Entrepreneurship: a satisfying but long ride - Idan Alyagor

Some of us might wonder what it is like to set up and lead a biotech company, especially without having any official business background. To find this out, we met with Idan, who became co-founder and CTO of FreezeM after completing his PhD at the Weizmann Institute. He shares with us his path to successful entrepreneurship and reflects on useful skills, important decisions and difficulties that come with it.

What is FreezeM about?

“Our company is in the field of alternative proteins derived from insects. Insects are a great protein source, because they are highly effective in transforming organic waste into protein. Like the majority of the field, we work with the black soldier fly. This insect can consume a wide variety of organic waste and grows 10.000 times in two weeks. In addition, it is not considered a pest because it doesn’t develop mouth parts that can transform diseases. The industry is rapidly growing and quite new; it was very scientific until 10 years ago.”

“We have two technologies that enable us to decouple the breeding part from the farming and processing part. One of them is cryopreservation and the other is suspended animation, a temporary state of dramatically reduced metabolism. Using these, we can provide small larvae to companies, which grow them and make protein out of it. Without these techniques, the insects would die during shipment.”

How did you get to co-founding this company?

“We are three founders, and each one of us graduated in a different field of biology. We decided separately that we did not want to continue in academia. However, we aimed to do something more significant than being just an employee in a regular company. That’s why we joined the entrepreneurship club in Weizmann” (WISe, currently not active).

“We tried to find solutions for issues surrounding the maintenance of genetic stocks in drosophila labs. Yuval came from a field that uses cryopreservation for cells or even human embryos, and we thought: why not use it for insects? We came up with a specific technology that became the starting point of our company. However, we quickly realized that drosophila are really cool but not a big business. While exploring the market, we found the black soldier fly and could immediately relate to it emotionally because it helps do good for the environment.”

How did you learn entrepreneurship?

“First of all, I am still learning, entrepreneurship is very complex. As academics, we lack certain skills: how do you raise money? How should you present yourself? What is the right way to build a company, how to design the different sections? What are good employees and how do you recruit them? A lot of this we learned in WISe: we met experts from the field, lawyers, accountants and so on, and this helped a lot. A lot of good advice actually came from people that helped us for free.You need to choose the right people to give you advice, because good advice is priceless.”

What academic skills came in handy while learning?

“The ability to ask questions and not take everything for granted. This is essential, because you consult with experts in many steps, but they don’t always give you the best advice. Knowing how to move forward in uncertain times is also very useful; in a startup, you don’t know where the endpoint is. The ability to plan two steps ahead, to build a strategy, to divide things into smaller pieces.”

What do you do as a CTO?

“As CTO, I am responsible for most of the scientific parts which are more at the basic stages. The VP R&D handles the transfer into industry, and the CEO is about everything basically, but was more focused on financial and marketing aspects in the beginning. In the end, all three of us are involved in everything.”

How did you divide the positions?

“The division was quite natural because each one of us has their own strengths. My best advice is to have good partners. Choosing partners can be quite complex, but common sense is always a good guide. You will quickly learn whether you can operate as a team during the first few challenges you encounter together.”

What was the most difficult part of setting up a business, and how did you deal with this?

“I would say there were two things. First, the most important part is to have a good problem to solve, and this is not trivial. We started with a solution to a problem that wasn’t big enough, but we were honest with ourselves and shifted it into the right problem. The second thing is raising money, especially for people coming from academia. We learnt some basics in the WISe club and then started to talk with as many people as possible. The first meetings we had were awful, but then we met some investors that got us off the ground.”

What are the main differences between academia and industry in your experience?

“First of all, even as the CTO who handles the most basic scientific aspects, I deal with a lot of non-science issues. Half of my work is not science, which can be a big challenge for anyone who loves science. Everything is product oriented. You encounter a lot of cool stuff along the way, but it always starts with looking at the endpoint. If it’s not feasible to reach the industry phase, you don’t continue.”

What advice can you give students that want to pursue entrepreneurship?

“It’s a very long ride, so you need to be prepared for that. There is a lot of uncertainty, a lot of pressure and a lot of very different topics that you need to be at least good enough in. If you don’t relate to that, it’s not the right place for you. If you do, it’s very important to find the right partners. And like I said before, good advice is priceless. Especially in Israel, you can get a lot of free advice; people like to talk and help and this is really nice. This can cover many gaps that you have along the way. Even if you don’t have connections yet, you can make them.”

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