Starting a Company as a Grad Student

An interview with Marinna Madrid, PhD

Meet Marina:

Marinna is a physicist by training and co-founder of Cellino, a biotechnology company that is building the leading platform to scale personalized stem cell-derived therapies, with the goal of unlocking regenerative medicine for hundreds of millions of patients. The platform technology is multidisciplinary - based on laser physics, stem cell biology, and machine learning. She and her co-founder, Nabiha Saklayen, started Cellino in 2017, while Marinna was still a graduate student, after discovering that their research had valuable applications in synthetic biology.

Marinna has a BS in biophysics from the University of California, Los Angeles, and a PhD in applied physics from Harvard University. She didn’t discover her love for science until after she had graduated high school, but that has clearly not hindered her ability to make significant contributions in biophotonics. Beginning a startup was not what she had originally envisioned for her career, but after winning a startup pitch competition while still a student at Harvard, she and her research partner Nabiha decided to take the leap.

Marinna loves the variety and the endless opportunities to learn new skills that running a startup provides. She has a strong focus on communication and team dynamics as critical elements of success, and she brings this focus to her leadership role in Cellino.

Below is an excerpt of my interview with Marinna to discuss her career path so far. (Look for the full interview to appear in my forthcoming book, Shaping the World: The Privilege of Being a Scientist in Industry)

An excerpt from our conversation:

Dave:   Starting a company is not what most PhD students are focused on in their final year of graduate school. How did you come to do that?

Marinna: I definitely couldn't have done it without my co-founders. Nabiha has always had a really strong network of mentors, and she helped us get a lot of outside support.

But a critical moment in our decision to start the company was the startup competition that SPIE holds every February at the Photonics West Conference. We had decided on a whim to apply to the competition, but our ‘startup’ was really no more than a proof of concept demonstration in the lab at the time. We still hadn't figured out what our market or target application was yet. I remember thinking that we weren't going to do very well because everybody else in the competition was much older and appeared very experienced, and their startups were way farther ahead of ours.

But I gave the pitch and we ended up getting first place and some money as a prize. Once you have funding, a startup becomes a reality. That was really validating for us and encouraged us to keep pursuing it. A lot of PhD research only seems useful to the people working on it, but winning the competition showed us that that wasn't the case for our research. It showed us that this technology could potentially be useful to the outside world.

So Nabiha spent the entire summer after the startup competition doing customer discovery, asking biologists who found our technology interesting what they might use it for. I spent that time in the lab doing proof of concept experiments based on those conversations. From that we convinced ourselves that what we were doing could be applied to interesting problems that people actually care about.

The ‘correct’ way to build a business is to identify the problem first, and then figure out the best possible solution for that problem. But when you're creating a startup out of a PhD project you are working backwards. You’re starting with the solution and then trying to find the right problem that your solution can solve.

Dave:   I've seen that with so many entrepreneurs coming out of universities. They have a technology and are in search of a problem. That's a tough hill to climb.

Marinna: Yes, it sure is. You spend a lot of time just trying to find the right market fit and the right application. And once we found the application we were really interested in, the work that we had done during our PhDs was not even necessarily the perfect solution – so as a result the technology that we’ve developed at Cellino has actually evolved far beyond what Nabiha and I were doing during our PhD days.

Dave:   Did you have support from your advisor?

Marinna: Our advisor is very entrepreneurial, and he’s not the type to expect all of his mentees to stay in academia. He has created a few startups, especially in the education space. We are also part of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) STEX25 startup group and so we’ve gotten support from them. Cellino’s seed funding comes from The Engine, which is MIT’s venture fund, so even though we did our PhDs at Harvard, we've been really connected to the MIT community. They do such a good job of translating science out of the research lab.

The Engine really believes in the original inventors sticking around and running the startup, especially at this early stage. It’s important for a tech company to be able to articulate what they're doing to the outside world, so you need someone on the team who's really close to the technology. In the past, there was more of a tradition of a scientist inventing something and then a businessperson carried it through the different phases of building the business. I think now there's more of a trend of scientists building the company and picking up the business skills along the way.

Dave:   People often assume that being a scientist and an entrepreneur require very different strengths. What do you think about that?

Marinna: I think many strengths that come from being a scientist are valuable for being an entrepreneur. For one, you're good at learning new things. The PhD degree is all about that. You take on a project that is on a brand-new topic that is so specialized that you didn't learn anything about it in your coursework. To be successful you have to figure out on your own what you need to know and where to learn it.

That's definitely the case in the business world as well. As a scientist who becomes an entrepreneur, there is so much you need to learn about. Being independent, self-motivated, and able to learn things on your own is really helpful.

The other thing that I’ve found really helpful is being data driven, because it helps to make many decisions. For example, when evaluating certain business deals it comes naturally as a scientist to look up data on other similar deals to compare to the one you are considering.


Find Marina's LinkedIn profile here.

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