Please tell us your background story on how you ended up starting SiVEC.
Lyndsey: I started SiVEC as a university spinout while working on my PhD in infectious disease epidemiology. I developed the technology with a real application that can be translated in animal and human medicine. The technology transfer office, CSU Ventures, reached out and felt the technology could have patentability, so they were interested in pursuing it. This was my first introduction to intellectual property, entrepreneurship, and the industry.
I applied to become an ambassador in the Ambassador Program through CSU Ventures, an opportunity that allowed me to become more involved in market research and commercializing other university technologies and research innovations. It was exciting to see the impact university technology could make if it was commercialized, and I wanted to see if the technology I had developed during my PhD could have the same commercial trajectory. So the next logical step was to start a company, with the support from CSU Ventures and Colorado State University, and license back that technology I had developed. At the time, I was the solo founder and developed the company around an interesting drug delivery platform, receiving a lot of support from the academic group and technology transfer office. We established SiVEC’s lab and office space at the Research Innovation Center, a startup incubator at Colorado State University.
I brought on a female cofounder, and we participated in a business plan competition. Wearing my academic hat, it was my first time on stage pitching the business. Needless to say, I felt like I was drinking from a fire hose, but we swept the competition and I walked away feeling validated, inspired, and motivated to continue. During the competition, we got the investors’ perspective and how they perceived our technology and the company. That valuable feedback, along with winning a cash award, was validating. Following that experience, we competed in quite a few more competitions, meeting more entrepreneurs and others going through the same experience. Most were males, some were females, but there was a sense of camaraderie.
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?
Lyndsey: The thought of starting a company had been growing in me for about 12 months. Working with the tech transfer office, I interacted with other spinouts from the university and was intrigued by the process. Being able to envision how a career in entrepreneurship was possible made the entire process much less overwhelming. I sat down with the tech transfer director and pitched the idea of SiVEC, and they were very supportive. As is often the case in academia, research and development activities are usually a means to an end, where the end is a publication, earning a degree, or achieving tenure. In my case and with the technology I had developed, if I didn’t start the company to support its continued development, the technology likely would not have left the academic lab and its full commercial potential never realized. The tech transfer office now uses SiVEC and me as an example for other faculty/grad/post-docs entrepreneurs with the same story.
What are the biggest differences between your role in academia and your role as an entrepreneur?
Lyndsey: The ability to organize people and triage translated well from academia to entrepreneur. Sentiar made me a better leader which translated back into the clinic. I believe strongly that being involved in startups has made me a better physician and that I can understand all the pieces on a deeper level than you ever had before. The amount of knowledge I have acquired over the past five years I could not have gotten any other way. People should not be afraid of conflicts of interest; women seem to worry about this much more than men.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
Lyndsey: I didn’t know what to expect, they don’t teach these skills in graduate school. I had no preconceived notions about starting a company, being CEO, or leading a group. You may think the reward will come sooner, that it’s going to be fulfilling immediately, and the challenges are short-lived, but there are a lot of ebbs and flows. For example, you are responsible for another person’s livelihood (i.e., payroll). It’s enormous pressure and a level of responsibility you don’t recognize, as others are putting their faith and trust in you to lead. Behind the scenes you are a heavy lifter; it’s not always rainbows and butterflies – stress and responsibility come with it.
What are the biggest differences between your role in academia and your role as an entrepreneur? Was there anything surprising?
Lyndsey: An academic career is structured differently than an industry career, and being an entrepreneur naturally felt like a better fit for me. The independence and flexibility are greater in industry, where you have the freedom to pursue innovation and pivot as needed. I’m a motivated, goal-oriented person and I celebrate innovation and creativity. Departments in the University celebrate creativity and innovation in different ways. Exclusively working through publications and grant funding is not as exciting to me. I am fiercely competitive, I’m goal-oriented, I like to take risks, but I’m also comfortable with failure, it’s just a temporary setback. I feel these characteristics are better served in my role as an entrepreneur and these challenges build character.
What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being an executive of a startup? What are the downsides?
Lyndsey: I enjoy the risk. I would rather take the risk and try, rather than settling and doing nothing. I also enjoy being a cheerleader, adding camaraderie, and sharing the same mission and vision with my team. The little things can add up, and I really love celebrating success. It keeps people motivated and excited about what we are working on.
I don’t always enjoy the extra pressure of leading a group and not knowing the challenges that lie ahead. During my commute, I’ll look at people driving to work and sometimes wonder if that might be easier, maintaining the same structure and knowing what I’m doing every day. Though that would not be as fulfilling, as I also enjoy learning what I don’t know.
Do you have entrepreneurial mentors or sponsors? How did the relationship start, and what has it brought to you?
Lyndsey: I have quite a few men and women mentors, most developed organically. Early on, CSU Ventures, the technology transfer office at Colorado State University, did a wonderful job connecting me with entrepreneurs, advisors, and other individuals in the community. For example, they introduced me to a local science and tech incubator called Innosphere Ventures, which provided a six-month workshop on launching and building a startup company into a high-growth business, skills that are not taught in the academic world. These local resources taught me how to build a winning team, access capital, execute a successful business plan, and ultimately understand that the key to success is knowing your market and your customer’s needs.
I’ve also connected with women in the community who have been inspirational and very successful entrepreneurs. I’ve learned from these individuals that it’s okay to ask for help. If I need advice, I can call on someone and ask for it. Sometimes women can struggle with asking for help and admitting when they are not knowledgeable about something, especially female CEOs. We have a perception that these are questions we should know how to address independently when in reality no one starting out as an early-stage entrepreneur has all the answers. I don’t need to know it all or projects that I do. I have no problem admitting when I don’t know something and I’m not afraid to ask questions. I have internal honesty about my limit of knowledge, but I also have the confidence to aggressively reach out for help and be open to feedback.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women entrepreneurs and executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
Lyndsey: I don’t think about how I am challenged more as a female than a man; I don’t focus on it. I recall once in the past when a man, who had no experience working with me, suggested I go back to school and get an MBA to be on an even track with my male colleagues. However, I’m confident with my skills, and that was his limited perspective. When traveling internationally, I’ve had other men suggest I invite another man on my team to join me, so I am taken more seriously. I do understand that some of these suggestions come from cultural differences, and rather than getting angry or upset when receiving this feedback, it motivates me. I’m confident, well-spoken, personable, and engaging. I know how to lead my team. Although I sometimes wonder why we have to discuss the differences between women and men, I understand that there are differences, especially when it comes to fundraising and access to capital. It’s difficult to acknowledge these challenges, but in society it is true. If we want to move the needle and help educate and celebrate women entrepreneurs, we need to have these types of conversations.
How do you achieve work-life balance to pursue entrepreneurship? How has the current COVID crisis affected this balance?
Lyndsey: Well, I’m not yet a mom so do not have that extra challenge, but I am married and maintaining that relationship requires responsibility and commitment. When it comes to balancing responsibilities, I can be hard on myself, especially when I think I should be doing more at work before putting work away to focus on me and my personal life. For example, going to swim practice or hiking with my husband and dog, I often feel guilty about valuing my work-life balance. I’m not sure if women feel more guilt than men, but the guilt can take over. I need to keep things structured, which helps with my mind and body balance and in turn is better for maintaining a healthy work life. Play and work can go hand-in-hand, and if I’m recharging my mind, I’m going to be a better leader and entrepreneur.
Work has remained constant during COVID, since we are an essential business. It did force more structure, as working from home blurred defined work hours. We walk in the mornings and evenings, and my swim team has adapted to allow practice to continue with guided safety protocols.
What was your experience in fundraising? Do you consider it any different than that of your male colleagues?
Lyndsey: As human beings in general, we all struggle with confidence. You have feelings of self-doubt whether you are pitching in large or small meetings. Will I have the confidence so that people take me seriously? These questions creep in, but then I remind myself, you know the technology better than anyone else, so be approachable, confident and engage. First impressions are very important.
What do you think deters women from pursuing entrepreneurship?
Lyndsey: Intimidation. The perceived feeling that they won’t be competitive and won’t be taken seriously. It is hard to talk about. You don’t openly come out and say as a woman, I fear I won’t be taken seriously or I’m intimidated getting up in front of a group of men. There’s naturally a fear of failure, but as a female, there is another level of vulnerability that we have to push past. Additionally, you can’t be what you can’t see, so we need more strong women pursuing entrepreneurship, because these brave women will mobilize and inspire other female entrepreneurs.
What was the best advice that you received? And to counter that, did you receive any advice that you would not pass along to another aspiring female academic entrepreneur?
Lyndsey: A colleague gave me a coffee mug that says empowered women empower women. Lean on other women, find other women who have gone through this, and don’t be afraid to be transparent about your experiences, good and bad. Look at other women and feel empowered. They have gone through challenges and struggles and want to talk with you about it. When you’re feeling overwhelmed by hurdles and challenges, there’s no better time to lean in and go after it. People always have your back and will support and help you along the way. Be open about experiences; it’s how we grow and learn. Be vulnerable enough to discuss the challenges you’ve gone through; it’s ok to have those feelings and experiences. It’s good to be vulnerable.
Bad advice – who you are is not enough. You need to prepare yourself in a way to exceed your male counterpart, as the odds are already stacked against you. Instead, know you are enough. Be confident in who you are and believe in yourself. And if you have to, fake it until you make it.
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?
Lyndsey: There is a lot to celebrate in being a woman. We have a lot of strengths. Be careful not to compare yourself to a man; it is a slippery slope. Focus on the attributes you have that make you who you are, be authentic and be true to yourself, because nothing else is sustainable. When I value myself and who I am as a human being, an innovator, an entrepreneur, and a leader, others will gravitate to those qualities and want to partner and invest in me and my company. We need more of these conversations to push forward and knock down barriers.