By Helge Zieler, Ph.D.
Playwright Natalie Clifford Barney once said, “entrepreneurism is the last resort of the trouble-making individual.” It’s a statement that describes me, and so many of my fellow startup founders, very well. My own journey began when I left a prestigious lab at Stanford to live in the Africa for a year after grad school. It was a life-changing experience that helped me convert natural trouble-making tendencies into entrepreneurial ambition along the way.
I never quite found my place in bigger companies and at some point decided that to thrive and to be happy and to do something that was meaningful to me I had to start my own company. I was a scientist and I saw the need for new genetic technologies in order to achieve improvements in microbes. That widespread need drove me to start our company, but I have to say it was terrifying initially. I never thought of myself as an entrepreneur. This was really just the most natural path that suggested itself to me, originating from a personal drive to make a global difference.
Now, I feel compelled to share some lessons from my formative experience Africa years ago that I believe carry modern relevance to the health and life sciences industry today.
Embrace Rebellion: Choose Your Own Path
At some point in graduate school, I realized that the normal path to a career in life sciences – classroom to lab to the real world of labs and classrooms – felt limiting. I went to my PhD advisor one day and told him I wanted to take a year off to do more medically relevant work. The advisor was Nobel prize winner Paul Berg.
We talked about my desire to do more applied work. To his credit, Professor Berg was very supportive. He understood that impulse and the need (from his scientific mentoring point of view) to allow graduate students who had that desire to change the world to express that, without letting the path of scientific learning stop at graduate school. So, he gave me the ability to combine both into a year abroad doing malaria field work.
The lesson I learned from Professor Berg – that successful career paths manifest in very different ways for people – is one that has helped me make the hard decisions time and time again as I built a startup and founded my business.
Foster Community: You Never Know Where Help Will Come From
During my year in Africa, I joined a project set up to investigate malaria transmission and document the various ways people contract the disease. I arrived at the field work site from comfortable Palo Alto and immediately realized that I had practically no infrastructure supporting my new lifestyle. What I did have was a little Suzuki Jeep-like vehicle that was broken down a lot and occasionally worked.
Living in a place without access to modern resources like public transportation and brick-and-mortar hospitals is a lot like building a startup – you have to rely on yourself to find opportunities for relationship building and community engagement, you have to build trust with locals in order to gain access the food you need, you need to contribute to the welfare of an entire place to be able to minimize personal welfare risks. That experience gave me a sense of trust in the world and a resourcefulness. I saw the resilience that comes naturally to the people in the face of economic, social and healthcare adversity.
Entrepreneurs on the path to innovation also need to rely on themselves and others to rise above crowded fields of fellow creators. To be an entrepreneur means that there’s a community you rely on. Be happy to rely on it. Be happy to be part of it. Contribute to it and give back to it, and keep it going in every way that you can.
Build Infrastructure: You Can’t Do It Alone
I am forever grateful that I did take the year off. I left my comfort zone (a lab), worked on a Malaria field project that was fascinating, then came back. I came back really only because Professor Berg had displayed this sense of understanding and accommodation. He also wanted to help me find my path.
Leaving comfort for uncertainty is what every startup company – and its founding team – does. In life science innovation, we try to fill white spaces in the product and scientific map to change the world. That’s a risky endeavor by definition.
In order to mitigate the risk entrepreneurs need defined areas of critical support. It made sense for my company to join a life sciences-oriented incubator. JLABS helped us get off the ground and create infrastructure without taking any equity or IP. But, whatever the venue or partnership, every entrepreneur has to build the infrastructure necessary for success. From access to facilities and companies to conduct the physical work to mentorship and guidance from leading experts in the field, to proximity to other companies and entrepreneurs – every interaction is vital even if the connection isn’t immediately apparent.
Helge Zieler, Ph.D., is the President and Founder of Primordial Genetics.