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The two goals sound like they are worlds apart, like they come from two completely separate sets of motivations: Start a company. Cure cancer.
Raj Krishnan, who finished his bioengineering doctorate at the University of California, San Diego in June, set those targets for the same reason: just to see if he can reach them.
“It’s not like I had a favorite uncle who died of cancer or something,” he said. “It just seemed like something to try to do.”
Krishnan has the audacious level of confidence needed to believe he can pull off something as big as curing cancer. The 28-year-old is now CEO of his own company, Biological Dynamics, and he seems completely at ease with himself in a world inhabited by scientists and businessmen at least 10 years his senior. He wears sneakers, rumpled black hair and Steve Jobs-style glasses. When we meet for coffee, he orders hot chocolate.
That confidence may be at the heart of his decision to launch his own company instead of doing what most recent graduates do — look for a job.
“As an undergrad, I came to the realization that if I was stuck in a cubicle, I’d blow my brains out,” he said. “Other people prefer to have a rigid structured thing, but I have to be able to think creatively, to say, ‘That’s a good idea, I’m going to take a few hours and go work on that.’”
That confidence was there when Krishnan first uncovered the idea that became central to his company’s technology. He was alone in the lab late one night when he decided to try an approach his advisor didn’t think would work.
“I thought, screw it, I’ll just do it and if it doesn’t work, I’ll never tell anyone,” he said. “I pushed a button, left the room and 15 minutes later I came back and saw it worked.”
His late-night decision helped him find the way to do what his company now does: use electric fields to isolate pieces of DNA and RNA in the blood that indicate whether a person has cancer.
He hopes that in 20 years everyone will scan a few drops of their blood every month — or even every day — to make sure they have not developed cancer.
After Krishnan made his discovery, he could have continued to work with it as a postdoctoral researcher, or he could have left it with his advisor and searched for another job. But he convinced his advisor to let him take control of the patent for the technology, and then took the leap to launch Biological Dynamics.
“Starting your own company takes a willingness to fail,” he said. “Some people have it, and some don’t.”
While Krishnan’s success makes him something of an anomaly in the cash-starved biotech field these days, he also is a good illustration of what it takes to start a company. So I’m following him through the initial stages of his company’s launch.
Over the next month, I’ll tag along with Krishnan. I’ll describe how he made the choice that many other graduate students face: to try for an academic career, look for a job at a for-profit company, or go it alone as an entrepreneur.
I’ll illustrate his battles for control with his investors, which can be akin to a parent handing over his baby on the first day of preschool. And I’ll tell you how he picked his company name in a biotech world where companies sound more like car names or techno bands and where entire consulting companies exist just to help people like him find a catchy name.
So far, Krishnan has met with very few failures. While still in graduate school, he won five entrepreneurial competitions and nearly $50,000 in prize money. In 2009 he stopped competing and started raising money for his company, a choice made in the midst of the recession. But Krishnan quickly netted $2 million in angel investments.
Once, when he did lose a contest, it was to another team with a plan to provide electricity to Indian villages.
“They kept showing all these pictures of poor people,” he said. “I mean, I was offended by that. You could see everyone’s hearts were opening wide and they were like, ‘Oh my God, there’s poor people!’”