uBiome sequences the microbiome (the trillions of microorganisms on our bodies) for consumers and researchers.
Q: Tell us about your background before you started uBiome.
I started and sold a company after high school, then went to Stanford for undergrad (studied interdisciplinary engineering) and then Oxford. I was doing my PhD in computational social science (studying the mathematics of social networks), when I started a crowdfunding campaign for uBiome. We raised $350,000 in 10 weeks– over 3.5x our goal and with 10x the numbers of the NIH-funded Human Microbiome Project. We knew we were onto something! My goal was to use my computational skills in the emerging field of the genetics of the microbiome and see if I could really make a difference.
Q: Tell us about your origin story. Why the microbiome?
The NIH-funded Human Microbiome Project (HMP) was a five-year, $173 million endeavor to better understand the human microbiome that ran from 2007 to August 2012. We started our crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo in November 2012– right after it ended. We wanted to take the results of the HMP and bring them directly to the public, enabling all of us to learn about our microbiomes and participate in science as soon as possible– without waiting years and years for the results to trickle down into products and services that people could use.
The microbiome has been called one of the "most important discoveries of our lifetime". It is implicated in so many facets of human health and wellness. I couldn't miss the opportunity to be a part of the beginning of the microbiome revolution.
Q: Do you have any advice for founders making the switch from academia to startups?
I have a lot of hard-won advice! The first is to make really good use of your time in academia. There are so many resources there for you; your schedule is flexible; and you have a lot of time to think. Use that time wisely to find something you're very passionate about and see how your skills can apply (even in a totally different field).
Second, academia is at a very different pace than startups. They are about opposite in terms of the pace of projects. In a startup, it might take a day to do something that takes months in academia. Get used to feeling the wind in your hair as you move faster in a startup! Finally, academic institutions can really help you in terms of meeting co-founders, getting technical help, and even incubating your startup. We started our lab at QB3 at UCSF, and their help was invaluable.
Q: Tell us about your experience at YC.
YC was…amazing. It was a fantastic source of advice, inspiration, and fellowship. I thought it would be life-changing before we got in, and it surpassed my (already high) expectations.
Q: What is the atmosphere like at YC during those 3 months with Demo Day approaching?
YC is very focused. The motto is to "make something people want" and the partners advise you to drop all of the unimportant things and focus on making products that make your customers happy, driving growth and/or revenue. Weekly check-ins make sure that you keep your eye on what's important and don't get lost in the early startup morass of tech culture and bs.
Q: What's the most surprising thing you've learned so far?
We learned to make some really radical changes to our team and company operations. YC gave us the courage (and the guidance) to make some changes that initially were difficult but were really important going forward.
Q: Was being female either an advantage or disadvantage in working on your startup?
I'd like to say otherwise, but I think there's a lot of inherent sexism in Silicon Valley. Being female didn't affect my time in YC, but it definitely affects you in other settings. You just have to work harder, though, and turn disadvantages into advantages.
Q: What do you wish someone had told you when you were 15?
It gets better.