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Life Sciences Innovation And The Challenge Of Commercialization

About the Interview, Past

How does innovation happen in the life sciences and how does it get to market? With researchers often motivated by curiosity – not commercial value – scientific breakthroughs don’t always translate into market opportunities. So, are science and business compatible? In this SVIC interview Widya Mulyasasmita, chief business officer and founding member of Venn Biosciences, says “yes” and she explains how its done. Widya speaks from a place of experience; before venturing into the world of startups she worked with multinationals on their innovation strategies. She comes down firmly on the side of collaboration. By working together, she says, corporates and startups can achieve great things.



Widya MulyasasmitaVenn Biosciences, Chief Business Officer And Founding Team Member

About Our Guest

Widya is the Chief Business Officer and founding team member of Venn Biosciences, a San Francisco-based life science company combining epiproteomics, artificial intelligence, and epidemiology to develop liquid biopsy tests for cancer diagnosis. Widya was previously the Director of New Ventures at Johnson & Johnson Innovation, overseeing partnership deals across medical device and pharmaceutical sectors on the US West Coast. Widya came to J&J from McKinsey & Company, where she was a management consultant advising clients in healthcare and other industries on corporate strategy, lean operations, and organizational health topics. Prior to McKinsey, Widya worked at GE Ventures Healthcare and co-founded a medical device startup, where she served as Chief Scientist developing biodegradable wound closure devices. Widya received her B.S. in Materials Science and Bioengineering from the University of California Berkeley and her Ph.D. in Bioengineering from Stanford University where she was a Siebel Scholar.
Rahim Rahemtulla: Hello, welcome to Silicon Valley Innovation Center. I’m Rahim Rahemtulla, the SVIC Brand Ambassador. Today, today we bring you an interview with the Widya Mulyasasmita. She is the Chief Business Officer and a founding team member of Venn Biosciences and I’m very pleased to say that she is with us now. Widya, how are you today?

Widya Mulyasasmita: Good, Rahim. How about yourself?

Rahim Rahemtulla: Very good, very good. Very pleased to have you with us. I wanted to ask, to start, about your work which is in the life sciences, I think, broadly speaking. But it’s quite a wide field, so I was hoping you could narrow that down a little bit for us and just give us a brief summary of what life sciences is, what it concerns.

Widya Mulyasasmita: Yes, what a great first question. So if you think about life sciences, a lot of people immediately think about healthcare and a lot of people immediately think about pharmaceuticals and medical device industries, but in my view, life science is so much broader than that. In fact, it’s one of the two major natural science arms, the other being physical science. So the way I see life sciences, they are concerned with the study of living organisms or anything that is derived from living systems. So you can start thinking about bigger scale things like the human organism itself or you can start thinking about something that is more microscopic in level, so things like proteins, your DNA, RNA, I think all of the above are pertinent to life sciences. But I think more importantly, in terms of innovation, it’s important to distinguish between basic life science versus applied life science. So, basic life sciences are like biochemistry or biophysics, whereas, applied sciences, I see things like bioengineering, biomaterials, genomics medicine, even therapy, so topics like those are applied life sciences. So very broad topic, very broad realm and they start bleeding into tech as well. And we can feel that in a real manner in Silicon Valley because we have the tech people interfacing with the bio people to create something that is now called tech bio instead of biotech.

Rahim Rahemtulla: Okay.

Widya Mulyasasmita: So, very broad topic, very exciting time.

Rahim Rahemtulla: And where does then bio sciences fit in?

Widya Mulyasasmita: Yes. So the reason why we are called Venn Biosciences is because we see ourselves as combination of different domains. So biology is one of the domains, like in a Venn diagram, it’s one of the bubbles that we are strong at, while at the same time, there’s the tech component, we use a lot of artificial intelligence algorithms to make sense of the biological data, the proteomics data that we regenerate. And so we combine those into the same company.

Rahim Rahemtulla: And which side do you fall into? Are you more from the bio science side or the tech side?

Widya Mulyasasmita: I’m more on the bioscience side. So I was trained as a bioengineer, but my engineering focus was more on materials and studying biological systems, not so much the tech side.

Rahim Rahemtulla: And how do you find it now, interfacing with the tech people? Does that bring a helpful dimension to your work?

Widya Mulyasasmita: It is helpful. It is a steep learning curve for both sides, I would say, but I think just by virtue of explaining what you’re good at to another person from a different domain makes you a better scientist from both sides because now you’re starting to think about how to bridge and in fact create new values based on the information from the other side that you’ve just received.

Rahim Rahemtulla: And so, how do you see the differences in the way the two sides approach problem solving? Has that been a difficult bridge to cross?

Widya Mulyasasmita: Yeah, so that is an interesting observation actually. So, the founder of Venn Bioscience himself is a blockchain engineer, so he came into the company, he started the company with the initial perception that give him any data, give him a lot of data, in fact, and he can find something out of it.

But very quickly I think he realizes that biological systems don’t really work that way, there are peculiarities that are not explainable by data yet. And so I think having the interactions daily between the tech engineers and the biological scientists in the same room is truly very valuable in terms of just understanding how we start approaching biological questions, using computational tools that are available to the team.

Rahim Rahemtulla: And one thing I read about bioscience is that the way that you solve problems and do research is based on curiosity, simply, and that you will follow a line of inquiry because you interested in it and you want to know where it might go, but you don’t always necessarily know that it’s going to lead to any sort of result that could be commercialized or it’s going to lead to something that could definitely be applied and have some useful function. Is that something you recognize from your own work in bioscience? And then, now that you’re out in the tech world, can you still work that way?

Widya Mulyasasmita: Yeah. So if we think about curiosity-based research, one thing that immediately comes to mind would be research in academia, in universities. And just like any other high-tech industry, biotech and life science relies heavily on academic research, where curiosity and just freedom to imagine things, concepts, are very encouraged because without basic science, there would be no new technologies that can be discovered. So I used to do a lot more curiosity-based research when I was a graduate student at Stanford, but now we have to be more disciplined from the company perspective to pursue something that is commercial in the near term. So I would say that, to answer your question, curiosity-based research is important but it is more suitable in context of academia. Rahim Rahemtulla: And so now you have to pursue ideas which have a sort of clearer potential commercial value.

Widya Mulyasasmita: Yes. Yeah. And, interestingly, I think there are two different ways of thinking about life science innovation. There is one camp that believes that innovation should go from the bench side, meaning the lab side, laboratory benches, to the bedside where it meets the patients. So there is that camp and then there’s also another camp that believes, “Oh, if you start from the bedside, from the patients, the clinical needs and once you understand what the clinical needs are, then you go back to the lab and develop a solution.” So there are two different camps and we need both sides.

And quite interestingly, in the pharmaceutical and biotech world it seems to be coming or pushed from the bench side to the bedside. So things like immunotherapy used to just start from the bench looking at how the immune system interacts with your cancer, whereas a medical device, I think innovation tends to stem from what is being observed by doctors and surgeons in the clinic and then they approached the engineers or the engineers approached them to develop a solution to tackle that. I think that side of the equation in terms of design thinking is very much encouraged by, for example, the Stanford Biodesign program.

Rahim Rahemtulla: And what’s your personal experience with those two different approaches? Where did you come from? Where did you find your interesting new solutions? Or the what were the problems that you tried to solve? Where did they come from?

Widya Mulyasasmita: Yeah, so I was trained as a bioengineer and the way we, at least the bioengineering field, approach a problem tends to be very closely interlinked with what the clinical problems are. So, for example, when I was in graduate student at Stanford, I was in the Material Science department and we would partner with, for example, cancer biologist or a stem cell biologist in the School of Medicine who wants to study or tackle a specific problem and they came to the engineers to look for tools. So if we think about it that way, it was really the intermarriage between what tools you have and you have developed as an engineer plus what clinical problem there is. So, it is a very dynamic process. I think that is becoming the norm now. The world of science and innovation is so porous, there is a lot of interchange between different kinds of experts.

Rahim Rahemtulla: Do you see a lot of movement between the worlds of academia and the startup worlds, the commercial worlds? Do people sort of straddle those two areas?

Widya Mulyasasmita: Yes, and I would say that that observation is particularly acute in the Bay Area where a lot of professors, for example, from Stanford, Berkeley, UCSF, they would go off for a while, leave their labs in university and start companies, whether as part-time or some faculty members even spend a sabbatical trying to start new companies. So there is a lot of just flow of experts and also of knowledge that go in and out of academia into industry.

Rahim Rahemtulla: And what’s the relationship with the business world? It seems to me like you might have academic, scientists who have great ideas and want to maybe start companies with them, but in the business world, those ideas might not be well understood. At the end of the day, those ideas need to be funded. But it strikes me that it could be difficult to find that funding if you’re doing something which is not necessarily easy to explain and the value of what you’re trying to do may not be obvious to non-scientists, or just to the general public.

Widya Mulyasasmita: Yeah, great question. So the way I see it is we need to think about innovation and new technology in terms of its maturity. So if we go back to the concept of basic science, which is just to understand what is happening in the natural system, that, in my view, is less mature in terms of the pathway to commercialization. In fact, it’s just the beginning and as more people study it more is known about that phenomenon, only then can you start thinking about application usually.

Rahim Rahemtulla: So the basic science, the basis of understanding of what is happening is still relatively immature.

Widya Mulyasasmita: Understanding itself is on the early side of the maturity curve of translating basic science into something that is applicable in the commercial world. So I guess one good example might be to the CRISPR technology. So, back in the day, when it was first discovered nearly 20 years ago now, so CRISPR was initially just observed by biologists as a sequence between a bacteria’s DNA that was involved in the bacteria’s adaptive immune system to defend itself against viral attacks, for example. And, at that point, you would be so surprised that, you know, 10, 15 years later, the CRISPR technology could be used to genetically manipulate other living systems, mosquitoes Zika elimination, for example. So if you think about the maturity curve of the CRISPR technology, and the first instance where it was discovered, I don’t think if you go out in the venture capital world to pitch that you, I don’t think it would have gotten much traction. But once more scientists are studying the CRISPR system and also is the Cas system, where you can now start cutting and editing DNA, only then can people start seeing applications. And once that first proof of concept application is realized, then the commercialization, all the investment from the commercial side can start streaming in.

Rahim Rahemtulla: So, is it then, do you think, a better place to pursue these potentially groundbreaking innovative ideas within academia first for some time before they go out in into the world? Because, like you say, once they’re in the commercial sector, you might struggle to get the funding you need, even though you as a scientist might be very convinced that you might really be on some big idea. But if it hasn’t had that proof of concepts, you could have trouble funding it, so you may want to stay inside the academic world.

Widya Mulyasasmita: Yeah, so maybe to answer that question, it is helpful to think about the other side of the equation, meaning if you put yourself in the shoes of the investor, what would you have preferred? So if we think about investment in innovation and science, there is the government and then there are venture capitalists and then there are industry investors, strategic industry from corporate. So those three entities, they have a different timeline in terms of their expectation of getting returns on their investment. So for something that is early in the basic science region, it would be best to get funding from the government because their timeline or expectations on the return on investment on a time-adjusted basis, it’s much more forgiving than, for example, VCs.

Rahim Rahemtulla: And so, what about the corporate side? So I know your background is that you did work prior to Venn Bioscience, a startup, you worked with Johnson & Johnson, which is a big multinational hundred and 40,000 employees. Perhaps not necessarily them specifically, but in the general case, what is their approach to innovation? And did you find that within a corporate context like that you do still have the resources to pursue innovative ideas, even if the commercial application of those me come much further down the line?

Widya Mulyasasmita: Yeah, that is the age-old question, so that distinction between innovation in the corporate setting versus in the startup setting. So a lot more corporate innovation teams have started thinking more like startups. However, I think there is a fundamental definition difference between innovation. If you think about it from the lens of a startup versus corporate, in corporate you are usually subject to a higher-level strategy and you are, in a sense, confined to an existing infrastructure and also all the profit and loss expectations for your department. So innovation in a big corporate usually means that you have to do something better in the context of what is given to you in terms of strategy, so you might be thinking about version 2.0 of your existing product. Now, it doesn’t mean that corporations are just stuck with that kind of strategic infrastructure. A lot of companies, for example Johnson & Johnson, where I used to work, they start thinking about creating new business lines but sometimes that also means that they have to create a new startup to realize that, to free themselves from the existing boundaries of the core business.

So one example is the joint venture that was created between Google and Johnson & Johnson. It’s called Verb Surgical and they are creating a new business, a startup, essentially, that looks at robotics, because it is a different business model from what either of those big companies are used to on a day-to-day basis. Whereas in a startup, you are, by definition, expected to create a new category for yourself. You have to challenge yourself to break the rules, in a sense, so that you can innovate and create something that is more efficient and better than any other players that you know. So very different definitions.

Rahim Rahemtulla: And for you, then, going to a startup, was that part of your thinking, that you wanted to sort of break away from those established infrastructures, if you will, and really just try to define something completely new?

Widya Mulyasasmita: That’s partially it. Yes. And also, the speed of innovation is faster in a startup and that is driven partially due to the resources that you have being somewhat limited. So you have to be mindful about how you allocate resources so that you can achieve higher value within the shortest amount of time possible.

Rahim Rahemtulla: Do you ever miss those corporate structures and the more resources in that sort of situation?

Widya Mulyasasmita: I sometimes miss that because I think when you’re part of a bigger corporation, the things that you worry about could be more geared towards, you know, you have more luxury in time to think about solutions because you know that the company is not going to go anywhere anytime soon.

Whereas in a startup, I think you need to get creative in terms of how you get your next set of resources and also how you engage with what you have to do, what you want to achieve.

Rahim Rahemtulla: I was going to say that maybe working in a startup, in some sense, it makes you sharper, because you do have to do more with less, potentially.

Widya Mulyasasmita: Yeah, I believe that, actually. You become more disciplined and also being in the startup gives you the flexibility to engage directly with what you need at that point. So, for example, in hiring, you are not really bound by, “Okay, so now I have to create a requisition. I need to make sure that the person is truly needed for many, many years to come.” Whereas in a startup, I think you are more flexible in terms of how you engage different kinds of expertise to create something that is quite atypical in a corporate setting.

Rahim Rahemtulla: And, of course, this doesn’t necessarily have to be an either/or question, it’s not just the corporation or just the startup, I assume they can be collaborations. And, in your experience, do you think, can those be fruitful?

Widya Mulyasasmita: Oh, yes. Yes. So, in the end, collaboration will be key to getting things to market, in my opinion, because the path from ideation to commercialization is very complex and not linear. And in the beginning journey of innovation, I think startups would provide higher expertise level but startups have limited view or understanding of the true business perspectives of the industry. For example, pricing information and also channels to commercialization, how to deal with the regulators, I think those things are more in the domain of big corporations. So if you combine the two sides of the coin together, that’s how you can ensure that any innovation can make it safely to the commercial world.

Rahim Rahemtulla: And you mentioned before that example of Google, Johnson & Johnson coming together but then making another startup, which is a third entity, but presumably being able to draw upon the resources of of the two bigger companies. And do you think that overall, though, that kind of interaction between the two sides – the corporate in the startup – do you feel like it’s risky in some senses? I suppose the two different sides could get in each other’s way.

Widya Mulyasasmita: Yeah, probably, but I would trust that the two companies would also govern the startup in a way that gives them flexibility without over-encroaching. But it is beyond my knowledge in terms of how they govern that particular example.

Rahim Rahemtulla: Sure, sure. But I suppose in the general sense there’s a balance to be to be struck in that way so that neither side would stifle the other, I suppose.

Widya Mulyasasmita: That’s right. Yeah. And it also affects how you attract talent to that particular startup if you become too stifling then. What is the difference between yourself as a “startup” and the big corporates themselves?

Rahim Rahemtulla: And so, for example, in Venn Biosciences, is that something that you are aware of, that you try not to go into too much, into that corporate path?

Widya Mulyasasmita: Yeah, so we feel we are very young. We are about 11 people today and so that kind of big corporate mindset is so far away from our culture today.

Rahim Rahemtulla: And I suppose that’s a good thing.

Widya Mulyasasmita: That is a good thing if you can manage it well.

Rahim Rahemtulla: Indeed. Widya, we’re almost out of time, unfortunately. So I think just as a final question I want to ask you maybe to step back a little bit, think about life sciences in a broad sense. One quote I read about the field was that it would be impossible to overestimate the impact of life science on humanity. That’s a very grand statement, but I’m just wondering if you as a someone working in this field, do you take ideas and concepts like that? And do you find that that motivates your work as much as wanting to make a success of your startup in a commercial sense as well? But do you also have this sort of grand vision of humanity somewhere in your mind?

Widya Mulyasasmita: Yes, very much so. So I came into the field, to begin with, because of that dream and it is a very exciting time that we live in today because now you have not just life sciences but, as we discussed earlier, the involvement of technology to support life science will enable so many more innovations, thinking and also products for the lives of many more people and patients around the world. And because of this combination of tech and biology, I believe that some of the technologies will start leapfrogging other technologies in remote places of the world and that vision is really motivating to me.

Rahim Rahemtulla: Wonderful. Well, Widya, it sounds like a really exciting field and there’s a lot to come still and, no doubt, we will be seeing some wonderful innovations. But for today, that’s where we’ll have to wrap things up. So thank you very much for joining us today and for sharing your insights.

Widya Mulyasasmita: Thank you, Rahim. Thanks for having me.

Rahim Rahemtulla: To our viewers, thank you for tuning in and for being with us today. Do join us again because we’re gonna be having another interview in a week’s time with Radhakrishnan NR, who is the head of the FinTech practice at RapidValue. Next Tuesday, 9am Pacific time, November 6, I hope you’ll be able to join us then. For today, that’s where we’re going to wrap up. So from me, from my guest today, Widya Mulyasasmita, goodbye.
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