Dr. Vivian Chan – Democratising Science!
Vivian and I met for a cup of tea at Albion, close to her office in Shoreditch to do the interview. Her journey to entrepreneurship evidences why she is unbelievably credible to lead a company undertaking no mean feat – to democratise science. Vivian did a degree in drug design and development after which she spent a year as a VC on the life science side before returning to academia to do her PhD in biochemistry at Cambridge. Rounding this off she was also President of Cambridge University Technology & Enterprise Club and part of the inaugural class of Entrepreneur First, where she met her co-founder. With her intelligence, charm and passion it is not surprising the quality of investors that Sparrho has already attracted – she even hustled her way to chat to Bill Gates when she was a speaker at the Dutch Presidency this year! Sparrho helps anyone and everyone to stay on top of the latest research and Vivian’s vision is to transform discoverability, accessibility and understandability of science!
Current Job CEO and Co-Founder of Sparrho
First Job Investment process manager at Uniseed in Australia
Education BBiotech in Drug Design & Development, The University of Queensland; PhD Biochemistry, The University of Cambridge
Go to meeting spot Department of Coffee and Social Affairs on Bishopsgate
Favourite book/podcast The Hard thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz. I also listen to a bunch of podcasts including Player FM and a whole range of TEDx stuff. I also love StartUp - it’s from the same guys who do Gimlet Media. The first one was actually about the founders of Gimlet Media starting their company.
Necessary extravagance I don’t know whether it’s extravagant but on Sundays I like to cook and to have the time to just stay in the kitchen for half a day or a few hours – its really relaxing for me. I guess because I was a scientist the kitchen is the next best substitute for a lab!!
Favourite productivity tool Slack
Female inspiration Ada Lovelace, Sheryl Sandberg, Sherry Coutu
Top networking tip Give everyone you talk to quality time
After graduating you joined Uniseed, a pre-seed/seed stage venture capital fund. Tell us briefly about your role there, best experience and biggest takeaway?
I was the investment process manager on the Life Sciences side. I liaised with the research commercialisation arms of the top three universities, trying to identify which life science research was suitable to be spawned out into a company. We would discuss the IP, how they would monetise it and why it was different to the competitors. The management team and their ambition was also a critical factor, especially when it comes to science. I would then pitch the ones that I liked back to my team. I was also in charge of the investment process, so I attended all the board meetings too. Life Science is tricky as it’s a much longer cycle (10-15 yrs).
You relocated from Australia and embarked on your PhD at University of Cambridge. Can you give us a layman’s overview of your dissertation and share how a PhD prepared you (or not) for start-up life?
The objective was to build a three dimensional structure of what a certain protein looked like for the purpose of working with scientists to design drugs in order to inhibit them. The more that you can visualise how the protein interacts then you can think of ways to either block it or kill it. To understand the structure, you have to crystallise the protein and then go through a series of other complex procedures. My original starting point was to look at a particular protein in TB, but that wasn’t so straightforward. Proteins all have individual personalities actually. I ended up doing my PhD in the same protein but in a different bacteria.
Four years of problem solving trains you to be very persistent and analytical. I think it has prepared me to be a very, very good entrepreneur because there are a lot of highs and lows in science and you spend weeks on an experiment and the results are often inconclusive and its unclear what it means or what the next steps are. Also, being one of the top researchers in that particular field, means not a lot of people have the expertise to help. So there is a lot of self-learning, problem solving and figuring things out for yourself. It’s very much like a start-up – very chaotic with an unclear future.
Cambridge University Technology & Enterprise Club (CUTEC) elected you as President and subsequently Chairman. Tell us about the organisation, the highlights from being part of it and how it fits into your biochemist to entrepreneur journey!
CUTEC tries to be the connecting point between students and those who are interested in entrepreneurship within the Cambridge community. The eco-system is very vibrant, with loads of small to medium sized companies. Microsoft was already there and Astrazeneca are moving to Cambridge too, so all these big companies are moving in for talent, for knowledge and for the start-ups. There is also a group of entrepreneurs, the Cambridge Angels, who are some of the most experienced Angel investors. The role of President at CUTEC was one I just fell into. Through a friend I got involved with the organisation, ended up liking it and helped build this massive conference to facilitate connections. CUTEC is structured like a company –with a president, the high executive, and VP’s of five different teams: sponsorship, content, marketing, external relations and ops. I was part of the content team first. I enjoyed it and was about to leave, when the president approached me and said: ‘do you want to be the next president?’ Then somehow I ended up being voted President of this organisation, with thirty to fifty volunteers. That role taught me time management, prioritisation, skills to be CEO and especially people management.
Tell us all about Entrepreneur First and your history with them
I was still president of CUTEC when Matt Clifford + Alice Bentick from Entrepreneur First approached me saying they were on the hunt to recruit 30 of the brightest graduates who wanted to be entrepreneurs. I was part of their student advisory board which they also seeded the idea in my head that I qualified for EF as I was a fresh PhD graduate. I actually finally applied in a Starbucks in Hong Kong at the last minute!
What is Sparrho and what problem is it solving?
Sparrho is an artificial intelligence engine that helps anyone and everyone to stay on top of the latest science.
Inspiration or frustration – what were the origins of Sparrho and the evolution of the company to date?
My biggest problem when I was doing my PhD was trying to stay on top of scientific research. In academia your only metrics of success is how many publications you can produce and in order to do this, you need to know what everyone else is doing. And then in industry terms it’s equally important from the perspective of things like patents and money raised for drugs etc. So staying on top of science is actually really important for many parties. Currently the search facilities available are poor. The digital offerings are simple linear keyword search engines or email alerts. They are not intelligent because if you don’t know the right keywords to use you cannot find the correct information. When I was studying we had a great ‘human’ solution to this problem. I had a Postdoctoral researcher (Steve) who was a brilliant academic and he would spend maybe fifteen minutes every morning looking at a few journals that he knew were relevant for our group and send us relevant papers that linear keyword searches would never find. He would always be faster than any of the subscription services and provided us research that we would never have considered. These always provided us amazing step change innovations. Everyone relied on him.
This is where the idea of Sparrho has come from, but instead of having one poor guy going through a few journals everyday, we use technology that can search millions of different articles and be able to learn what it is that’s interesting for the user and then recommend other things to read without the need to continually search. We couldn’t just draw up an MVP, so we partnered with the British Library and some of the scientific publishers and now we’ve got over 41 million pieces of scientific content and we’ll be scaling very quickly this year. Once you’ve got the content this brings in the users. We also plan to supplement this by using science experts to summarise the rest of the cutting edge scientific research. We want to pay the PhDs – which is a very different model to anything else out there because PhD’s don’t generally get paid very much – so for once they’re being paid to summarise and put their perspective on a research article. They only have to answer three questions which are: ‘why is this piece of research important to the general public?’; ‘why is this research important for other researchers in biochemistry?’ and then ‘why is this piece of research important to other scientists not in biochemistry?’ So that’s the vision, and addresses the 3 different pillars that I’m trying to tackle – discoverability, accessibility and understandability. Once we get through those, then anyone and everyone will be able to stay up to date with whatever science is out there. That could include students, hedge fund managers, journalists, or concerned individuals who want to find out what the actual latest cutting edge research is on their medication or illness.
It seems bizarre to me that we are still learning science from a science textbook. UK taxpayers are funding cutting edge research but no one knows how to access it. Sparrho changes that.
Sparrho uses machine learning – can you elaborate on this element of the product?
We take concepts of your original search, even though want to move people towards thinking about it as a keyword filter. Based on the keywords that you’re filling in, we’re able to formulate a concept of what you’re interested in – users can set up multiple different channels, so it’s very similar to having multiple playlists on Spotify. For example, say you type in Jupiter, Mars, and Saturn, Sparrho understands that you’re interested in planets in the solar system, so then it can also recommend other planets in the solar system, or other related things without you needing to tell us exactly which planets. So, that is the first step… formulate some sort of understanding of who you are, then the more you interact with it, the more we understand what you’re wanting.
What is the long term vision for the company as well as more imminent milestones?
The big vision is to help everyone and anyone interested in science. We’ve got the content, we’ve got the experts and now we’re getting our expert community to “summarise” cutting-edge research for everyone else. Imminent milestones right now are scaling. Team wise I am trying to hire a few more people. And then we’re going to be rolling out more revenue models and fundraising later on in the year.
What are some of the KPIs that you measure success by for both the business and your team?
We’ve got a very clear roadmap and each department has got their own milestones which relate to how many sign ups, how many retained users, and monthly actives. I also try to promote personal development goals. As a start-up, things move so quickly, so I want to remain aware of what my team want to do and how they wish to develop personally. I try and push my team to seek experienced mentors – its been really helpful when we are unsure about a decision to have people to consult. I think as a company, if the team, individually works, then the company exponentially will work.
Women in Tech
Can you share your fundraising history as well as your experience and advice for women looking to raise capital?
Alastair Mitchell, an angel investor who is the co-founder and former CEO of Huddle was our first investor. I was on a Skype call with him in San Francisco and he says, “okay I’ve got it, I love it, I’ll put some money in, now show me what you can do”. That was the pin drop moment when I realised this was no longer a project and was actually a start-up. Three months after that call, I closed my first round of investment with my own term sheet. All the subsequent funding has been on convertibles, so I was able to raise more capital on a flexible structure. I also now have a whole range of other investors, such as David Cleevely, Chairman of Raspberry Pi and great support from an external network – people like Jon Bradford and David Rowan. All of these amazing people have really added to the success of Sparrho.
Advice for women would be not to be afraid to be bold. For example, at a dinner in Amsterdam, Bill Gates was the keynote speaker. I was also speaking at the Dutch Presidency the next day. After the speeches, I approached his table and pitched Sparrho. He gave me 10 minutes and then asked about my investors and gave me his e-mail address. I have emailed him multiple times, haven’t heard from him yet, but I haven’t given up! I think he is a great believer and advocate for open science – because science, especially knowledge within science is going to solve some of todays key issues, such as poverty or sustainability.
You are consciously building a diverse team – how can we do better to attract and retain more women in tech?
I think that diversity is very important; it’s the same as the interdisciplinary skills that I was talking about in science. I have a 50/50 gender split in the team at the moment, coupled with the fact that I think each of my team are averaging about two passports, so multiple different nationalities. This really adds to the strength of the business because people from different backgrounds and cultures think differently and all of that mashed in together is tremendously powerful. However, one of our strengths is also one of our weaknesses in that the initial team is still a bunch of scientists and we are now starting to move towards hiring specialists that are not scientists. However, we have been shocked as to how difficult it has been to recruit women. Last year we got less than 20% of female applications. We discovered that women are less likely to feel confident in applying for a role if they haven’t checked at least 8 out of the 10 boxes as opposed to men, who have applied despite only qualifying for 2 out of 10!
How do you learn CEO skills as a young founder – any tips?
On the job is the most important aspect because no matter what you read, or what you listen to, there are those moments when you’re like ‘Oh that’s what they meant.’ I have also done some CEO shadowing, where I spent a day with a couple of CEOs. I could ask them questions, check the key things that were on their minds etc. This has been really useful in helping me predict things and not get blind-sided.