Tech

Interview with Ka Yee Yeung

06.13.2022

A conversation with Ka Yee Yeung, Co-founder and CEO of BioDepot LLC and Professor and Associate Dean for Research and Innovation at the University of Washington (UW) at Tacoma.

Tell us about your scientific background.

Ka Yee: I have a PhD in computer science. During graduate school, I studied computational biology, which was essentially bioinformatics. Bioinformatics applies computational techniques to solve biological problems. I think of bioinformatics as a continuum – there is the computational side and the biology side. Researchers are walking along that continuum. Because I started on the computational side, I wanted to walk towards the biology side. That is why after I finished graduate school, I joined the Department of Microbiology at the UW Seattle School of Medicine. I spent ten years in that department and then returned to the computer science side at the School of Engineering and Technology at UW Tacoma. I have been there for almost eight years.

Tell us about BioDepot.

Ka Yee: BioDepot LLC was founded in 2019. We are a software company that aims to democratize the use of cloud computing for a biological and clinical audience. Biologists and clinicians typically are not trained in writing computer science code or using the cloud. Our vision is when biologists are doing their big data analysis, they would just click a button and not even know that they are analyzing data on the cloud. We are developing what you might call software “recipes” – a sequence of steps to analyze cancer genomics data as well as imaging data. Our software is transparent, automated, and hopefully not as expensive as current solutions. With our software, clinicians and biologists can focus their efforts on figuring out the biological implications of the data – not trying to fiddle with coding or learning how to use the cloud.

What is your role within the company?

Ka Yee: I am one of the co-founders for BioDepot LLC. I currently serve as the CEO, so I oversee the administrative management and work to obtain resources to make sure everyone gets paid. My co-founder, Ling-Hong Hung, is the CTO of the company. He serves as the chief software architect and handles the technical mentoring for our interns and employees.

What has been the biggest difference between your role in academia and your role as an entrepreneur? What was surprising?

Ka Yee: I would say that the biggest difference is the infrastructure support. When you are starting a new company, you have to design your own support infrastructure. UW has a very well-developed research infrastructure. When you are applying for grants, there is support to help you with the budget and to make sure you check off all the boxes. After you get the funding, there are people to help you to manage the budget and ensure that you are in compliance. At the startup, we had to figure that all out once we received our NIH SBIR funding contracts from the National Cancer Institute (NCI).

Another big difference is hiring. As an academic researcher, we work with a lot of great students. In the company, we have been able to work with a lot of talented student interns. When student interns tell you they have a Visa constraint, we need to figure out what that means, and what forms need to be completed!

Do you have entrepreneurial mentors or sponsors? How did the relationship start, and what has it brought to you?

Ka Yee: We were awarded funding from the CoMotion Innovation Gap Fund towards the end of 2019. UW CoMotion, the technology commercialization office, has been wonderful – not just with the resources that they provide but also with connections. They connected us with a mentor, Dr. Todd Smith. He is a successful entrepreneur himself. He has coached us on our pitch and helped us with writing our SBIR grants. He also has guided us in terms of business and marketing strategies. UW CoMotion has been extremely helpful while we are developing a commercialization plan to further expand our business and go to the next step.

You mentioned that you currently have SBIR funding, but have you had any fundraising experience?

Ka Yee: Not yet. I recently applied to an accelerator for additional non-dilutive funding. The goal of this accelerator is to support a diverse cohort of entrepreneurs. I learned I was a finalist and went through interviews twice, but I have not heard back yet. I am hoping to join this diverse cohort of entrepreneurs to learn from people with different backgrounds and perspectives. The money is also good.

What differences have you noticed in your experience as an entrepreneur versus those of your male colleagues?

One thing that I have learned is when giving a pitch, you need to make it easy for people to imagine your product. I have learned that when I describe what we do, I need to make it easy for people to relate to. 

Ka Yee: I think male colleagues are usually more confident – not just in business but in academia as well. I feel that they are more smooth talkers when they give a pitch, especially male colleagues whose first language is English. I am a stiff talker – I am not as animated and engaging. This could be because English is my second language. One thing that I have learned is when giving a pitch, you need to make it easy for people to imagine your product. This is when I developed the analogy that we are developing analysis “recipes,” like cooking recipes, that you can follow for your data analysis. I have learned that when I describe what we do, I need to make it easy for people to relate to.

What life hacks had you put into place pre-COVID to allow you to pursue entrepreneurship? Have these continued to work during the pandemic?

Ka Yee: As a computer scientist, most of my work can be done remotely. COVID has not been that bad for us – we just switched our meetings from in-person to Zoom. In terms of life hacks, I think that it helps to focus on self-discipline, time management, and organization. When you are working from home, you can work twenty-four hours a day without realizing it. It is important to set time aside. I have a fifteen-year-old teenager, so I have to spend time with him. I need to make time to exercise. I am getting older, so I need to focus on taking care of myself. I feel that I have always been an organized person, and I always try my best to manage my time. But what I need to do better is to focus more on self-care.

What was the best advice that you received?

Ka Yee: I think the best advice I received was just go for it. Don’t be afraid. Don’t think too much if you think you have a good idea. At first, I was resistant. I already have too much work as an academic. For me, the reason we started the company was because we could increase the impact of our research by making it a commercial product. We needed more resources to build out the features of the product and to maintain it. The other thing is I have been very fortunate that this last year I was on sabbatical. This was my first sabbatical as a tenured faculty at UW. I have been extremely grateful to have a year off, especially during COVID, and have fewer things to worry about. That really helped move the company forward. So, another piece of advice is to try to time starting your company with your sabbatical if that is an option.

Were there specific scientific or career milestones, such as tenure, that you achieved that made you believe that now was the time for you to pursue entrepreneurship?

Ka Yee: Tenure definitely helped me with stability, but it was really about the stage of the research. We received a NIH R01 basic research grant to develop cloud-based software to analysis genomics data. As we were building this academic product, we felt, in order to have impact, we needed to make it a commercial product that was maintained and supported. We also wanted to add additional applications to the product. Through our entrepreneurial efforts, not only do we have “recipes” for genomics data, we also are adding workflows for imaging data. That is really adding value to our work. I feel it is the state of the project that determines whether commercialization makes sense. For us, having a functional prototype helped us have something concrete to demonstrate when we applied for additional funding and spoke with people. It also helped boost my confidence because we knew it worked. It was time to take the technology to the next level.

Did you feel you were financially fluent before pursuing entrepreneurship? What additional knowledge/tools would be helpful to confidently pursue entrepreneurship?

Ka Yee: The first part of your question was whether I knew about all things financial, the answer is no. I am learning it as I go. You can always learn things on the spot. I typically adapt the lazy algorithm – learn it when I need to. I am so thankful for all the support from UW CoMotion. We have had a wonderful experience with two different technology managers, Ryan Buckmaster and Judy Bridges. When we are in doubt or stuck, they help us or refer us to someone else who can help. That has been extremely helpful.

Whether women are equipped with the knowledge to pursue entrepreneurship, I think women have an advantage. I think it is important to have women in leadership roles, not just because scientifically we are on par with men, but I think women are better in terms of management and organizational skills. Additionally, in terms of hiring, we have a more diverse perspective. I am strongly committed to diversifying the STEM workforce, and I can bring this commitment to the entrepreneurial setting. When women are interviewing, they are looking for different elements. For example, women, especially women of color, can be less confident during interviews when discussing their skill set, so we know that women are already discounting themselves. That way, we can evaluate this during the interview. That is why it is important to have women in leadership positions, so we can give other underrepresented individuals a chance in the workplace.

What do you think deters women from pursuing entrepreneurship?

Ka Yee: We just have too many tasks. Typically, women have more responsibilities in the family. There are too many things to do on top of already juggling a full-time academic career – you have to manage the house and kids while planning vacations, keeping track of things, and making sure that the bills are paid. I think it is just too many responsibilities. You can only multi-task to a certain level. I think the stage of life can also deter women. For myself, I would not have started a company if my son was still in daycare. I can do it now. Because he is older, he can manage a lot of things himself. In our family, as well with other families, my son was more attached to me earlier on in life. As he has gotten older, he will hang out with his dad, and I can get “free” time. I am grateful that the stage of my research project aligned when my family obligations were more in a steady stage. Although there are different challenges with teenagers, now other family members can also help.

What are some of the biggest takeaways from your experiences? What advice would you give a current female academic trying to commercialize their technology?

Ka Yee: My biggest takeaway is don’t think too much. Just do it, especially if you feel like you have a good idea. The advice I would give is that it is very important to have a good team. I do not think I could have done it on my own. My co-founder, Ling-Hong Hung, has been tremendous. I also have a collaborator, Dr. Wes Lloyd. He is an assistant professor at UW Tacoma. It is important to have a strong team that you are comfortable with that can support you. I am very grateful for all their help. I do not think I could do it alone.  

What haven’t we asked you about that you think is important for women academics to know when delving into being involved in a startup company?

Ka Yee: I have really enjoyed all the learning opportunities during this process. I have learned so much during this entrepreneurial journey – things I would not have otherwise learned or experiences that I otherwise would not have had. It may not always be a very positive experience; it can be nerve-racking. An example is the first time we gave a pitch. That was when we were applying for the UW CoMotion Innovation Gap Fund. We practiced a lot, but we went over time. Being an academic, we are trained to talk for hours at a time since classes are more than an hour long. When you give a pitch, they only give you a few minutes, so it was very difficult. Learning how to give a pitch and how to relate to people from a different background has been very rewarding. I have learned a lot from this process. I do not want people to read my journey and think that it is always work, there are rewarding components as well.