Adina Mangubat is the founder and CEO of Spiral Genetics. She was named one of Forbes ’30 Under 30′ in 2013 for Science and Healthcare, and one of the Washington Biotechnology and Biomedical Association’s Women to Watch in Life Science. Adina has twice been a speaker at the GapSummit and a mentor for the Voices of Tomorrow Competition.
We were fortunate to get some time to catch up with Adina and get her thoughts on the GapSummit, careers and career development in biotech, and being a young biotech entrepreneur. This is part two of our Q&A. Read part one here.
Founded by Adina, and her co-founders Becky Drees and Jeremy Bruestle in 2009, Spiral Genetics is at the cutting-edge of bioinformatics solutions.
You and Spiral recently did a deal with Microsoft. Congrats, on that! Is it ever daunting dealing with these big industry giants? And, if it is, what do you do to bypass any mental barriers that comes with that?
Adina: (Laughs) You know I used to really be freaked out by people with big fancy titles from big corporations or multinational firms. Over time one of the things I’ve really realised is that ultimately all of these people are just like you and me.
They have lives of their own that look very, very similar if not exactly the same as our own. They brush their teeth. They have jobs. They have pets, kids, houses, etc. When you really think of people as just people instead of dealing with the entity –“Microsoft” – and all of the things that come with that, it’s not really actually all that scary, because the people themselves are not scary. They’re just people, there’s nothing daunting about it.
So, I would say in terms of bypassing the mental barriers, get connected to the reality of what’s there. It’s you and other people, sitting in a room, having a conversation about something you’re going to write down on a piece of paper and sign. So, it’s actually nothing.
There are lots of ways to make yourself feel bad or scared about it, but ultimately when it gets down to it and you remove all of the titles and glamour, or whatever it is you want to put on top of it, that’s all it is. People. Talking. Paper. Signing.
Your background is actually in psychology originally; you did a Bachelor of Science in Psychology. But Spiral is a very specialist technically-driven company. How have you overcome this as a non-technical founder in a biotech company and particularly as a younger person? Did you just go out and seek that expertise and absorb it?
Adina: Yeah, absolutely. That’s exactly how it went, there’s no magic voodoo here. There was a subject that I didn’t know a lot about and now I know about it. I started the company when I was 22 right out of university, where I spent four years learning things about things I didn’t know before. So, I actually had a lot of experience doing that.
I would say that one of the things that I discovered in this whole process is that the technical co-founders are absolutely necessary since they come up with the brilliant ideas and technology. But we all know people that created brilliant technologies and ideas that never made it out into the world. It really requires a lot of other pieces in order to fund and bring technology to market.
A lot of that has to do with the psychology of other people. Raising money, sales, great team dynamics, are all driven by people and it’s all psychology. I bring the people aspect. I take all of the cool technical stuff that my co-founders have created and make it relatable and understandable to other people in the world, who don’t know anything about it. I want to emphasise that you can’t get away with not knowing anything about the field. I had to learn quite a bit about bioinformatics to be able to do that. But the ability to condense and simplify is incredibly important to raise money, because I can tell you that nobody with capital is going to sit down with you for five hours while you whiteboard out the technical, brilliant solutions.
A lot of the time you have ten minutes to explain what it is that you do and why you’re better than everybody else, and why they should take an additional hour or two of listening to you.
Co-founders are like the three legs of a stool. I’m the business- and people-focused person, Jeremy’s the computer science, Becky’s the biology, and together we create Spiral.
Adina speaking during the People Gap panel discussion at GapSummit 2016.
About the broader industry and entrepreneurship, Spiral operates in the bioinformatics space. It’s probably fair to say it’s a bit less capital intensive than some other areas in biotech. Do you think these kind of capital requirements in biotech entrepreneurship – do you think it’s a limiting factor for young people getting involved? And, if so, what do you think can be done about it?
Adina: Not necessarily. Yes, software bioinformatics requires less capital, but youstill need substantial capital. Ultimately, the investors that invest in software versus the investors that invest in pharmaceutical drugs are just different. They have different expectations about what is a reasonable amount of money to give for what is a first stage, second stage, third stage. There’s an expectation and understanding for a pharmaceutical investment that it’s going to take a certain amount of money to get it through Phase I, to get through Phase II, etc.
So I don’t think that there’s a specific inherent bias that “Oh my gosh, if it costs a lot of money, young people can’t do it.” I don’t think that’s the case at all.
In fact, I’ve definitely met very young super-brilliant people that have been able to do that. If you look at the Forbes ’30 Under 30′ list – there are people all over that list that have done just that, and they’re young, and they’re able to raise piles of money for their inventions.
Raising money is not easy. And being young can definitely have its challenges in that, especially if it’s a first time. I would say that’s not a “youth” thing, it’s a “Have you had enough life experience to fail and learn from your failures?” thing.
Do you think there could be more of an expertise gap? A lot of the time in biotech, the people who go off and start up pharmaceutical start-ups for instance are academics using their research. Do you think that can be a sort of barrier at all?
Adina: Maybe, but I also know a 19-year old that figured out a new way to make cancer drugs. And another 19-year old that decided they really wanted to be able to transform the funding situation for human longevity and they raised a fund.
People have told other people “You can’t do this,” since the dawn of time. I think it’s really up to us whether or not we listen to that or not.
If I had listened to a number of people who told me that I was crazy, I would have never have done Spiral Genetics. I got hundreds of those people. I remember a specific conversation that I had with an Angel investor after I had already raised a half a million dollars for my company. They said to me “You’re too young. You should take all of the money that you’ve gotten and you should give it all back to the investors, because you’re going to fail.”
So, people will tell you all the time that you can’t do it, and you can choose to listen to them or you can thank them for their feedback and do what you’re going to do anyway. You may have difficulty raising capital but that’s not going to be unique to you. Everyone has war stories for a reason.
In short, don’t let being young be a limiting factor in creating a company. And if you need more experience, great, then partner with people that have more experience in a particular industry. That doesn’t mean that you can’t drive your ideas forward.
I think that’s great in terms of leading into our final question. If you had one key message or lesson you’ve learned so far for our Leaders of Tomorrow and our broader GBR community – young people who want to go out and start their own initiatives, start their own company, make a difference – what would that key lesson or message be?
Adina: Hmm, I would say the biggest thing that I really encourage people to do if they’re going to start their own thing is make sure that it’s something that you do really, really, really care about. Start something that you’re irrationally passionate about, because you are going to dedicate the next 5+ years of your life to it.
My philosophy is that if you’re going to dedicate the next X number of years of your life to something it better be darn good. And I can also tell you that it’s hard. They call it the start-up roller-coaster for a reason!
Starting something from nothing is really, really hard. And you’ll have all sorts of things that come up for you. Sometimes the only thing that’s going to keep you going through all of the craziness that will undoubtedly appear is if you are doing it because you care about what it is that you’re creating in the world – the difference you want to see in the world.
Do not do it for the money! Statistically, over 90% of start-ups fail. If you’re interested in money, it’s not the way to go! If you’re interested in making a difference in a way that hasn’t been realised in the world so far, great! Then do that. And know that it will be difficult, but that if you really want that thing to exist in the world then it will be totally worth it.
Thanks so much for taking the time to talk, Adina.