Why I started BenchSci: Dr. Tom Leung at HIT Unconference

The idea of BenchSci originated from one person, Dr. Thomas Leung, BenchSci’s Chief Scientist. Read on to find out why he started BenchSci and what he has learned:

For as long as I can remember, I have always been intrigued by Biology. Before university, my goal in life was to become a medical doctor, after I started university, however, the fascinating world of microbiology beckoned and I became a graduate research student. I finished my Masters in Virology and then completed my PhD in Epigenetics.

To me, research is enjoyable. The moment when you discover something new, and you are the only person in the world who holds that knowledge, is a great feeling. However, halfway through my PhD candidacy, I started to realize the unfortunate truth that faculty scientist positions are extremely rare. Certainly, the traditional path of becoming a post doctorate fellow was still available, but it wasn’t for me. So it was time to explore outside the box.

But what is “outside of academia”? I started going to career talks for graduate students and I realized that there are actually many jobs that I had never even heard of before. Albeit the variety, there is one commonality: experience. For example, in the field of “Regulatory Affairs”, a PhD would qualify for certain positions, but they need previous experience in regulation or additional diploma certifications. Sadly, there are not many options for fresh PhD graduates.

PhDs are innately adept at creating solutions: so I thought, why not create a career path for myself? My research involved a lot of experiments that involved the use of antibodies. Looking for antibodies for experiments was a tedious chore and many of my Westerns and staining had failed because of “bad” antibodies (it brings tears to my eyes to see a blank blot or gel). My solution was to throw these tubes into a yellow biohazard bin and pretend they never existed (don’t tell my PI). I thought to myself, what if I was to create a database that contains publication usage data for commercially available antibodies so that researchers can know what worked and what didn’t work, quickly and easily? That was the birth, or “inception” to be more scientifically accurate, of BenchSci.

At that moment, vocabularies like “start-ups” or “entrepreneur” were new to me. I didn’t know how to build a company, I only had one goal in mind, and that was to build the database. I am not programmer, so the first thing I did was look for teammates who could code. It is the same as forming collaborations with other labs who specialized in a procedure that your lab does not. I had created a LinkedIn account at the time I was attending the career talks, so I went there to start my search. The top hit that came out was David Chen, who later became my first co-founder. I invited him out for a drink and we chatted for hours. It turns out, not only was he super smart in programming, he was also a PhD candidate like myself. He too understood the biology behind the problem, a bonus that proved to be extremely helpful down the road. I continued to look around UofT and assembled an all-star team including our data guy, Elvis Wianda, also a PhD in Neuroscience, our business guy Liran Beleonzon, MBA from Rotman and our outreach guy Maurice Shen, a PhD in Pharmacology.

After you have a team, you need to build the product (or what they called a “minimal viable product”). U of T has many resources to help nurture and facilitate new innovations. So-called “Incubators”, such as the Hatchery, Creative Destruction Lab and H2i provide assistance in the business side of things for a “pure scientist” team such as mine. Building a product without considering what the market wants, is just a very expensive science project. You want your product to bring real value, not just “add-ons” to current solutions. We graduated from several of these programs and in fact, it was during our time in the Creative Destruction Lab when Liran joined the founding team. His business insight was invaluable to the development of BenchSci.

Question that inevitably come up are: “Where is the money?”, “Where do you get money?” and “How do you get paid?” As I am not a business person, my answer to this is simple, if you are building a product that people will love and if you bring an awesome solution to a real problem, the money will come afterwards (much later afterwards… after lots of hard work). One thing I learned in this journey of building BenchSci, is that the business models or plans will surely change many times over the course of time, but the core mission that your company focuses on will not change. What is the mission of BenchSci? Our mission is to help fellow scientists to find better antibodies and facilitate their ground breaking scientific research.

Tom will be speaking at the HIT Unconference at the University of Toronto on Feb 22. Register here for free to hear Tom share his experience going from the bench to business in person!