StartupsBiotech Companies Are Hard. These 21-Year-Olds Raised $2.2 Million For Theirs.

Young entrepreneurs start a variety of different businesses. Most successful ones are internet business; fewer of them start product-businesses that end up selling well. A rare bunch are the young entrepreneurs who run successful biotech companies. The truth is, biotech businesses simply drain too much money most of the time. For instance, $1 million in funding for a social media app might be able to allow a few great engineering and product hires that allow...
Steven LiSeptember 10, 2018

Young entrepreneurs start a variety of different businesses. Most successful ones are internet business; fewer of them start product-businesses that end up selling well. A rare bunch are the young entrepreneurs who run successful biotech companies.

The truth is, biotech businesses simply drain too much money most of the time. For instance, $1 million in funding for a social media app might be able to allow a few great engineering and product hires that allow the business to get off the ground. $1 million in biotech doesn’t go much further than basic lab equipment and a small sample of biomaterials.

That’s why I was curious to learn about Avro Life Science, a startup that develops stickers for disease diagnosis that just raised a $2.2 million seed round, was admitted to the prestigious Y-Combinator accelerator for its Winter 2018 batch and received $100,000 from the Thiel Foundation as a part of the Thiel Fellowship.

The catch? Avro’s founder, Shak Lakhani, is a 21-year-old University of Waterloo dropout. Today, we learn about how Lakhani got Avro off the ground, especially in his college days, and where Avro hopes to go in the future.

Steven: It’s possible to start an internet company with not too much money. But how did you get Avro off the ground?

Shak: When we first got started we worked with very cheap biomaterials (and in very small quantities). Once we had the idea for Avro, we reached out to professors at UWaterloo and eventually we got a lab position. But if a young entrepreneur is out of school, he/she can reach out to co-working spaces or DIY hackerspaces that might lend you space in their lab. That’s more or less what happened with Velocity [the accelerator program at University of Waterloo].

Steven: There are a lot of interesting topics in science right now. What got you interested in making the drug discovery process easier?

Shak: When I was still at university, I worked in a research lab developing brain tumor models for drug discovery. I noticed that the discovery process was inefficient. My co-founder has a background in pharmaceuticals. We figured we could try to try to make the process more efficient so we began figuring out ways to diagnose MS, dementia, and saving companies time in doing so.

Steven: What did your learning process look like in order to get to a point where you could start

Shak: I had some basic knowledge of drug discovery from the research I had done at Waterloo, but after that it was reading a lot of literature [papers written by scientists]. And following the companies that were already successful in the industry but trying to find an improvement upon what they were doing. That’s what it looked like from a technical standpoint. From the business side, it was pretty much all trial by error.

Steven: I think most of the time it’s a meaningless question to ask, “how has your age limited your progress,” but I think it’s an important one in biotech particularly. How did you convince investors that you had an edge over academics who have been at it for a long time?

Shak: Like any other business that institutional investors invest in, our tech needed to be valid. Once we proved that our core tech worked, we had to de-risk. Although we’re all about changing the way that drug discovery is done, we at the same time have to follow certain steps that traditional pharmaceutical companies take. Investors, from a financial standpoint, want to de-risk, so we can’t just disregard all the fundamental principles that make traditional pharmaceutical companies successful.

Steven: Let’s talk about intellectual property. Should young founders be worried about keeping their IP if they do decide to work with professors on campus?

Shak: We used equipment space and were mentored but weren’t guided through the entire process of creating the first product for Avro. University of Waterloo was very nice about this. The school let us keep the intellectual property, so it ended up not being a huge issue, but young founders should definitely keep an eye out for what the lab’s expectation is.

The drug discovery process is often lengthy and expensive. Drug discovery lies central to combatting diseases that plague humanity today. Work in this area is clearly both expensive and difficult.

Shak’s work with Avro is a testament to the fact that it’s possible for young people have a way to get involved in areas that commonly reserved for academics. Fields like biotech that conventionally take millions of dollars in capital often seem far outside the reach of young people to a point where it appears that young entrepreneurs like to pursue ventures in spaces that require lesser amounts of educational background.

And although there’s nothing wrong with opting to create businesses that are less technical and capital-intensive, young people should be encouraged to take challenges in fields where the odds are stacked quite heavily against them.

Fields like biotech. They’re the ones that benefit humanity most. And that’s why young people should get an early start.

Steven Li

Steven is the founder of ProjectileX, Managing Editor of Youth Business Collective, Fellow at Stanford’s Designership Institute, and Member of the Youth Skills Initiative at Global Business Coalition for Education.

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