How is working with stem cells like founding a startup? One entrepreneur who has done both explains. 
By Ivana Gadjanski (Co-founder & Chief Science Officer, Pubsonic)

I’m a stem cell scientist. I’m an entrepreneur. It’s not so different as it might sound. As a stem cell scientist I work on cartilage and bone tissue engineering, making of new cartilage and bone in a dish out of stem cells — building a new organ from the single cells. It sounds hard? It is. It’s very complex. And thrilling.

It’s very similar to building a new company out of an enthusiastic team of startup founders.

Stem Cells and Startup Founders

I find it very helpful to apply mental paradigms of biology to entrepreneurship. It’s both fun and useful for me to think of founders and early employees as single cells, better yet stem cells. They can become any type of cell (OK, I’m going here with the simple version of stem cell biology. Let’s not dwell on details of stem cell differentiation).

Startup founders have to wear many hats. They are like stem cells with the potential to become specialized in almost any particular skill that is needed for the niche (or the market) they are in. They also need to develop some general skills that any good cell (or entrepreneur) has to have. Every cell needs to breathe, process nutrients, respond to external stimuli just as any entrepreneur needs to learn at least some of basic business management. I, for example, had to learn and am still learning a lot about project management, finances and pricing, corporate and patent law, team management etc. so many new topics that definitely were not part of the biology PhD studies curriculum. (Which is a pity. Such skills would be useful for running a biology lab as well! That’s a topic for another post).

A Solid Scaffold

What else besides cells do you need in order to engineer a new tissue or organ? You need some kind of scaffolding, some kind of biomaterial that you will put the cells on, where they can attach so that the whole construction will have stability and form. And that’s exactly what you need to do in a startup too. You can’t have founders running around on their own, without consulting each other, without making decisions together. You need to have some cohesive force between them, something to hold them together on the same scaffold. You need a vision for your team and you need functional team dynamics. You need communication. You need the stem cells to communicate with each other so they can all grow together and become exactly the types of cells that are needed for that organ.

In both my startup Pubsonic and the non-profit Fab Initiative I recently started, I’m trying to first find and define that backbone, the scaffold. Luckily, I found some great stem cells to join me in both of these adventures.

Keeping the Cells Happy

To successfully grow the cells in the lab you need to have good cell culture.  If the stem cell is not “happy,” if there are some major disturbances in the way of its functioning, it can convert to a tumor cell. It’s exactly the same with the company culture. It’s important to maintain the happiness and well-being of every single founder and early employee. If one founder becomes too ego-driven, too oblivious to the comments of others, or if one founder looses the will, the passion, a tumor state is looming over the startup. As for any tumor, such a state is hard to treat. The best bet is not to allow it to happen in the first place. Listen to your co-founders, tell them about your worries, your challenges. We are all in this pot and it’s impossible to do it alone. One cell can’t make the whole organ.

What metaphors do you use to help guide your startup?

About the guest blogger: Ivana Gadjanski, PhD (@ivanagadjanski) is co-founder and Chief Science Officer of Pubsonic. She is also the founder of the non-profit Fab Initiative, a TED and Fulbright Fellow, and a researcher at the Center for Bioengineering – BioIRC. She teaches at Belgrade Metropolitan University and F1000Prime, and blogs at SciLogs and Scientific American.