Revolutionizing the Textile Industry from the Factory Floor – A Conversation with Bloom Labs

We talked with two founders of Bloom Labs — Sim Gulati, CEO and Richard Freundlich, CTO — in the basement of IndieBio last week after their company had just been voted “Killer of the Week” by their peers in Batch 14. Each week at IndieBio, the companies in our batch compete based on their top accomplishments just in the previous week as they learn to move at venture speed. Top companies are nominated by the IndieBio SF team, but the winner is ultimately chosen by a voting of their peers within the batch.

Sim’s been a part of the textile industry since before he could walk

Sim started in the textile industry as a kid, helping his family run their clothing factory in India to create export-quality cotton and polyester for big name retail stores like J.C. Penney and LuluLemon.

[Sim]: “After learning the fundamentals as well as the harmful impacts of the textile industry, I became a bit obsessed with how to circularize it. Due to my young age, I wasn’t able to realize this vision within the family business so I knew it was time to set out on my own.”

[Sierra]: Wow so you’ve been an entrepreneur for pretty much your entire life. And this moment gave you the push to start Bloom?

[Sim]: “Not quite – first I formed a company called Dropel where we were innovating fabric to make it more sustainable. I quickly realized that the innovation had to be more upstream to enable a true paradigm shift in the industry – that’s where Bloom came in. At Bloom, we are innovating at the level of the raw material for the fabric. This way we can introduce massive innovation into the textile industry without requiring it to accept major infrastructure changes.”

[Mohan]: How did you settle on protein waste as your feedstock of choice?

[Sim]: “Feedstock for textile fibers has to be abundant and scalable. There is actually over 15 billion pounds of protein waste produced annually by poultry farmers around the globe. Yeah, we humans eat a lotta chicken! We came up with the concept of how to use this feedstock for melt spinning and melt extrusion processes without having to build new capex. In our proprietary process we convert this waste into keratin pellets which can drop into existing textile manufacturing infrastructure today. While we are a startup, we can scale almost immediately with existing equipment.”

After flying planes for 30 years, Richard is ready to repent for his impacts on the ozone layer

After embarking on his mission to circularize the textile industry with waste protein feedstocks, Sim met Richard, CTO, as well as Mike Jaffe, now Bloom’s CSO, who had both previously worked together at Celanese in fiber manufacturing. Richard had actually worked on protein waste conversion technology previously in the context of sustainable food packaging.

[Richard]: “I knew the core technology behind Bloom would work as I had previously done it. Once Sim introduced me to the concept of using the process for fiber creation, I immediately saw immense potential to transform the textile industry and was on board to join full time.”

[Sierra]: “It must be so satisfying to see your technology come full circle like this”

[Richard]: “Bloom is truly providing the right solution at the right time. 30 years ago no one cared about keratin as oil was so cheap. Now that circularity is crucial to enable a sustainable future, our scalable, cost-effective solution is poised to truly disrupt the textile industry…30 years ago is also when I first began my passion of flying planes. I’m thrilled to now be giving back to our climate to more than compensate for the negative impacts of that!”

Progress over perfection: how to manage conflict among an all-star team of engineers and scientists

Each member of the team at Bloom possesses a unique skillset to propel the company forward. From experts in melt spinning to materials science to chemists – Sim has assembled a great team with expertise over every aspect of protein processing and fiber generation. Of course, managing such a team of brilliant scientists and engineers can be challenging.

[Richard]: “Different experts on our team can clash from time to time. But we have constant communication and meetings to make sure everyone is aligned on key objectives and how to meet them.”

[Mohan]: Is managing the priorities and expectations of scientists different compared to doing the same with engineers?

[Sim]: “With tight deadlines it can be difficult for scientists to deliver. We’ve recently accomplished 6 months of work in just 3 weeks to prepare for the IndieBio SF Demo Day. To get there, we’ve had to juggle plenty of unknowns and focus mainly on getting to our demo day goals rather than fully understanding the intricacies of each result. This can drive the scientists insane, but at the end of the day our focus as a disruptive startup is really on progress over perfection.”

Why Bloom won Killer this week

[Sierra]: So what earned you guys the Killer last week?

[Sim]: “Last week, we successfully processed waste protein into uniform pellets for the first time. Next, we’re going to conduct a full scale trial. This is crucial to our development as a company as we are using scalable machinery and have taken the time to fully understand all of our process variables. So we will easily be able to move to the next stage of development using existing commercial scale equipment.”

Through our short conversation we could really sense the commitment of the Bloom team to access an abundant feedstock supply, build a truly unique team, and ultimately become the low cost leader in renewable (and perhaps even nonrenewable) textile manufacturing.  We can’t wait to see how this team has progressed the next time we talk.

Stay tuned for a deep dive into our next Killer!

Seeing Beyond Anti-VEGF for Retinal Disease, A Conversation with ViAn Therapeutics

We talked with the founder of ViAn Therapeutics— JP Robles, CEO — in the basement of IndieBio last week after his company had just been voted “Killer of the Week” by his peers in Batch 14. Each week at IndieBio, the companies in our batch compete based on their top accomplishments just in the previous week as they learn to move at venture speed. Top companies are nominated by the IndieBio SF team, but the winner is ultimately chosen by a voting of their peers within the batch.

JP almost chose his guitar over a career in science

JP completed the foundational research for ViAn’s first asset – a cyclic peptide for preventing vision loss in diabetic retinopathy and age-related macular degeneration (AMD) – in a town in Mexico called Querétaro. The region is well known for its vineyards but certainly not on anyone’s biotech map. Before delving into research full time after undergrad, he found himself having to decide between two dreams: music and science.

[JP]: “It’s a bit of a miracle I ended up in science actually. I loved performing with my guitar growing up and strongly considered doing it full time. But ultimately science is an exciting challenge that really captivated me and I knew I couldn’t let it go. I also want to prove to the world that a successful biotech company can arise from this part of the world.”

JP joined the lab of Carmen Clapp, who had first demonstrated that the hormone vasoinhibin could inhibit VEGF during her post doc. Carmen faced tons of pushback from the field on whether this effect was real, but persisted in demonstrating efficacy in vitro. While doing this research, Carmen had worked alongside Nap Ferrara, whose foundational work developing anti-VEGF antibodies led to the blockbuster drugs Avastin and Lucentis for treatment of cancer and AMD, respectively.

[JP]: “When I joined, Carmen wanted me to purify large amounts of this protein so that we could prove the efficacy in mice. But vasoinhibin is so hard to express and purify that I was essentially at a dead end.”

So JP did what any seasoned startup entrepreneur can relate to – he pivoted and found a fresh way to tackle the problem.

[JP]: “I ended up thinking a lot about the structure of this fascinating molecule and learned Molecular Dynamics (MD) simulations. I was able to identify the motif for the core function of the molecule. From there I realized we could likely get the same results from just a short peptide! Ironically I faced a lot of pushback from Carmen early on for this. We both had to show our fair share of persistence in this process.”

Working smarter not harder – JP’s secret to making an amazing therapeutic with less than 5% of the full length protein

JP’s computational work showed that the motif behind vasoinhibin’s therapeutic potential was only a 3 amino acid (aa) sequence out of the whole 125-150 aa molecule. He ended up creating a cyclic molecule out of 7 aa’s that showed remarkable in vitro properties.

[JP]: “We were initially going for an oral anti-VEGF but realized the compound was so permeable we could simplify the delivery even more and make an eye drop! Nap has since come on board as an advisor to the company, which really validates the potential of our technology”

How JP used rabbit eyes to win Killer this week

ViAn’s cyclic peptide eye drop has shown potent efficacy and bioavailability in mice. While those results are promising, testing in rabbits is the industry gold standard for eye treatments, given the physiological similarities between rabbit and human eyes. This week marked the first time JP tested his novel formulation on a rabbit model, setting incredibly high stakes for the future of his company.

JP: “We were able to show sustained bioavailability when testing the therapeutic dose of our peptide. The biggest challenge for commercializing eye drop therapies is typically inability to reach the retina. Here we were able to show that we can get to the back of the eye on our very first try!”

Eye drops for treatment of diabetic retinopathy-related vision loss and AMD could revolutionize patient care for this application. Current standard of care with anti-VEGF biologics entails invasive injections to the back of the eye. The simple administration of an eye drop, coupled with the peptide’s potential for enhanced stability, efficacy, and bioavailability could greatly expand applicable patient populations. 

JP: “Using a peptide eye drop for this application can be a real game-changer for patients in terms of ease of administration, treatment cost, and tolerability. We can get the best qualities of biologics and small molecule drugs with this peptide: unprecedented specificity, safety, and bioavailability as an eye drop formulation.”

Throughout our short conversation it was abundantly clear how JP’s persistence and passion for expanding medical access drives his mission: To revolutionize vision loss treatment for patients around the world through an incredibly stable, efficacious peptide eye drop with superior anti-angiogenic properties for treatment of diabetic retinopathy-related vision loss and AMD vs anti-VEGF.

We can’t wait to continue watching him progress as he puts Querétaro on the biotech map! 

Stay tuned for a deep dive into next week’s Killer!

Drugging the Messed Up DNA Packaging Behind Disease – A Conversation with TippingPoint Biosciences

We talked with the founder of TippingPoint Biosciences — Laura Hsieh, CEO — in the basement of IndieBio last week after her company had just been voted “Killer of the Week” by her peers in Batch 14. Each week at IndieBio, the companies in our batch compete based on their top accomplishments just in the previous week as they learn to move at venture speed. Top companies are nominated by the IndieBio SF team, but the winner is ultimately chosen by a voting of their peers within the batch.

Laura’s been on a mission to transform human health for as long as she could talk, but the ‘tipping point’ to create her startup took some time.

[Sierra]: What was the driving force for you to start a company centered around targeting chromatin? 

[Laura]: “My sister had leukemia when I was young so I spent a lot of time in hospitals by her side while she was getting treatments. Her doctors are like my second family – we still keep in touch. The former Director of Pediatrics at Stanford Hospital is even an advisor for TippingPoint. Ever since that time I’ve been on a mission to create something in medicine with a lasting impact on people’s lives.”

[Mohan]: How did this mission transform into a startup instead of say a career in medicine?

[Laura]: “At first becoming a doctor was the plan but I just fell in love with doing research even as an undergrad. I had an epiphany that the only way to effectively treat diseases was to understand the full range of complexities behind them. I became enthralled with the unraveling of DNA and soon I became an expert in chromatin dysfunction, which really is the driving force behind so many diseases.”

[Sierra]: Wow, so you’re pioneering an entirely new avenue towards thinking about and treating disease.

[Laura]: “Everyone is so focused on gene expression they forget to take a step back and look at the whole picture – messed up heterochromatin is often the true driving force and is what we should be targeting to treat the source of many diseases. Forming a focused startup in this space was this perfect opportunity to apply my years of research in chromatin to make a difference in the field of medicine and I had to take it.”

No sleep, no problem: Laura’s secret to running a Killer startup and raising two kids

[Mohan]: You’re able to be a CEO, run long experiments yourself in the lab while you try to recruit scientists, and still have time to be an awesome mom for your two kids – how do you do it all?

[Laura]: “I learned that I only need a solid 2-3 hours of sleep per night to perform at my best. In a pinch I can get by with no sleep at all and function just fine the next day. This natural gift comes in handy so I can fit in all my mom duties and still have time for a full work day once my kids go to sleep!”

[Sierra]: That’s impressive. It explains a bit about why you’ve been able to accomplish so much during the batch.

[Laura]: “I’m not someone who shies away from hard work; I’ve loved the learning curve of becoming an entrepreneur with a science background. My former research advisor, Geeta Narlikar, is a leading expert in the field of chromatin biology and she has been super active in the company so far. She has years of experience recruiting top talent and finding advisors and has really helped build our team.

[Mohan]: You are exemplary of the kind of scientist-founder CEO we love at IndieBio. But we look for constant evolution. Here you’ve gone from working for Geeta as your advisor during your postdoc to rearranging this key relationship so she is essentially working for you and the company. Tell us how that role transformation is going?

[Laura]: Everything’s been really smooth so far. We’re both direct and open communicators and are able to work together really well. Neither of us has a big ego to satisfy. We just want to translate this science into life changing medicine – no messed up chromatin here in our relationship!

Why she was voted Killer this week

Laura’s first therapeutic target is to develop a treatment for a rare pediatric disease – Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioblastomas (DIPG) – a disease directly driven by aberrant chromatin packaging. DIPG is devastatingly fatal with a 0% survival rate within one year of diagnosis. There are currently no effective treatments for DIPG and companies working towards treatment have been unsuccessful at finding ‘hits’ – molecules which can specifically target DIPG in a pre-clinical setting. 

[Laura]: “Last week we got our proprietary high-throughput screen up and running after months of optimization and tested a library of 10,000 novel compounds – we were able to see several small molecule hits in our first screen! The hits targeted DIPG and did not target normal chromatin. This means they have potential to specifically target DIPG without safety issues, which until now has not been shown by any other company.”

TippingPoint is on track to be much more than a one-hit wonder

Aberrant heterochromatin is proven to play a key role in a wide range of cancers, neurodegenerative disorders, and developmental disorders. In parallel to DIPG, Laura is gearing up to apply her unique platform to other intractable cancers, such as gliomas and pancreatic cancer, with much larger numbers of impacted patients facing bleak survival rates.  Her progress towards developing cures for disease with high unmet medical need has already won her a Golden Ticket from Ono Pharmaceutical Co.

The extra time and effort spent to understand the intricacies of all DNA interactions in a diseased cell in the fullest context possible to date, as opposed to the expression of a single gene, is truly paying off for Laura. Through our brief conversation we could really sense her intense focus, persistence and drive towards achieving TippingPoint’s central mission: Pioneering a completely new approach to target cancers and other disease states by targeting the flawed DNA packaging underlying these disease mechanisms. We can’t wait to see how Laura’s journey has progressed the next time we speak. 

Stay tuned for a deep dive into next week’s Killer!

Breaking Cancer’s Immune Defenses from the Inside Out, a Conversation with Karma Biotechnologies

We talked with three key team members of Los Angeles-based Karma Biotech – Andrew Gray, Co-Founder and CEO, Alan Johnson, Co-Founder and COO, and Joe Turner, CFO and CBO — in the basement of IndieBio last week after their company had just been voted “Killer of the Week” by their peers in Batch 14. Each week at IndieBio, the companies in our batch compete based on their top accomplishments just in the previous week as they learn to move at venture speed. Top companies are nominated by the IndieBio SF team, but the winner is ultimately chosen by a voting of their peers within the batch.

The Karma founders have been friends for over twice as long as the average marriage in the US

Andrew and Alan have had the longest relationship with IndieBio of any co-founders in the batch – dating all the way back to their participation in IndieBio SF Batch 2 as Vali Nanomedical! Their non-professional relationship actually started even earlier – the two met 17 years ago playing rugby and have been close friends ever since. Their experience with Vali taught them that improving the delivery of small molecule drugs wouldn’t cure cancer – but engineering the immune system to eliminate cancer itself might. While the technology to enable this simply didn’t exist at the time, they knew they had the core skills and knowledge to be able to create it. So they did what anyone in need of inspiration might do – headed to their favorite brewery to discuss over a pint.

[Andrew]: “We went to the brewery with a tiny notepad and ended up sketching out the original idea for our core macrophage engineering technology – I still have that notepad to this day. We basically have a fancy version of that same cartoon sketch in our patent that just got issued.”

[Sierra]: That’s amazing how your vision came together so quickly! Was it all smooth sailing from there?

[Alan]: “Not even close, but we were eventually able to scrape together $150K and access to a warehouse in LA with a full tissue culture lab! That foundation and invaluable equipment access enabled us to get to our first funding round.”

[Mohan]: Joe and Mari, how did you guys enter the picture?

[Joe]: “I connected with Andrew when I was working at Blackstone and we just hit it off right away. I started informally advising him on the business aspects but my other job kept me from fully engaging. That’s when I knew that this company had something special and my only option was to dive in.”

[Andrew]: “There’s another critical member of the team – Xazmin, our Associate Director of Molecular Biology. She couldn’t make it today, but if she were here she would chime in to tell you how her and I hit it off over our shared love of Sci-Fi when we met in early 2020. Her favorite tv series, Expanse, is based on my favorite book! I’m sure that’s how I convinced her to leave academia to join the team…

[Alan]: Xazmin plays a crucial role at the interface of the experimental and the business teams. Last week we got some unexpected, disheartening data but she refused to take the result at face value. She worked tirelessly and discovered an error in the analysis that was hiding our positive results!

Karma is one of the few companies lucky enough to go through IndieBio twice

All IndieBio SF batches were in person, with members of every company relocating to San Francisco for six months. Until the Covid-19 outbreak. It forced the IndieBio team to adapt and create a virtual batch model, which has evolved into an ongoing hybrid mode based on team member ability to travel. 

[Andrew]: “A lot has changed since those early days – now that IndieBio runs a hybrid model for the batch it opens up opportunities for companies based all over the world to participate. I now have kids; I wouldn’t have been able to participate in this batch without that change.”

[Alan]: “It was crazy being part of an early batch back when the office was still under construction. We had to pivot our experimental planning constantly. Although that part still stays the same – one of the joys of creating a startup!”

Andrew’s and Alan’s rugby injuries will never heal…but that didn’t stop the Karma team from being a Killer this week

[Joe]: ‘This week was really crucial for us. We actually had three key achievements that set us apart: we were able to make significant experimental progress to meet a major milestone in one of our pharma collaborations; we made progress in obtaining a Key Opinion Leader in the oncology space to advise Karma going forward; and we found a new research tool partner that will enable us obtain key mechanistic data by Demo Day!”

[Mohan]: Yeah, last week was impressive. It’s been amazing to see you guys trying to crush it each week.

[Andrew]: “A few weeks back it felt like we had hit an LA traffic jam and stalled our progress a bit. This week we were able to break through it on multiple fronts and really keep our team and company momentum going. I live my life by the Icelandic motto ‘Þetta reddast – everything will work out in the end,’ and we were really able to demonstrate that this week.”

Through our short conversation, it was extremely clear how resilient the Karma team is in their pursuit towards their central mission: Clearing hard-to-treat tumors by reprogramming the immune system and the tumor microenvironment in vivo with unprecedented efficiency. We can’t wait to see how the team continues to progress towards Demo Day. 

Stay tuned for a deep dive into next week’s Killer!

Unlocking the Power of RNA in Fresh Foods – a Conversation with Kresko RNAtech

We talked with three founders of Kresko RNAtech– Silvana Spinelli, CEO, Daniela Teplitzki, COO, and Carla Borini, director of lab operations — in the basement of IndieBio last week after their company had just been voted “Killer of the Week” by their peers in Batch 14. Each week at IndieBio, the companies in our batch compete based on their top accomplishments just in the previous week as they learn to move at venture speed. Top companies are nominated by the IndieBio SF team, but the winner is ultimately chosen by a voting of their peers within the batch.

We asked about the meaning of Kresko, and how the team came together to unlock the power of RNA in fresh foods

The word Kresko originates from Esperanto, an experimental universal language intended to be easy to learn, practical to use, and to neutrally bridge cross-cultural communication. In Esperanto, Kresko means growth. This is echoed in the company’s mission: to help humans grow and adapt to the stresses of modern life through an entirely new class of nutritional supplements based on the scientifically-proven effects of dietary RNAs. While there has always been a random mix of DNA and RNA in the foods we eat, the effects have been largely overlooked in modern society. Now, Kresko is helping us learn another powerful universal language – the language of nucleic acids in the food we eat.

[Sierra]: Silvana, you’ve worked your entire career researching at the forefront of RNA biology. What spurred you to make this shift from a professor to founding a startup? 

[Silvana]: “I was at this point in my academic career where I felt truly stuck on how to make a lasting impact. I then had an opportunity to work with an IndieBio company called ArgenTAG, and saw firsthand how scientists had a major impact by translating research into concrete applications.”

[Sierra]:  And this inspired you to join GRIDX, the premier Argentinian biotech accelerator?

[Silvana]: “Exactly. It honestly felt like I opened my eyes one day and I had a truly unique company. I knew the science of RNA in food was a wide open space where I could have a major impact and couldn’t go back to my life in academia. Instead I wanted to use scientific insights to transform human wellness in modern society.”

[Mohan]: So how did the full Kresko dream team assemble? Carla and Daniella, was the decision to jump into a startup as clear for you as it was for Silvana?

[Carla]: “Not exactly…I was really hesitant to join Kresko at first. Diving into a startup was a scary concept for me too. But once I spent some time talking and working hands-on with Silvana, the right choice became obvious.” 

[Daniela]: “Jumping into entrepreneurship was much quicker for me. I had actually started a social media marketing business when I was 16 and by the time I was in law school I had 15 clients all over the world. But this came to a grinding halt when the pandemic hit.”  

[Mohan]: That must have been tough for you. What linked you to Kresko?

[Daniela]: “I wasn’t going to let one setback stop me from my entrepreneurial passion – I joined GRIDX and met Silvana there! Kresko’s technology is something special I didn’t see in other companies. I quickly realized how their fresh approach to human wellness can open up an endless set of possibilities for the many ills of modern life.”  

We could see even in this short interaction how the Kresko team is really pushing the spirit of growth, both in their personal lives and in their unique company focused on unlocking the power of RNA in fresh foods.  

We dove into Kresko’s relationship with IndieBio, which began earlier than any company in the batch

In 2021, Managing Director Po Bronson had interviewed Silvana as a small RNA expert for a chapter in his latest book, Decoding the World.

[Sierra]: So Po found you for his book but was so intrigued by the core technology that he wanted to explore an IndieBio investment –  how did this feel for you guys? 

[Silvana]: “It was an amazing experience. But our company was not ready at all for VC. All we had was an idea, we needed the data to back it up!”

By early 2022 Kresko had enough data to hold the attention of the IndieBio team, but the road to Batch 14 took plenty of team flexibility and pivoting based on feedback received. 

[Daniela]: “We know several founders who have gone successfully through the IndieBio program and they have been our biggest role models throughout this process. Getting into IndieBio was a huge deal for us!”

[Mohan]: How has Kresko “Kresko’d” throughout the IndieBio program to now be voted the Killer of the Week?

[Silvana]: “This week we were able to create our first consumer product prototype. After months of generating key data and iterating with various options, we were able to concentrate the power of RNA in fresh milk into a single pill.”  

While this team has much further to go to realize their dreams of becoming an upstart new entrant in a competitive direct-to-consumer supplement market, we could see that this week marked a crucial milestone in their growth progression.

After digressing a bit around the team’s love for traveling and experiencing new cultures, we dug deeper into their ongoing journey.

[Silvana]: “Our team has focused on developing our first potent supplement. However, our true secret lies in the high-throughput dietary RNA identification and screening platform. We are operationalizing a clear roadmap to develop a large portfolio of novel supplements with proven scientific basis and efficacy in diverse applications for human health.” 

The road ahead will of course require continued iteration and adaptation, but we have no doubt the team is up for the challenge. We can’t wait to see how this team will have Kresko’d next time we chat. 

Stay tuned for a deep dive into next week’s Killer!

A Conversation with Alkali Labs, Killer of the Week

We caught up with the two founders of Alkali Labs – Luis Valencia, CEO, and Jacob Roberts, President — in the basement of IndieBio last week after their company had just been voted “Killer of the Week.” Each week at IndieBio, the companies in our batch compete based on their top accomplishments just in the previous week as they learn to move at venture speed. Top companies are nominated by the IndieBio SF team, but the winner is ultimately chosen by a voting of their peers within the batch.

We asked how they developed their core idea of using biology for direct lithium extraction (DLE)

[Sierra]: So Luis, before creating Alkali you spent 6 years working in Jay Keasling’s lab at UC Berkeley engineering bacteria to produce a new class of compounds. What got you interested in that in the first place?

[Luis]: “I’ve always been inspired and fascinated with the chemistry of the natural world. As I began to appreciate the complexity of microbial metabolism, it gave me a deep appreciation for the range of difficult chemical transformations microbes are able to perform.”  

[Sierra]: After spending so much time working on these other compounds, what made you switch gears to using biology for climate tech?

[Luis]: “In the Keasling lab we’re enthusiastic about biofuels, bioplastics and biomanufacturing, but we’re also very familiar with the limitations of those approaches. One day I was looking at ion transporters, and was so impressed by how it all works. It is so complex, and yet every organism on earth can do it. It became clear to me that I needed to find the best way to apply the strengths of synthetic biology to tackle the climate crisis.”

[Sierra]: So then why focus specifically on lithium extraction?

[Luis]: “Well the deeper Jacob and I got into the process, we kept coming back to the idea that the core principles around sequestering CO2 could also be applied to sequester lithium. For a while we had considered trying to capture both at once. But at the end of the day we’re making a startup and lithium is worth 400 times as much…the logical move was to focus on lithium.” 

[Mohan]: Jacob, while you had helped ideate and craft the company premise, you were (and are) still mid-PhD. If I remember correctly, you even had a dream research collaboration lined up with a top research institution in Israel. Sounds like you were at a bit of a proverbial fork in the road…  

[Jacob]: “Yeah exactly. Suddenly, both my dreams were on the table – forming a company or finishing a PhD with my dream project in a country I wanted to visit. But when the IndieBio offer letter came, I immediately knew the right choice.”

We delved deeper into their transition from PhD students to startup founders

[Sierra]: What’s been the biggest challenge for you guys in transitioning from PhD work to entrepreneurship? 

[Jacob]: “The first big difference is time! You have a limited amount of resources and don’t have time to really find out how or why everything works. You really just have to find out ways to get to the product as soon as possible.” 

[Luis]: “But on the other hand, in our lab we had a ton of freedom to design our own projects. It was a bit of a double edged sword – we gained the freedom and confidence to come up with new projects but also had to pivot when things didn’t turn out well…maybe not the most efficient way to do research, but great training for being an entrepreneur.”

[Mohan]: That’s awesome to hear. How has the company forming process been going with both of you coming from the same lab? 

[Jacob]: “Beyond coming from the same academic lab we have complementary thinking processes. Luis constantly generates new ideas for our mining process and I’m a bit more of, you know, the chopping block. I have to rein in some of his ideas to help keep us on track to meet our milestones. The chemistry has been great, in more ways than one.”  

On top of all this, each of them has a twin sibling!  Perhaps this explains their ability to understand each other’s thinking, sometimes telepathically, which is truly on another level.

After digressing around Luis’ passion for growing plants and Jacob’s singing in the Googapella, we finally got around to asking: So, why did your IndieBio peers deem you the “Killer of the Week?”

[Mohan]: This week in the IndieBio Batch 14 program was quite unique. Founders from all 10 batch companies flew in to the IndieBio SF office for investor meetings and in-person workshops, leaving much less time for experiments. How did that impact you guys?

[Luis]: “Alkali actually had a bit of a ‘home field’ advantage this week, since we work in the full lab located at IndieBio. We got to continue experiments while not missing out on an event-filled week. Yeah, there were a few late nights, but that’s what we signed up for! It so happened that we were able to demonstrate, for the first time, that the bacterial host we had chosen was able to accumulate cations. This was a huge moment for us!”

[Sierra]: That’s amazing! I remember you guys starting the program with just a paper idea. Biological methods for DLE are an entirely new concept with minimal literature out there to use as a guide for your system. I’m sure the process has been challenging to say the least…

[Jacob] “It’s been lots of experimental planning, testing, and pivoting that’s finally led to this moment that showed the validity of metal mining using our microbes. It’s great to see our work continue to pay off each week.”

[Mohan]: We’ve loved helping you guys progress so fast.  Why else did you guys win ‘Killer’ this week? Anything beyond experimental progress that won the praise of your peers? 

[Luis]: “Yeah we had a pretty tough interpersonal challenge with an equipment salesman last week trying to take advantage of us. As a non-confrontationalist I was going to let it go but Jacob encouraged me to use it as a chance for personal growth. In the end I was able to convince the salesman to give us a 95% discount on a much-needed piece of equipment!”

Altogether, Jacob and Luis’ ability to demonstrate a proof-of-concept of their approach as well their embracing of opportunities for personal growth won them the praise of their peers in the IndieBio Batch 14 cohort. We can’t wait to see how they continue to progress from now until Demo Day.

Stay tuned for a deep dive into next week’s Killer!