CEO of Koniku
Oshiorenoya Agabi is the founder & CEO of Koniku, which merges neurons and silicon to do neurocomputation. He has a background in Theoretical Physics, as well as experience in robotics development. Osh hails from Nigeria, speaks five languages, and has lived across five countries on his journey leading up to Koniku
Had you heard of IndieBio before starting? Did you have any expectations when starting the program?
I came across IndieBio online when looking at a couple options for the future of Koniku. I actually ended up only applying to IndieBio because it seemed like the much more science oriented option. That was definitely the main consideration when deciding on the right fit.
What were you hoping to get out of the program once you were accepted and moved to San Francisco?
I actually didn’t know what to expect. I had read a lot and spoke with the team, but was still clueless. I knew my science and what I wanted to accomplish long term, but didn’t yet know how that was going to happen beyond the basics. It was almost being like thrown to the wolves. We did a little preliminary work talking to potential customers beforehand at the team’s encouragement. There was a sense of urgency around that and we were fortunate to get an LOI even before the program started. Still, I definitely didn’t know on a day to day basis.
Were you transitioning from academia to IndieBio, or had you already been operating as a startup?
We were already set up in the UK as a proper company. I was working from two places already, London during the week and Zurich on the weekends, and we had recently won the MIT Global Startup competition. We got some money from them, had applied for patents, and were engaging customers. However, the company we operated like before, during, and post IndieBio are completely different. I think of those time periods as different phases of Koniku.
Before the program we were like a toddler, during the program we were a dazed teenager, and right now, after going through the program, we are a matured company. We understand the environment we operate in, our numbers, and our priorities very well. We have one, two, five, and ten year outlooks on our future and are operating with a lot of maturity. You could say we’re at the prime of our youth right now. I think IndieBio accelerated that process from toddler, to teen, to what we wanted to be when we left the program.
So I guess the next obvious question is, what did you consider that toddler phase of Koniku? What was the day-to-day?
The toddler age meant that as a company we lacked structure or any systems. One day we’d be thinking about the science and plan for the next five years, and the next day we’d be talking to customers. It was scattered. We didn’t understand how to really engage with the real world. There are nuances like politics and having internal champions that we didn’t have a clue about yet. Overall, that toddler phase lacked a sense of direction and control. It was more reactionary than anything else.
Were there any moments or insights that catalyzed the transformation into the “dazed teenager”?
There was one huge takeaway I got from IndieBio as a CEO with a long history in academia. I took away a very simple and powerful notion: We are a business, first and foremost. This means we create value and put it in the hands of customers in exchange for cash. It’s incredibly simple and obvious, but not something that people tend to understand until they are in the driver’s seat as an entrepreneur. We are here to solve real world problems and create huge value. This was the biggest takeaway for me.
I think it’s a loaded statement to say we’re a business. I’m a theoretical physicist, so I tend to see all the variables that get in the way of us putting our device in the hands of people. Scientists tend to look down on business and the idea of making money, but it’s a fundamental aspect of a startup. It’s not about the money you raise from investors, the press you get, or how cool your startup seems. As Arvind always says, no cares.
It was really ingrained in me that Koniku must create huge value for our customers. Cool science and products mean nothing unless we are solving a real world problem in a tangible and valuable way. Living the IndieBio experience imprinted this on me in a way that going to school or working at some big company could never come close to doing. We talked about this as a class in the morning, and in the afternoon we were talking to customers and implementing.
This sounds like a common theme among academics turned entrepreneurs. Do you think there’s a way to accelerate that process, or does it just require being in the ditches and grinding it out?
Well this is a simple idea really, nothing new. I grew up in Nigeria and my first job was working for my mom selling food in the streets. For anyone running a small shop delivering value to customers is obvious and essential.
It’s just that going through a bachelors, masters, and PhD, one is in a bubble. It takes living the experience. IndieBio combines a big group of really smart people coming together and taking massive risk.
I left everything behind to come to San Francisco and do this. It was all sink or swim.
Being in the high pressure environment, the stakes, the enthusiasm all combined to make this unlike any other. From the neuroscience perspective this experience creates a very strong visceral feeling. Ideas like “speed is safety” would never mean anything if I just read it in a textbook. Now I find myself now repeating it my team since I know that we have to keep moving at breakneck pace to succeed. That state of mind being practiced every day creates a deep lasting impression. We have to create value for customers now!
Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently or any lessons that would have been important earlier on?
The fundraising space, despite the fact that we have raised our full seed round, is something I wish I had known more about earlier. From the get-go teams would benefit from understanding this process. People know how to sell the numbers, company, and product but the landscape of players was murky.
On the flip side, the more no’s and resistance I got the better I became. It was brushing up against resistance that taught those valuable lessons. Despite all that, I think the harder it is the better. Maybe it’s just my personality, but the more someone says “No Osh, you can’t have this” the more I dig down. The more times I got turned down by VCs the better. I don’t think it would have been good for me to get funded right away.
I also didn’t understand the power of the founder and their vision right away. If someone is going to give you millions of dollars they have to believe in you in ways that go beyond your degrees or pedigree. I tend to like subtle or understated ways, but that can make people wonder how much you want it. It’s ok to be insistent. Once you visualize the core of your business and the value exchange involved it’s easier to have the necessary force of will. Everything falls into place once the customer comes into sharp focus.
So you mentioned there are founders with great force of will, and those who are more understated. Besides understanding your customer, what can help create this transformative vision?
I’m actually going to go back to the same basic point. All the scientists I know want to impact the world and solve big problems. Startups change the medium, but the mission stays the same: to offer a breakthrough to the world.
Customers have more needs than we know as academics. It actually becomes another scientific problem to figure out what these needs are, how to connect to customers, and how to solve their problem. It’s not about you as the founder. It’s about those you’re serving.
Getting press, funding, or anything else is not the goal. For me the shyness fell away once I realized it wasn’t about me or any of those things. There’s a much greater purpose. Again, it’s an incredibly simple point.
So you’re more than six months out of IndieBio. Can you tell us about any highlights or struggles you’ve had being out on your own?
IndieBio is very very hard. It’s a shared experience and you become friends with everyone else in the program. Once you leave there’s an initial shock and uncertainty about what to do now. And a little withdrawal panic (laughs).
At first, you find yourself going back. Then you get more comfortable being on your own even though you miss the shared experience of late nights in the lab, learning how to pitch, and all the trips to Blue Bottle down the street.
Soon muscle memory quicks in and things start moving again. There’s also a lot activity generated after Demo Day so you don’t get the chance for much nostalgia. As an alum, I quickly got the feeling that I’ve got this. I was ready to take the next step.
There was the rush of building out our next lab and follow up meetings, but the main challenge that came next was building out my team. We had to convert conversations to paid contracts which meant moving fast to build out the product.
Ultimately, I wouldn’t say there was any one big thing that stood out. It was the usually transitioning phase. We closed our round, expanded the team, and got moving. We left IndieBio tough and lean and were definitely ready for the next step.
Next program starts Winter 2017. Applications due September 30th!