Emilia is the founder and CEO of Kaitek Labs a biotech company based in Santiago, Chile that’s creating assays and environmental biosensors based on “bacterial computers.” She is also a regional blogger for Trade Secrets: a blog from Nature Biotechnology. Emilia was a Leader of Tomorrow at the inaugural GapSummit, and we asked her to catch us up on her experience since, how things have been progressing with Kaitek Labs, and how she’s continuing to embody the GBR ethos.
It’s odd to stop and think it’s been over two years since I attended GapSummit. It was the first time I went abroad for an event, workshop, anything structured or work-related, really. The first time traveling alone, and the first of many trips I have since embarked on as part of my work with Kaitek.
It was also the first time I was recognized in my field of work.
I don’t have a college degree – I took an extended leave of absence in 2013 to found my company – and for years it’s been a chip on my shoulder. No matter how well I did with regard to my startup, there was always this nagging voice in my head saying “Sure, you did this, but how can you say you know about this subject? How can you say you are able to do this?”
I don’t live in Silicon Valley. I’m from a country where a degree means a status and a life. I was scared to death that I would never be taken seriously, in science nor business, because of my unfinished formal education.
So, when I got the email saying that I had been selected as part of the first generation of 100 young bio-leaders of tomorrow, I cried. I shut the voice down for a while. I stopped using my lack of a degree as both a crutch and an excuse and just moved forward. I got the company moving. I secured our funding for three years of development in synthetic biology, which was insane considering how little we had, how young I was, and how my country is a recognized laggard in technology adoption – biotech being no exception.
I went on to open a shoe box-sized independent lab where we are developing the prototype of our first product. The project ended up being recognized in many contests internationally; I became the first woman (and person from outside the US) to win the International Business Model Competition by BYU, and was a part of Singularity University’s GSP 15 class as a leader in exponential technology. (See Emilia pitching at the 2015 IBMC in the video above.)
In December last year, I was chosen as one of the 100 young leaders and 100 women leaders of my country. A typical expression used here is “one is never a prophet in one’s own land.”
The nagging voice is still there, and sometimes it’s my friends, my mentors, my professors. But it’s different now. We both understand each other a little better: the voice loves my small victories and knows I am working hard, and I know I need to keep striving to grow in every possible sense of the word.
“Statistically speaking, it will take something in the order of a thousand years for one phage and one bacterium to meet within one milliliter of fluid.” This is a direct quote from a paper by Hagens, Loessner et al. in Bacteriophage for Biocontrol of Foodborne Pathogens. When I read it, I had two of those weird shower-time revelations. First, that out of context quotes from scientific papers can sound like a pseudo-deep meme. Second, that even though key connections are statistically improbable, they happen.
In one way or another, I supported three people in their quest to attend this year’s GapSummit. One I have known for a couple of years now, another I only had the pleasure to share a few weeks with, and the third I had never met in person. Two of them hail from my country and the other from abroad. All three of them are wonderful, dedicated entrepreneurs.
Would they have met otherwise? Two of them wanted to apply without me mentioning it. The third, I convinced. I guess they would have, sooner or later – I, or any other particular person, was not and wouldn’t have been instrumental in them meeting, considering the scope of the world the three of them work in. But the event itself probably was.
This sort of event is what densifies connections. The point of putting so much effort into choosing the right people is to multiply the possibility of generating meaningful links among them. And I think that, having gone through one of such programs, you end up with the responsibility of further developing this network. To go back to my terrible fake deep analogy, whoever was lucky enough to record a successful interaction, should at least share their methods with their colleagues. Wow, that was terrible. I hope you get it.
Growing pains are common for startups, as they are for any small thing striving to become bigger. But times are slower for biotech startups, and the pains – I believe – last longer. Most of us don’t really know what we are doing (or maybe that’s just me) and we find ourselves hard-pressed to give answers to questions we never even considered before. We try to solve the problem on the spot, we bluff, we answer from our best knowledge of an unknown future situation. We fail, most of the time.
Growing pains as a leader, I think, last even longer. There are weird growth spurts where you suddenly gain popularity, recognition, and a looming impostor syndrome. And then nothing happens for a while that’s always a bit too long for your liking, where it seems like you just stalled, and everyone else is growing, and if you don’t do something to catch up soon you will be left behind.
The oft-repeated cliché of entrepreneurship being a roller-coaster did not prepare me for what living and breathing your company really means. I’m not sure anything can prepare you for suddenly winning a US$30,000 prize, then sitting through a 2-part 5-hour meeting where your directors drill you to the ground, then being flown across the globe for free giving talks, then coming back to the lab and seeing that your fridges died on you and so did all your cultures.
The one thing that prepares you for all of this, and badly, is to go through with it. The one thing that makes you grow is to see everything crumbling. You don’t step up when the spotlight shines on your reddened face after a successful pitch, you grow when your key partner says they are leaving and you are slandered in the media and your prototype just does not work and your team is about to burst into tears every damn day.
Two years after Gap Summit, I am at one of those points where you see everyone moving forward around you – even the “younger, newer” ones that maybe you connected yourself – and you feel like you are left behind. If you are too, don’t despair.
Growth staggers sometimes – but that’s only the visible kind. Every day moving forward you continue to grow, even if it does not show right now. Continue challenging yourself, giving back by making connections that you are not part of, and, little by little, continue to grow.
Founder and CEO