Even with the pandemic still raging, San Diego Entrepreneur Exchange (SDEE) was able to host one of the most successful yearly events, Founders Tales, on October 28, 2020 via Zoom. A big thank you to the sponsors: Alexandria, Morrison/Foerster, Ted Jacobs, Takeda, BDO, Longfellow, Marsh & McLennan, PineApple Hustle, and Wagenknecht Law Group. Invited to the 30 second pitch were: Joel Huizenga of Egaceutical Corporation, Randall Berdwell of Clinical Technology, Michelleanne Bradley of Metis Consulting Services, James Evans of PhenoVista Biosciences, and Pavel Reddy of ClearPoint Ventures.
The program featured three excellent founders: Adam Tibbs of Upswing Health, Dr. Helge Zieler of Primordial Genetics, and Dr. Molly He of Element Biosciences.
Adam is a serial entrepreneur who started out by founding in the early 90s a web developing company that became the digital arm of advertising agencies. The company built websites for famous companies and institutions and grew incredibly quickly from 5 to 200 employees. Other tech companies, focused on business-to-business or direct to consumer, followed. Some got sold, and this afforded Adam to expand into other fields. An interest in sustainability led to the start in San Francisco of Project Frog to rethink the way construction is handled. Project Frog makes modular buildings that can be assembled quickly and generate as much energy as they use. The company made approximately 50 M in revenue by the time Adam left in 2012. Adam is most effective at the early stages of a company, when there is more scramble and less scaling. When he could no longer see the way to improve and solve problems, he realized that it was time for him to step down. In fact, a good entrepreneur needs to recognize when he or she is no longer the right person to lead the company and needs to have the courage to leave the post to a better suited CEO.
Adam went into the business of healthcare after his wife, by dropping a knife on her foot, severed several tendons and needed surgery. The $11,000 bill from the hospital was a shock that led to an interest in healthcare. He discovered that many people cannot afford to pay their healthcare bills and, by not paying, enter a spiral that makes their healthcare worse and worse. Adam started Parasail to pay hospital bills while allowing patients to pay the company back over time with affordable installments.
Adam is now the CEO of Upswing Health, a company that helps diagnose musculoskeletal disorders. Often, patients realize thanks to an algorithm that they do not need to see a doctor and can solve their issue with home exercises. If they need to see a doctor, the website offers telemedicine for a fee. By routing patients to the appropriate care or suggesting that surgery or physical therapy is not necessary, the company can save money to patients and the healthcare system.
Dr. Helge Zieler
Differently from Adam, Helge is not a serial entrepreneur and Primordial Genetics is the only company he founded, driven by his desire to discover and start new things. His started the company he felt ready to make the sacrifice and motivate other people, even if it was a lonely experience. Primordial Genetics is a synthetic biology company that synthesizes enzymes and high efficiency microbes for applications in food, agriculture, fuels, and therapeutics. The name Primordial comes from their work on basic genetic material.
As an entrepreneur, he cycled a few times between 4 stages: denial (I am not good enough for this); fear (what did I get myself into?!); clarity and action (ok, we can do this); and payroll and revenue generation challenges. Challenges have not been insurmountable, though, as the company has been operational for 7 years, during which Helge gained confidence and learned to navigate the hardship.
The right environment contributed to the company’s success. Environment includes the physical location (JLab in San Diego was the ideal place to start, with great infrastructure, support, and smart people) as well as the area of focus, team members, collaborators, and investors. Find like-minded individuals to work with, recognizing that with growth comes a change in environment. Also, know thyself: as the predictions of the Oracle of Delphi, what you do is meaningless if you do not know who you are.
Dr. Molly He
Molly grew up in China as the only child of math teachers. Even as a child, she was a risk taker and had a rebellious spirit. She decided to go to college in a town far from where she grew up and, thanks to a scholarship, was financially independent. Another scholarship allowed her to attend graduate school at UCLA. Although she was not sure what she wanted to study, she fell in love with biology and protein structure thanks to her mentor. After working in structure-based drug design, she went to Illumina to start a new group and, by the time she left, she was managing 3 teams in different countries. An opportunity arose to work for a venture capital firm doing technical due diligence. She decided to take the job to see what was on the “other side.” While working there, she and 2 friends decided to start a business and met for brainstorming sessions at the UCSD library. She left the venture capital firm to focus on the new company and became the CEO of Element Biosciences. Good technical expertise and attitude are more important for a CEO than a previous experience as a CEO.
What drives Element is not only the science, but also a culture based on integrity and honesty. A challenge is certainly hiring people who value authenticity, respect, and teamwork, put the company before their personal goals and ambitions, and are motivated to finish what they started. Innovation is great, but to create a viable product you also need to overcome challenges and finish the job. Also the investors need to embody a culture of integrity and authenticity and provide not only money, but also mentorship, network, and guidance.