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Researcher to Entrepreneur: Meet the Founders Fellows

A deepened understanding of disease biology. Eliminating food waste. Democratizing drug development to improve access to healthcare. The Science Center launched a Founders Fellowship to support STEM grads and doctoral candidates as they pursue their entrepreneurial ambitions.

Our three inaugural Fellows: Ian Dardani, Raquel Hollatz, and Kristina Li discuss their research, their hopes for their science-based startups, and what they want to gain from this program.

Founders Fellowship participants Raquel Hollatz (left) and Ian Dardani (right)

Raquel Hollatz

What interested you in the Founders Fellowship and what are you hoping to get out of it?

Science Center incentivizes early-stage projects in science more than other hubs I have tried in the U.S. I loved that the program philosophy was to empower ourselves to transform an idea into a product, the all-around support we have for all aspects to develop a company from idea to market, so that the Science Center can bring new advancements in science innovation, and increase the national and global economy.

Tell us about your research and the issue/challenge you are hoping to solve.

As food waste is the largest contributor to climate change, greenhouse gases and impact in our health, I am developing a solution. It’s a food label that monitors perishable and produce for freshness, indicating and showing the current state of their shelf life.

Reducing food waste would have a game-changing impact on natural resource depletion and degradation, health, climate change, food insecurity and national security. My technology will increase efficiency in the circular economy, helping to change our food system by giving everyone (and future generations) an opportunity to have nutritious and safe food, while saving our resources.

This is not your first time as a founder, but it is your first time creating a science-based startup. What would you say is the biggest difference between the two?

Resilience. A science-based startup needs more R&D than others, and my first startup in Maritime/Supply Chain helped me to open my mind even more to developing a project with direct social impact, improving our society and contributing to a better world for the next generation, while still being able to access resources (clean water, energy, biodiversity). I want my project to be a solution that ensures nobody in the US, the most abundant food system in the world, ever goes hungry again, and achieves the 2030 Climate Change Goals.

You are currently based out of NYC. What is it about the Philadelphia startup scene that appeals to you?

The Science Center is located in a special place allowing us researchers and entrepreneurs more accessibility to labs and R&D. The Philly science ecosystem also gives us more access to seed stage entrepreneurs, in order to build and develop projects that impact our society. Here at the Science Center I really felt the concept of, “it doesn't matter if it is a small project right now, as everything big starts small and without the fear of failing, focus, persistence, networking and mentorship you are able to get an idea into the real world and become big.”

You have a bachelor's in international business. What made you want to pivot to a STEM degree for your masters?

For me, it was the passion to make a real difference in this world. My life has meaning if I make other people’s life better in any aspect, and with a science-based startup I see the possibility to help more people.

I have proven to myself that to change my career after 18 years in international business to STEM is a big challenge but it's possible. This modern world offers us many kinds of online classes and mentorship platforms. Also, the information is more accessible nowadays than ever before. Another I lesson I have learned is don’t listen to people when they say it’s impossible. If I feel it is possible, so it will be, independent how long it will take. I could fail eleven times and I will get up twelve times. That’s how we become stronger and achieve everything we really want out of life.

For me, it was the passion to make a real difference in this world. My life has meaning if I make other people’s life better in any aspect, and with a science-based startup I see the possibility to help more people.

Raquel Hollatz, Founders Fellowship participant

Ian Dardani

What interested you in the Founders Fellowship and what are you hoping to get out of it?

Getting the Founders Fellowship was fairly life-changing for me. Being financially supported means I’m able to work full-time on the company instead of splitting my time with another job. It’s going to be very helpful to be surrounded by folks with experience in building startups, I’m already seeing that .

Tell us about the issue/challenge you are hoping to solve.

As a step towards developing new therapies, researchers in the life sciences extract insights from millions of biological samples each year. Each sample is like a physical database packed with important biological information, but right now a researcher can only measure a tiny fraction of that information -- certainly less than 0.01% of what’s there. Not to mention that might take months of their time. This is a huge impediment to scientific progress. My company’s thesis is that by providing over 100X the information in just a few days, we can accelerate our understanding of disease biology and new therapeutic approaches.

Founders Fellowship participant, Ian Dardani

Why did you decide to become an entrepreneur?

I always loved building things, which is why I became an engineer. With this mindset you tend to see missing capabilities. You want better solutions to exist. It’s painful to watch from the sidelines, thinking about what could be. So, if there’s no one building it, you have to go build it yourself. The upside of this is the extreme satisfaction of seeing something you built being used in the world. Still, the prospect of founding a startup is intimidating. I was lucky to have the encouragement of my family and friends, and now the community in and around the Science Center.

What kickstarted your interest in the life sciences?

I first gravitated towards the traditional engineering disciplines (e.g. mechanical, electrical) because it was clear how you can integrate their basic building blocks (e.g. metals, transistors) into a working technology. Over time I came to appreciate how biology’s building blocks could also be engineered. The downstream applications in drug development were just very compelling, so I decided to switch into the life sciences. Having both experiences has been really helpful, because there are huge technological opportunities at the intersection of biology and the traditional engineering fields. It’s not hard to find meaningful problems to work on.

What did you like about Philly that led you to get your startup off the ground here?

I ended up in Philly having done a PhD at Penn. But objectively, Philly is an excellent place to start a company because of its affordability and talent pool, particularly in the life sciences.

Getting the Founders Fellowship was fairly life-changing for me. Being financially supported means I’m able to work full-time on the company instead of splitting my time with another job. It’s going to be very helpful to be surrounded by folks with experience in building startups, I’m already seeing that .

Ian Dardani, Founders Fellowship participant

Kristina Li

Tell us about your research and the issue/challenge you are hoping to solve.

My current research focuses on metabolic diseases. I am working on engineering new tools to better understand the complex cell signaling that occurs in the liver during steatosis and fibrosis. In particular, I am interested in understanding how we can better characterize pathways and interactions in physiological settings, and how those interactions go awry in disease.

What interested you in the Founders Fellowship and what are you hoping to get out of it?

The Science Center and ic@3401 both foster a strong sense of community to exchange ideas, connect with experts, and provide support. My goal as part of the Founders Fellowship is to meet other entrepreneurs focused on life sciences and healthcare innovation.

How has your experience as a child of immigrants influenced your professional path?

My parents grew up without access to most of the opportunities I have now. They saw the US as a representation of opportunity and freedom to create their own future; as such, I was raised with this same mentality. It was this that motivated me to explore different avenues of healthcare through entrepreneurship, technology, research, and ultimately, my PhD.

Founders Fellowship participant, Kristina Li

In what way do you see the platform that you are developing changing the drug development process?

Drug development is extraordinarily expensive, with the end-to-end price of bringing a drug to market often costing upwards of $1 billion. With these costs growing over the past decade, the current trajectory of drug development will be unsustainable. From my perspective, the future of pharmaceutical development in the US is creating “democratized” infrastructure, wherein startups looking to develop new therapeutics can outsource large swaths of their development pipeline to external corporations. My vision is that my platform will be part of this revolution, therefore streamlining the drug development pipeline.

And you have had experience in the venture capital world as well. What was that like coming from the science world?

It was incredibly insightful to see how investors view risk in science. Many venture capitalists (VCs) in biotech are former researchers themselves, so the two worlds run more parallel than you might think. Of course, due to fiduciary responsibilities, VCs have to concern themselves with the marketability and business value of a proposed project, whereas these issues are less of a priority in academic circles (although you still have to secure NIH funding!). However, when the priorities of these two circles align, ground-breaking innovations can be brought to the market to ultimately provide better therapeutic options for patients.


Find out more about STEM Founders Fellowship