How do you make a small fortune in bio? Start with a big fortune in tech.
That’s an insider TechBio joke, but it speaks to a larger point: we need tech entrepreneurs to get into TechBio.
There are too many great minds wasted on optimizing ads when they could be curing diseases, feeding humanity, or solving climate change. There’s plenty of space for tech entrepreneurs to come to bio and make an impact.
To be clear, tech people shouldn’t perform science they don’t understand, and no one expects you to. Instead, tech people and bio people should learn to speak the same language.
Yogev Debbi, my co-founder at Genome Compiler, came from tech. I came from bio. Together we built a successful company that was acquired by Twist Biosciences in 2016. The TechBio industry needs more combinations like this.
I’ve seen many entrepreneurs, like Yogev, transition from being a tech exec to a TechBio founder. He began his career at Intel, started Genome Compiler with me, went to Monday.com, and now is back in TechBio as the founder of Mana.bio (an AI-based drug delivery startup focusing on gene therapy including DNA and RNA-based therapeutics and vaccines).
Today, we’re sending out the bat signal: Tech leaders, you can do it. Don’t be afraid to come to bio.
Here are the key skills and mindsets you need to become a TechBio Founder.
The following includes highlights from my recent conversation with Yogev on the NFX podcast.
The heart of a TechBio is scientific IP – what we call defensible magic. If you’re a tech founder without a Ph.D. or scientific background, you might not be able to vet the scientific breakthrough yourself, but that shouldn’t stop you. Build a network of trusted scientific experts who can.
That network needs to “bridge the gap of actual knowledge.” It’s not just about building relationships; it’s about finding the right expertise. These people should understand whatever field you are interested in better than you do.
You may have a network in tech. You need to build a new one in bio.
The best way to do this: find a scientific co-founder.
A scientific co-founder can help you vet the technology, or better yet – he or she might be the actual inventor. They offer another unique advantage that an external network can’t offer: you can trust them to help you make decisions inside the company.
Imagine that you need to hire a chemist. You couldn’t do enough research in a year to hire the right person for that position. Your scientific co-founder has that experience, or, at very least, is more likely to have a contact from a relevant field who can help you evaluate or even find a quality candidate.
There’s a natural gulf between people who grow up in tech, and people who grow up in bio.
Tech entrepreneurs spend 3-4 years in undergrad, or do a short graduate program. Most of your professional training comes from industry. You’re trained to move fast, spend money if it leads to speed, and optimize products for efficiency.
Bio entrepreneurs grow up in academia, where there isn’t always a culture of company-building. There are some rare exceptions, but most academics are on tight budgets, aren’t focused on speed at the expense of cost, and aim for curiosity-driven research.
The most important thing is to start speaking the same language and become one team. Problems arise when bio people feel that tech people are asking them to move faster than is biologically possible, or tech people feel that bio people keep changing the product requirements, for example.
Integrating people helps build a culture of trust. Have scientists come and sit with the product people. Have your engineers spend time in the lab.
There’s a massive advantage when people with different perspectives work together: they often find new ways to collaborate and make processes more efficient.
As Yogev explains on the NFX podcast: “Software engineers come and sit in the lab and they see the mundane work. And when software people see mundane work happen more than once… we can’t tolerate it. So we immediately think about automation. In software we automate things – we make scripts and make life simpler. It frees up the scientists’ minds to think about other problems and challenges.”
When you combine the two worlds, people learn from each other. Innovation almost always follows.
There’s a thin line between being confident and being presumptuous.
We want tech entrepreneurs to come to bio and refine processes that need a fresh perspective. But, you’ll run into problems if you assume you know more than you do.
You may know how long it takes to build a product in tech. That doesn’t mean you know how long it takes to build a product in TechBio. Even if you think you know the answers, it’s always better to ask questions.
Be humble enough to find your blindspots.
If you do this, you will build stronger relationships with your scientists, deepen your own understanding, and find unexpected ways you can help each other.
And as we mentioned, the right scientific co-founder can be your guide.
Tech work is focused and fast. Daily standups, product roadmaps, and transparent self-management goals are the hallmarks of great tech companies. These aren’t new to you, but they are new to some industries.
Sometimes, when you bring this culture into biology, it strikes people as strange. But it can lead to greater efficiency if you explain why these processes work. Yogev describes it like this:
“In the beginning it was funny, the scientists didn’t understand it. Why do we need a standup? Every day it’s the same update: we’re still working on it and it doesn’t work.
But then Roy Nevo [Mana.bio co-founder and CTO] said, no, it’s about saying ‘what’s your plan for today?’ You have to say, what are you going to achieve today? Even if it’s three days of work, break it down by day.
Task breakdown, better planning, better focus, these are all concepts that were matured in tech, but they certainly have a place in the scientific world as well.”
One warning: you can apply tech-style self-management, but don’t assume that timelines will be exactly what you predict.
Sometimes, a scientist works on a project that should take two days, but it takes longer due to unpredictable circumstances. That’s just the process. There are unknowns, misunderstandings, and a lot of trial and error.
Again: don’t make assumptions. Ask questions to make sure that the team is focused on the right things and has the resources they need to work efficiently.
See if there are implicit assumptions you can challenge. For example, many scientists are taught, from academia, that it’s worth taking more time to do something if it saves money. Meanwhile, in many tech companies, it’s fair game to spend money to gain time. Open up that option to your scientists.
Another example: sometimes, there’s an internal resource people are overlooking. Often a simple script or spreadsheet from the product team can save the lab team a lot of time.
Don’t be afraid to keep things simple.
When Yogev and I were building Genome Compiler, we showed the software to scientists at Stanford. We showed them an extremely simple interface application.
The scientists, at the time, were using actual booklets with tables and charts on a daily basis.
So when they saw our prototype, it was a huge change. Yogev remembers this experience as “like showing a calculator to a caveman.”
Sometimes the products you think are basic, are game-changing for someone else in a different field. His advice: sometimes a simple script can save days or weeks of work.
There’s another reason to keep it simple. Bio is complicated enough.
Sometimes, biology doesn’t behave the way we expect it to. This means that the underlying product requirements of your software can change very quickly – and you may not even understand why they need to change at all.
For example, Yogev once came to me asking about how our software should flow. I told him the usual flow, but explained that like everything in Biology, there will be many exceptions (“most of the time this happens, but sometimes the other thing will happen and we don’t know why.”) The underlying requirements of the software were going to change fast – which meant sometimes there were going to be bugs.
The key is that there was transparency between the software team and the scientists. Everyone understood the pressure each camp was under, and could move fast to make changes on the fly.
Biology is the most powerful technology on earth. But it’s being augmented with computing power, automation, and software. If CRISPR was the Nobel Prize-winning biological discovery that makes gene editing possible, it is tech-enabled platform companies like Mammoth Bio that makes that breakthrough widely usable.
We recognize that there are many types of expertise needed to build a great TechBio company – including your tech expertise. We see huge value in integrating tech and bio, and that means building a bridge for tech people to come to bio.
Being the first to cross that bridge can be intimidating, but with a roadmap, it’s easier than you think.
As Founders ourselves, we respect your time. That’s why we built BriefLink, a new software tool that minimizes the upfront time of getting the VC meeting. Simply tell us about your company in 9 easy questions, and you’ll hear from us if it’s a fit.