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Six tales from the trenches of running a startup

We asked some previous winners of our 35 Innovators Under 35 award what they’ve learned about innovation since they won.
June 17, 2020
Simoul Alva

Learn other people’s languages

Class of 2018

Cofounded Cellino Biotech, which uses lasers to “program” stem cells.

I became an entrepreneur without knowing what it meant. My collaborators at Harvard Medical School saw how my physics perspective could solve challenges in biology and pushed me into entrepreneurship. However grueling my PhD years in a dark laser lab were, though, they didn’t prepare me for startup life. I had to learn to convince potential customers, investors, and industry veterans to join my pursuit. I had to learn to run a company, hire great people, and sometimes let them go. The biggest thing I’ve learned is that innovation relies heavily on the ability to communicate with people and encourage them to communicate with people with different perspectives from theirs.

Our company has built a platform to produce high-quality cells and tissues for regenerative medicine. That pursuit involves multiple disciplines, which means everyone here is an expert in a different language. Some of us are fluent in stem-cell biology, others in optical engineering, others in machine learning. When we started the company it wasn’t possible to do biology and engineering under the same roof. When we finally moved into a shared space we were able to learn each other’s lexicons, and we became more strongly aligned. And now that we’re all working separately, the bonds created in that process have helped us deal with things. We can’t discuss technical details at our desks anymore, but we’ve learned new ways of working together. It’s important to stay in sync as a team, and in a covid-19 world that’s never felt more true.

Stephanie Lampkin

My path looks different from the paths of others

Class of 2016

Founded Blendoor, a job-search platform that hides candidates’ names and photos in the initial stages to reduce unconscious bias.

I started coding at 13, and that has gotten me pretty far in my career (Stanford, MIT, Microsoft). I once viewed humanities and social science education as “nice-to-haves” but not “need-to-haves.” It wasn’t until I came face to face with the harsh realities of inequity and the paradox of meritocracy that I realized that artificial intelligence is far from solving many of our most challenging problems as a human race (for example, xenophobia, sexism, racism, homophobia, impostor syndrome, and unconscious bias).

The externalities that influence creativity, adoption, and scale are often more important than the innovation itself. To be a successful innovator one has to be really in tune with what’s happening in the world on a global scale (or be really lucky, or better yet both). Venture capital has shortened the learning curve for some innovators, but bias has limited access to venture capital for many. Unconscious bias is like an odorless gas—it’s imperceptible to most, but pervasive and deadly.  

To optimize the innovation ecosystem, institutions must invest more in leveling the playing field. Today and for much of the documented past, innovation has been reserved for the children of middle- and upper-class parents. (Research the founders of companies valued at over $1 billion.) We laud the proverb “Necessity is the mother of invention,” but the people who grow up “needing” the most, independent of their intelligence, are often left out of the innovation game. As with all games, the best players emerge when the barriers to entry are low, the rules/standards are equally enforced, and there is high transparency across the board. 

Audre Lorde once wrote: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”

I am a short, melanin-enriched, queer female on planet Earth. In some ways it’s easier to be innovative when you’re “invisible,” but at some point, you need tools to scale: capital, team, mentorship. The one thing I know now that I wish I had known earlier is that my path toward getting the tools I need looks a lot different from the paths of others. It’s not better nor worse—simply different. The hardest part is carving it out. Now that I know my path isn’t blocked—rather, it just didn’t exist—I’m way better equipped to win.

Heather Bowerman

The government plays a crucial role

Class of 2016

Founded DotLab, which makes diagnostic tests focused on women’s health.

About a decade ago I worked at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, whose goal was to speed up the commercialization of technologies being developed in federally funded labs. While there I saw that some of the most important work done by the government involved things the media paid no attention to—for example, the way it could use investments in research and development to fuel private--sector innovation. 

In 2009, the Obama administration released the Strategy for American Innovation. The idea behind it was to establish the critical nature of federal government support for R&D. In particular it stressed the “spillover” effects, or the idea that investments in such research end up being beneficial to people unrelated to the original investment. Or to put it another way, R&D investment is a “public good.” Analyses at the time suggested that in order to produce economic growth we should be doubling or quadrupling our R&D investments. Instead that spending has since been slashed, especially in basic research. 

President Obama also launched a Lab to Market Initiative meant to speed the path to market for technologies stemming from government--funded research. There were also pilot programs designed to increase the use of government-funded R&D facilities by entrepreneurs, create incentives to commercialization, and improve, among other things, the impact of the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program. 

My own company, DotLab, ended up being a beneficiary. We develop novel molecular diagnostic tests for prevalent yet underserved diseases affecting women’s health. It’s notoriously difficult for this field of early--stage diagnostics to attract private investment, because of unclear regulatory pathways, low reimbursement rates, or resistance to change among physicians—or all of the above. Many promising diagnostic technologies never make it to patients because it’s so hard for these types of companies to get financing. A grant from the SBIR was critical to our early success. I can’t be sure that we’d be here today without it. 

Miles Barr

Nobody does it alone

Class of 2014

Founded Ubiquitous Energy, which makes transparent solar cells that can be put on windows or device screens.

I used to imagine innovators as individuals, as most people probably dothe genius inventor divining solutions in a lab or garage. But this picture that people have is not only wrong; it hinders our ability to innovate effectively.

Eight years ago I cofounded Ubiquitous Energy, a company based on an innovation I’d helped to launch from an MIT laba transparent solar cell that promised new ways of deploying solar technology, like windows that generate energy or consumer devices powered by their own displays. I learned that in the messy, scrappy world of tech startups, the key to innovation is to make it a team sport.

Taking any innovation from the lab to commercial reality requires engaging with all sorts of people. You need to work with engineering, R&D, business development, and sales teams, as well as investors, advisors, and customers. By thoughtfully designing teams and carefully tending to the connections among them, you ensure that innovation doesn’t happen in a vacuum. If you isolate the engineering team you risk creating an “innovative” technology that doesn’t have a customer. If you listen only to the customer you might conceive of a product that can’t practically be made. Neglect investors and you can find yourself with a business plan that nobody wants to fund.

Working among people with competing priorities takes more effort. It means encouraging communication so they’re aware of each other’s needs as they generate new ideas. You have to find a way to invite these ideas in, make it okay for people to disagree respectfully, and encourage the flow of ideas among the various groups. You need each person to focus on his or her task, but not so much that it creates boundaries and kills any sense of creativity in the group. 

I’ve found that viewing innovation as a team sport instills a creative culture that makes an organization better. The innovations that result are far greater than anything that might have come from any one person operating independently.

Abdigani Diriye

Think small sometimes

Class of 2017

Founded Somalia’s first incubator and start-up accelerator; now at IBM Research.

People tend to think innovation can be neatly placed into two categories: incremental or disruptive. They also assume that the only category that really matters is the disruptive kind, where you dramatically transform markets or introduce a novel product. And yes, disruptive innovations in CRISPR, quantum computing, or batteries are undoubtedly worth the headlines. 

But I’ve learned that there is immense value in incremental innovation. When you improve an existing product to cut costs, or when you make that product more efficient or user friendly, that’s what pays the bills. And in fact those little innovations can give you the needed tailwind to go after the disruptive ideas, which can take years to incubate and bring to fruition. Never underestimate the importance of incremental improvements.

Christine Ho

Make friends with mayhem

Class of 2016

Cofounded Imprint Energy, which is developing thin, flexible, and safe print- able batteries.

As a CEO of a startup, you get used to hearing “no.” You also face an endless succession of what feel like earth--shattering crises, like nearly running out of cash, losing a key customer, discovering a widespread product failure—or having to shut down operations because of a global pandemic. But it turns out that these disasters can actually be good for you. In fact, I’m not sure you can innovate without them. Here’s what all our crises have taught me. 

It’s good to be uncomfortable. We once had a key customer request a battery capability that we’d never deployed before. The customer made it clear that if we couldn’t develop this capability they’d be less confident in our product. We wrestled with the risks, not least of which was the potential embarrassment if we couldn’t meet the customer’s needs. We knew we’d face many technical problems with no obvious solutions if we tried to pull it off. Yet we decided to try to satisfy the customer, even if it wasn’t obvious at first how we could get it done. A few weeks later we delivered something beyond what the customer had asked for, and we’ve since grown this capability into a powerful sales tool and potential revenue stream—not to mention it strengthened our relationship with the customer.

Short-term failure is good. A few years ago our company began to scale up our manufacturing output in response to a customer’s need. In the process we discovered aberrations we hadn’t seen during smaller-scale production. Our team dived into failure analysis, and we finally attributed the problem to a single material within the battery. We’d used this material for years, but now we needed a replacement. Once we deployed that change, the battery quality, reliability, and manufacturability drastically improved. 

It’s okay to be vulnerable. One of my hardest days as Imprint’s CEO was the day I found out I was pregnant. We were in the middle of raising a funding round, we had begun scaling our manufacturing output, and I had been traveling nonstop for a year. Until that day, I had assumed that my role as CEO was to exude strength and confidence. With the mounting pressure I was harder on myself than I needed to be, and now I had the added stress of being pregnant. I decided to acknowledge to my team that I was overwhelmed. They rallied together and found ways to operate more efficiently and communicate more effectively, supporting me to focus my time and leverage on our most pressing goals. This gave me not only the space to plan for the company’s future, but also the resiliency to prepare for my own new normal: leading while becoming a first-time mother.

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