By Adriel Olmos
A CITRIS Foundry company, Correlia Biosystems represents the next generation of the life science industry. With their patented nanomaterial, they develop microscale tools to accelerate molecular interactions to measure proteins, thereby reducing the cost and time of drug development, clinical trials, and patient testing and monitoring. Founded in 2013, the eight-employee company is headquartered in Berkeley and has raised $2.6 million in funding. They are already running a pilot service business and they plan to launch their first commercial instrument in 2021. Akwasi Apori received his PhD in bioengineering at UC Berkeley after earning a bachelor’s and master’s degree in aeronautics and astronautics at MIT. In 2013, Correlia Biosystems joined the CITRIS Foundry, the in-house incubator of the multicampus CITRIS and the Banatao Institute headquartered at UC Berkeley.
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned in your entrepreneurial journey?
“You have to keep talking to your customers. The biggest gap that people coming out of academia don’t necessarily understand is market acceptance and how that drives the success of a business. You have to constantly be talking to potential customers and users to make sure you’re not building something in a vacuum.”
What are your tips on fundraising?
“After fundraising for so long, we’ve gotten to a point where we can see things from the investor’s perspective. They’re looking for something with large potential so they can make returns with traction. A lot of times, traction means you need to get some grant funding for validation — NIH, NSF, or another third party willing to give you money. The keys to fundraising are really at the early stage. It’s all about the story, but once we got grants, those conversations went more smoothly for us. You also need the right network, because there isn’t a list of investors interested in your space that you can download with contact information. So it ends up being a ton of networking and a lot of events. I recommend applying for incubator programs because those can help shortcut the networking process.”
What is a failure that led you to a big change?
“One challenge we had very early on was thinking we had an investor at a crucial time, and then that fell through. It happened with customer contracts as well, where we’ve been talking to a customer for a very long time. We think everything’s ready to be signed off and then for whatever reason, at the very last minute, it falls through. What I realized from that is to never put all your eggs in one basket, no deal is done until the paperwork is signed. Now we pursue parallel options at the same time — that way, if something falls through, there’s less of an impact on the business. You always want to keep excitement and momentum going, and if you put all your efforts into one thing and it fails, it’s very demoralizing. So it’s nice to have some parallel things going so that you can have a potential path to victory.”
What inspires you to move forward in spite of all the challenges?
“It’s the vision of launching our product because we know it will be so impactful to scientists to be able to measure protein biomarkers very quickly from a small sample. We get excited when we go to conferences and people come to our booth and they’re like, ‘All right, when is this going to launch? I mean, I could use this… like, really, this would make a huge impact on my research.’ So interaction and seeing the excitement people have is motivating. That’s why we like to periodically go out and talk to customers about what we’re doing because the feedback we get is so exciting.”
What is one piece of advice would you give to someone who’s thinking of starting a company?
“If you want to start a company, it should be about something you’re prepared to work on for at least seven or eight years. You shouldn’t think, ‘I’m going to start a company and become a unicorn and will be exited in three years like Snapchat,’ or something like that. You should be excited enough about what you’re starting a company about.”
What’s the one thing that you feel most proud of?
“We’re proud of the team that we built. We’ve hired some really great young aspiring scientists and engineers. Every six months we do a review and see where the progress is going. They’ve grown so much in their ability to work independently and problem-solve. I’m proud of our ability to build a great team and to mentor this culture because we have a great work culture at our company.”
What do you do to create a great culture?
“There should be lots of transparency. People should be able to ask you questions about the business and understand what’s going on so that they don’t feel like they’re working in a black box. A startup is very volatile, with lots of ups and downs. Transparency helps people understand how the company’s doing, where it’s going, what’s the vision. You also need to make time for your employees. We try to have some training and exercises that expand people’s knowledge and skills. Be as straightforward as possible — both when your people are doing things that are positive as well as when things need to be done differently. Make time to be accessible for your employees, to feel like they can engage with you when they have questions. We try to make the work environment the one we would want to work in for other people.”
Cover Photo: Adriel Olmos/CITRIS