Founder Spotlight: Building Data Analytics Platform for Sequencing Data

ERIC: I’m delighted to have the co-founders of BioBox. Thanks so much for joining us. Tell us more about BioBox?

CHRIS: My name is Chris Li and I’m the co-founder and CEO of BioBox Analytics. In our company, we’re building an end-to-end data analytics platform for scientists and clinicians working with genomic data.

ERIC: How did you guys go meeting your team? How did it come about?

CHRIS: So, I mean, the early days were definitely a very interesting time. So, you know, Julian, Hamza and myself, we’ve known each other for gosh, like five six years now, working together on various projects. And I think it’s important to kind of talk a little bit about what the problem space was and what drove us to build this company.

When we first met at the time we were graduate students working in life sciences research. The way that life science research is right now, one of the major technologies kind of brought about this tectonic change in a space is next generation sequencing, you know, generating genomic data.

But the advantages of this type of technology has driven unprecedented kinds of discoveries, in life science research. But the problem is it generates a problem – this issue where you need to know some computational skills to work with this type of big data to design algorithms, to process this data.

Now you have this kind of like two sides of the fence. You have your wet lab scientists who are on the lab bench doing physical experiments. And you have your dry lab scientists who are working on crunching the numbers to analyze the data.

So at the time, myself and Hamza and Julia, we were more of the hybrid kind – walking on both sides of the fence. And that generates this issue where, you know, you have your wet lab scientist that needs the data to get processed. They’re collaborating with the dry lab guys, but there’s a lot fewer of them.

And then now 95% of our time was helping other people’s projects, which we were happy to do because that’s why science works in the nature of collaboration. But a lot of the time it becomes challenging for the dry lab guys to manage that kind of multiple projects. And at the same time, it’s really frustrating for wet lab scientists to have to do this back and forth with dry lab.

So one day after work, the three of us were at a bar across the street from work, getting some drinks and as the beer was flowing, we started to talk about these issues. And we said, okay, like, let’s draw out on a piece on a napkin, what a hypothetical system could be to solve this. And that’s really kind of where I guess the nucleus of BioBox came to be.

ERIC: I think it’s always a challenge you pick that problem and sounds like it was like you experienced this, right?

Chris: Oh, yeah. I mean, this was our day-to-day lives. I mean, Hamza was working on a much larger team and on multiple projects compared to me. I was more focused on my own and Julian was actually on the service side of things for the entire hospital.

JULIAN: We all bonded over the same problem, but we had different perspectives on it.
I solved it from the perspective of a lab full of dry lab bioinformaticians and the problems they were facing and Hamza and Chris saw the same issues from more of the biological side.

ERIC: I think it’s great because you guys have complimentary skillset. That’s one of the keys in building up the team. Hamza, what are your thoughts on this?

HAMZA: I completely agree with that. I think the way we got together was very serendipitous as well. Just like Julian said, he’s more on the tech and structure basis, so he’s heard all the problems with complaints from that aspect of biology.

Chris has had a very personal experience encountering these issues from within his own lab and just given the structure of the way my lab was before, I’ve heard like every possible iteration from a different biologist. From a novice to an intermediate we tackled each question, getting into problems, trying to set up collaborations, which is a huge, huge problem as well.

In terms of helping a scientist or a graduate student, because you only have so much limited time to give away, to do these projects. And there’s only so much you can learn. So collaborations are the key to get through, but it always takes away from your primary project. So I think that night where we were discussing it, we were just hashing out.

Well, I see these like Julian, and we could see that systemic, like these all seem to originate from the same key sources. So why don’t we just pull these key sources and then we can’t be the only people experiencing it, like from our own evidence, that’s not the case. Right. So we could build it, not just for us, but for everybody else in the same way.

ERIC: What was the next step after that conversation?

CHRIS: Yeah, I mean, the next thing was after the pitchers they’re like, “Hey, let’s find a cool company name.” So we were looking for, actually hunting for, domains.

ERIC: That’s the hardest part, right? Because every good name, like what the hell.

CHRIS: you don’t want to hear the first couple of iterations. It was so bad, but we finally settled on BioBox. We came back to the drawing board the next day and were like, “Hey guys, like, you know, let’s take a serious crack this”.

But at the time we were really tied up with other work. So it was, it was kind of iceberg a little bit, but then that’s the thing about startups, right? Like we were, we, this was an idea and then it really renewed it. It’s like a passion when it’s a passion, you can’t really escape it. Like you’re, you’re thinking about it when you’re not working.

You’re thinking about it when you’re working. You can’t go to sleep. So you’re thinking about cool things. I would call these guys and I would message them like, Hey, what if we did this instead?” Like those kinds of things, and eventually decided to take the leap of faith and said, look, we got to do this because, we had sent out a prototype to some of our colleagues, just, just as a fun side project and they loved it.

And we were like, okay, like if this is a real kind of use case, we decided, you know, let’s leave our current positions. I’m at this full time. And that was around April, 2019.

ERIC: Talk about the validation like you just came up with some kind of prototype. What was the next step? Did you go to the, you know, you send it to the labs. Did you talk with them? Uh, did they start using it? What was the first like? Uh, what was it like?

CHRIS: Yeah. So I mean, the challenges were, we need to build an end-to-end solution. So as an enterprise application, we need to cover a broad problem, right. And it’s not a place where you can really make mistakes and especially in this type of industry, because, if you make a mistake and figure that your data’s not reproducible, the consequences are very serious, especially research integrity.

So we pretty much, we’re developing and stealth. We had a couple alpha users who were testing it in the early days to give us feedback. Engaging the research community is very important to us because at the end of the day, we’re trying to build a tool that would help them in their own work.

So that’s where we are. We’re in that initial year or so and right now, we’re working with a closed wait list before our imminent V1 launch that’s coming out. So stay tuned for those, it’s exciting. Jump on the waitlist. We’d be happy to send you more info.

ERIC: Super exciting!

JULIAN: So in the early days, we basically would demo to our existing lab mates and the feedback is always positive. They liked the features, but what was even more exciting was their own ideas for features to add to the platform. And so that really helped us propel along this energy of, you know, we’re doing this and people want this and like, we really want to make this.

ERIC: How did you go about trying to implement those features?

HAMZA: I think a good degree of that is a balancing act. We looked at the market outlook and we looked at our own experiences as well. What labs were in front of solve the problem for first and what would solve most of their profits? Right. It’s presented for 80% of the value, but those 20%? Actually still a lot of work. So we design our own internal product timeline and then estimate how long different features will take.

And then we balanced that with mobile. There’s especially the users that we are trying to solve for first, would this be beneficial for them and the ones that align our direction, that we start building all of these products for right. Ones that are kind of out of scope. That would be super cool. Even though we’d want to build that right now, we’ve tried building that like late at night or early in the mornings.

Those don’t really solve the problem. We initially set up the build so it becomes a balance between what will we think is possible to build within a certain timeline and which ones based on feedback would actually be beneficial and what the users want. And then try and find a happy symbiosis.

ERIC: I think figuring out the balance between what delivers the most value to the users, but also based on your resources as well.

HAMZA: So I think, I think another part of the surprise was, especially in the beginning, when we were just doing free flow ideas, we had ideas. Like, I think one of mine was like, Oh, we should have something like Jarvis, you just talk to it. I don’t care if they go right. It’s a big difference between ideas. And when you have simple ideas and you actually have to sit down and break it into pieces of work that you can get done, you realize just how small feature.

It’s such a large endeavor and that helped humble us with where we’re going to spend our engineering, because there’s only a limited set of features that you can realistically implement, even though you have grandiose ideas, you know, that’s a marathon you’re going to eventually build to it. That’s a build that in steps where people are gaining value every single time.

ERIC: What’s your vision for BioBox? Where do you want to go?

CHRIS: Yeah. Great question. And, you know, at the core of our company, we came from the scientific community.

We decided to do this because we wanted to provide a tool that can help some of our colleagues or basically we’re building a tool that we would have wanted when you were kind of in that stage. So the vision right now in the near term is to just get the product, to deliver as much value and get in the hands of scientists.

As many, as many scientists as we can to really kind of solve these critical challenges that we’re facing in scientific research. And, you know, we go into science with a lot of ambition. We want to actually do meaningful work and we’re doing that every single day. But that’s the thing as time has always been a critical constraint, not just from budget, not just from how much time you have left before you have to graduate nontraditional brands.

The problems that they’re solving, like cancer research, like virology, those kinds of things. They have real consequences and we need this kind of research to improve our understanding of diseases, therapeutics to help real people solve real challenges in the world.

So our short term vision right now is to make sure that we can get the product out as a stable, reliable and reproducible and as easy to use so that scientists can really incorporate our platform into their work in the long-term. We want to actually engage someone from higher education. Programs like we’re currently piloting with a few courses at UT right now, and we have this platform as a means of training the next generation of scientists, right.

To be able to provide another dimension to their education and their academic training so that when they emerge into the research field, as professionals, they can hit the ground running and just accelerate science as fast as we can using our platform.

ERIC: I love the part about the next generation of scientists. Was there any challenges you faced as a biotech startup?

JULIAN: You know, this is something we overcame as one of the biggest challenges, not necessarily for biotech startup, but just for a startup in general was. Finding out how to have a healthy work-life balance. A lot of time and the other days was spent just going full gas, weekends nights, all these things to try to get the original, the V1 product and really like can’t be sustained forever.

So definitely I think we’ve all improved and we all help each other along this way as well. Now, as a founder a bit more work is expected of us. We have to, it’s not just a nine to five. Once work is over, it’s done. It really is a full time job, but we have to find how to keep a healthy work-life balance.

Personally, I find that having strict rules, like one day on the weekend with no work helps, but we all have our own approaches.

ERIC: That that’s a, yeah, that’s such a key, especially right now. It’s more like a work-life blend. Anything that helps you try to balance it out with what you’re doing?

CHRIS: Yeah. I mean, this is a great question. I think as founders, like Julian said, it’s tough. Because it’s a passion project. You’re always magnetically attracted to it, like every day, right. You’re you’re watching a movie and then all of a sudden it’s like, Oh, this be a cool idea.

Let me write that down and start building or something like that. I know I was laughing earlier because you know, there was a time when, you know, we were working out of my one bedroom apartment because we didn’t have an office. I would wake Julian up at like seven in the morning or six in the morning when he would do like overnighters and stuff like that. First thing he would taste is red bull. And we were eating ramen like every day. You know, one of the things that I’ve recently been doing to improve my work-life balance is it’s not just isolate time but also to make use of that time to, to, to invest in my personal relationships with family friends. Because I think every founder can attest to this, that at some point you’re going to face rough patches.

It’s not like, you know, everything is always going to be smooth in those rough patches. You need a strong support network, to really keep you afloat, to keep your mental health stable really, right. And when you’re always working seven days a week nonstop, you’re not, you’re not attending to these personal relationships.

When the time comes that you’re in these rough patches, it’s really abstract of your friends and family that, that, that can give you that support a hundred percent.

ERIC: I think it’s all about the support system. So what’s the best advice you’ve ever gotten?

HAMZA: I’ve done quite a bit. I’ve been lucky to have like very supportive mentors throughout my career, whether it was undergrad, graduate school, post grad. But I think the advice that really stuck with me is the same advice that my previous mentor received from their mentor, which was no matter what you’re doing in life, the most valuable asset you can have is your time.

So make sure you use every second of every day, because it wasn’t set in the fact of you need to gain, some time to your work for every single second, but don’t use it on something that you don’t really care about or don’t use it on something that doesn’t make you happy or isn’t good for you because a lot of the time we’ll be stuck, especially back when you were doing graduate school.

A systemic thing we see is these PhD programs take six, seven, eight years, where people are dragging on projects where they really don’t. They don’t have that drive anymore, and they’re not happy with their day-to-day work. Right. The advice was given and backed up. If you have a specific goal, you’re going to plan out how you want to approach it, make every second count, including taking seconds to just relax, to build personal relationships, to just disconnect, to get your work done, to a point where you need to.

So that the five years you’re spending now is five years. You won’t work a single bit. And I think that vice really stuck to me, whether it was before, starting BioBox and going through the past year and a half. It makes you value and appreciate everything you’ve experienced in the entire time.

ERIC: Julian, any thoughts on that? Anything you’d like to share?

JULIAN: Yeah so back in the early days of BioBox, we were still working out of the apartment. One of my friends who also has his own struggle, and at that time he was significantly ahead in terms of had received funding and was already working with customers.

And I sort of jokingly asked him, like, so, you know, you’re, you’re successful, does it get easier? And his response was no, if anything, it’s, it’s more difficult to start to start up. Life gets harder. And so I always remember that to humble myself and remember that the grind is always going to be the same.

And so really it’s just a matter of focusing on helping mental health work life balance and maximizing your throughput. And remembering that it’s, it’s always an uphill battle, but that’s fine because that’s the challenge and we signed up for it and the reward is well worth it.

ERIC: What do you look for in your new hires?

CHRIS: Yeah, so that’s a great question. It’s also a little nuanced because of our space, our industry. So finding talented developers who also understand biology is near impossible. So we look, but the thing is you can’t expect someone to come to the table with that. So what we really look for the most when we’re looking at new team members is your flexibility and your agility to learn new things. So I’m less interested about things like hardcore technical skills. Oh, I can cover X amount of languages. I can drive for X. It’s more about like, okay, how do you approach problem solving? How do you think, can you reason well?

Can you convince me of a difficult topic? You know, a lot of the times in, in startup, in general, we’re solving challenges that there likely isn’t a solution for, right? So you have to approach these problems in creative ways. Now these are complex problems. So we’re looking for someone, you know, who can articulate their problem and solution clearly and their implementation strategy.

And that’s really something that, you know, you can’t read from a resume. It really is talking with them. Understanding why they have chosen to attack certain problems in certain ways. And that’s the defining quality I think amongst our teammates right now is a very innovative and creative thinking pattern that allows us to come to the table with.

Was there a solution that often worked better than what we in an isolation could have achieved.

ERIC: Being resourceful is a key because oftentimes you’re facing problems hasn’t been faced.

CHRIS: Yeah. It really starts to like shine in and kick in. And so overdrive, when we have these challenges come up and everyone has to wear multiple hats. Like it’s just the nature of early stage startup I’m going to have to do. Like for example, our marketing director, Zoe, you know, right. When she jumped on, I was like, Hey, by the way, can you also build a website too? Then now she’s like, almost like an engineer exactly on the side. Those kinds of things and being able to open to tackling new challenges.

HAMAZA: I think the other key feature of our team, as well as everybody’s trying to build BioBox in their own special view way. So everybody’s approaching and trying to contribute what they imagine BioBox will be in the future.

And it’s a really defining feature for anybody who adds onto our team, because one, it brings, it brings passion into the work. It brings that key focus of this is what I want, and I want to reflect on this. See coming out in the future and it helps. It’s kind of a quicker way of figuring it out, figuring out if somebody can figure things out as they go, because people are passionate about what they want to do. They’ll find a way to do what they need.

ERIC: For our audience that would like to learn more about BioBox, where can they go?

HAMZA: You can follow us on any one of our socials. We’re on Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn. For more information in general, or sign up for our wait list, you can go to and browse our product offerings or just chat with us. You’re also more than welcome to reach out to any one of us or on LinkedIn and just add us. We’re more than happy to take questions to give advice.

JULIAN: BioBox Analytics on Twitter and Instagram.

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