Cindy Wu, a scientist and the co-founder of crowdfunding platform Experiment, is a bit of an accidental entrepreneur.
“I never wanted to start a company. I am still not very interested in starting or running a company,” the 26-year-old told Nextshark.
Several years ago, Wu was an award-winning researcher denied $5,000 in funding because she was too young and lacked a doctorate degree; more recently, she raised $1.2 million from a three-minute pitch
for her revolutionary startup, receiving praise from Bill Gates and taking a giant leap for scientific research in the process.
At only 19, Wu was part of an impressive research team at Washington University that developed an enzyme that enabled the human immune system to recognize anthrax as a bacterial threat. At 22, Wu’s next endeavor was to do the same thing with staph bacteria.
She faced one critical obstacle, however — she needed $5,000 in funding for supplies.
When she discussed the issue with her professor at the time, he explained to her: “You can’t, because you are 22 years old and you don’t have a Ph.D. and you don’t want more than $25,000.” It was Wu’s first taste of the notoriously difficult and inefficient process of funding scientific research and experimentation.
Wu had stumbled upon a problem much bigger than herself, but by going on to try to help solve it, she would become an entrepreneur in the process. She and her would-be co-founder, Denny Luan, decided to create a crowdfunding platform for small-scale scientific research that would otherwise fall on the wayside of major scientific funding. Wu explained:
“The beauty of science is that you cannot tell which experiments will yield the most valuable advancement at this early stage. I can say I love the experiments where a small amount of money can go a long way. Impactful science does not have to be expensive science. I think a lot of people forget that.”
Wu and Luan taught themselves to code and developed a website, but even that eventually required funding to get off the ground. After a failed attempt to raise funds from investors in Seattle, Wu decided to take another route — apply for Silicon Valley’s elite startup community, Y Combinator. In 2013, after only a 10-minute interview, she was accepted into Y Combinator’s three-month winter boot camp.
With the help and wisdom of YC’s founder community, Experiment (formerly Microryza) was born. On Demo Day, where founders pitch their companies to Silicon Valley’s elite investors, Wu’s three-minute pitch helped her raise $1.2 million in funding and got the attention of Elizabeth Iorns, a renowned cancer researcher and fellow YC founder, and garnered praise from Bill Gates.
To date, Experiment has collected over $3.8 million
from backers to successfully fund 346 experiments in medicine, neuroscience and biology, among many other fields. Now 26, Wu spends her time managing Experiment while taking part in field research and work.
NextShark had the pleasure of catching up with Wu over email, where she discussed some of the greatest lessons she learned during her time at Y Combinator, the challenges she faces in growing Experiment, and how she thinks the scientific community needs to change for the better.
According to Wu, her early passion for science, a field historically dominated by men, developed through her exposure to anthropologist Jane Goodall, and later, because of her work at her university’s laboratory:
“I have always been interested in animals. I recall during kindergarten all I did during recess was run around looking for bugs and caterpillar eggs under leaves. When I was 10, my teacher assigned our class a book report on a biography. I knew I wanted to work with animals, but I didn’t know what that meant in the real world. The only book available was a biography of Jane Goodall, so for a while I wanted to be Jane Goodall.
“I didn’t realize that I could be a real scientist until my freshman year at University of Washington when I started working in a zebrafish lab studying tuberculosis. I got paid hourly and all I did was feed the fish and culture brine shrimp, but being in the laboratory allowed me to realized the potential of science.”
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Greatest Lessons from Y Combinator
We asked Wu about some of the greatest lessons she learned at Y Combinator. She said:
“I have a note on my laptop that I look at every day. I must have learned some of these lessons at Y Combinator, but I’m not certain which ones. They’re not in any particular order, but the first 2 come before the bottom 5.
- Don’t die.
- Make more money than you spend.
- Believe in yourself.
- Be persistent.
- Build an exceptional team.
- Don’t let your company come before yourself.
- Be obsessive about growth.”
While Wu comes from a scientific background, she has been able to manage the business aspect of her startup well — in fact, she says, scientists make for great business minds.
“I don’t think you will ever meet a founder that doesn’t find running the business aspect of running a startup challenging. I believe that having a science background is an advantage over a business degree, especially when you are trying to run a business. It sounds counterintuitive, but scientists are great at forming hypotheses and testing these hypotheses with data. You absolutely need this skill to be successful in business. The only alternative that I know of is that you can also be successful in business by just being lucky.”
Life After Y Combinator
Wu also explained one of the greatest perks of being in the Y Combinator community:
“Few people outside of Y Combinator realize that Y Combinator doesn’t end after the 3-month program. As a founder you have access to the partners for as long as you are still working on your company. Many of the partners also become your friends. I still regularly meet with a few Y Combinator partners to discuss our new challenges.
“The Y Combinator founder network is also extremely powerful. Whenever our team has a question me and Denny do not know how to answer, often our first resource is the Y Combinator founder list. You generally get a response in a few minutes. I also find my most valuable mentors are my friends who are also founders currently running companies.”
Business and Personal Challenges
Being a niche crowdfunding platform, growing Experiment over time poses it’s own challenge, but to invest in a company like that means investing in the people, Wu explained.
“The greatest challenge is a people challenge. I believe that our team is the most valuable asset. If you build an exceptional team, your team will figure out how to grow. Second to that would be the community. As a company we work with and for our scientists. We serve the scientific community and we will always do what is best for our scientists.”
Wu explained the challenge every entrepreneur and startup founder faces over time:
“If I’ve learned one thing in the last four years, it is that things change. And in startups, things change fast. I think it is very important for founders to grow a little bit faster than the needs of the company. As a founder, you have to be proactive about this and always be one step ahead. When you’re building something that no human has built before I would say it is a great challenge.”
Women in Science and Entrepreneurship
When it comes to women in science and entrepreneurship today, it’s widely known that there is a lot left to be desired in terms of opportunity and equality. Wu touched on her own first-hand experience and the one thing she would change about the scientific community:
“Resources for people in general are never sufficient. And, opportunities are never distributed fairly. I may be overly idealistic and optimistic, but I believe we can build a world where anyone can be a scientist. And, in this world the same resources will be available to anyone that wants to science.
“I observe a bias in the scientific community towards women everyday. However, I also observe a bias in the scientific community towards men as well. A lot of things have to change. We can start to encourage change, but ultimately the scientific community has to want to change.
“If I had a magic wand and could change one thing I would make all research papers, results and protocols open access. We cannot move forward if we prevent humans from accessing the knowledge we already know as a species.”
Dealing with Startup Stress
According to Wu, being a young female entrepreneur requires the positive mindset of a strong, driven and passionate problem solver:
“When I started out building Experiment I used to stress a lot. Now, I am rarely stressed or worried. I wake up knowing today will be the best day of my life. Not many people can say that. I believe there is a solution to everything. I wake up everyday and give my team and our community my best. If I do that I will eventually find the solution to all of our known problems.”
To end our interview, we asked Wu about the kind of legacy she wanted to create and leave behind — her candid answer revealed her true passion for the future of science:
“I never wanted to start a company. I am still not very interested in starting or running a company. I care a lot about building a world where anyone can be a scientist, but we are not going to be able to do this with just me, Denny and our team.
“There is a movement happening right now in the scientific community where very soon all science will be democratized. You have two options: you’re either in or you’re out. And, I’m in. We are doing everything in our power to make this reality happen as fast as possible.”