Liran Belenzon, a successful young entrepreneur and recent Rotman graduate describes the challenges and rewards of his start-up journey
Q. What is a bench scientist?
Bench scientists are biomedical researchers that work in either pharma companies, biotech, academic institutions or not-for-profits. Their job is to conduct biological experiments to try and understand how different diseases work. The hope is that their experiments lead to breakthroughs or even cures for a wide variety of diseases.
Q. How did you and your co-founders come up with the idea for your company?
Benchsci has four co-founders, and I am the only non-scientist on the team. Two of our founders [Elvis Wianda, Chief Data Scientist and David Chen, Chief Technology Officer] are computational biologists with PhDs in Neuroimaging. The other co-founder is our Chief Scientist Tom Leung, who actually came up with the idea for the company.
Dr. Leung has a PhD in Epigenetics and was previously a bench scientist conducting cancer research. He was really struggling to find the best antibodies for his experiments. Because biological compounds have a high failure rate, there is a lot of trial and error for these scientists. He would do what most other bench scientists do, which is turn to biomedical papers that contain information about which compounds to use under different conditions. He was used to spending months and thousands of dollars per project. Frustrated, he looked around for a database that aggregated published data for antibodies to support his purchasing decisions, but was surprised to find that none existed. One day he wondered, Why not create one?
When we started the company over three years ago, there had just been a huge breakthrough in a deep learning at the University of Toronto, led by Professor Geoffrey Hinton. So, the technology was finally available to make our goal possible.
Q. How would you describe how BenchSci works to a layperson?
Imagine you’re baking a cake and you have to buy flour. When you get to the grocery store, there are 4,000,000 different types of flour, and you have to choose the right one for your specific cake, or it will fail. This is the situation that scientists are in when buying ‘ingredients’ for their experiments. To buy the right products, they can review the scientific literature, but that takes up a lot of time. So we taught a computer to read scientific papers the way a scientist does, and make connections between their experiments and specific products. Now, the computer can show them which products are likely to be the best for their experiments. It brings down their options from 4,000,000 to a few dozen, greatly reducing the cost of experiments.
Thousands of scientists are now using our platform every day, saving anywhere between two and six months in the discovery process. Before using BenchSci, they would have to buy a dozen different compounds and test each one individually, which can take weeks. We have decoded millions of scientific papers and extracted over two million antibody usages in the form of published figures. They no longer have to go on a wild goose chase to get the answers they need. We help them make informed decisions much faster—and we feel certain that this will lead to more breakthroughs and important discoveries.
Q. Tell us a bit about your involvement with the Creative Destruction Lab at Rotman.
CDL has a special place in my heart. I did my MBA at Rotman, and in the summer between my first and second years, I worked there part-time. I have a background in entrepreneurship, so I was really interested in everything that is going on there. My summer job was basically to find start-ups and convince them to apply for the program, and one that I targeted was BenchSci. I met with the three co-founders and convinced them to apply. Then, as a second-year MBA Student, I took the Creative Destruction Lab elective course, and I was able to work directly with the founders. A month after I graduated, they asked me to join them as their CEO—and we set out to raise money from investors and get the company off the ground.
Q. You’ve been very successful in raising financing. Can you talk a bit your approach to what can be a huge challenge for entrepreneurs?
It takes a lot of hard work and learning, but I truly believe two things made a difference for us. First, we became world-class at the skill of storytelling. In my view, that is the most important skill that the CEO of a start-up needs to excel at. I was very fortunate to go through a kind of storytelling boot camp for three or four months at FounderFuel, an accelerator based in Montreal, and I really developed my skills there.
The second thing we had on our side is an understanding of exactly which VCs to target. It’s important to stay up to date with who is meeting with who, pay attention in the data rooms, and check out the financial models being proposed. All of that is key to having your proposal extremely well-organized—which is very valuable because it shows empathy for the investors. You need to provide everything they need to make a good decision as to whether to invest in your company or not.
In our case, I actually relocated to Silicon Valley for three weeks. I had about 30 meetings lined up, and I met personally with everyone. I told them that I’d be returning to Toronto in a few weeks, but that in the meantime I would make myself as available as they needed. When I flew back, I already had a few offers from companies including Google and iNovia as a part of our A-round.
Q. How is your product different from the Google search engine?
Google is an incredible tool for searching for general interest documents by keyword. But it doesn’t understand scientific concepts, understand the relationship between biological entities, have access to non-public data, or display results the way scientists want to see them. BenchSci, on the other hand, uses machine learning, bioinformatics, closed-access scientific papers, and the display of scientific figures to provide a tool specifically for biologists. If you search for “mouse antibody” on Google, for example, you’ll get a Wikipedia entry. If you search for “mouse antibody” on BenchSci, you’ll get published figures for antibodies from a mouse host that you can then filter by 16 experimental variables.
Q. Based on the experience you’ve had with this venture. What is the most challenging aspect of getting a high-tech start-up off the ground?
Every start-up has its own challenges, and in each case, there are many. I think the most important thing to remember is that you only need one Yes. It really doesn’t matter how many No’s you get; at the end of the day, you just need one person out of a hundred to say Yes. To get through this, we had to have conviction, perseverance and an amazing work ethic. That’s what helps you achieve success. It’s a very tough business and you’re meeting people who may not see the world in the same way you do. You need to accept that not everything is a good fit.
Q. When we did our seed round, it was way more difficult than our A round. I think we met with a hundred VC’s, and we only got one Yes.
That’s why you can never give up; you have to have conviction. Even if someone says ‘No thanks, that is a stupid idea, it’s never going to work’, you can’t let other people challenge your confidence and your belief in the company.
You and your team have created around $30 million dollars in equity value, in less than three years. Looking ahead, what is the plan for BenchSci in the next few years?
We really want to go as far as we can. This may sound a bit grandiose, but we are trying to build the greatest Canadian success story in history. That’s why we raised money from top VCs like iNovia and Google. We have big dreams and we’re working really hard to accomplish them.
Q. When did you first know that you’ve wanted to pursue entrepreneurship?
I’ve always been interested in entrepreneurship. When I was doing my undergrad in Israel, I started a company and sold it before I moved to Canada. Entrepreneurship is something that has always been around me. My dad has had a small business since I was around 10, and my brother also had a start-up.
I love the challenge of it; I love the freedom; and I love to create. Also, importantly, I can deal with the stress. I did my service in the Israeli army, and as a result I can definitely deal with the stress levels that come with entrepreneurship. This vocation fits well with the environment, values and culture that I grew up in.
Q. What would you say is your unique combination of skills that got you to where you are today?
At the risk of repeating myself, I’d say perseverance, conviction—and a really strong work ethic.
Liran Belenzon is the Co-Founder and CEO of Benchsci, whose mission is to decode the world’s biological data to reduce the time, uncertainty, and cost of biomedical research.
[This article has been reprinted, with permission, from Rotman Management, the magazine of the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management]