Innovator Q&A: Diego Rey

A graduate of USCB (BS) and Cornell University (MS and Ph.D.), Diego founded GeneWeave Biosciences in 2010, which was acquired by Roche in 2015. For the last seven months, Diego has been sharing his knowledge and experience as Visting Partner at Y Combinator.

How have martial arts helped you succeed in the rough and tumble biotech start-up world?

Commitment and perseverance. Getting through the belts over many years and ultimately black belt training was tough. I was 12, and this was an early lesson in committing to hard, diligent work, and mental stamina for sticking to it, whatever ‘it’ is.

When seeking advice who was your go-to person? Why did you select them? What did they tell you?

This has many answers depending on the time and situation. I relied on many people along the way, I still do, and this is a big reason why I try to be there for folks who seek advice in entrepreneurship. One example I can highlight is my dad. I remember his counter-intuitive reaction when I explained a very rough situation early in our company’s history. Instead of providing specific advice or merely being sympathetic, he just said “Oh man, that is so cool! That is a tough situation. You’ll look back and realize how much you’re going to learn from this. Where else would you get to learn that?” His reaction made me appreciate the difficult times ever since.

You are a member of several minority engineering societies, were the organizations and the people you became friends with essential to your entrepreneurial journey?

Definitely. The group through which I grew the most was Los Ingenieros (LI), the UCSB chapter of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers. As a sophomore, I got to organize an industry tour in Silicon Valley that gave me the opportunity to connect with individuals at large and small companies, mostly through cold calls. After that, I was very comfortable connecting with folks and networking. The men and women at LI were a great group, and the organization continues to be among the best at UCSB.

You once mentioned (to me) that there is a new breed of biotech entrepreneurs who don’t, on paper, fit into the lab coat model. They are setting up firms in urban areas and are avoiding the pharma/biotech track before starting a firm, or have piercings and participate in extreme sports, or are business majors—why is this important to the future of bio-entrepreneurship?

Yes, bio and healthcare-related companies are entering what my co-founder Jason Springs calls “the application layer.” He credits Doug Leone at Sequoia for pointing out that back in the day in tech, entrepreneurs were more experienced in academia or business and were building “the infrastructure layer”: Things like transistors, network switches, etc. Now, younger entrepreneurs can take advantage of this infrastructure to literally build app-based billion-dollar businesses.

A similar thing is starting to happen in bio and healthcare. We are entering an era where entrepreneurs that are less experienced in these areas can more easily build solutions for the bio and healthcare industries. So now ‘can you build it’ is less important than “what should we build.” The product and business are where most of the value is, not the technology. This will allow for impressive advances in bio and healthcare, leading to significant business opportunities. Unfortunately, while the ability to build solutions has dramatically changed, the healthcare industry, in particular, has not.

In many cases this is for a good reason, for example, products still need to adhere to the strict quality criteria judged by agencies like the FDA. Healthcare remains a complicated business but are tremendous opportunities for entrepreneurs and innovators—many of whom are bringing outside perspectives. But, they will need to be conscious of the industry-specific insights necessary to build viable businesses in healthcare.

Inspirational book, movie, or quote?

Unlikely Allies: How a Merchant, a Playwright, and a Spy Saved the American Revolution by Joel Richard Paul. It is a great book that demystifies our founding fathers, and it’s a story that I found to be very much entrepreneurial.


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