“As a post-doc you are a world-class scientist trained to do academic science. Now I am in a leadership position that requires a different set of skills. I feel like I am a first-year graduate student again, learning at warp-speed.”
November 30, 2020 | by Frank Hidalgo
Ahead of her talk with UC Berkeley PhD students on December 3, Beyond Academia’s Frank Hidalgo sat down (virtually) with UC Berkeley alumna Cheri Ackerman, PhD to discuss her journey from academia to entrepreneurship.
Cheri Ackerman received her PhD in Chemistry from UC Berkeley in 2017
Tell me more about when and why you started thinking about leaving academia. What was your path there?
It’s going well! It’s a crazy time, and I’m thankful to be here.
When did you start thinking about leaving academia and starting your own company?
It was a long journey. We (the cofounders) started thinking about building a company in November 2018. At that time, we didn’t know if it was a good idea or not, so we participated in a couple of programs in the Boston Area to test our idea and learn to create a commercial pitch.
The Broad Institute hosted a short course for trainees in January 2019 that was organized by one of our labmates, Tony Kulesa, so we started with that.
The Harvard Biotech Club had a 12-week Activate program that pairs scientists with people that are business oriented and takes you through the various aspects of building a company. Over the course of 2019 we became more and more confident that the company had legs, but because some of the cofounders had to finish their PhDs (and I wanted to publish my postdoc paper), we didn’t spin out until June 2020.
How has been the transition so far?
Transitioning from being a post-doc to be an entrepreneur is not easy. As a post-doc you are a world-class scientist trained to do academic science. You know how to execute experiments and publish papers. Now I am in a leadership position that requires a different set of skills. I feel like I am a first-year graduate student again, learning at warp-speed (laughter).
"Some of my more valuable leadership experiences weren’t in lab. I have held various leadership positions in my church ... and of course I read the classic startup and leadership books that everyone tells you to read."
We want to know a bit about your daily routine. Could you share with us what a regular day looks like at Concerto Biosciences?
We are hiring right now, and all our prospective employees want to know this too! (laughter) It’s tough to say and really depends on your role. For me as CEO, I block my mornings until ~11 am so that I can get actual work done, and then I’m in meetings from 11am until the early evening most days. We’re on the east coast, so I chose this routine to make myself most available for meetings across the US time zones (and because I’m efficient in the mornings with the time pressure of afternoon meetings coming). I usually take a couple hours off in the evening for friends, dinner, hobbies, or whatever, and then come back to wrap up emails and prep for the next day before bed. But this would be totally different if you asked one of the other cofounders, especially Concerto’s science team. We all have our own rhythms.
What sort of leadership experiences did you acquire throughout your academic career?
During my PhD I mentored multiple undergraduate and rotation graduate students. Throughout my Postdoc I co-led a research team in collaboration with a lab from Harvard. The team consisted of multiple graduate students and undergrads. Some of my more valuable leadership experiences weren’t in lab though. I was part of the Chemistry Graduate Life Committee at Berkeley. I have held various leadership positions in my church, and I also taught Physical Organic Chemistry with Bob Bergman, which teaches you a lot about leading in tough circumstances (laughter). In terms of more formal training, I audited a negotiation class at the MIT Sloan School of Management, and of course I read the classic startup and leadership books that everyone tells you to read.
Which of those books should we all read over Christmas?
On leadership, I’m in the middle of “The Work of Leaders” by Straw, et al., which I’d recommend. It’s straightforward and practical, although I think it’s more impactful for me right now because I’m literally trying to do all of these things in real time. Anything by Ron Heifetz. “Leadership on the Line” is amazing. Paul Blainey [my postdoc PI] bought a copy of that to just have around lab so that all of us would read it, and The Broad Institute brings Ron in to give seminars. If you’re Christian or open to a Christian perspective, I love “Leading with a Limp” by Dan Allender. It’s all about how weakness and strength are often inverted.
On entrepreneurship, you have to read “Founder’s Dilemma” at some point, so you may as well do it now (laughter). It’s a great crash course on all of the agonizing decisions you’re going to make as your start your company. Our cofounding team used it when we were first figuring out how to split equity and define our roles. I’ve heard really good things about “Venture Deals” so that’s on my list for Christmas reading. And I’m in the middle of “Measure What Matters,” which is more about management generally than entrepreneurship, and it’s already changing how I think about goal-setting for 2021. Those are top-of-mind, but there are so many good books!
"Every time I go into a meeting, I make a plan for what I hope to achieve in the meeting. Then, after the meeting, I do a post-evaluation, where I assess whether I achieved my goals."
Interesting! How do the concepts learnt in lectures or books apply in real life
The theory and the mechanics are easy to learn. However, it is more challenging to put them in practice. It’s like I was saying about “The Work of Leaders”: it’s when you’re in the middle of trying to lead that you realize how hard it is to set a clear vision, get your team aligned around it, and then execute on that vision (the three not-so-simple-in-real-life topics covered in the book). I would say you learn by doing. You don’t know how scared you will be about a situation until you are in the situation.
While in a classroom or in an academic lab you have a professor giving you feedback, now you are your own boss. How is that going?
I try to build in feedback mechanisms to keep myself growing. For example, every time I go into a meeting, I make a plan for what I hope to achieve in the meeting. Then, after the meeting, I do a post-evaluation, where I assess whether I achieved my goals. This doesn’t have to take a long time, although for high-stakes meetings I take it really seriously. For example, when I was first learning to pitch to investors, I pitched alongside Concerto’s head of business development. The two of us would create a strategy for how to approach a particular investor and then afterwards, we would spend at least 30 minutes talking about what went well or how we could have done better. It was so time-consuming. But we got better really fast.
These days, I sometimes have to walk into investor meetings totally cold, and they still go well because of the skills we built very early on. The thing about being you own boss is that no one else is going to sit down with you and tell you what you need to improve, you have to do it yourself. And that’s true for our team too. We do quarterly feedback sessions where we talk though our own self-evaluations and then give each other feedback. Sometimes it’s tough to hear, but it’s so good for the team. Inevitably, we leave the session inspired by how thoughtful and amazing our team is.
Do you have mentors that are helping you during this new journey?
In addition to Concerto’s advisors, I am lucky to have colleagues that are a few years ahead in the process of being a CEO at a start-up. They are really helpful and will let me just text them when something is stumping me.
That is great! Weslee Glenn, our guest at the September Speaker Series, also emphasized how important is to have a good mentor that is a few years ahead of you.
"We envision kids getting prescribed a microbial lotion that, when applied, shapes the skin microbiome and heals eczema before it gets out of control."
Let’s talk about Concerto Biosciences. What is the vision of your company?
At Concerto Biosciences we want to make microbial products practical. In particular, we are working on discovering specific combinations of microbes that, by working in concert, perform useful tasks. The technology we are developing could be used to address urgent global challenges in a range of markets from the food industry to healthcare.
Is there any particular disease that you are currently targeting?
As of now, we want to address eczema. Eczema (atopic dermatitis) is an itchy inflammation of the skin. It usually develops in early childhood and has no cure. The eczema therapeutics market is ~ $5 billion, so we see potential in using our technology to target this issue. We envision kids getting prescribed a microbial lotion that, when applied, shapes the skin microbiome and heals eczema before it gets out of control.
“If we want to increase diversity in the entrepreneurial world, we have to decrease the personal risk associated with building a start-up. Otherwise, the entrepreneurship culture reinforces all kind of privileges.”
That seems like a great of use of your technology. Do you believe this same tech could have unintended consequences in the wrong hands?
Each technology comes with its own set of ethical questions. This is true for everything, from computers to CRISPR. People use technologies for things that the inventors never intended. For that reason, it is important to think ahead about what uses the technology you develop may have holistically, and what impact it is going to have in the community. At Concerto we have this front-of-mind, and it is something we will take into account when commercializing our products.
It is great that you are already thinking ahead. What are your plans for the next few years from a scientific standpoint?
You sound like a venture capitalist now! (laughter) We are laser focused on our next value inflection point. At Concerto we want to prove to the world that our technology is valuable, and people are going to pay for it. In particular, we need to demonstrate that we can find the groups of microbes that do beneficial things for people. When we find those microbes, we can translate that to a mouse model and a human trial, and it can work.
"Startup culture tends to glorify the image of the lone-wolf-entrepreneur superhuman. But you cannot do it alone."
As you mentioned earlier, back in your graduate school years you were deeply involved in the community by serving on the Chemistry Graduate Life Committee. The lack of diversity in the entrepreneurial world is a hot topic. In particular, less than 20% of newly funded start-ups in 2019 had a female founder. What are your thoughts on the gender and racial biases?
If we want to increase diversity in the entrepreneurial world, we have to decrease the personal risk associated with building a start-up. Otherwise, the entrepreneurship culture reinforces all kind of privileges. As an entrepreneur, you need to have a big safety net in case things do not go according to plan. The people with the largest personal safety nets are the people who already have privilege. For instance, how is a postdoc who has been making basically nothing as an academic for almost a decade supposed to become an entrepreneur if they don’t have some family money or financial stability to back them up? What if they start missing rent payments and there’s no one to backfill their bank account?
It’s even worse if your family actually relies on you—if you support parents, siblings or children. We glorify the idea of the entrepreneur eating ramen, but that is such a high-risk position to ask someone to be in. If we make personal privilege a prerequisite to entrepreneurship, we’re just going to see more people with privilege filling those roles.
We agree with you. Is there any specific action that the government or other institutions could do to help mitigate the risk?
Make money available early. Programs that remove personal risk by paying a living wage to entrepreneurs who need time to figure out if an idea has legs are game-changers. I am so fortunate to be a fellow in the Activate Global program, and it is quite literally one of the reasons that Concerto exists. The amazing thing is that Activate doesn’t even take equity. It is literally a grant. If universities, companies, VCs, the government, whomever, are really serious about increasing diversity, put your money where your mouth is and make the cash available. A lot of companies and universities have EIR programs, and VCs have venture-creation programs. It’s not impossible to create avenues to pay people to figure out ways to change the world and ways to make good money doing it.
Last but not least, what advice would you give to PhD students and Postdocs that want to follow your steps and become an entrepreneur?
Build a team. You cannot build a company alone. Startup culture tends to glorify the image of the lone-wolf-entrepreneur superhuman. This image is about as real as Wonder Woman (in other words, it’s not real…maybe there are people out there who believe in Wonder Woman (laughter)). But anyway, you cannot do it alone. And you need a team at multiple levels: you need your cofounders who are in the trenches with you, and you need advisors of all backgrounds—scientific advisors, business advisors, regulatory advisors if you’re doing medicine, legal advisors.
If you really intend to start a company from scratch and change the world, you’re building a movement. You have to start learning to inspire people. The people who are most inspired will be the people willing to put years of their working lives on the line to help make that vision a reality. When I finally decided to make the jump to Concerto, the reason was my team. Yes, I believe in our tech and our vision, but most of all, I have never worked with such a unified group of superstars before. I had to know whether we could build this dream together, and I wasn’t going to find out by taking a solo professor gig at an R1 university (laughter).
With that we conclude the interview. We are so grateful that you agreed to be part of the speaker series event. We are looking forward to meeting you again on December 3.
Cheri Ackerman, PhD will be joining Beyond Academia on December 3. For more information and to RSVP CLICK HERE.
Frank Hidalgo is a 5th year Chembio (with Data Science emphasis) PhD student at UC Berkeley. If you would like to be part of our speaker series, contact him at email@example.com or on LinkedIn.