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Raj Krishnan was back where his journey began, at the University of California, San Diego’s Entrepreneur Challenge, a series of presentations and competitions aimed at helping young scientists launch their own companies.
That’s exactly what the event did for the 28-year-old Krishnan two years before.
In the spring of 2009, Krishnan’s newborn biotech, Biological Dynamics, won $25,000 in cash and $15,000 in legal services in the challenge. And so, on a chilly night last month Krishnan stood in front of a room full of aspiring entrepreneurs and told them how to do what he had done: become founder and CEO of a biotech, raise $2 million in investments during six of the darkest recession months and turn into a success story who gets asked to speak to groups like this.
I’ve been following Krishnan through his company-launching process to illustrate what it takes to build a biotech startup.
Each time I’ve spoken with Krishnan or seen him speak, he seemed to relish the spotlight. He constantly cracked jokes and spoke confidently and sometimes cavalierly about his work developing a technology that can detect whether a person has cancer using a few drops of blood. (“It’s not like I had a favorite uncle who died of cancer or something, it just seemed like something to try to do,” he once said.) But he also always reminded his listeners he’s in it to help people, not for the money or glory. This night at UCSD was no different.
As his audience munched on the free dinner spread in the back of the room, Krishnan broke out his unusual mix of cocky arrogance and self-deprecating jokes.
“I think everyone here is of a like mindset to me, unless you’re here for the free food, in which case you’re still of a like mindset to me,” he said. “We are extremely privileged to have the possibilities very few people have in their lifetimes, because we’re able to produce something that can affect the world until the end of time.”
Whether Krishnan’s company will actually change the world forever remains to be seen, but he’s clearly come a long way in the past two years. After a late-night decision in the lab helped produce the cancer-detecting technology, Krishnan took a risk and started his own company instead of looking for a job.
Since then, Krishnan’s team has won a series of competitions, successfully negotiated with their investors and named their company (but not the original name Krishnan had picked out, which sounded too much like a corporation that makes evil cyborgs).
While some entrepreneurs start companies and build them only to the point where they can be sold (earning them the name “serial entrepreneurs”), Krishnan said after all he’s accomplished, he plans to see his company through to the end. In biotech world, that means a product for sale on the market.
It might be easier and bring in money faster to sell Biological Dynamics’s technology to a larger company, but that’s not what Krishnan’s about. Amidst his jokes and sarcastic advice to the students at the Entrepreneur Challenge (“If you ever get a chance to talk to somebody who’s ridiculously rich, ask him for money,” he advised, along with, “Find somebody who’s a lawyer and make him your good friend”), Krishnan hammered home the point that he does what he loves.
“It shouldn’t be money that drives you, because if it is you’ll last three days and then say, ‘Screw this,’” he said. “You need to find something you’re willing to bet your life on, so that you can say, ‘If I die doing this, so be it, I’ll be happy.’”
Krishnan does seem to be following his own advice. He knows his company might not be successful, but he can say he tried. Like many optimistic 20-somethings (including myself), he is putting his desire to chase a dream above everything else.
This will be my last post in this series on Krishnan and his company. Despite his sarcasm and cocky side, seeing the joy he finds in running his own company and working on a technology he believes in has been inspiring. In the current economy, it’s rare to find someone who’s following his passion, especially a recent graduate in his 20s. Of course, as a biotech entrepreneur Krishnan isn’t living the life of a starving artist, but he is making sacrifices to pursue his dream.
“It’s one of those ‘reach for the moon and fall among the stars’ things,” he told the students assembled at the UCSD event. “Whether you’re being a bus driver or running your own company, you need to love what you do.”
With that, he flashed one more big smile, stepped back from his spot at the front of the room and took his seat. The audience erupted into enthusiastic applause.
Please contact Claire Trageser directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/clairetrageser.