How the “good” unicorn NotCo plans to make an even bigger impact on climate change

In an interview with Forbes “How NotCo Is Saving The Planet By Making Plants Taste Like Meat,” NotCo (IBSF05 2017) co-founder and CEO Matias Muchnick describes their process for using artificial intelligence algorithms to replace animal-based foods with sustainable plant-based alternatives. He also explains how the disruptive nature of their product has led the company to “be better” in all areas, including operations, supply chain, and packaging. Getting its start in the SOSV IndieBio program, NotCo has been funded by the likes of Tiger Global, Jeff Bezos Expeditions, and celebrities Lewis Hamilton, Roger Federer, and DJ Questlove, among others. Now valued at $1.5B, the company falls into the rare category of “good” unicorn, meaning it operates in service of at least one of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. NotCo addresses two—responsible consumption and production and climate change. 

To reach maximum impact on climate change, Muchnick says the mass market is the key: “The thing is, if we just do a super plant-based, vegan, trendy, hipster well-being brand, we’re not going to move the needle of sustainability. We need to make a technology that will allow us to produce food products faster, better, more accurately, at less cost while using less resources. We need to be a mass market company, not niche.”

A Changing Biotech Ecosystem: One Startup’s New York Story

There’s no doubt that the biotech industry has grown rapidly in New York City in the past decade. The landscape has changed from the domination of a few large pharmaceutical companies to a wide array of many biotech companies. Some New York-based startups, like Kallyope, have grown from a few founders to a team of dozens.

At Unexpected Biotech, the CEO of Kallyope, Nancy Thornberry, spoke with IndieBio NY Adjunct Partner (and longtime NY biotech entrepreneur) Michael Aberman about the changes to New York Biotech that have situated the city as a great place to found a biotech startup. 

See the future of biotech at IndieBio Demo Days!

Why New York? New York City has become a choice location for biotech startups because of its abundance of diverse talents, capital, and resources.

A wealth of biotech talent 

In addition to attracting international scientists, New York City has universities and pharmaceutical companies that provide an ample supply of diverse talents. New York City boasts 107 Nobel Prize Laureates (that number expands to 201 if you include New York State), and these top-ranked programs have attracted pools of biology, medical, and tech talent.

New York City offers much in the way of diverse backgrounds, as well. Kallyope never had a diversity goal but there is an enormous amount of diversity among employees at every level. Thornberry said, “If you interview the best and brightest in New York, you are going to get a highly diverse population.”

Low employee turnover rate

Before joining Kallyope, Thornberry worked at Merck for 30 years, an admitted unusually long employment in the biotech and pharma industries. But Thornberry has found those working in New York also have a longer career appointment than in sibling biotech cities.

During her time at Kallyope, for example, Thornberry estimates a lower than 5% employee turnover rate, compared to around 25% in San Francisco. This stability of employees saves companies a lot of investment in recruiting and training. 

A plenitude of capital and investors

Investors in New York are excited about new biotech and believe the potential of biotech to continuously deliver value to patients. In addition, proximity to financial institutes makes fundraising easier (at least pre-COVID19, when geographic proximity made it easier to schedule meetings). 

Kallyope is supported by cutting-edge technologies, such as single cell sequencing, computational mapping, optogenetics, and organoid culture. And Kallyope was able to raise over 250 million dollars over three rounds and establish a strong investor base.  

Accessible real estate 

With New York City and State investing in lab spaces, increasing numbers of wet lab options are available to early-stage startups. Kallyope is located in Alexandria Center for Life Science, a complex looking over the east river, and was able to work with the landlord to expand four times within the same floor. 

Over the past few years, even more lab spaces, like JLabs, were built in New York City, further decreasing the cost of real estate, with additional lab spaces scheduled to open soon. 

Biotech founders community

One of the most important resources, especially for first-time CEOs, is a network of startup founders for support. When Thornberry started, she made a number of connections and leveraged their strength to help her build Kallyope.

Six years into its journey, Kallyope has 2 de novo programs in clinic trials. The culture of teamwork and being nimble contribute to Kallyope’s success. The future will witness more successful biotech startups, such as Kallyope, thrive in New York City. 

For PhDs, Science is Easy, Marketing is Hard.  

Guest post by Neil Cohen, IndieBio Mentor, Branding & Marketing Expert 
A PhD is perfect for a startup

If you’re a PhD, the lab is your happy place.   And if you’re persistent enough, you can create something that can change the world.   But when you do, reality hits.  For game changing concepts to become game changing science the world needs to know about it.   It’s time to shed the lab coat and become the last thing you’d ever thought you’d be – a marketer. 

Certainly, this short blog post won’t enable that transition.   That said, the goal here is to make you more comfortable to begin that transition and possibly, even embrace this new, unfamiliar role.   To be a marketer, you really just have to answer four simple, basic questions about your product/service to tell your story well.

1. What problem do you solve

The best marketers understand that whatever they are selling must solve a real problem.   Maybe you’ve heard the cliché, “be a pain killer, not a vitamin.” For example, there was a bio-remediation solution that was telling people they could save farmers money.   Nice. But what they really did is increase the yield of what the farmer was growing while also improving their margin. Saving money is nice, but more to sell at a higher profit is a pretty good pain killer.   It’s your job to frame your solution in a way that is simple, to the point and essential. Which gets me to my next point – focus exclusively on that singular value proposition. You’ve worked long and hard on your research and bringing your idea to life.   No one cares. What they do care about is what you can do for them, in simple, jargon-free, language, so get to the point. As I like to say, when someone asks you for the time, don’t describe how the watch works.

       No one cares about the details.  Get to your point quickly and clearly.

 2. Who do you solve it for and why they care

Knowing who your customer is and what they care about is essential to successfully marketing anything.   Often, companies oversimplify the audience using demographic information or simple job descriptions. That’s ok. I’m a fan of pairing that with psychographic information. Specifically, how does your audience think and feel. Often, psychographics will cut across most ages, genders, ethnicities, and cultures.   Regardless, psychographics hold the key to the most important thing about your audience, what will trigger an emotional response. Sure, there are components of your solution that make perfect rational sense  — but it is emotions that drive purchases. Is it making their family safer or healthier? Being a better version of themselves? Being a hero at work? Tap into that and you have a good chance of winning.

3. How do you solve it better or differently

Here’s  your chance to get into the weeds, but just a little.  In our first point, you tell people what pain it is you solve.   Here is where you tell them how you do it. Better if you are doing it in new way or better way than the status quo.    Like your core value proposition, these reasons to believe should be short, to the point and free of industry jargon. If they want the details, give them the science in a deeper piece of collateral or a white paper.  

4. How will your customer feel after they use your product/service

In many ways, this should be the first step.   Figure out what is it you want your customer to think and feel when you are done telling your story – then work backwards to make sure the story makes them feel that way.   

There you have it.  Four simple principles.   Now take off that lab coat and get out there and tell your story like a marketing pro.   

Creating a Global Movement

On Conscious Leadership: Jack Sim

By his count, before he turns 80 and is confined to a wheelchair and can’t remember his wife’s name, Jack Sim has 6,734 days left to live. Less than one thousand weeks. He counts his days in order to focus, in order to make it count.

Today, he’s at IndieBio, hoping to plant the seed that can replicate across the 94 startups accelerated here. He’s didn’t come all the way from Singapore to tell them that a million people die every year from diarrhea, spread by flies from human feces. He’s not here to tell them that 90% of the surface water in India is contaminated by feces, or that more people in the world have smartphones than have toilets. He’s certainly not here to take credit for the 100 million toilets being distributed across India by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, nor the small business toilet economy spreading fast across Cambodia, nor the transformation of rural Chinese schools. In fact, he doesn’t even mention these. What he’s really here to do is teach startups how to make people “give a shit” about unaddressed problems, like shit itself. How to not just make a product, but to create a social movement, activating the whole market at once, from investors and funders to consumers and media.

The moment Sim starts speaking, the audience is disarmed. If you’ve ever seen the Dali Lama chuckle and be self-deprecating, you have an imprint of the dynamic we’re in the presence of. Mr. Toilet is an altogether unique hybrid of enlightenment and comedy, not alternating in cycles, but all at once. His words fall on the audience like lyrical parables, haiku, and stanzas of slam poetry.

Growing up in Singapore,

I was not good in school.

I forgave myself.

What else could I do?

“I went into sales, selling imported building materials from Europe. I did real good. Then I had this feeling that the people of Singapore would desire Mediterranean roof tiles. I met an investor. In 1984 there was no such thing as a ‘startup.’ We started a roof tile factory in Malaysia, which became a $110 million business, and a brickworks, which became a $60 million business. Once I had the hang of it, I created 16 businesses in 16 years. But business was stressful, and worse, it was boring. Every business had boring problems that kept repeating — customers not paying and sales never enough. I asked, “Is this the life I want?” I retired at age 40. I have had no salary for 21 years. I thought it was better to die doing social work than making more businesses.

“Running businesses was not hard. I started fires. I didn’t manage companies. I just identified that markets had needs. Sometimes it was logical, but often I could feel the irrational desire, like looking at a Mediterranean house, the desire that creates, I could feel it. I used my gut to empathize, to travel into the minds of all kinds of people. If I was that guy, how would I feel? That’s the research you need. Steve Jobs said ‘people don’t know what they want. You have to tell them what they want.’ I’m not saying I’m like Steve Jobs, but — I’m like Steve Jobs.

“Whatever increases your energy, do.

Whatever reduces your energy, don’t do.

Whoever increases your energy, spend time with.

Whoever decreases your energy, avoid.

“I was a slave driver, I worked my staff to the bone. People quit, and then the people I replaced them with also quit. It took me three years to learn my lesson. Telling people to work hard is not as good as making them feel good about themselves and take ownership. Then they work hard on their own. People need ownership of decisions even more than ownership of shares.

“Individualism is America’s biggest export to the world. Society socializes you to think for yourself. Silicon Valley takes it farther in having a culture of wanting to be awesome. When you think about yourself, you eventually becomes a miserable person. If you think about others, you open up and become a joyful person. If you have the courage and curiosity of Silicon Valley, and the spirituality of the east, this combination will be very very good. If you have this balance, you have both purpose and success.

“Don’t grow up. I’m 61, but like a small boy. Always curious, asking stupid questions. If you don’t grow up, it’s easier. If you grow up, you’re afraid to ask questions.

“When we are children we are told by our parents not to talk about ‘shit.’ This is a real problem. What we don’t talk about, we can’t improve. I realized I needed to make toilets an object of desire — like Mediterranean roofs. You can’t tell people they should use toilets, they won’t, they have their way. You have to make them desirable.

“Back then, rather than calling it our ‘sanitation agenda’ they called it our ‘water agenda,’ because there was no funding for sanitation. And the media couldn’t report on the issue. They had to sell newspapers, not talk about poop. So, I created some stunts. First, I created the WTO, the World Toilet Organization, and set up the first conference. I knew two things could happen. The real WTO could sue us, and that lawsuit would get media coverage. Or, they’d let us be, and media would enjoy the joke and run with the story.

“Humor is a very risky approach. If you make people laugh, they will listen to you, but you become the joke. We held the first World Toilet Summit with 15 countries participating. (Today we have 193.) We had the Big Squat. An Associated Press writer spread our message around the world. The media becomes your partner is spreading your story. It sounds like a joke at first. You become the newsmaker, but the media — even when in on the joke — creates legitimacy. Before that first summit was over, every country was begging to host the next one. Then everyone was on the bandwagon.

“Looking back, I can see a theory. You have to align the stakeholders and use a little humor to help it explode. You can’t try to take credit. You have to make your stakeholders look good. When they look good, they’ll keep coming back for more. We are not here to moralize, we are here to solve problems.

“You have to bring in everybody. You lead through storytelling. You don’t have to do the work —just like with my 16 businesses — you create a vacuum to suck people in to do the work. You won’t get credit, but you create legitimacy for the space, for others to try it. Trust people for what you can trust them with. Mutual exploitation is what we call ‘collaboration.’

“In 2013, the U.N. General Assembly adopted our founding day, Nov 19th, as World Toilet Day. Netflix has a movie about me coming out, a documentary, ‘World’s #2 Man.’ Everyone’s joining the ‘movement.’ This year, at the World Toilet Summit, we’re giving out 80,000 tickets.
“Now I want to organize the BOP, the base of the pyramid, the 4 billion people who live on less than $10 a day. The world spends $150 billion in humanitarian aid for these people, to almost no effect. We need to treat them not as a cause, but as an economic market to activate. I want to turn that $150 billion from aid into an investment with an expected return.”

On Conscious Leadership: Tim Chang

Tim Chang personifies a new breed of leadership in the venture-entrepreneur economy. He’s part of a rising alternative to the tech-bro culture that operates on aggression, domination, and winning. From the Mayfield Fund perch on Sand Hill Road, holding the purse strings on $2.7 billion, Chang has emerged as a soft-key reverend – a humanist who sees the entrepreneur’s psyche as the kernel of company culture. He dares to theorize a very un-Valley concept: that personal growth is a key to unlocking corporate growth. Venture always looks for a pattern, a formula, and after two decades in venture, Chang sees a hidden layer. His litmus test for founders is not in their startup’s growth metrics, it’s in their character and leadership. He asks himself, “Would I ever consider quitting my job and working for this person?” And he asks, even if this startup were to fail – as the vast majority do – “Would I turn around and write this founder a check for her or his next project, without hesitation?” Those are the kind of people Chang wants to back.

Chang came to IndieBio to speak to the current class of startups on “Conscious Leadership.” Provoked by only a handful of questions from Communications Director Maya Lockwood, Chang spoke at great length, extemporaneously. He was reflective, vulnerable, and disarmingly sincere.

“Venture capital has always tried to have a formula. When I first entered the industry two decades ago, that formula led us to look for repeat founders, with a track record of past success. We looked for MBAs and PhDs from Harvard, Stanford, and a small number of other schools. Then someone drew a histogram, a map, showing the lineage from William Shockley to the PayPal mafia. That became our heuristic; if you were part of the Facebook mafia, the first 100 there, and we know you were also at Google before that, et cetera.

“Today, all that is still part of the heuristic. But the founders I work with have deep self-awareness. They know why they’re building what they’re building, why they’re doing what they do. That “why” comes from a few rationals. First, it’s fun. Second, they’re often passionate about a problem they couldn’t pursue at their previous company. We’re often most passionate about that which is denied to us. Third, they’re in a position in life to be in service to society.

“I’m looking for entrepreneurs who get the concept of being a servant leader, to employees, to customers, to the world.  Increasingly, I counsel entrepreneurs to focus on process, craft, and the journey, and be less attached to the outcome and results. This attachment to a particular outcome is not helping the process. That drive to reach your goal – we’ve called that ambition, and we’ve called it focus. But it also leads to misery. When you wake up every morning, stressed, because you can see the gap between where you are and your goal, that can be tremendous motivation. But what if what you’re building is the journey? And there’s a craft to what you’re doing.

“Think of the sushi master, Jiro Ono, in Tokyo. At age 92 he still loves making sushi so much, he’s still motivated by the craft. He doesn’t care about his three Michelin stars – those are a by-product of his focus on craft and process. Making sushi is his expression of being, the expression of his art.

“How does this relate to you? There’s a craft in decoding what customers need. There’s a process in being hyper-present, decoding the data to be able to forecast the trend. Doing that on a daily basis is more important to growth than reaching any absolute number. $100 million revenue in three years is arbitrary.

“I empower founders to not get hung up on the outcome. Life in a startup is a fire drill every day. You’re supposed to act like you’re crushing it all the time, when really, you’re constantly on that knife edge of failure. I help founders not live in fear of that. If we need to pivot, we’ll pivot. We’ll roll with it. There’s a saying in buddhism, “Nothing that ever happens is good or bad, it’s only the story we wrap around it.” And so often we wrap our identity in our work. That identity can become a prison. If the outcome you want doesn’t happen, your identity is torn down, you have no meaning.

“I like the pure scientist mindset. My Dad was a scientist. To him, everything was just a hypothesis. The purest of scientists detach their ego from what the science and data says. Even if their experiment fails, the true scientist knows there’s learning from it, and we are one step closer to the truth.

“My parents were Asian tigers; I measured myself by scores on tests. I was trying to prove my worth to my parents, to my classmates from school. That can be powerful, but it can also create deep insecurity, a sense the world is out to get me. I came to realize my existence as a VC was fear-based. I was always worried, “Can I stay employed? Will I make partner? Am I still on the Midas List? Will we be able to raise another fund?” I would like to tell my 25-year-old self, “Relax, dude. Think about why you’re doing what you’re doing. Have more joy. Who are you serving beyond yourself?”

“Some of my early successful investments were in gaming. I was known by many as “the Gaming VC.” Now I look back and wonder if that helped the world. We were designing for addiction, hacking design principles to keep users playing. Engagement is the code name for addiction. Today those same design principles are being used to hack e-commerce. Get people to buy more. Eat more. The economic system is itself addicted to growth. We’re at peak content, peak gaming, peak calories. I had to ask, “Am I enabling that?” This understanding had led me to making more investments in the re-use or sharing economy.

“The challenge of self-growth and spiritual practice is, as you wake up, you shed your old personality. You become aware of how much your motivation was driven by your ego, by your fear of missing out, your insecurity. This period is, at first, lonely. The term for it is “the Dark Night of the Soul,” a spiritual desolation as you shift from one phase of life into another. You can help yourself by getting a coach. Or build a personal Advisory Board, not anybody from work. Spend time with other founders who’ve walked that path. People who you can talk to without fear of judgment or retaliation.

“Your startup is an embodiment of your persona. Your personal energy. And consider for a moment that might not be the healthiest culture. Let’s say when you grew up, you were criticized all the time. It was tough but it made you better, so you understand its value. But if you treat employees like that all the time, if you’re hard on them, that won’t be a great place to work. Many startups, many companies, have created deeply demanding workplaces, and they did well – until they hit a dip. Then it wasn’t sustainable. People didn’t want to be there.

“We’re so highly attuned to rationalizing. People are good at saying, “I think this.” Ask them, “You told me what you think. That’s cool, now tell me how you feel about it?” You give people permission in how you speak. If you lead with vulnerability, that can be your superpower. Culture in a company is more felt than analyzed. The art of building a startup is a healing process. We bond through shared transformation, we bond through overcoming adversity. When that happens –the act of that – we’re brothers for life. Those relationships get you through, and will last a lot longer than the money lasts.

“The best captains are not always the star players, they bring the best out of others. What makes a team click is how people complement each other. I learned a lot as a musician in bands. The greatest bands, they’re such good listeners to each other’s music. They can sense when to shine and when to hold back. When you have too many star players, for whom it’s always about me, the music doesn’t sound good.

“Make sure the values you espouse actually connect to your business on a daily basis. If in meetings, those values aren’t coming up – if they aren’t helping you make decisions – then you chose useless values.

“As a VC, 99% of the time, I have to say “no.” There’s very little “yes.” Lately I’ve been more empathetic to that. I love what all founders are doing. Statistically, most won’t make it. But there’s value in the attempt. It creates learning we all benefit from, contributing to the Cambrian seed, the sum of all the possible combinatorial experiments we are running. I want to honor that.

I have an idea. What next?

At IndieBio, we often get bright scientists and aspiring entrepreneurs asking us what they should do to transform their idea into a company. We’ve all heard that “ideas are a dime a dozen” and “it’s all about the execution”. So, what are the best ways to execute?

Here are the steps we suggest to take:

1) Do Your Homework

It is very unlikely that no one has thought of your idea before. Do a thorough search of the web, scientific literature, and intellectual property landscape to see what has already been done and what similar technologies, products, or services are available. If your idea is truly original, be suspicious of why that might be. It could be that the technology is impossible, the business model is unsustainable, or the market is too small.

If there are competitors in the space already, it does not mean you should give up. Instead, understand the competitors’ businesses and assess your potential advantages and disadvantages. You will need to step up your game in speed and execution.

Check the intellectual property landscape to see whether you have freedom to operate. If not, are there ways to get around existing patents? There may be the possibility to license from the patent holder. If you have novel IP, submit a provisional patent as soon as possible. This will greatly help your chances with securing funding.

2) Build an A+++ Team

When asking investors what they look for when investing in a company, the overwhelming top answer is confidence in the team. The best teams can turn even mediocre ideas into gold, whereas the best ideas won’t even see the light of day with a dysfunctional team. The best teams recognize what skillsets are missing and bring in those who have complementary skills. The best teams are clearly aligned in mission and communicate effectively and frequently. The best teams care about building company culture with a unified vision and put aside individual egos. Founding teams are very much like a marriage, so chose very wisely.

Do not underestimate the need for sales, marketing, and communication. In fact, all the co-founders are responsible for pitching the company. Effective communication and presentation skills are just as important as technical skills.

3) Building a Product Prototype

A technology itself is not a product, and without a product, there can be no business. From an initial technological insight, a single product must be identified and prototyped as much as possible. To determine what product to pursue, interview potential customers and talk to experts in the field. Most people would not be critical to your face, so find ways to get honest answers. An initial strategy is to distribute anonymous surveys to your target demographic. However, ultimately, the biggest validation is when you receive purchase commitments. Even if you can’t deliver the product yet, signed letters of intent are very valuable for fundraising.

4) Soul-Searching

The path of an entrepreneur is full of dark forests and windy roads. Your passion and devotion to the mission of your company is the only thing that will keep you going when times get tough. Make sure you and your co-founders are in it for the right reasons and dedicated to solving your particular problem over the next 5, 10, or 20 years.

Start the Journey

Once you have carefully considered the four steps above, it is time to begin your entrepreneurship journey. The best strategy is to start selling your product to customers as soon as possible. It is only when direct sales is not possible that you seek funding, such as needing initial capital for research and development. Common funding sources are government grants, friends and family investments, angel investments, or applying to an accelerator program like IndieBio.

About IndieBio

IndieBio is the world’s largest life sciences accelerator. Companies from all over the world apply to be part of a 4 month acceleration program which includes $250,000 funding, dedicated mentorship, and 24/7 access to a co-working space and bio-safety level 1 & 2 labs. During the program, teams are focused on turning science into product, closing customers, and raising follow-on investment.

With a focus on biology as a technology, IndieBio companies solve problems in a huge range of industries such as the future of food, biopharma and healthcare, agtech, regenerative medicine, neurotech, biomaterials, and more.

Apply today and begin your journey!



I was recently inspired by Jason Silva’s Captains of Spaceship Earth:

“First we build the tools and then the tools build us”

Biology, as a technology is accelerating, the technology that builds us and our environment, what many people don’t realize is that we use it everywhere and it’s only just beginning.

From the moment you wake up, you use biology, it’s used to build the fibers of the sheets you sleep on, the coal/oil that’s burnt to power your lights, it’s in the food you eat (yes, even in your cornflakes with GMO corn), it’s also in the toothpaste you use and the vitamins that you take and that’s just before you’ve left your house, we haven’t yet begun in earnest with using biology as a next generation manufacturing platform.

What’s coming next are improvements, lots and lots of improvements for all on this planet through, expanding outside of the world of biomedical innovation into everything else.

Scientists are now becoming founders and entrepreneurs, creating incredibly exciting companies, Bolt Threads recently announced a successful $40M fundraising round to create an entirely new type of material, bioengineered spider’s silk, which is 10x stronger than steel per weight, the new products possible are almost endless and that’s just one new material, in an almost unlimited space of biology.

The pace of innovation in biotechnology is exceeding the pace of Moore’s law in terms of cost reductions, not just in genomic sequencing but in automation. Transcriptic, an automated lab has led to a 3x reduction in the cost of plant genetic engineering per YEAR at TAXA (a plant engineering startup best known for making glowing plants), as a reminder, Moore’s law is JUST a doubling every two years, accelerated biology smokes Moore’s law.

We’ve also seen the success of company’s like Novozymes (a billion $+ revenue company) and Zymergen (which just raised $44M to build the next generation of molecular factories) and so my question is, how can we redefine the idea of a billionaire to one in which a billionaire is someone who has positively impacted the lives of over a billion people? The answer lies in the scientist entrepreneurs which are emerging and building the next generation of biotechnologies.

We’d love to hear your ideas, how can we help you build a biotech company to help a billion+ people? Apply to us at and we’ll support pioneers with $250k in funding (including a lab and a razor sharp focus on building products, your company and your science).

Here’s our chance to #RedefineBillionare

Ethan’s Journey: From Postdocalypse to Venture Funded Biotech Entrepreneur

Ethan's Journey: From Postdocalypse to Venture Funded Biotech Entrepreneur
Ethan's Journey: From Postdocalypse to Venture Funded Biotech Entrepreneur

Hi, my name is Ethan. I’m the Founder and CEO of Perlstein Lab. Perlstein Lab is a biotech startup and public benefit corporation based in San Francisco. Our mission is precision (personalized) orphan disease drug discovery. In this inaugural post, I will briefly recount the genesis of Perlstein Lab, the science behind our evolutionary approach, and why Perlstein Lab takes online outreach seriously.

18 months ago I faced the most important decision of my professional life: continue to try to break into academia, or leave for greener pastures. Like so many other members of Generation Postdocalypse, I could not ignore the prospects of endless competition for publications, grants and jobs . Was there a way to blend curiosity-driven research with tangible therapeutic outcomes? Of all things, Twitter became my global learning and support group, and I started to investigate options beyond the ivory tower. Very quickly I discovered communities of patient advocates, including inspiring parents of kids with orphan diseases, who convinced me that solving orphan disease puzzles would be the ideal path forward.

When I began putting together a formal business plan and slide deck last Fall, I was most confident about the science underlying our evolutionary drug screening platform, which is based on genome-edited primordial disease models: yeast, worms, flies and fish. When I was a grad student in Professor Stuart Schreiber’s lab at Harvard between 2002 and 2006 I validated yeast as a model for pharmacology. I then advanced these ideas as an independent fellow at Princeton from 2007 to 2012 by studying the pharmacology of antidepressants in yeast cells.

I knew I was onto something when I attended Rare Disease Day 2013 at NIH and learned that very few (if any) orphan disease researchers leverage primordial disease models, even though ancestral forms (aka homologs) of many orphan disease genes are evolutionarily conserved in simpler organisms. Instead, the vast majority of orphan disease research relies on mouse models of disease, and has relied on mouse models for the last 30+ years.

Most biotech startups don’t have a blog or Twitter presence. Perlstein Lab will be different from the typical biotech startup with respect to online outreach, especially patient engagement. What initially drew me into the orphan disease space was the openness, zeal and grace of patient advocates on Twitter and the blogosphere, so it’s only fair that Perlstein Lab returns the favor. As a for-profit company, we obviously have to be mindful of proprietary concerns. Wherever possible we will strive to engage patients, advocates, scientists or the public on our science, and share the week-to-week victories and tribulations of a 5-person biotech startup.

Ethan Perlstein is a Molecular Biologist, founder of Perlstein lab, a venture funded Orphan disease biotech startup and Mentor at Indie Bio. Feel free to reach out to Ethan 

A PhD is perfect for a startup

A PhD is perfect for a startup

By Lenny Teytelman

A PhD is perfect for a startup

In my 2.5 years as a co-founder of ZappyLab, the most surprising aspect of entrepreneurship for me has been the realization that graduate academic training is just perfect for founding a startup. I can’t think of any other training program that could have better prepared me for the challenges of creating a company. The skills I acquired in the 6 years of PhD work are precisely the ones essential for a startup.

I will discuss in detail below the specific similarities of academia and startups; however, I first want to repost my answer to a postdoctoral researcher who asked if an MBA or some business classes could help to transition from academia to industry.

As a sixth-year postdoc, you have over a decade of training. You are more trained than effectively the entire world labor force.
The last thing you need now is additional classes.You are an extremely valuable employee because you are a scientist. It’s not the pipetting skills or the protein you have been studying – it’s the fact that you are a scientist that makes you so valuable.  You know how to research, form hypotheses, test them, analyze and evaluate results, make quantitative conclusions, and communicate the results to others.
The problem we have is that we have not been exposed to non-academic careers. While good mentors are supportive of all career plans (see here), good mentors are rare.  We are trained to be professors, even though only a small fraction of the PhDs in life sciences will actually become faculty. Non-academic careers are called “alternative”, even though the numbers make it clear that it’s the professor job that is “alternative”.
Scientists simply don’t know that they are valuable outside of academia. How many know that intellectual property (patent) law firms will hire PhDs and will pay for them to go to law school? How many know that life science venture capital firms hire PhDs to evaluate proposals? How many scientists know that graduate training is PERFECT for founding a startup? Think about lab meetings and the qualifying exam – it’s all about presenting, communicating, and defending your ideas. That’s exactly the set of skills key in pitching to investors. And running a startup is all about experimenting, evaluating, and forming new hypotheses. There are so many levels on which academia and the startup world are similar, I could give a 2-hour talk on this! For the sake of brevity, I’ll just say that I know many startup founders, and not a single one of them has an MBA. Conversely, I know many MBAs, and not one of them has co-founded a startup.

And now for the concrete similarities.

Lab Meetings and Pitching to Investors

This may be the most valuable commonality. The qualifying exam, thesis committee meetings, and lab meetings sharpen the communication skills spectacularly. You learn to make effective presentation slides and to present to a small and hyper-critical audience. You need to master the non-aggressive control. Answer all questions and the lab meeting just got away from you; you did not present the key data and did not get advice on the parts you really care about. But you can’t be dismissive or aggressive. Same thing with the qual – answer everything without any control of the flow, and you never get past Aim 1. Most of all, these meetings are all about fielding questions. Just as with control of the tempo, this is an art. You need to convey confidence and defend your ideas and positions. Yet, you also need to be open to advice. If you are too dismissive, your colleagues will stop asking anything at your meetings, and that defeats the purpose of the entire exercise.

The above perfectly describes a meeting with an investor. These are strong and sharp personalities, just as the researchers you are used to. They want confident answers and a founder who has obviously thought through all contingencies. At the same time, they don’t want to be cut off and don’t like feeling stupid if you belittle their questions. They also want to make sure that if they invest, you are a type of founder who is open to advice and suggestions. Investors don’t like to think of themselves as just wallets; many will be getting a board seat, and if you don’t listen to anyone, they won’t want to be on your board and that means won’t want to invest in your company.

Handling Rejection–the Manuscript Reviewers and Venture Capitalists

Good results, getting your PhD, publication, fellowships, funding, faculty position, and tenure all have something in common – unpredictability. The only thing that is guaranteed in academia is Rejection. Getting your first manuscript rejection letter is a stunning and long-lasting level of pain. Pain killers don’t help, and the only remedy I know of is to lose yourself in readingfamous rejection letters to Nobel Prize winners and authors like Nabokov.

I never thought that I would one day view my rejections from every single postdoctoral fellowship in a positive light (interestingly, my postdoc proposals were really good scientifically but not funded; meanwhile, my graduate NSF proposal was terrible but I got it). The academic rejections seriously thickened my skin. Without this, I could not have handled the constant stream of “NOs” that every startup experiences (if you think getting a “yes” to a paper from an academic journal is hard, try getting a “yes” to a huge sum of money in an investment or a business deal).

And I certainly never thought that I would view my two manuscript rejections in a positive light. Well, I do. It gave me the opportunity to learn how to write a rebuttal. The rebuttals worked both times. The key with rebuttals, just as with presenting and fielding questions, is to strike the right tone. The rebuttal has to be strong, but it can’t be angry. You have to use the reviews and investor rejections to improve your manuscript/slide presentation/offer. Need to identify the weak parts of your communication, strengthen them, and eloquently and diplomatically explain why the reviewer/investor is wrong and why your paper deserves to be in the journal and why investing in your startup is in fact an opportunity the investor cannot miss.


As you embark on the PhD/startup, you are assuming a crazy level of risk. Years and years of effort, with hope but no guarantee of success. Miniscule financial compensation. Stress, self-doubt, and burnout. The one thing that drives you is the passion and belief in your project (passion and belief that is far from constant and often hits such lows that even you don’t understand why you are not dropping it).


Einstein, Ben Franklin, and Mark Twain have all been credited with the quote, “The definition of insanity is doing something over and over again and expecting a different result.” Regardless of the source, this remark brilliantly catches what my experimental research was like for a decade.

Whether you are in science or humanities, getting a PhD is extraordinarily hard. It requires years of a super-human level of commitment and perseverance. So does a startup.


Whether male or female, it seems that almost all scientists suffer from the impostor syndrome. The self-doubt is persistent throughout the graduate, postdoctoral, and faculty appointments. But with each stage, you get better at taming this doubt and have a track record of overcoming challenges and gargantuan tasks like thesis-writing.

If you don’t learn to control the impostor syndrome, you can’t succeed in academia, and you certainly can’t succeed with a startup.

Research Proposals, Business Plans, and Experiments

I often see people comparing writing a research proposal to a business plan. It is true that in both you make up rosy projections and the people reviewing summarily dismiss them. Beyond that, I disagree that this is a valid comparison.

I personally think business plans are a waste of time. Not a single savvy investor has asked to see our business plan. Y-combinator explicitly says it never reads them. Many startups, including ours, do end up writing one, but usually that’s because one of your angel investors or their spouse went to business school and asks for it, for no good reason.

A research proposal is very different from a business plan in that you outline a series of experiments. You have to formulate the experiments in a way that leads from one question to the next, keeping in mind that for each experiment, the outcome may be A or B. You can’t plan on “A” because “B” is just as likely. What if the hypothesis in the first section is wrong? How do you move on to the next section? This is the tricky and valuable part of writing a research grant proposal. And this is the part that is relevant for a startup – the setup of the experiments and the evaluation of your hypothesis.

One of the main things you learn as a scientist is how to properly test a hypothesis. This is key for startups. A startup itself is a research project. You are experimenting, adjusting based on user feedback and data, devising new experiments, and switching to a new project/pivoting if the first one does not work. Research is just as unpredictable as startups. And it is also important to know when to ignore your research plan. Some of the most interesting and important discoveries happen accidentally, just as many startups are founded to do one thing but end up switching and succeeding with an entirely different product.

Your PI, Thesis Committee, and the Startup Advisory Board

When I give talks and advice on founding a startup, I think my most valuable suggestion is to get good advisors. Don’t worry, there is plenty of trial and error and you definitely will learn from your mistakes. But if you don’t get advice and try to make all the mistakes you are fated to make, instead of learning, you’ll just fail. Similarly, the role of the PI and the thesis committee and your labmates is to limit the number of mistakes you make, so that you graduate in 6 instead of 66 years. That is also why I have always stressed to students picking a graduate or postdoc lab not to underestimate the importance of a good advisor (see my recent “Your mentor can make or brake your academic career“).

The second-most valuable suggestion I offer is to learn when to ignore the advice. Part of maturing as a PhD student involves becoming the expert on your thesis project. And at some point, instead of asking for guidance from your advisor, your job becomes guiding your advisor to understand and support your experiments and plans. As important as good mentors are to your success, it is equally important to learn that advisors like to advise and a huge portion of the advice they give you is wrong. At some point in your startup, you suddenly start drowning in conflicting advice from your investors, directors, advisors, friends, and users. If you listen to everything, you’ll just fail. Again, filtering this is an art that you pick up with time, and academia provides you with plenty of time and opportunity to become a master at this.

Lenny Teytelman is a Biologist, co-founder at Zappylab and Mentor at Indie Bio. Feel free to reach out to Lenny @lteytelman