Curing cancer in dogs.
Company: LEAH Labs
Role: Founder, CEO
What drew you to this particular problem?
A few years before the idea for LEAH Labs kicked off in earnest, my dog was misdiagnosed with cancer. Before it was known she actually just had an infection, I was presented with the terrible options that existed to help her (remove half her lower jaw was literally an option shared with me).
Fast forward to finishing my PhD, where I had developed an expertise in gene editing technology. My advisors and I realized that this expertise could be used to build therapies for dogs, not only as an unmet market need, but also as a way to fast-track human drug development as well. I could help dogs, help humans, and use gene editing to do it? How did I get so lucky?
How do you feel you've grown personally in building this company?
I’ve had to come out of my shell quite a bit. I’m generally an introvert. To be a founder/CEO means to be the biggest, boldest, loudest cheerleader of your vision, and that forces you to be extroverted whether you like it or not.
How did you meet your co-founder & how do you feel you complement one another?
I consider myself a solo founder in that I’m the only one on the founding team working full time. That said, I have a solid team of “scientific founders” who I met originally as mentors or collaborators during graduate school. They bring years (or decades) of experience solving science problems, building novel technologies, treating dogs, and veterinary go-to-market experience. I bring the founder mentality of actually being in the trenches bringing all of this expertise together to help the company move forward.
What’s been the most exciting milestone you’ve hit as a team?
We made an MVP, proved it could kill cancer in a test tube, and then put it into dogs and showed that our hypothesis was true; the therapy is safe in dogs. Coming from almost shutting the company down under a year into the venture to this milestone was huge. But the next milestone is even bigger....treating actual sick patients later this year. Stay tuned 🔮
Is there a specific source of inspiration that keeps you pushing through tougher moments?
At the end of the day, I go home to my dogs. I know that if they get cancer tomorrow, their options for treatment are pretty limited or quite costly. That’s quite motivating; knowing that someday, my dogs (or my next dogs) could benefit directly from what I’m building.
What was it like to get into YC & what were the biggest takeaways?
YC was our first check in the bank and the first outside validation of what we’re building. It was just an idea, or really just a dream, before that fateful interview and subsequent phone call saying we’re in. My biggest takeaway from YC is the network and the other founders that I met. It’s amazing to know what if there’s any idea or question I have, there’s literally thousands of other founders out there who could help.
What has been your biggest misstep so far and what did you learn from that moment?
I think my biggest misstep early on in the company (particularly as our first $250K came in, the most money I had ever seen in a bank account) was to conserve capital to keep runway long and “stay alive”. Of course, there’s a responsible balance between burning cash and being in cockroach mode, but I definitely could have deployed the cash towards some critical experiments to help us hit milestones in that first 6 months, albeit at the cost of running the company dry if we didn’t raise more funding. Conserving capital early ended up working out to our benefit in this instance, but in hindsight, I still learned how (obviously) the reason we raise money is to make real time decisions, quickly, to level up the business. I definitely think further ahead now towards that.
What’s a song or album that’s gotten you through 2020?
I love tunes but have never been one to curate playlists or really even care what artist/song I’m listening to. When working, I can’t do lyrics in songs, only music. For these reasons, I’m team Pandora, and my top 3 stations (pending my mood) are Polyphia radio (heavy metal without the screaming), Odesza radio (smooth electronica), and The Rippingtons (smooth jazz). Yeah I know, quite the mix lol
Favorite emoji or gif?
I’m not really a gif guy, but I do use emojis. My friends and I have a ton of them that all mean something, we could practically have a conversation with just emojis. But my personal fav emoji is 🔮. Represents “the infinitely interconnected universe” to me and I use it in instances where I’m trying to “will something” into being or where things “lined up” or “happened for a reason” in a mysterious type of way. Idk...this sounds dumb to type lol but hey whatever works.