Computational biologist turned entrepreneur, Dr. Martin Akerman takes ‘learning on the job’ to the next level by successfully managing his company, Envisagenics, without a business background. Of course, getting to share the responsibilities and having a constant support from his co-founder and CEO, Dr. Maria Luisa Pineda is an added bonus.
In the last part of this series we discussed some of the challenges faced by Dr. Akerman and got insights on his leadership approach. Here, I continue my conversation with Dr. Martin Akerman, CTO and co-founder of Envisagenics, a bioinformatics company, that uses RNA splicing analytics and Artificial Intelligence for in silico drug-discovery.
What challenges did you face after you decided to start Envisagenics?
Most of us who want to start a company don’t know how to do it, especially if it’s the first time. You have an idea, and want to spread it to the world, but you don’t know how to do that. A few challenges that I faced were –
a) Changing the way, I think.
In addition to being a scientist, one has to start thinking as an entrepreneur. They are both very different. For example, as an entrepreneur, you need to be solution-oriented, assertive, and talk in a less open-ended way. When you pitch your idea to an investor, you not only need to have a clear plan, but also need to look the investor in the eye and say this is going to work. A typical academic answer, such as ‘it depends’, doesn’t get you the funds.
b) Learning to communicate my idea to all kinds of people.
As an entrepreneur, you will be talking to people who know science, who understand some of it, and also the ones who don’t know much at all. I discovered that there are a lot of very smart non-scientists out there. You have to find out the most effective way to communicate with all of them.
c) Getting funded.
Pitching a product to the right investors in the right way is crucial. We met with 50 different investors before we came across the right ones. It is different from academic grants. For example, my friends who became professors applied for NIH grants. But they knew how the NIH works. What they did not know was, whether they will be funded. Regardless, they would know the answer by a definite amount of time. When you start a company, it is far more chaotic; you don’t know if and when you will be funded.
d) Getting the attention of pharmaceutical companies.
Partnering with pharmaceuticals and getting them to appreciate our product was a hurdle. We have some partners working in pharma currently and we benefit from these collaborations greatly.
I have three offshoot questions from the above.
A) How do you explain splicing to people who don’t know the science behind it?
I use metaphors. One has to be comfortable using them, as metaphors don’t exactly explain something, but draw comparisons and are a wonderful way to communicate your work.
B) How do/did you know who to go to for funding? Could you give us some details about your early funds?
Answering your first question is simple. Everybody. Anyone and everyone is a potential investor.
The first funding we got was from an NIH SBIR grant. It was relatively more comfortable, because it was much like academic grants. You write down your plans, then it goes for a review, and you get the money if it gets accepted. This is how our company got started, with something called the pre-seed money. The next fund we got was similar and was from Breakout labs; Peter Thiel’s foundation for life sciences. It was also similar to other grant processes. We closed our seed fund last September.
C) Did you seek advice?
Constantly. You need a lot of advice; all kinds of advice pertaining to each stage in building your company. You have to listen to people constantly and get their inputs.
What’s the most important thing you’re working on right now, and how are you making it happen?
We launched our technology platform last October in an event called Unboxing in San Francisco, hosted by the Breakout Labs. Since then, we are on the road to demonstrate this technology, give trials, and have our collaborators at Pharmaceuticals use the technology.
Secondly, since we got the funding, we have been planning the best way to allocate funds and figure out what kind of money we are going to raise next year.
What does Envisagenics currently do, and where do you see it 5 years from now?
Currently we incorporate a lot of public RNA-seq data. RNA-seq data are like pieces of a puzzle. We put these pieces together in a particular way and ask questions about splicing targets.
In 5 years we want to have a robust system that can take every available piece of RNA-seq data and incorporate it in our database, so that we can combine AI and cloud computing technology with our splicing expertise to find new drug targets. In addition, I would like to have the ability to experimentally validate our predictions even if it means starting a wet lab. Basically, we hope to become the Bioinformatics company that identifies a drug target in silico and experimentally validates it.
Gradually we are trying to become a platform that can study as many diseases depending on the data we have. There are several types of cancers, genetic diseases, and about 5 million potential splicing events. We are going to look at the intersection of both to identify drug targets. This is why our collaborations with Pharmaceuticals are crucial; they have the data-sets and the expertise that cannot be easily acquired.
What do you look for in prospective employees?
Apart from the obvious technical specifications, we look for a great team player. Since we are a small company at present, we look for the ‘right’ kind of people. We feel comfortable with people that are creative, who can work hard, are brave, can take ups and downs of the startup roller-coaster. We want people that we can learn from, and who will bring additional value to our company.
When you are not running a business, what do you do?
I am with my family at Long Island. I have 3 children: a 9-year-old daughter and 4-year-old twin boys. We usually bike, play ball etc. I try not to work on weekends, as I have long workdays during the week.
Any advice that you would like to give budding entrepreneurs out there?
If you have an idea, talk about it; don’t be protective of it. People don’t have time to steal your ideas. Of course, you need to find a confidential way to discuss it. There are times you will need to convince yourself about it. Learn how to pitch your company to investors. Get advice. You will hear contradictory versions, but pick the best one and stick to it. Prepare yourself for a lot of mental change to happen. Be positive, humble, and stay focused, because it’s a long way from having an idea to running your company.
Once again, I am so honored that you agreed to be my first interviewee Dr. Akerman. Club SciWri and I wish you our best in your future endeavors with Envisagenics. Hope we get to read about an FDA-approved drug in the near future with Envisagenics’ name to it!
What I learned from Dr. Akerman was that starting a company isn’t an easy job—all the more so in his case, with his first pitch the day after his twins were born! However, Dr. Akerman’s commitment to his vision to build a product helped him stick to his course, and now he does something he truly enjoys every day.
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 Professor at Mercy College in the Biology department. She blogs about various topics pertaining to Biotech and PhD in Biotech.
Paurvi has a Ph.D. in Biomedical Sciences (Immunology). She currently works as a Postdoc Fellow at Bloodworks Northwest in Seattle, where she studies the mechanism of how alloantibodies are formed against non-ABO ‘Red Blood Cell’ antigens. Apart from science, she loves editing scientific articles, listening to podcasts and going for outdoor hikes in summer.
Arunima obtained her Ph.D. from the University of Georgia, and is currently a Postdoctoral researcher at the New York University. A computational structural biologist by training, she enjoys traveling, reading, and the process of mastering new cuisines in her spare time. Her motivation to move to New York was to be a part of this rich scientific, cultural, and social hub.
Blog design: Paurvi Shinde
Cover image: Kindly provided by ENVISAGENICS, used with permission from Dr. Martin Akerman.
The contents of Club SciWri are the copyright of PhD Career Support Group for STEM PhDs (A US Non-Profit 501(c)3, PhDCSG is an initiative of the alumni of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. The primary aim of this group is to build a NETWORK among scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs).
This work by Club SciWri is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.