DISCLAIMER: This interview was held in September 2020, while Sona was ideating in various fields. She has since founded her biotech company "Terra Lumina" where she leverages cutting-edge AI to unlock the relationships between small molecules in plants and the human body at scale. More info to come soon!
Originally from the US, Sona has spent the last years in Copenhagen as the co-founder of a healthcare startup. Even though she joined during the German Corona lockdown, she has hit the ground running, exchanging ideas with advisors, industry experts and people across the Merantix ecosystem. We had the opportunity to talk in-person to discuss Berlin as an innovative hub and how to ideate company ideas.
Finn: You joined Merantix just a couple of weeks ago. So first of all: welcome! Have you already settled in or are you still feeling a little bit lost in the moving-in process?
Sona: I've actually moved around quite a few times, this is probably now the seventh or maybe eighth city that I've moved to. But contrary to most of these other experiences, I've been to Berlin maybe 10 or 15 times before. So I actually knew quite a few people already and honestly it's been the easiest transition that I've ever had moving to a new city.
Finn: You have a background in healthcare. How did you end up at Merantix?
Sona: I launched my career in healthcare by working with Takeda, which is a large Japanese pharmaceutical company. The branch I was working with quickly developed into an incubation and venture investment arm and there I founded Oshi Health - a monitoring platform for patients with gastrointestinal conditions. But after we had closed an additional funding round, I felt it was a good milestone to take a step back and figure out where I wanted to go next. And that’s how I got in touch with Rasmus.
Finn: Did you know him or how were you introduced?
Sona: I had heard of Merantix before and, coming from the US, I was fairly familiar with the Venture Studio set-up. So, in the end, I just reached out to Rasmus directly on LinkedIn and we started to chat. I was truly impressed by the level of talent expertise that Merantix had managed to amass, especially on the engineering side it is incredibly top tier. And everyone I talked to spoke with a level of passion and intelligence that drew me to the company.
Berlin as an innovative hub
Finn: How important is Berlin as a place to start a company? Or even for you personally, was Berlin one of the reasons to join Merantix?
Sona: Especially after Brexit, Berlin is definitely starting to shape itself as the tech startup capital of Europe. And I had previously come here for business so I was familiar with the ecosystem, in particular with regards to healthcare.
Finn: But probably you would agree that Berlin is not yet a Silicon Valley. What is missing?
Sona: Berlin is still in its growing phase and trying to figure out where it wants to go. But you know, being a bit smaller than the Silicon Valley or Tel Aviv is not necessarily a bad thing. Smaller cities or hubs are usually more capital-efficient and find better ways to achieve goals more quickly. Plus, Berlin is still very cheap and the quality of life attracts a very interesting mix of talent.
AI, Merantix and go-to-market strategies
Finn: So why AI?
Sona: I’ve really been fascinated with machine learning for quite a while now. Based in the healthcare industry, I have witnessed over the last several years that the amount of healthcare data available in the world is growing exponentially but our ability as humans to process all of that data and to make sense of it is not growing at the same pace. And that, I think, is the perfect opportunity for machine learning to step in.
Finn: Where did you learn what you know about AI?
Sona: I learned it more the street way (laughter). It has always been part of my entrepreneurial journey to be resourceful and to learn things quickly. I took some online classes during the Corona lockdown period and gained some foundational knowledge. But I also started building a strong network in this space. As an entrepreneur, you never really have the full level of expertise yourself. It is absolutely crucial to assemble a strong network of advisors.
Finn: But you definitely came more so from the domain angle. Is that more helpful than coming from the machine learning angle?
Sona: I really think the answer is: it depends! Healthcare is such a specialized field that has very unique features and nuances. There are five or six stakeholders involved at every step, the payer for the solution may not be the same entity as the end user of a solution, and the distribution channel may involve many more players. So I really think in healthcare, domain expertise is crucial. In more straightforward markets, tech expertise may serve as an advantage though, I am very sure.
Finn: Surely in healthcare it is an additional issue that it varies quite significantly between countries and continents?
Sona: I think there is a fundamental core base. But I totally agree with you: when it comes to figure out go-to-market strategies, the appropriate commercialization or business models to apply, that really can vary from market to market.
Finn: Broadly-speaking, you are the first founder that joins in a domain in which there is already a Merantix company: Vara. Does that help?
Sona: Yes, that was actually one of the reasons that attracted me to Merantix, that you had a track record established in healthcare. And Vara also exemplifies what I mean: medical imaging with machine learning is not an entire new space and quite a few other companies work there as well. But Vara made some very smart strategic decisions around their go-to-market strategy that ultimately differentiated them from the rest of the pack. And I think that will be incredibly valuable at some point for me, to understand the German market and strategic considerations. But at the same time, the things that I will be looking at, will be in very different segments of healthcare.
Ideating a company with Merantix
Finn: One of the things that is asked a lot when we are interviewing potential founders is: “Do I need to have a company idea already when starting at Merantix?” Since you joined very recently, you can probably shed some light on how much of an idea you had about what kind of company you wanted to build when starting at Merantix, or to what extent a founder is joining with a rather exploratory state-of-mind.
Sona: I don’t yet exactly know what company I want to build. I have a solid base in terms of what industry I want to enter just in virtue of my background in healthcare and my interest in the patient care and patient outcome side of things. But I know that other founders joined without having a particular industry in mind.
Finn: And what does your path look like? How are you spending your first couple of months here?
Sona: Roughly, my goal is to marry known needs in the healthcare space with the opportunities that AI can bring to the table. And in my initial research I approached these two separately. From there a short list of 10 ideas started to emerge, in parts with very different angles. So everything from a pharma-facing drug discovery tool to a clinical intelligence platform that automates documentation of visits. And right now I am in the process of trying to get a feeling for what might be the most promising idea, further narrowing my list down. Mostly through conversations within my network and around Merantix, just to see what challenges people face. Is there a market for this? Is there reception for this? Is this possible from a technology perspective? And once I have narrowed this further down I will deep-dive into the most promising ideas, doing some proof-of-concept studies, interviewing people in the market.
Finn: Some of these ideas surely require a lot of in-depth knowledge of the newest research, right?
Sona: Absolutely. There is always going to be an element of subject matter expertise. I did quite a bit of clinical research in my past and have spent a lot of time in a hospital setting, working alongside clinicians. So, in some ways I like to think of myself as a fake-doctor. [laughter] I can speak their language fairly well and know which questions to ask. And of course, I have a solid network to tap into.
The Merantix Ecosystem
Finn: How would you describe the collaboration between the founders at Merantix?
Sona: One of the things that attracted me to Merantix very strongly was my impression from the onsite days. My case was to come up with an idea around the opportunity for AI in the genomic space and to build a business case around that. And during my presentation, the team had about 30min at the end to ask questions. The kinds of questions that they were asking were incredibly thought-provoking; they challenged the idea in just the right kind of way, knew the right holes to poke. I could very much tell that Merantix as an ecosystem harbours a lot of valuable knowledge about what you need to think about when starting something from the ground up. That was ultimately the main reason for joining Merantix.
Finn: Is there any specific step you are looking forward to? For those of us who have not founded a company yet, what are the absolute highlights of a founding process?
Sona: I am really excited about building a team. At my previous company, one of the things that was most fulfilling for me was really being able to see the transition between an idea on a piece of paper to a fully functioning organism where people are coming in day-in and day-out, living and breathing for the mission that you had set out from the get-go. Incredibly fulfilling.
Finn: Thank you very much for joining me, I really appreciate it. And best of luck!