Please tell us your background story on how you ended up starting a company.
I am an Associate Professor in Chemical and Biomedical Engineering at Colorado School of Mines. My research group works on biomaterial solutions for tissue engineering problems, and one of the areas that we have been working on has been trying to heal diabetic wounds faster and stronger by promoting regeneration. We were developing polymer materials that could provide sustained drug delivery and promote healing in diabetic wounds. In the spring of 2020, shortly after COVID started, I was asked by my university to meet with Innosphere Ventures, a Colorado-based venture firm. We had a conversation over Zoom about this project and discussed some of our early results. I ended up meeting with them throughout the summer. Honestly, as an academic, I did not realize that they were doing their due diligence at the time. They kept digging deeper into the problem, the current solutions, and where our technology might fit in. Towards the end of September 2020, they sat me down and presented me with a term sheet. They were interested in investing a small amount of money for a pre-seed round to help get the company off the ground. I decided that I would embrace this new journey, and we founded GelSana at the end of September 2020.
How did the company formation effort with Innosphere happen?
I have always enjoyed working on translational research – what new technology we can develop that will solve problems that exist today. Throughout my career, I have patented a lot. It was always my hope that a technology we developed in our group would be licensed into a company and used in patients someday. I had thought about forming a company for a previous project, but it did not feel like it was the smartest move for me pre-tenure. Our tech transfer office (TTO) was very aware and supportive of our large amount of patenting, and they knew that I was interested in translating our materials to the clinic. Innosphere Ventures looks for technologies at universities with strong business cases, and they help academics spin out companies. They talked to Colorado School of Mines’ TTO, and the TTO told them they should really talk to Melissa. That is how we were first connected.
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?
Tenure was a big piece. There is a lot that goes in to achieving tenure, and none of that decision seems to be based on startups or translation of your technology. Rather it is focused on academic funding, publications, and teaching excellence. I was concerned earlier on that pursuing entrepreneurship could realistically impact my chances at tenure, because you are only one person with so many hours in the day. Post-tenure, it felt like the timing was better to start a company translating our technology to the clinic.
What are the biggest differences between your role in academia and your role as an entrepreneur? Was there anything surprising?
There are similarities in that you are pursuing R&D to better your technology to get the best product out that you can. You are still mentoring and supervising people, while seeking funding, but there are a lot of differences. Academia is a bit slower paced in a way. Don’t get me wrong, those of us in academia work like crazy, but in terms of progress, you send your students out into the lab, and it is okay if things take a while. In the grand scheme of things, your typical PhD student is there for five years, so you have time to train them, get the publications they need for graduation, and watch them mature into independent scientists over the course of several years. In academia, the funding cycles are much longer. We write many grants with the hope of landing a few, but it takes months to write, submit, and receive feedback. Often, we have to resubmit and wait again before a project is finally funded.
Raising money for a startup by pitching to investors is much faster and more efficient; you present to them and immediately know if they are interested in learning more or not. In a startup company, the timelines are much shorter – you must make decisions faster. Your runways tend to be much shorter. You manage a much wider range of people with different expertise. You need to be confident that the product development you have done is good enough. You cannot keep perfecting and tweaking since you need to get a minimally viable product to the market quickly. You just need to move much faster to try to bring in revenue as soon as you are able, to grow your company, and keep your investors happy.
Have you been actively fundraising for a seed round?
I started to fundraise my seed round about a year after we founded GelSana. In September 2021, we kicked off the raise. We doubled what we set out to raise and closed that round at the end of January 2022. I thought we were good for a while, but now we have already kicked off a second seed fundraise. We were able to progress very quickly towards our first product, which is now expected to be registered with the FDA and ready for clinical launch by Spring 2023. Now, we need additional funds to support early commercialization of this product. I have been told that you never stop fundraising, it is a full-time job.
What was your experience in fundraising? Do you consider it any different than that of your male colleagues?
I was very blessed that our seed fundraise was not too difficult for me – don’t get me wrong, we did have our fair share of passes as we were raising that round – but overall, I felt like I was able to close it relatively quickly. Even our lead investor, Innosphere, was amazed at how fast I was able to close that round, but I have to acknowledge that they provided us substantial support by leading the round and working with me to help drum up leads with angel investors. It was very positive. Right now, we are an early-stage company and closed a great first seed round. I am a bit worried about moving forward into the bigger rounds, because statistically speaking, the amount of VC funding to female founders is very small. An upcoming decision that I need to make is do I stay at the helm of this company and raise the next big round or let somebody else take over. It is something to think about.
Do you have entrepreneurial mentors or sponsors? How did the relationship start, and what has it brought to you?
Innosphere has an incubator/accelerator program. If you are in their accelerator program, which I began in the fall of 2020, you are paired with a client manager. My client manager and I have been meeting every week ever since. They paired me with a woman that has a lot of business development experience, and she has worked in a range of small and large companies. That relationship has just been so helpful, and I have continued that mentorship to today. As an academic scientist, I have a lot to learn about business. I have learned leaps and bounds over the past two years but to have someone really push you on the business side, help with making connections, and allow you to think through things has just been so invaluable. I also found that the Colorado Small Business Development Center (SBDC) sponsors accelerators. I took one that was focused on women founders in the Spring of 2021. They focused on some different topics like non-dilutive funding and financial forecasting – areas that Innosphere did not cover, but I still wanted to learn. As your company moves forward, you continue to make new connections. Leaning on those connections has been truly invaluable. I do not think that I would be where I am without all of them.
What differences have you noticed in your experience as an entrepreneur versus those of your male colleagues?
I feel that women tend to have a harder time with self-confidence and suffer more from imposter syndrome than our male colleagues. We also undersell ourselves more. I have seen this in both entrepreneurship and academic professorship. When you are an entrepreneur and are raising money, I have learned that you need to be very straightforward and not focus so much on the other things that might distract you – can I do this or am I good enough? I guess that women struggle with that more than men. I know a lot of my male colleagues are just naturally self-confident. Obviously, confidence is important in entrepreneurship. You need to be confident in what you are doing. Otherwise, people are not going to be interested.
What life hacks had you put into place pre-COVID to allow you to pursue entrepreneurship? Have these continued to work during the pandemic?
As an academic, your plate is always overflowing. You get very good early on at learning to say no at the right times. You only have so many yeses, so what are the most important things to give your yeses to? Just try to keep your balance of saying yes to the important things and be willing to say no to the rest.
Typically, you start an academic career during child-rearing years, and that was true for us. I have two daughters, and my husband is a physician who works outside the home full-time. My schedule tends to be more flexible; I do more of running the kids to the doctor appointments, etc. Honestly, I have gotten used to juggling a full-time career and two kids. It is important to me to spend time in the evenings with my family around dinnertime, so I have gotten used to working late at night after they have gone to bed. For better or worse, that is what I am used to. When COVID hit, my husband was in the office every day, and I was stuck at home trying to homeschool kids while also working. It is important to just be flexible with your schedule, chose your yeses wisely, and be willing to pretty much work around the clock while also fitting in family time. All of that stayed the same, even post-COVID.
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?
When I was starting off on this journey, I went and looked for academics that had started companies that I could use as resources. I have built myself a network of people that I trust that have gone through similar journeys. That has helped me. Some of the advice that I have gotten is more talking about issues – how do you juggle everything or how are you remaining as CEO while still maintaining your academic position for example. I have had to learn how to juggle and find ways to reduce workload by outsourcing certain tasks to save time. I have gotten a lot of good advice in that sense – what is important for me to do myself and what I can outsource. That has helped me in balancing this workload so far. I think that is the best advice. If someone told me to do this all by myself, that would be bad advice.
Can you give examples of what you have outsourced?
When I did not have employees, and we were not purchasing a lot, I was doing bookkeeping myself. Then I was advised to not even bother with that and hire a team to help with bookkeeping. The workload only builds, so it will be easier if you start outsourcing now what you can. More recently, we decided to hire a company to help us write a couple of SBIR grants. I am an academic; I have written a lot of grants and thought that this was something that I can do. After talking to another academic founder, I realized that SBIR grants are very different from academic grants, and these firms have so much experience writing these types of grants. That is another example when we have outsourced. Save yourself some time, so you can push other things forward. At the end of the day, you cannot do everything.
What suggestions do you have in practicing and refining your pitch?
I learned a lot working with Innosphere through their accelerator program and with my client manager. Looking back at the very first slides that I presented to Innosphere, they were so technical and full of graphs. I have learned that during good pitches, you need to present your message in a simple, clean way. Also, that first pitch is the hook to bringing an investor in closer, and then you can do your deep dives. I think it is important to have a clean slide deck that has your story laid out – here is the problem, the solution, how we are structuring the company, and then how the investor is ultimately going to make money when we exit. Having that story laid out is huge. So, I have gone to more simple slides where you have an image, and you talk to it. The slide is a visual backdrop. I needed to shift my thinking that by removing data from slides, it is not that you are demonstrating less science, but just that you are not getting into the weeds on the first pitch. Here is a cool technology, do you want to learn more? That has really helped me with pitching.
In terms of delivering your pitch, practice is huge. Every time I have a chance to get in front of an audience, I will do it, even though at this point I have had a lot of practice. The more people that you are in front of, the more questions you get, the more opportunity you have to go back and edit your deck based on that feedback. The more feedback you get, the better you will get at pitching over time. Innosphere made me do a practice pitch before I started the official fundraise where they drew together a group of people who were not investors but mentors. They were tough, and that was good. If you can do something like that before you go live, it helps tremendously.
What do you think deters women from pursuing entrepreneurship?
Once again, women traditionally are lower in self-confidence and struggle more with imposter syndrome. That is a big piece of it. I also feel women tend to have more on their plates in general – often we are managing more at home while trying to focus on our career – adding anything to that can seem a bit insane. It does depend on how much support someone has at home and professionally. Good mentors and role models are huge, and not everyone has found a good mentor. You cannot be afraid to ask people for mentorship or support. It is scary to start your own company, and there is a big fear of failure. All these factors play into these decisions.
What are some of the biggest takeaways from your experiences? What advice would you give a current female academic trying to commercialize their technology?
My biggest takeaway is that this has been a lot of fun. I have no regrets. I am glad that when Innosphere presented me with that term sheet, I thought about it. It was not an immediate yes for me; I thought about if this was something that I can really add to everything that I am juggling right now. I decided that I would always regret it if I walked away from this opportunity. That is a big takeaway – be willing to take the risk. Who knows what can happen? Regardless of the company outcome, I have learned so much. This experience has been a huge professional growth opportunity. I have learned how to present my work to different people with different backgrounds. Additionally, I have learned what it actually takes to translate a technology. That will forever change the way that I approach research in general. I joke that I went into academia for life-long learning, and I had no idea of how much I still actually needed to learn. When I started this company, I realized there is still a lot to learn.
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?
Be willing to take a risk if starting a company is of any interest to you. The chances of technology that you are working on making it into the commercial landscape are much higher if you are willing to push it forward at least out of the academic lab and into a startup, because you are the expert on it and have the passion to help it grow. Find yourself a great network of mentors and supporters. Find ways to provide yourself time to pursue what you are passionate about, choose your ‘yeses’ wisely, and lean on your family, friends, and colleagues for support. Advocate for yourself.