Dr. Christina Smolke recently joined BII’s Scientific Advisory Board. She is a leader in synthetic biology and metabolic engineering and has pioneered the design and application of functional RNAs as tools for programming biological systems.
Today, she is an Adjunct Professor at Stanford University and CEO of Antheia, which she founded in 2015. The start-up uses synthetic biology to unlock nature’s medical power, and Christina Smolke has led the team through everything from the initial funding to negotiating partnerships and developing the technology.
Today, the company has grown to 30 employees and Christina Smolke’s job as CEO entails “doing everything and anything that comes up”.
We had a talk with her about her career and experience.
To learn more about BII’s Scientific Advisory Board, check out this article with CEO Jens Nielsen.
Why did you say yes to joining BII’s SAB?
I have known Jens Nielsen as a colleague in the academic space for many years and worked with him on some of his activities through The Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Biosustainability. He shared with me this new endeavor and due to my great interest in transferring cutting-edge science to industry and the opportunities that initiatives like BII bring, I said yes to sharing my experience in the SAB.
What inspired you to study chemical engineering?
I read science magazines in high school to find out what I wanted to study, and some stories that I came across on programming cells as chemical factories lit a fire in me. It was pretty clear that I wanted to build things and create instead of just study and deconstruct. That took me in the direction of chemical engineering, which I majored in. I minored in biology and biochemistry to get the training I needed to work in the space I am in now. Back then, bioengineering, as we know it today, was not an option.
How was your encounter with the business world?
I experienced a real shift when I moved from Caltech to Stanford in 2009. Stanford is located in Silicon Valley with very active investors that are deeply interested in technology. Although I was still a professor in an academic environment, I suddenly had more interactions with investors that came in to discuss and understand technologies in much more informal ways than I was used to. Over time that led me to think more about how to proceed with my scientific work to reach full impact and it also made me more proactive in building a network in the business world.
What would you pass on to young entrepreneurs from academia?
Leading a start-up is a unique opportunity to develop an idea from inception to seeing it commercialized and scaled. It is rewarding and fulfilling and I enjoy being on a mission with a team. However, there are three things to keep in mind:
Number one is that you need to believe in what you do and be passionate about it because there will be many ups and downs and many learnings along the way.
Number two is that you need to be patient. Today, we see so much innovation in the tech industry, but tech moves at a very different pace than biotech.
The third thing is that it is important to think about where you want to go as an entrepreneur. The decisions you make at an early stage will impact what kind of company you build. Remember that and re-evaluate along the way.