Reading through Dr. Elizabeth Iorns’ CV is not at all a small undertaking. Educated all around the world, she is the CEO and co-founder of Science Exchange, a faculty member at the University of Miami, Miller School of Medicine, has many publications in her field of cancer biology, and multiple awards. As her experience grew, the potential for collaboration did not. Finding suitable collaborators for her projects became harder and harder, which is what ignited the spark for a new business venture, Science Exchange.
They have a mission to improve the quality and efficiency of scientific research by using market-based incentives to promote collaboration between scientists. Or as she has coined, a marketplace for science collaboration. Think, Amazon for science experiments.
I interviewed Elizabeth because I have all sorts of ideas for my career and don’t know where to begin. I know I’m not the only one. Hopefully the following Q&A will inspire and guide all the scientists who have big, happy dreams.
Q: Tell us a little bit about your background?
A: My background is very traditional, very much an academic research background. I did my undergraduate degree in biomedical science at the University of Auckland and did my PhD in London at the Institute of Cancer Research in Cancer biology. Following that, I moved to the US where I did a postdoc at the University of Miami; and then I moved on to an Assistant Professorship there.
It was the whole journey of going from a research institute in the UK that was well-funded to a kind of medical school University system in the United States that actually gave me the idea for Science Exchange. It was a learning how inefficient it worked, finding people to collaborate with, how much “do it yourself” was very prevalent rather than making use of other experts. And so, I really felt like there was an opportunity to bring about a marketplace model that would bring other scientists together.
Q: You started Science Exchange in 2011, essentially leaving academia. What was that like?
A: For me, it was a lot easier than I thought it would be. I was very fortunate that my boss at the University of Miami was actually head of the whole medical school. His name was Dr. Marc Lippman. I told him when I came up with the idea of Science Exchange and he was incredibly supportive. He proposed that the University could actually fund the development of Science Exchange. But I thought it would be limited doing it internally, I thought it would be better to have it as an external company that wasn’t affiliated with any one university, so that everybody felt like they owned it. It wasn’t just one university driving it.
So, I took part in an accelerator program called the Y Combinator and to do that program I had to take 3 months off and move to Silicon Valley. Obviously, at that point many people would face the choice of having to quit their job. It could have been very difficult, but I was fortunate that he gave me this time off to see how it goes.
I had the choice at the end of it, to stay being an entrepreneur or to go back to the lab. I had this really great opportunity to see if I could get Science Exchange off the ground and it turns out that I was able to raise a round of financing. At that point, I decided I was going to do this full time.
It was a very good support network that let me make that move.
Q: The company has been up and running for about 3 years now. What is your current role in the company as CEO and what does that mean for you?
A: It’s about leading the company. It’s about having a strong vision and strategy for what the company is trying to achieve and then bringing together the right people to build that strategy.
I also do a lot of working with investors to help us fund the company to a growth stage where we become profitable and no longer need that sort of support. Most of the day-to-day stuff is executional.
Q: What is it like being a female navigating this male-dominated world?
A: Yeah, you rarely see females in leadership positions. So, it’s kind of weird and it’s a shame. But I think it’s changing as more and more women become successful and reach that stage in their careers where they can take on leadership positions. I think it’s just a balance that shifts over time.
In Silicon Valley, I think it’s a problem because there are very few women leaders and for others it’s really noticeable because our company is about 70% women and 30% men. It’s probably the only start up in Silicon Valley that has that make up. People comment on it all the time, “Science Exchange is so diverse!” I think that diversity comes from hiring many scientists – so I think science in and of itself is very diverse.
We definitely value the number of women we have and we think about that actively to make sure that it persists as we grow.
Q: What are some challenges you have faced?
A: There are major challenges with starting a company. It hasn’t been easy. From figuring out what works and getting people to invest, it’s a challenge. Initially, our business model was to post what experiment was needed with an explanation of what they were trying to do. However, we realized very quickly that that wouldn’t work. Scientists don’t want to list their ideas on an open site that anyone can see.
So, we changed the model to more of a marketplace for scientists to “shop” for experiments. Of course, we’ve had many happy moments too, such as when Science Exchange moved from a seed company to a Series A and started to have some real stability and security.
Q: What do you think are the biggest challenges for women in the workplace are?
A: Everyone faces challenges in the workplace, but I do think women face particular challenges around having children.
I think that is kind of an issue that crosses over a lot, so people tend to say that if we put in childcare at work, women will feel more comfortable and women can have these leadership positions. But I think that misses the point, which is that when women have children, they actually want to spend time with them. So, having childcare at work can help because they can be nearby, but I think there has to be some way to allow women to be as productive as possible in the time that they have, when they are also at home with the children. They’ve got very little time, if we can help them maintain productivity, then they will be able to progress at the same rate as men.
Q: And finally, what are some pieces of advice you could give to other females, or anyone for that matter, who want to be entrepreneurs?
A: Looking from the outside in, it seems difficult, but you need to take those first few steps. I also suggest entering an incubator program as an initial starting place.
After our conversation, I relaxed for a few moments to digest her responses….and I have 3 takeaways that I’d like to share with fellow scientists:
- Be nice to people. Clearly Elizabeth is talented, but her passion for science and people, and taking care of them, is what makes her a superstar.
- Reach out. Some people may be intimidating to approach. Don’t be afraid. Contact them. Successful people like to tell their story and inspire people like you and me.
- It’s always an uphill battle. While Iorns makes things look easy she’s had to work hard to convince people to invest in her model, as well as to use it. Despite these challenges, Iorns wouldn’t change her road to discovery, and encourages others to go for what you believe in.