Catena Biosciences: Crushing Vaccine Development

Screen Shot 2020-06-24 at 1.13.54 PMWhat happens when a Chemistry PhD student from Jennifer Doudna’s and Matt Francis’ labs wants to explore entrepreneurship?  Why, he heads up the hill to Haas, of course!

Marco Lobba had heard about Kurt Beyer’s 295A Entrepreneurship course and showed up for the first evening with a stunning idea using new techniques from UC Berkeley-UCSF’s Innovative Genomics Institute. He detailed a way to produce vaccine candidates in two days…10X faster and cheaper than other existing methods.

Marco quickly found three Haas MBA students as partners (Geo Guillen,  Isabella Dougherty, Victor Gorrachattegui) and the team completed the course in April.  They received a coveted Berkeley Haas Seed Fund grant and in the recommendation letter, Kurt stated: “Of all of the recommendations I have written, this one cannot be more important or timely given current Corona crisis.”

Although the team had initially explored a licensing model in Kurt’s class, they used this month’s  one week I-Corps course to explore the possibility of spinning out a company, instead.  The conducted 16 interviews with individuals in various pharmaceutical companies to narrow in on their optimal customer segment.  They experienced the usual hurdles and rookie mistakes all teams make as they master the art of the customer discovery interview.  Their concise insights are universal and worth sharing:

  • Leading with benefits of technology but not really understanding scientists’ pain points
  • Failing to secure next connection / not following up soon enough
  • Conversations at the wrong level of the company (Business Development) + expectations not being set properly at the beginning of the meeting
  • Expecting companies to provide us with use cases on how to use our new technology

In addition to identifying the exact role to target for further discovery, they identified associated value propositions and even some additional use cases to explore.  They discovered that slipstreaming into existing certifications and workflows will be key for both consideration and ultimate adoption of their solution, regardless of the form.

They also secured enough data points to pivot away from their initial go-to-market plans as a platform provider.  What’s next for this talented team? They’re applying to the National I-Corps program and will see where evidence from 100+ more customer discovery interviews takes them.

What can our one week course do for your STEM idea or startup?  Apply here by midnight, 7/3 and find out!,%202020