SDEE Founders Tales - Three Founders Share their Startup Experience

On October 17th, 2018, SDEE hosted the Founder’s Tales event at Bella Vista Social Club & Caffe and Roth Auditorium of the Sanford Consortium for Regenerative Medicine. ALT sponsored the event and provided all the food and beverages for the networking reception. A lot of people came out to listen to Samantha Urban, Fabio C. Tucci, and Cydne Holt, as they told their stories and shared useful pieces of advice. Randy Schreckhise moderated the discussion.

Samantha Urban

Samantha Urban, CEO & Founder of Urban Translations, is a computer scientist by training. Her company’s software allows hotel guests to interact with the staff, each in their own language.


When your company is just starting out, don’t quit your day job as it takes time to be profitable. You may even need to borrow from your credit card or barter. When asking for money to investors, know your worth but assume that you are not going to be funded. Be bold and ask for more than you need. Actually, ask for money when you don’t need it. First, because it takes time for deals to come through; second, because you have more negotiating power. But do not accept money if something does not seem right and do your due diligence very carefully, both with investors and with partners. Try to get introduced to the right people and build relationships with them.


Especially when partnering with a big company, ensure that roles and responsibilities are well laid out in the contract and assign a person to manage the partnership. Have also a person work on competitive analysis as it is important to know your industry and your competitors. Keep in mind, though, that competitors may become partners down the road. When hiring, find qualified people at networking events or incubators. A CEO cannot interview everybody, so have somebody else do the initial screen. Eventually, give the three top candidates a small project ahead of time and have them present it during the interview, so that you can better evaluate their skills. And hire an assistant, as the $20.00 per hour salary in the end increases the company’s revenue.

Fabio C. Tucci

Fabio C. Tucci, PhD, is the Chief Operating Officer and co-founder of Epigen Biosciences, Inc. He and two other medicinal chemists from Neurocrine started the company 8 years ago after being laid off. As keeping their day job was not an option, they ended up not paying themselves a salary for 2 years.

Fabio and his colleagues decided to focus on a few programs and have control of the medicinal chemistry, as this is their expertise. They relied on collaborators, mainly trusted academics, for pharmacology and DMPK. Epigen has been funded mainly by SBIR and STTR grants and, although they talk to venture capitalists, they have not been funded by them, yet.

Lesson learned

Get along with your co-founders as you spend a lot of time with them. Work on multiple projects at the same time to have a buffer for the “grants gap”. Choose projects that may be of interest to investors or partners.  Build strong intellectual property and establish strong collaborations. Be realistic and know when to stop a project but be patient and persistent during difficult times. Network and ask for help and referrals, first and foremost to colleagues at SDEE.

Cydne Holt

Cydne Holt, PhD is the chief scientific officer and founder of Verogen, Inc. The company spun out of Illumina a year ago to apply next generation sequencing to forensic genomics (FGx) with the mission to serve justice, public safety, and homeland security. Verogen is independent of Illumina and is funded completely by Telegraph Hill Partners, however they have an agreement with Illumina.

Start-up challenges

Cydne stressed again the importance of hiring the right people who, in her case, need to be passionate about the science and comfortable in a small company environment.

Coming out of a well-established company, Verogen’s founders did not realize the importance of things that they had taken from granted, like tech support, administrative staff, business processes, and facility.

Good legal advice is expensive but necessary, as one needs to be very careful when negotiating and signing agreements. Know what you need in the regulatory space. Be careful when choosing venture capitalists and do your due diligence. Do not rush into agreements or expansion and take the necessary time to assess the situation.

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