Katherine French, founder and CEO of BLUUMBIO

Photo of Katherine French

Katherine is Founder and CEO of BLUUMBIO: a company composed of a team of four, who develop new bioremediation technologies. This involves engineering bacteria and plants to produce enzymes that degrade materials like petroleum, or other industry chemicals.

What is your background? What made you decide to get involved in supporting entrepreneurs?
My background is in ecology and microbiology, as well as synthetic biology. I’ve always really liked doing applied research, and doing work that is not only difficult but also meaningful. For me that’s really fulfilling and makes any failed lab experiences worth it. What made me want to become an entrepreneur came from my enjoyment of my postdoc work at Berkeley, developing bacteria that could ‘eat’ crude oil. I found it very interesting and challenging and really wanted to continue this work but found it difficult to find funding to support this. So I felt like I needed to change tactic. Feedback from the funders I had applied to said that my research was too applied. So I thought one solution would be to turn it into a product. This work is definitely different in that you have to develop the business side of things, but its still about research in bioremediation at its core.

What is your definition of entrepreneurship?

It’s not something I’ve thought about before. I almost wouldn’t describe myself as an entrepreneur, but I think of myself more as a scientist.

How and when did you know your idea was good enough to develop it?
Once I got the scientific results, I knew the technology worked. But whether anyone else thought that, was up in the air. Once I successfully applied to Y Combinator, a start-up accelerator in US, that made me see that my idea had merit.

What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
First, a willingness to take risks – risk-taking is spread through many aspects of running a company:

a. In choosing research avenues and investing time and funding to pursue a line of Research and Development.
b. In hiring a new team member. I care about all my team members and don’t want to have to turn them away once hired.
c. In competing against other start-ups and risking someone else having the same idea. There is a more established start-up in a similar space to BLUUMBIO and there’s a feeling of being neck-and-neck with them.

Secondly, resilience to failure – there is a lot of it, especially in fundraising. Third, vision – you have to have some idea of what you are trying to build in the long-term, not just the short-term.

What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?
I really like how dynamic the role is. I feel like I get to be a scientist, having interesting conversations with my team and thinking about scientific problems. At the same time I do things that enable me to push research into the real world, such as talking to potential clients and investors. That mix of high-level scientific thinking as well as communicating research is something I really enjoy.

What individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?
I would say one organisation that has always inspired me is Kew Gardens. I tried for so many years to get a job with Kew and I have a deep respect for them because of their work in biodiversity conservation. What I feel like they do really well is connecting biodiversity conservation with sustainable development, such as in their work with Herbal Essences.

If you had 5 minutes with the above individual/ company/organization, what would you want to ask or discuss?
I’d probably ask if they were interested in bioremediation, or if there was any hope of collaboration.

What has been your most satisfying or successful moment in business?
I would say there are two different moments that I have found most satisfying. The first was when I closed funding. When the final investor came in and invested the rest I needed, I remember being really excited. The second is about interacting with my team. Seeing my team of young scientists interacting at meetings with a lot of knowledge exchange, cohesiveness and mentoring, is very fulfilling.

What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?
I think one of my biggest mistakes in the very beginning was jumping into securing a lab space that wasn’t suitable for our means. This lab space was ‘bare bones’ in San Francisco at a former photography studio which rented out scientific benches. I learned to look into things more closely – the lab space was low cost for a reason. I didn’t do a lot of meaningful work there because the space was limited: it wasn’t clean and didn’t have the right equipment. I should have taken more time to find the right lab space. We did find another lab space later that I had researched into thoroughly and are super happy with the space we have now. While we have to pay a premium, we cover that with the funds we raise. So the lesson is to look before you leap.

How have you funded your ideas?
The majority of our funding was from Y Combinator, who funded us for a number of months while we were putting together ideas before speaking with investors. Next, conversations with investors allowed us to raise ‘seed round’: the initial funding for start-ups, usually consisting of a small amount (1-3 million) and enabling the start of a new company. After you get your seed round, you have to reach a number of milestones (scale-up) before getting more funding. We also tried to secure funding in other ways, including through fellowships for start-ups and government-based grant programmes, such as Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) funding in the U.S.. We also encourage companies to come to us with challenges, then we put together research proposals and can get funding to do that research for them.

If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them?
I would say to look for what is available on campus first. Talk to the IP office or Technology Transfer office, who may be giving talks about turning research in business. You could also look for competitions where you may get a small amount of funding to come up with initial data or a prototype. This could help you get to the next stage of business development. Once you have some knowledge about start-ups and initial data to support your idea, then you could look more broadly at Accelerators, for example Y Combinator and IndieBio. These give you a bit of funding to develop your ideas.

Have you faced any challenges as a woman entrepreneur? If so, how have you overcome them?
I have had a very positive experience and have never faced any discrimination. Thus far, things have been very positive.

What resources would you recommend for other women?
There are a number of investment funds run by women and supportive of female-founded companies. Those resources often have guidance tailored for female founders. I’d say they are mostly useful for women working in traditionally female entrepreneurial spaces, such as fashion and women’s health.

How could institutions such as the University of Oxford better support women entrepreneurs?
I don’t really know. I feel like maybe women tend to be more risk-averse in terms of putting themselves out there. Also, some women might have other obligations so that taking time off day jobs to pursue entrepreneurship is hard. Fellowships that provide salaries for women entrepreneurs could help provide some security.

Do you have any advice specifically for other women who want to be entrepreneurs?
I would say just go for it. I’ve definitely heard from other women that they fear discrimination because they are a woman. But I haven’t seen that at all. I’ve met incredible female founders and there are many supportive communities. Just go for it.

Any last words of advice?
Just go for it, even if your idea is small! If you are passionate about your project, it’s worth it to take that risk and try. Take that step forward and you never know where it will lead.