Launching a Life Science Startup

by Vael Gates

Jan 22nd, Stanley Hall, Berkeley

Beyond Academia and QB3, the California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences, teamed up together to put on the event “Launching a Life Science Startup” tonight. We first heard from Ioana L. Aanei, Entrepreneurship Program Manager at QB3, to introduce us to entrepreneurship resources on campus.


Dr. Aanei gave a presentation full of tips on how to begin thinking about starting a startup. From reassurance about the average age of startup founders, to strategies for networking, she provided “a high-level overview with pointers that you can use for your journey”. At the heart of it, she said, is the following resource:, which provides an index of the many resources on campus that are ready to help students setting up startups. When you log into this website, there is a directory of groups listed under categories like: New Venture Education, Accelerators and Incubators, Commercialization, Funding, Competitions, Labs and Prototyping, Alumni Networks, and Student Groups. She especially highlighted QB3, FORM+FUND Workshop Series, the advantage of accelerators, Skydeck, CITRIS Foundry, and funding sources. “Don’t give up!” She encouraged. “There are many challenges, but you might end up farther than you ever imagined.”


Dr. Aanei then chaired a panel of Berkeley graduates who had gone on to found startups. Panelist Christy Sheehy is the Co-founder/CEO at C. Light Technologies; panelist Timothy Day is the Co-founder/CSO at DNALite, and panelist Karthik Balakrishnan is Co-founder/CEO at Nodexus, Inc.


Dr. Aanei’s first question was: “Why did you decide to start a company?”

  • Dr. Sheehy explained that she had been an engineer working in the Optometry Department, and as she went to conferences people kept asking if they could buy the machine that she was developing. She finds it inspirational that she can work on a machine that can be used in the real world, and that could be helpful in clinical trials.
  • Dr. Balakrishnan went to graduate school not planning to do research just for research, but wanted to build technologies into a product. He found Berkeley and the Bay Area to be a welcoming environment and started a company where he can keep the same depth of knowledge and focus that is characteristic of a PhD, but look at research problems through different lenses.
  • Dr. Day had always been interested in developing treatments for diseases, and started working on gene therapies in graduate school. As a student, being surrounded by people who were starting companies gave him the inspiration to start his own.


As the questions went on, we learned that two of the panelists continued to have their PhD advisors involved in their companies after they graduated.  The panelists talked about how to contact investors or advisors, and how investor networks can help in building one’s team. They then went on to name three skills they learned on the job:


  • Dr. Day: Persistence, confidence, testing all of your assumptions
  • Dr. Sheehy: Ability to pivot, persistence, ability to go out and talk to people you’ve never met
  • Dr. Balakrishnan: Ability to pivot, confidence (be a salesperson), flexible in your expectations

The panelists also urged the audience members to think about their values and whether they are ready to do a startup before getting started, since it is an endeavor. To wrap up, Dr. Aanei asked the panelists what their favorite parts of their days were. Building on each other’s answers, they agreed that they were astonished at the number and quality of people that they’ve met through this process, and that they enjoy the diversity of their day-to-day and being able to drive their own success.