Innovation is a necessity for us scientists. We are encouraged to discover, invent, identify a plethora of things. Whether we hunt antibacterial compounds or work on technologies that will revolutionize gene synthesis our product is eventually innovation. We thrive on it. It is what unites us, and makes each one of us unique at the same time. Some of us take our innovation to the next level and transform it into medicine, platform, or service. Here is a two-part series discussing one scientist’s maiden venture and his journey from being a trained biologist to a bioinformatician to an entrepreneur.
In conversation with Dr. Martin Akerman
I am the co-founder and CTO of Envisagenics, originally from Argentina. During my Masters, I studied a parasitic protozoan, Leishmania, after which I got my doctorate in Bioinformatics at Technion, Israel. Then I moved to Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) to do my postdoc on splicing under the mentorship of Dr. Adrian R. Krainer and Dr. Michael Q. Zhang.
Tell us about your journey from being a graduate student in Israel to being a postdoc at CSHL.
As a Masters student, I was studying Kala Azar, a type of Leishmaniasis. Something happened, and I moved from being a bench scientist to computational biology. This was 2002, and there wasn’t a lot of Bioinformatics around. Hence, catching up was doable. There weren’t 100 different programming languages like today. It was mostly PERL, C++. I liked this work so much that I chose to do my Ph.D. in Bioinformatics.
When I chose my Ph.D. topic, I was very fascinated with the human genome because it was brand new. During my undergraduate days, I was taught that the human genome had 150,000 genes, and this justified the complexity of humans. However, it turned out that there are ‘only’ 20,000 genes. This revelation shocked the whole field and raised new questions, tickling my fascination like many others. I soon wanted to investigate how is it possible to have such a small number of genes and still be a complex and functional organism. Splicing seemed to be a probable answer. That’s when I made a software to study splicing regulation.
If you don’t know what splicing is, here is video for you
[Sorry to interrupt, but did you know programming at the time?]
No, I did not know programming; I’m self-taught. It took me a little over 2 years to learn. I mean, you never stop learning! It is impossible to score with a moving post you know. Programming is a huge part of learning bioinformatics. So I did it, and I loved it.
That is very impressive. Please continue….
So, making the SF map (Splicing Factor Motif Analysis and Prediction, published in Akerman M., 2009) software only made me more interested in splicing. I came to CSHL to continue working on splicing with two eminent scientists who were leaders in this field, Dr. Adrian R. Krainer, and Dr. Michael Q. Zhang. While the Kranier lab was primarily a biochemistry lab, the Zhang lab focused on splicing using genomic data.
What inspired you to start Envisagenics from being a postdoc?
There was something special about the Kranier lab! I was the primary bioinformatician in a lab of 20 experimental biologists. What does it imply? Well, anything I predicted was validated experimentally. While this created a lot of pressure, it was an incredible opportunity to collaborate and stay connected to biology.
People sought my expertise to analyze their data in various ways. I analyzed RNA-seq data, protein-protein interactions, and RNA-protein interactions in the spliceosome. I soon became addicted to the feeling of having your predictions validated in the lab. At some point, I realized that solving other’s problems was more exciting than answering questions that I came up with. I also realized that the only way to address this addiction of mine was to make a software that works and solves ‘real’ problems. The answer was in starting a company.
Did you ever want a career in academia?
Of course, I did! As a postdoc, I wanted to become a professor until I realized that I don’t. In academia I would have to move from developing one algorithm at a time, which did not allow time to focus on creating a robust piece of software available for a larger audience.
What was the turning point for your transition?
When I wanted to start a company, I had no idea what it meant. I met some investors at the “Elevator Pitch Day” organized by the Bioenterprise Club at Cold Spring Harbor. The Bioenterprise club focuses on careers outside academia. The investors I met that day were part of the panel that listened to my first ever elevator pitch. I met my co-founder, Maria Luisa Pineda on the same day. She was in the room working with the investors, and her job was to evaluate me. Long story short, as a result of that meeting, we started the company. She is also a trained biologist from CSHL who after graduating acquired investment experience in technology and life-sciences startup companies.
What does a typical day look like for you at work?
Well, every day is different. I coordinate with the engineering team about the technical work. We work on pilot projects and milestones with scientists in pharma company. Right now we are also spending time on how to use our latest funds; this includes planning with the Business Development team. Some grant writing is pending regarding a phase II SBIR grant. I also do coding- this is my quality time.
In short, I am involved in almost everything, which is great as I enjoy working a lot with my team.
What are the skills that help you run Envisagenics?
My knack for collaboration that I developed from my postdoc days at CSHL helps me a lot. Understanding other’s problems and using our platform in solving them is beneficial to us. Both of these support our partnerships at Pharmaceuticals.
The ability to be a team player is a considerable skill. As a leader one should also know how to distribute and delegate work, be humble, and have the ability to take and give advice from/ to your team.
Being open to taking advice from advisors and investors is a must. You are toned to listen and learn. The most essential skill is, however, to resist, be positive, and never give up.
Speaking of being a leader, do you micromanage?
No, I don’t like that. If you have to micromanage, it is not a good sign. I want people to bloom and use their creativity to see what they can do. At Envisagenics, there’s a time when we meet, and everybody brings ideas. Next, we execute the plan. You cannot deviate from the plan, because we are all connected. Everyone has ONE goal, not separate projects. So it is crucial that we plan together and stick to it. That’s what makes us a great team. However, as a leader, YOU have to make informed decisions.
Coincidence brought Martin Akerman and Maria Luisa Pineda together, and as they say, the rest is history! Keep watching this space for part 2 in this series that will discuss the challenges faced by Dr. Akerman in his transition and his visions for Envisagenics.
Author: Dolonchapa Chakraborty
Dolon is a Molecular Biologist and currently wears many hats. She freelances as a Consultant for a Toronto-based start-up, helping them with brand management, marketing, and product development. She is also an Adjunct Faculty at Mercy College in the Biology department. She blogs about various topics pertaining to Biotech and PhD in Biotech.
Blog design: Rituparna Chakrabarti
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