Y Combinator
Cindy Wu
Founder of Experiment (YC W13)


Experiment is a crowdfunding platform for scientific research.

Q: Tell us about your background prior to starting your startup.

When I was 19, Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) awarded me a grant for young scientists who have no experience with research. During the year that HHMI funded me, I worked on designing new immunotherapies by engineering immune cells. That summer, I also worked with a team of undergraduates to design a new anthrax therapeutic. We published the research in a peer-reviewed journal and the army is now doing follow-up studies.

Q: Why did you start Experiment?

After designing the new anthrax therapeutic, I discovered the drug could also be used an an antibiotic for generic infections. When I asked my professor where I could find $5-10K to test out my hypothesis, he told me: "the system doesn't fund people like you." The funders today are so conservative that they only fund the most obvious ideas– and certainly not ones from undergraduate students without a PhD.

We initially built Experiment for ourselves, but quickly found that early stage funding for ideas was just as big of a problem for tenured faculty. The initial idea for Experiment was inspired by Denny Luan's involvement as a University of Washington campus leader for Kiva.org, building a Kiva for science.

Q: How did you meet your cofounder?

Denny and I met at a college party when he challenged me to a game of Super Smash Brothers. I was Pikachu and I won. Denny wanted a rematch and shortly after we became best friends. We also designed an anthrax therapeutic and DNA circuits together.

Q: What was YC like for you?

You're suddenly surrounded by some of the smartest and most talented people you'll meet. It turns out that these are also some of the kindest people as well. From the moment you get accepted, you're focused on two things: talking to users and building product (you should also exercise). We're extremely lucky that we got into YC because all of our closest friends here now are mostly YC founders. Your batchmates and the YC network become people you can trust.

Q: What is the atmosphere like at YC with Demo Day approaching?

One week before Demo Day we shifted from focusing 100% on growth to crafting our pitch for the presentation. It's an exciting time, but also very stressful. You have to keep up the growth while shifting towards fundraising.

Each team has one founder who practices their 2 minute pitch over and over with the partners prepping for Demo Day. The day before Demo Day, there's Alumni Demo Day where you get to meet YC alumni who are all super supportive of the new founders. During the week leading up to Demo Day there's an indescribable energy in the batch that's probably a combination of anxiety and excitement.

Q: What was the hardest part about being a female founder?

Don't let being a female founder get to your head. In the beginning, I let being a young founder get to my head. If you act like it's not a big deal and truly believe that it's not a big deal, no one will think it's a big deal! When I was pitching investors, it helped to focus on the growth of the company and painting the vision of the world we wanted to live in when Experiment is successful. By focusing on what matters for growing your startup, your age and gender become irrelevant.

For all founders, it is incredibly important to invest in yourself as a person, your personal relationships and don't let the startup take over (it's easy for this to happen!). Because this is not a 1-2 year game– it's a 10+ year game. Being mentally prepared for this is important. For us, we know Experiment is the single startup we want to work on for the rest of our lives.

Q: Why do you think there are fewer startups with female founders than male ones?

I didn't know that being a founder of a startup was an option for me. When we started Experiment, it was just a project to me. I first learned about startups at a Startup Weekend event at University of Washington. Denny convinced me to go because we got free tickets and there would be free food.

When we started Experiment, there were very few females my age (22) that were founders or CEOs of startups. I was lucky enough to meet two female founders: one my age and one in the science tech space. One of these founders was Elizabeth Iorns.

During the early days of Experiment, there were many reasons to quit. I had offers from top PhD programs. I had my dream trip of doing field ecology work in New Zealand planned out.

Identifying with a founder who was 1-2 years ahead of me was really important. Knowing them personally and knowing that they cared about the outcome of Experiment was critical. It might just be that there are fewer of us (female founders) and so it's more difficult to find that person. A combination of that and the fact that founders who are running companies are extremely busy.

Another reason may be that females aren't introduced to technology at a young age. I never would have started Experiment if Denny and I were not already best friends and he wasn't constantly convincing me to do this with him.

Q: What do you wish someone had told you when you were 15?

Don't worry about the future. Focus on what you're curious about right now. Go out in the world and do that. You'll never regret it.