The End of an Internship

As the summer winds to a close and my internship in San Francisco comes to an end, it isn’t hard to look back and find many valuable lessons from the past nine weeks. I learned a great deal from working directly with the founder and advisors of Adamant Technologies, as well as from meeting other entrepreneurs and talking to friends in the startup community. These lessons and advice cover a broad spectrum of topics, from starting a company to going to grad school.

1. Don’t listen to anyone’s advice.
This gem was given to me by Naval Ravikant, the founder of AngelList, at an event where he was speaking to a bunch of interns during my second week in San Francisco. His statement seems like it nullifies the rest of this blog post, but it is always something that should be kept in mind. In life, every situation comes down to context. Starting a new company or applying to grad school will never be the same as when someone else did it, because different people, places, and ideas are involved. While advice can still be helpful, it is extremely important to tailor that advice to a specific situation. Break down whatever piece of advice you are using and try and find the fundamental assumptions and beliefs behind that advice. If those assumptions and beliefs are valid, recognize this fact and use them to your advantage, but make sure that you’re ultimately following the best path for your particular situation.

2. Think about why people are giving you advice.
The second piece of advice relates back to the first, and was given to me by Sam Khamis, the founder of Adamant Technologies, during our last meeting. This was something that I had never considered before, but it’s not hard to see how important it is. Some people will give you advice because they want your money. Some will give it because they want you to use their idea or vision. Even fewer will give it because they genuinely want to help you, but they can be few and far between. Recognizing why someone is trying to help you can have a huge impact on your decision – if someone is trying to get you to pursue their vision rather than your own, this will obviously effect whether you take their advice or not.

3. Network!
In today’s world, everyone is constantly talking about networking and the importance of it. And this summer, I finally started to think that maybe all of these people are actually onto something. After all, networking led me to my fantastic job this summer. It all started when I received an email that a Penn alum named Art was in town and didn’t have time to set up anything formal, but would still meet with any student who wanted to. I had never done this in the past, but I decided to go out on a limb and meet with him. We met for breakfast one morning, and started talking about my interest in biotech and bioengineering. He said that his friend had a related startup that I might be interested in, and put us in touch. The next day I grabbed coffee with this friend, and before I knew it I was out in San Francisco working directly with the founder and CEO of Adamant Technologies. It still blows me away when I think back on it.

The importance of networking was also reinforced time and again while I was in San Francisco. I heard multiple stories of people starting companies with or hiring people from a pool of acquaintances met at networking events or past companies. Needless to say, I’ve diligently been collecting business cards and building my LinkedIn network – you never know when that person who you met at some random event might be just who you’re looking for.

4. Starting a startup is extremely difficult.
In the age of the Internet, is seems like all you need to start a company is some coding knowledge and maybe a small amount of capital. It seems like you hear about another Internet startup every day, creating this myth that they’re easy to create. However, starting a startup is in fact extremely difficult. This fact was brought to my attention by Mr. Ravikant during the same talk in which he delivered piece of advice #1, and the best way to experience the truth of it is to go work for a startup. There is so much more involved than just making a website, from deciding which people to hire to getting funding and even finding furniture for your office. It’s very rewarding to be able to build a company and pursue a vision, but be prepared to deal with a lot of crap along the way.

5. Be very, very good at a specific skill set.
Sam and I discussed this at our last meeting as well. This piece of advice can be applied to a variety of situations, such as getting a job, but we were discussing it specifically in the context of grad school. If you can come into a lab with a valuable skill already developed, you’re much more likely to get accepted to the group. In terms of a career, it’s also much more valuable to have someone who is great at a skill that is very important and will provide immediate value to a company, rather than someone who is a jack of all trades who may need time and training to develop the necessary competences.

6. Have grad schools fly you out.
When you look at a lab for grad school, always try and arrange a visit to meet with the team and see the facilities. This enables you to introduce yourself and discuss that specific skill set that you’re very, very good at which will provide immediate value to the lab. But don’t forget that while the lab is determining if you’re a good fit for them, you also want to make sure they are a good fit for you. This goes for applying for jobs as well. Regardless of whether or not a company likes you, if you don’t like the company that you are working for and the environment that they provide, no good will come out of that situation.

7. Be the guy everyone goes to for something. Go to a lab where you can take a leadership role.
One last piece of advice for grad school came out of my last meeting with Sam. You want to go to a lab where you can be the man. This will give you leadership experience as well as providing you with a great recommendation from the head professor. Moreover, a leadership position will also give you the opportunity to undertake your own projects, especially if they involve some new idea or concept that hasn’t been tested before. In fact, this is exactly the kind of situation that led Sam to develop the technology behind his company.

8. Consider motivation if you’re going to drop out of school to work on something.
I’m including this last piece of advice because it is a perspective that seems contrary to what you hear if you talk to most people in San Francisco and Silicon Valley. It’s not hard to hear about kids dropping out of school to start a company, but you hardly ever hear about people who stay in school instead. What people don’t often consider is how hard it can be to go back to school after you drop out to start a company, especially if the company takes a few years to build. This obviously comes down to particular personalities, but motivation to go back and learn rather than build can be hard to come by if you’ve been out of the game for too long.

Needless to say, I’ve learned an incredible amount this summer, and I can’t thank everyone at Adamant Technologies as well as everyone else I interacted with in the Bay area enough for their time. This summer has made me extremely excited and optimistic for the future, even though I’m only slightly closer to knowing what I want to do. I know that discovering where my passions lie will surely prove that the rewards aren’t in the destination, but rather in the journey.

Seamlessly and Unconsciously Connected

In the digital age, it seems that we are always connected to the world around us in multiple ways. Laptops, phones, and tablets permeate our lives with 4G data networks providing constant data, and wifi connections are just around the corner. However, it’s still possible to find a moment’s respite by simply turning things off. But it seems that even this simple idea is subject to change, albeit in a subtle way. As mobile technologies improve and remote monitoring gains more and more attention in healthcare, constant data streams and connectivity stand to become even more integrated into our lives – but this will occur seamlessly and we won’t be constantly reminded of this fact. And in the next few years, college graduates around my age will be right in the middle of all of this.

This week, Proteus Biomedical basically gained FDA clearance (510(k) pre-market approval) for an ingestible biomedical sensor that can be placed inside pills and swallowed. As this sensor travels through the body with the pill, it sends out varying signals depending on its environment. This signal is intercepted by a patch worn on the patient’s skin, allowing software to determine the approximate location of the medication in the body. The sensor also has the more basic function of verifying that the medication has been taken by the patient. Obviously, this is not something that can simply be turned off, and it is constantly transmitting data to your smartphone or wherever else that data needs to go.

Just as data can be provided from inside our bodies, there are obviously external sensing tools that can be used in a variety of ways. There are many different bands and activity trackers that monitor things like heart rate, blood pressure, calories burned, steps walked, and the list goes on and on. But imagine if these tools were present in our cars. In a class I took last semester, Management of Technology, Sandeep Kishore, who is the Executive Vice President and Global Head of Sales & Practice for Engineering and R&D Services at HCL Technologies, came in and gave a speech to the class where he stated that one of the next big trends would be consolidation between all of the different platforms we have in our lives. For example, you’ll be looking at an article or listening to a song on your laptop or TV in your house, and you’ll go to your car and pick up right where you left off on built in tablets or other tools. When autonomous vehicles become a reality, it will even be possible to continue watching movies in your car, as you can already do when moving from room to room in your house.

It seems that not only will this connectivity be used for information, communication, and entertainment purposes, but also for health purposes and extensions of remote patient monitoring. Ford has a concept car (sure, it’s just a concept, but it doesn’t seem that far off) where multiple mobile health sensors are integrated into the car itself. You don’t even have to turn them on or input any information. The devices simply sense that you are present, and begin to monitor you or other passengers for signs of health problems.

Needless to say, the potential for wireless health monitoring is remarkable. As healthcare moves from a focus on quantity of service to quality of service, health tools utilizing new technologies stand to provide significant benefits to all sorts of patients. This applies especially to patients with chronic diseases – they will be able to benefit the most from not only medical treatment advice, but lifestyle advice as well. And the medical industry is showing no signs of consolidation despite this new infusion of technology. There are an exorbitant amount of companies and apps vying for the Electronic Health Records market, and progress is made every day in terms of using mobile health to manage chronic diseases or improve patient care and treatment.

The most fascinating aspect of all this is that these apps can be like shadows in our lives. They are constantly with us, monitoring signals and sending and receiving data, but on a regular basis we won’t be interacting with them. It’s not like Instagram or Facebook, or even the NY Times, where I have to check the app every time I want to see new information. They’re more like Pay with Square, which seemingly takes the technology out of our lives rather than drawing our attention to it. A more detailed description of Pay with Square will help illustrate this principle a bit more. If you use Pay with Square (by Square, the makers of the credit card swiping tool that plugs into the audio jack on your phone), you download the app on your phone and link it to your credit card. Then, if you walk into a store that uses Pay with Square, they will have an iPad as their cash register. When you want to pay for something, you simply walk up to them and say “My name is Max, I’d like to buy this item.” They see your face on the cash register and charge the price to your account. You don’t need to take out a credit card or a smartphone – the transaction is smooth and seamless.

This is what medical apps should be like. In some cases, this ability is a ways off, but in others, these tools can be developed now – and it is something that my generation can strive to create. For example, many diabetes management apps run through smartphones and automatically transmit test data to a database. If you haven’t tested your blood sugar in a while, or if you run a test that indicates high or low blood sugar, the app can automatically alert you and provide you with recommendations, or alert your care provider if you so chose. Thinking in a more futuristic sense, say one of these sensors in your car detects an abnormality in your breath, such as a new biomarker for lung cancer. Perhaps the app could automatically schedule an X-ray appointment that fits into a spot on your Google calendar, which you can review and approve later when you get home from work.

Obviously the suggestions above are not earth-shattering revelations, and it will take some very creative individuals to truly realize the full potential of wireless health technology and mobile health in our lives. But at the rate things are going, many people stand to be involved in this convergence between industries and to help create tools that will continue to change the world and improve the quality of life for countless individuals.

Diving Into the Startup World

Last week, Vahid, an incoming freshman in Bioengineering at Penn, asked me how someone who knows little about biotech startups could learn more and get involved. This question took me back not just to my freshman year, but even to the end of my sophomore year before I started my internship in San Francisco. Before May and my internship with Adamant Technologies, I was asking the exact same thing. It seems like you hear so much about internet startups and people who can code going on to make amazing companies, but the biotech scene was always more difficult to find. 

When I initially answered Vahid’s question, I came up with three ways to become more familiar with the entrepreneurial biotech scene. The first and easiest way to find out more is to look around on the internet for biotech startups. If a company looks interesting, go look at their website and do a little digging. One area of company websites that I find particularly interesting is the “Team” page that contains short bios of the company’s executive management. It is very interesting to learn how managers ended up leading a cool company, and very useful as well. If their path led them to a job that looks attractive to you, it’s a good bet that following a similar path can lead you to an good job as well.

If you’re really into the scientific side of things, you can go as far as looking up journal articles describing the science that the company is based on (the best part is that these articles are provided by universities like Penn – you can read thousands of dollars worth of research for free!). To get a broader view, look at press releases or do a Google News search for that company. This will give you more information on the business side, such as which markets the company is going after, what their current valuation is, who their investors are, etc.

The second way to learn more about the biotech industry is more hands on. When you find those companies or experts in a field of really interesting research, don’t be afraid to reach out to them with questions. Most of the time, they’re very willing and even eager to help out young people who just want to learn about the field. Playing the student card also comes in really handy – people are (almost) always willing to put aside some time to teach students about their work, and using a “.edu” email goes a long way toward ensuring a response. If you can take the extra step and meet with a researcher or an employee in person, make every effort to do so. If you can get a tour of a company as well, that’s even better. I had breakfast with a Penn alum one morning, and that short meeting led to my job out here in San Francisco this summer. Good connections go a long way, and someone is much more likely to remember a person that they met face to face rather than through email or over the phone.

The third way to find out about biotech startups is by diving right into one. Working for a company provides much more knowledge than reading about one online or even talking to employees. Internships also teach valuable skills that can be used in future jobs, or maybe even at that company in a full time job later on. If the internship can take place in a location with lots of other startups (like San Francisco), that’s even better. The startup network in cities like SF is very strong, and there are constantly events going on where like-minded entrepreneurs can meet up and discuss their projects (side note: having business cards to hand out at these events is really useful). Even in coffee shops around the city, it seems like everyone is talking about a startup that they are working for. I must say, it’s been a blast being out here this summer working with Adamant Technologies. I’ve learned so much about the company and how to operate a new business, but I’ve also met more people than I ever expected. So many people are working on great projects, and it will be very interesting to see how they all play out.

All of these methods of learning more about a biotech company find their foundation in one fundamental pillar: Ask questions. Before meeting with employees from one of those cool companies, have a list of questions that will not only demonstrate your interest, but allow you to learn things you didn’t know before. Most importantly, ask the obvious questions. If obvious questions aren’t asked, it can be very hard to catch up when you actually need to know the answers. As Albert Einstein said, “I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.”

Going Corporate or Startup?

As I sit here at the Greylock Hackfest in downtown San Francisco, watching other college-age kids code through the night, the question of whether to go work for a big corporation or head straight to a startup after college seems very poignant to ask. Especially in the biotech industry, the answer can be very tricky. I’ve been thinking about this for probably the last year and a half now, and I think this summer was the experience that finally pushed me off the fence. But along the way, I’ve learned a lot about both options.

(Side note: I know tons of people will have at least some thoughts if not firm opinions about this topic, and I would love to hear them in the comments! I think other readers could really benefit from this discussion as well. Examples of working at specific companies, big or small, would be appreciated.)

Although you tend to hear many more complaints about working for a big, inflexible corporation than being employed by a nimble startup, there are many benefits to going this route. First and foremost is a stable and potentially sizable salary – especially for those of us coming out of college with student loans. Then there’s the extensive experience that you can gain. By working at a large corporation, you can gain a comprehensive view of an entire industry, both through your own work and through the network that you will develop. But beyond this knowledge, experience at a big company can bring something perhaps more important.

Last week my roommate and I went to a speaker event with the founder of Addvocate and former Head of Social Media at Salesforce, Marcus Nelson. His message was quite different from the perspective that I often hear as I wander around San Francisco and Silicon Valley. Mr. Nelson was pretty adamant that students coming out of college should go work for a big corporation for all of the reasons that I listed above, but also for another one that I had overlooked. He pointed out that by going to a big corporation, you can find the flaws and problems at that company. In those problems, flaws, and inefficiencies, you can often find an idea for a startup. Moreover, startups that are begun in this manner have a solid chance of being successful businesses that can contribute substantial value to their customers. This stands in contrast to attempting to found a startup on another social app, or rather, any simple app at all in contrast to building a whole platform. Indeed, many successful startups have been founded by people who did just this, and more and more people leave consulting or finance after two or three years to go found their own companies. In addition, there’s also the chance to implement some intrapreneurship or climb the corporate ladder in a large company, both of which can lead to substantial rewards.

In biotech these benefits and opportunities can be especially useful, as the industry and the science behind it is very complex. When you throw in interactions with traditional pharmaceutical companies and FDA regulation, things get even messier. There is substantial room to shake things up in big biotech and pharma companies right now, with healthcare position for dramatic changes such as mobile services and moving from a “do more, pay more” model to doing what’s best for the patient (and getting rewarded for it). Having a good overview of the industry and knowing the steps that it takes to bring a product to market can provide you with a bit of a roadmap that may make your life easier.

But there’s always the other side of the coin.

Working at a startup can definitely be riskier than working for a big corporation. Hours are tough and salary is often lower than what you would find at an established company, but these downsides are countered by many benefits. Most of the time, people love working for startups because of the casual atmosphere, flexibility of the company, and the ability to have a substantial impact. Startups also believe they have a mission to accomplish, and they will go to great lengths to do so – this sense of purpose can be a powerful impetus to push employees and challenge them to create great things. Surely you can find this challenge in a big company, but if you start out as just a number, it can be difficult to motivate yourself. Early employees can often receive equity in a startup as well, which can lead to big pay offs if the company is bought or sold (but that’s a big if).

Contrary to my statement about the downsides of a startup, there are some that definitely pay competitive salaries. Khan Academy is a particularly good example. Their employees work crazy hours, but they get paid well to do so. More importantly, they all believe in the work that they are doing which is helping to reshape education across the world. That’s a pretty good feeling to have when you go to sleep at night.

Flat structure is another upside to a startup. For example, at the company I’m interning for now, I report directly to the founder and CEO, and I must say its been an amazing opportunity to probe his brain and ask him all sorts of questions about what goes into starting a company. I’m also developing a strong network this summer and meeting all sorts of different people, which has debunked my previous belief that substantial networks can only start at big companies. Particularly out here in San Francisco, everyone is very friendly and willing to help out. Big things have come out of small networking events where two people met by chance before, and I have no doubt that this will continue in the future.

As for my opinion on this whole debate, it is surely subject to change and there are a plethora of issues that must be considered which I didn’t cover in this post. But I’m leaning towards the startup world for now. This summer has been a great experience, working directly with the CEO of Adamant Technologies and meeting tons of people who are doing amazing things. It’s very rewarding to be given responsibility right off the bat, and to know that your work is making a significant contribution to the company. I’ve had a fantastic experience, and I’ve only been out here for two months! Maybe in two years I’ll find out what it’s like to be out here for a lot longer.

Thiel Foundation Under 20 Summit – Startup Lessons

As I started to discuss in my last post, last Saturday I was able to attend the Thiel Foundation’s Under 20 Summit, and I met some amazing people. They were all a great source of inspiration, and needless to say it made me want to go back to Penn and actually do something next semester. This post details some of my insights from the people at the Summit, and how to get a job even after losing $35 million.

The company Nebula Biotech was started by four people at the Rochester Institute of Technology who are my age. They’re making a headband to reduce the incidence of concussions in soccer. They’re definitely working on a problem that needs to be solved, and they flew all the way out here to go to the Under 20 Summit and meet people. The company is currently part of the RIT Saunder’s Summer Start-Up Program. The cool part about Nebula is that this is the first entrepreneurial experience of anyone on the team, but that doesn’t matter – they’re going at this company and this problem full steam ahead. In short, they embody the principle of plan less, do more (but more on that later).

While I gained a lot of inspiration from my peers who were at the Summit, the professionals that presented also provided a great perspective. Lenny Raymond presented on “Investors, Incentives, and Alignment,” which pointed out that investors and companies have very different objectives when it comes to funding. The more these different objectives can be aligned, the more successful a partnership will be. This was very useful, however, I thought the most interesting part of his presentation was when he told the story of losing $35 million of investors’ money with his company. While this was an expensive lesson, he ended up getting hired by one of his investors afterwards. How in the world does that happen? Lenny said that while the company was going down, he was very open and transparent with the investors, and everyone who put money into the company knew that the team had worked very hard to get as much money for them as possible. So, when one of the investors opened up a new firm, Lenny was his first hire. It’s good to know that even in the real world, hard work and honesty still pay off.

The second presentation I went to was led by Tom Rice. Tom brought a refreshing new topic to the Summit concerning companies with deep I.P., which you don’t hear much about now that everyone is starting a new website or social company. His main message was that a Minimum Viable Product in one of these companies has two parts: a kernel and wrapper. The difference between deep I.P. companies is that they have a big kernel, whereas less I.P.-focused companies may have a bigger or more important wrapper (i.e. any company on Facebook’s platform). The goal of a big kernel company is a paradigm shift, which means that you have to have your core technology nailed down before you start to tell people about it. Tom’s advice was basically to lock your R&D team in a room to build your basic product and prove that the technology works. While you do have to get the science down, it seems like you have to be careful about being in the lab too long as well – you don’t want another competitor to leap over you and grab market share while you’re still developing a product. The core technology must be carefully defined. For example, in the company that I’m working at this summer, the technology has been proven – it was the founder’s PhD thesis. While it is the case that the product is still being developed, the kernel has already been validated through research and a prototype, enabling the founder of the company to go talk to investors and start spreading the word.

Concerning what to actually do with the technology, Tom suggested that when you have a big kernel company, you don’t want to do mixed models, i.e. make a platform and apps. If you do both, you may end up competing with other developers or taking focus away from your core product. I think the main message here is to pick a product or an app, and do it really, really, really well. With platforms, developers can make the apps (probably better than you can) if you have an open API. The great part about an open API is that it lets others use your technology in ways that you haven’t thought of, creating a larger user base for you. Tom pointed out that these users can then be used for marketing purposes. If you go to your best users and let them use your product for free, they can be the best source of information on where to take your product in the market – they’ll know other people who want to use your technology. Deep I.P. companies seem like a whole different kind of beast, but I am very fortunate to be able to learn so much about the process of starting one while I’m in San Francisco this summer.

One of the last guys I talked to was Bill Hunt. His presentation was titled “Mistakes You’re About to Make,” and I’ll list the mistakes before getting into my takeaways: 1. Don’t think so much, 2. You only think you know where you’re going, 3. Keeping your idea a secret, and 4. Doing it alone. Basically, all of these mistakes can be remedied by using the Lean Startup. To fix the first mistake, you want to plan less and do more! Sounds like Nebula Biotech, and not like myself (hopefully that will change). Your idea doesn’t have to be perfect before launch – I once heard that if you think your product is perfect when you launch it, you’ve waited way too long. Inevitably, you will have overlooked something (or lots of things) that your users will be quick to point out. This goes straight to fixing the second mistake. You want to get your product out there and get as much feedback as possible, so you can perform rapid iterations. Get feedback, fix your product, launch, repeat. Bill also talked about how markets are discovered, kind of like how 1+1 always equaled 2. No one just made up that fact. Your goal in building a company should be to discover existing principles and build on them. Once your company has a product, you want to share your idea (avoid mistake #3)! The benefits you get from sharing and taking feedback from others greatly outweighs any risk that someone will steal your idea – people are generally busy doing their own thing and are too busy to build your company. And the last mistake can be avoided simply by getting a co-founder or a team. One of the benefits that I had overlooked is that you get validation for your idea if you can find a good co-founder who is just as excited as you are.

I also had the opportunity to talk to Bill after his presentation about applying Lean Startup principles to biotech companies. It turns out that he had worked with a DNA sequencing company a while ago, and they achieved a tight feedback loop by simply focusing on parts of the product where they could get immediate feedback. They didn’t try and tackle the whole thing at once.

Obviously there were a plethora of other insights and takeaways from the Under 20 Summit, but these were the ones that stuck with me. The Summit also inspired me so much that I wanted to start doing something right away. I decided to finally start spreading the word that I’m now doing freelance writing tutoring (if anyone needs help on a college essay, or anything else, let me know!) and my roommate and I plan on making some simple Android or iOS apps before the summer is over, just to get some experience. Who knows, maybe someday I’ll end up with a full blown company!

Biotech at the Under 20 Summit

Yesterday I had the great fortune to attend the Thiel Foundation’s 20 Under 20 Summit, and I left in awe of everyone I met and all of the cool projects the attendees were working on. Certainly, all of the software / web / tech projects that people had going were amazing and had a lot of potential, but what really got me excited was the biotech presence at the Summit.

The first guy I met in the biotech space is Matthew Scholz, who started a company called Immusoft that is trying to program the immune system – literally. Immusoft’s website describes their mission as “to develop a completely new platform for delivering medicines – programming a patient’s own cells to become miniature drug factories.” They will accomplish this by teaching a patient’s cells to constantly secrete gene-encoded medicines (biologics) using modified B cells. How cool is that?! The science behind his company is very interesting, but what I found most compelling about his story is that he started this biotech company with a background in computer science and very little knowledge of biology itself. This seems to go against everything I have learned as a bioengineer up until now.

When you ask most Bioengineering majors or graduates back at UPenn about career options, you surprisingly hear of few people going into the biotech space right off the bat. It seems like the majority of undergraduates head straight for grad school after getting their degree, which is a common complaint with people in the program – it seems like there’s nowhere else to go. I think the rationale goes something like this: if you want to get into biotech, which is a very scientific field, you have to first understand the science and work in a lab where you can find this understanding. Only then, with a graduate degree and years of experience, can you start your own biotech company. Either that, or, sadly, you go into finance or consulting or some other field that has nothing to do with bioengineering.

Matthew, thankfully, came to the Summit and almost completely erased this idea from my head. He had done work in computer security, and one day had the amazing insight that he could apply ideas from computer security to biology. Right when he said that, I became interested – everyone is always saying how the best new ideas come from areas between disciplines.  He had an idea after reading a popular science article about how scientists were modifying immune system cells to fight off infections in cancer patients. He read up a little more about antibodies and how specific antibodies made by the immune system fight specific diseases, and wondered why you couldn’t program cells to make antibodies for specific infections that are currently beating natural immune systems. He made the analogy between programming B cells and working with a keyspace in computer security. That went right over my head, but some of you might know what he was talking about.

So, he started asking experts in the field about his idea. Many of them said that it was impossible, that it couldn’t be done. But Matthew did the smart thing. He would corner these nay-sayers and ask them why. They would tell him the biggest problem that they saw with his idea, and then he did the next smart thing. He would find an expert that was dealing with that problem and learn as much as he could about their technology. By repeating this process, he did a few things.

First, he applied Lean Startup principles to biotech. By finding problems early and learning how to solve those problems, he was iterating his idea and modifying it each time an obstacle was encountered. Step by step, he built up a product that overcame all of the problems the “experts” had previously pointed out. Second, he was able to learn a crazy amount about biology and the immune system. Each time he would find a problem, he would find an expert and read their papers. Since he read these papers, he consequently had something to discuss with these experts, who were happy to talk with him and help with his idea. This led him to the resources and the technology that he needed to start this company. And even more important, these experts later became his advisors.

The best part about Immusoft is that Matthew didn’t even come up with the technology! I should qualify that statement by pointing out that he had the brilliant idea to take a couple different technologies and bring them together to achieve his goal of programming the immune system. But these original technologies were licensed from different universities, and no one was even using them for commercial purposes. One technology was exculsively licensed from Caltech, and another “novel lentiviral pseudotype” was discovered in Germany and developed in France (see Immusoft’s website for more info). This alone proves that you don’t need to go to grad school and slave away in a lab to create a technology from scratch in order to make your own biotech company.

Another point Matthew brought up that is worth remembering concerns the business side of biotech. He recruited a regulatory team to guide Immusoft’s technology through FDA approval, and they along with some advisors suggested that he tackle rare diseases before moving on to a full blown transformation of everyone’s immune systems. The regulatory path for rare disease treatments is a lot less messy and time consuming, which would allow his company to make tangible progress while working on larger health problems. This underscores the value of having a good team with different perspectives and experiences who can help guide your company down the appropriate path.

Needless to say, I thoroughly enjoyed hearing Matthew’s story and having the opportunity to talk to him about his company. The Under 20 Summit was a great experience, and along with meeting Matthew, I was truly inspired by all of the people around me who were starting their own exciting ventures (more blog posts on the rest of the Summit to come). Hopefully this story can persuade more bioengineering majors to stay in the field rather than going to finance or consulting. I know that it has definitely opened my eyes to what is possible, and that is an invaluable lesson.

Who is this guy?

Well, I’m finally doing it. I’m starting a blog. To get straight to the point, I’m currently an intern in the amazing city of San Francisco, California, where I’m working at a small biotech startup called Adamant Technologies. My experience in the startup community is primarily what this blog will be about for the rest of the summer, but more on that later. Adamant Technologies makes a sensor that analyzes your breath and tells you what molecules and analytes are present, and it can sense things all the way from metabolic rate indicators to biomarkers of diseases such as breast and lung cancer. I have to say, it’s pretty cool stuff.

During the school year, I will be a junior in the M&T program (Jerome Fisher Program in Management & Technology) at the University of Pennsylvania, studying bioengineering and business. I say business because right now I’m in the default concentration – Fiance. However, I’m not so sure that I want to go into banking, or how well finance meshes with bioengineering, so that will most likely change before I graduate. 

But to get back to the point of this blog, I wanted to accomplish three things: first, record all of the amazing, insightful, and inspirational stuff that I learn this summer from the startup community in San Francisco, second, share this stuff with all of you, and last but not least, start writing again.

The first reason doesn’t need much explanation. Simply put, I’m meeting incredible people doing very exciting things, and everyone has already taught me so much about what goes into starting a company and leading it to success. I’ve also made some fast friendships along the way. I want to be able to look back at this blog and remember all that I’ve learned, and hopefully someone else will be able to benefit as well – that covers the second reason too.

The reason I want to start writing again is an easy one as well: I just love to write. I loved English class in high school, and wrote for the school newspaper, The Bulldog Press. I haven’t had as much of a chance to write at Penn because of the engineering curriculum, but I was given the opportunity to be a writing tutor at the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing. I figure, I better practice what I preach. In addition to my tutoring job at Penn, I’m also starting to do independent tutoring work on my own – my first entrepreneurial venture! 

That’s pretty much it for now. I’ll probably spit out a bunch of blog posts in the next couple of days, just because I have to document the first half of the summer! Once I get caught up on that, you know as much as I do the rest of what’s to come…

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