BCS Career Interviews – Dr. Peyman Salehian of Allozymes
In this interview, BCS Communications Lead, Zara Chung, spoke with Dr. Peyman Salehian, co-founder and CEO of Allozymes. He discusses his previous experiences from founding his first company, to his decision to pursue a PhD, and finally how he landed up co-founding the up-and-coming local biotech start-up Allozymes. (Any opinions in this article are personal and do not reflect those of the interviewees’ employers.)
ZC: Hi Dr. Peyman, thank you for meeting us and accommodating our time and for the Merck event as well. A lot of people really enjoyed it and it also helped quite a few participants thinking about being involved in start-ups or just venturing beyond academia. So to start with, I was wondering if you could share about a day in your life as a co-founder of a biotech start-up in Singapore and also your favourite and least favourite parts of your day-to-day life?
PS: I have to give you some background on myself before answering this question. I’m a repeat entrepreneur, or the better word that I would like to use is technopreneur –there’s a big difference between being an entrepreneur and being a technopreneur. A technopreneur translates a technology into something commercially valuable. Whereas for an entrepreneur, you could have any idea, like selling books like Amazon or maybe a platform for dating or transferring money. This is not considered technopreneurship. Technopreneurship is for very deep technology that you want to commercialize, so it’s more difficult, because we have tons of ideas to choose from in universities. In addition, after developing the technology, you need to add commercial value on top of your technology. In contrast, entrepreneurs focus purely on the financials and it’s more straightforward to calculate the upside.
Let’s take Amazon as an example. If I want to sell books, I can say, “ how many books can I sell, how much does it cost? And what is the price of the book?” And then you can aggregate the upside of your business. But for companies like Allozymes, how can I say what would be the upside of Allozymes’ technology? Because the technology itself is enzyme-engineering, it is not in the everyday routine of people. It’s not like an Uber where you can book a taxi. Commercialization of such technologies are much more complicated. That is why my day-to-day life as a co-founder of a deep-tech company is very different compared to that of a typical entrepreneur. I have to understand and be involved in the technology to be able to commercialize it. This is where my PhD comes in very handy, especially my background in biotech and chemical engineering. Of course, I’m not as deeply involved in our technology as the CTO, but I understand every single word that I’m saying about our technology and everything that we can do with it.
I wanted to emphasize that as it directly translates to my day-to-day life. If I were a financial CEO, I would speak only with investors or customers. However, as a technopreneur CEO, I speak with my scientists as well. I attend all the monthly technical meetings, where all our senior scientists present their results and progress on the platform or products. I’m actively involved in asking questions, giving them advice, and matching technical progress with customer needs. And as a result, my day-to-day life is quite dynamic. Normally I start my day by answering my emails, around maybe 50 to 60 every day and that takes about 1-2 hours. After that, I will carry out some of the financial tasks that I have to do almost every day. And then last but not least, is the alignment of technology and business, which is a very big part of my days. The tech and business alignment have become more important through the company stages, especially when the company grows from seed to series A. This is one of the tasks that I am always doing, and I think every CEO in deep-tech companies are doing this as well. So my day-to-day life is quite dynamic. I’m still a scientist, but add two pillars on top of that, which are financial and commercialization. I love commercialized technology, so I love my job.
ZC: That’s amazing. I guess when you say ‘entrepreneurship’ most people think your typical platform-based entrepreneurship because that’s so much more prevalent nowadays. But for technopreneurship, you really have to understand the science, understand the technology, and convince the market about it. Which is personally something that I aspire to understand more. You mentioned you are a repeat entrepreneur as well, and Allozymes is your second company. Do you think you could share a little bit more about what your previous company was about and what that experience was like?
PS: Sure. I started my first company when I was 22 years old. After completing my Bachelors, I embarked on my Masters, and that was when I started my first company with three of my friends (always be aware that it is very difficult to start a company alone). I was the CTO and not the CEO of this company. It was, again, a transfer of technology from the lab to the market. Our idea was to build affordable houses for middle-class families with the material we invented in the lab. We had a material, which was a combination of plastic and wood. Nowadays it’s very commonly used in the structure industry, but 15 years ago it was quite new. How it started was we began discussions with a factory owner who allowed us to use his factory and test our material to produce some pre-built construction sections (doors, walls, window frames) with our material.
As the CTO I faced challenges in technology, formulation, and so on. But after a year, most of the challenges were resolved and I moved to the more commercial side of the company. I moved to customer support and got to speak more with customers. I gradually got more involved in the business aspects of that company as well.
I was with that company for three years. We started that company from scratch, I recall even painting the wall of the office by myself. And at the end of the three years, we ended up growing to about 50 people and renting our own factory. To be honest, I was earning good money and I was the only one amongst my classmates with a job managing employees as a young person at that age.
ZC: So it sounds like your first company ended up being very successful. Why did you decide to pursue a PhD instead of staying on as CTO?
PS: Yes, the company was quite stable at the time and it still exists, with over 100 employees now. It continued to grow and I kept my friendship with the other co-founders. But I also started feeling like I wanted to create something bigger and that’s when I began applying to PhD programs. When I received the offer from NUS and a couple of other universities in the United States, I decided to sell my shares to my other co-founders and venture out of my country to study a PhD because I felt that my knowledge then was not enough to build what I envisioned. I’m Iranian, so I was not born and raised in California where you don’t need a PhD degree to build a deep-tech company. But that was a different time, and that was the main reason I made the move to Singapore to do a PhD.
ZC: Yes I can definitely see how having that experience as a CTO also kind of pushed you to want to achieve bigger things and make a bigger impact as well, which is why you decided to pursue a PhD. Now after you completed your PhD, did you feel you managed to get the same takeaways from your PhD that you envisioned going in initially?
PS: The moment that I sold my shares and came out to do my PhD, I knew that I was going to start my second company. I always had the vision to do so. What was not planned was when that was actually going to happen. So after graduating, I had an offer to stay at the university with my own supervisor. I even stayed there for six months. I also had another offer for a postdoctoral position at Imperial College, which I didn’t go for.
To be very frank, after the PhD finished, I was feeling a little empty and really wanted to start my second company. I was just waiting for the right time. Before Allozymes, I was in another technology consulting firm as head of business development, so I was already mixing my technical mindset with my business mindset. And that was when Allozymes came along. My co-founder shared with me the technology and idea behind Allozymes, and I realised this was a great opportunity. So I caught it and I thought, okay, this could be the second company that I always wanted to start.
If your question was whether my technical knowledge enabled me to distinguish the impact of technologies, of course, yes. Because I could tell the Allozymes technology has big potential. If I didn’t understand a single word about biotech or enzyme engineering and the microfluidic technology they were using, I definitely wouldn’t have been able to understand how impactful it would be and the potential it held. Additionally, something that PhD-degree holders develop is the critical mindset, the critical way of thinking. A PhD enables you to challenge – you should be able to read by yourself and think by yourself. You aren’t supported very much in a PhD so you actually build that skill set for yourself, and that is very, very helpful.
ZC: Yeah, I can see how important it is to be able to identify promising and impactful technology, especially if you’re investing all of this money and time. I also wanted to ask, did you ever consider a career in academia or being a part of an MNC as a senior position instead of founding your own company?
PS: I did think of academia. I enjoy teaching but do not want to be a professor. After my Masters, I used to teach as a part-time tutor. But there’s a big difference between teaching and being a professor so I never wanted to stay in academia as I felt it was not for me. I always wanted an adventurous job.
Being part of a corporation is always on the table actually. Maybe after my journey at Allozymes? I don’t know, maybe an MNC, or maybe I go for my third company. Who knows? That’s life, it’s always fluctuating. I never experienced being in a big MNC, but I have many employees that have left MNCs and joined start-ups. People want to experience different things and it’s not always good versus bad.
ZC: It’s what suits you at your current phase of life?
ZC: So is what you are currently doing something you dreamt of doing as a child? Did you have a childhood dream job?
PS: I don’t remember, but I can say entrepreneurship is probably in my blood because my dad was an entrepreneur. He used to open and close many businesses, so I had several ups and downs in life as a kid. When my dad’s business was successful we would be quite rich, but when the business was not so successful we would be really poor. This is important because entrepreneurship comes with both great fear and great joy. Some people are afraid of the fear and some people are also afraid of the joy, and that’s why they choose the safe path I believe. But I experienced both the pains and the joys growing up, which helped me decide to be an entrepreneur, not just blindly. Entrepreneurship was still quite new 30 years ago. However, I was very exposed to it and it was a natural thing for me to do.
ZC: I see. Thanks for sharing. My next question might be a common question, but what personal sacrifices, if any, did you have to make to reach this current stage of co-founding two companies?
PS: Of course. I have made a lot of personal sacrifices, sometimes even family sacrifices. I remember for my first company, I was very young and I didn’t have a lot of financial support. I needed to not eat to visit my customers or the factory. And I feel that when you reach that level of sacrifice, you aren’t afraid of anything else. Like sometimes I have to work on Christmas or even New Year’s Eve. Most people are with their families, but I recall one incident when I had a project to deliver, and my employees who were supposed to do it didn’t, so I needed to do it by myself. I went there in my New Year clothes and installed all the windows for my first company that we sold. Otherwise, we would receive a penalty, which I couldn’t afford. So these are some of the sacrifices that I can remember.
Sometimes it doesn’t seem like much. But when you put yourself in that moment, with the pressure that you are handling, it can be overwhelming. Even for Allozymes, my co-founder and I, we paid ourselves very low salaries initially. At that point we needed to decide on renting a new lab or paying ourselves – we rented a lab. So these are sacrifices you have to understand and make. And it never ends. You have to always prepare for it mentally more than physically.
ZC: I see. It definitely sounds like being a technopreneur requires a lot of support and understanding from your personal circle. Moving on to my second to last question, what are your qualities and weaknesses that make you who you are as a technopreneur? Could you share some?
PS: So I think it’s very important to understand that both strengths and weaknesses reveal themselves along the way, so you have to face challenges and then reflect on what you managed well or not so well. Only then can you consider what is a strength or a weakness.
I can say one of my weaknesses is I tend to make decisions very, very quickly. This was good at the beginning of the company, but it might not be the best when the company moves forward maybe 5 years on. You have to start having room for doubts, you have to sometimes give it a second.
Another weakness is I don’t give enough time for myself to reset my mind. Spending time by myself helps me to expand my knowledge. But it’s not that I don’t want to give myself time, I just have to make time for it.
As for strengths, I already mentioned, one of them is critical thinking. This came from my PhD. And the second one is I’m quite a thick-skinned person. This has helped me to face many problems rather than run away from them.
ZC: Thank you for sharing so candidly. Finally, do you have any parting words for like budding researchers and scientists who might be thinking of technopreneurship as a career route? Or maybe for people thinking about going into start-ups versus pursuing a PhD?
PS: So the advice that I would like to give is, first of all, if you’re a PhD student or you researcher, you should not fall in love with what you have already done, what technology you have built. You always need to consider the commercial perspective – speak with potential consumers and clients, and if it is valuable then give it a try.
My second piece of advice is if you’re afraid, take a piece of paper and write what you’re afraid of. Then put an actual cap on it. After graduating, a lot of us don’t start our journey as an entrepreneur because of the fear of running out of money, or not receiving a good salary, and every individual has a different tolerance. So put a limit for yourself and say “Okay, I’ll give it a try. If I can’t make it work in one year, this is the amount that I’m willing to lose. This is the impact on my family, on my personal life, am I willing to do it or not?” One of the issues is people think if they start a journey as an entrepreneur, they will always need to continue. No cap. No, this is not a thing. This is a job – you have to look at it as a job and be practicable about it. If it’s not successful, you need to leave it. This is very important, as much as I said you should not fall in love with your research, you should also not fall in love with your business. Of course, it’s like your baby, you will make a lot of sacrifices. But leaving it is also very important because if you don’t leave, you’re going to stay there and the impact on your life is going to be huge. So these are my two pieces of advice.