology to give researchers as more effective way to study pain in response to the opioid crisis. After an intense customer discovery process this summer, we think we’ve achieved product-market fit and are hunting for the letters of intent to prove it. We’ll be raising funding again soon, and this time we’ll have to convince investors that a young team of undergraduates is poised to shift a preclinical paradigm. Will any of it work out? I want to say yes, but who really knows?
What I can say with confidence is with regards to my experience-centric life experiment. So far at least, FMB confirms that I’m much happier when I’m focused on cultivating adventures, whether that means in the present or for the future, because it makes me much more cognizant of the impact little moments have in my life. Perhaps that’s because the pursuit of this kind of lifestyle has given me a renewed sense of purpose as well as an excuse to stop contemplating and just go out and do, if not for anything else but the experience of doing. It’s a perspective that assures me there is little downside to diving headfirst into this venture, freeing me from the worries of the last paragraph to believe unequivocally in our mission and this product, which is already half the battle.