Blog: Priya Gogoi

It's a feel-good storyline: Start-up founders lacking moola to enter business plan competition volunteer instead, return next year to win Best New Business Idea award at the GLEQ contest. Priya Gogoi, co-founder of DeNovo Sciences, covers the partners' de novo strategies for business launching and development of a cancer cell detection tool.

Post 1: The DeNovo Story: How an Indian, an Iranian and an American built an enterprise over tea

"At the very least we can write a book on our adventures," I said earnestly, looking at my two attentive partners. We were having our first meeting as co-founders of DeNovo Sciences and discussing its future. It was an unusual tea party. An Indian, an Iranian and an American were having an animated conversation on science and business possibilities in place of politics. Over three cups of steaming tea, the importance of entrepreneurship was reiterated and the co-founders of DeNovo Sciences prepared themselves for hardships in return for the promise of making an impact on this world.

How did it all begin? It all started when I approached Chris Seimer, who was my colleague at Esperion Therapeutics, to join me in my new start up. I had worked with Chris in the lab and found him to be one of the most genuine and kind-hearted persons I have ever known in my life. Plus, of course, I liked his ingenuity in the lab. I knew I had found my partner in him the moment I decided to start a company. At first, the offer must have caught Chris off-guard because it came out of nowhere. I just decided to ambush him one day and didn't even give him a chance to say no. I told him, at any rate, you are invited to a tea party.

I have always believed that two people make a good partnership, but three makes a complete team. And I knew who was to be our third partner even before I approached that person with a formal offer. Saedeh Sepehri and I were classmates at Eastern Michigan University doing our masters degrees in molecular biology. In her, I saw a very sincere and industrious young lady who had the potential to become a very successful researcher one day. Saedeh and I bonded over our shared interests in science, ethnic food and fashion; no wonder she decided to join DeNovo Sciences to make it the coolest technological endeavor ever. And so she agreed to come to the unusual tea party.

My next big challenge was formally introducing the team members to each other. Saedeh and Chris barely knew each other and had only met once before at my home for a party. However, all my apprehensions were put to rest when the team members bonded naturally and the positive vibes reverberated all around us. "Well, what about the idea?" one of them asked. "A company is not just about the biggest and the greatest idea ever. It is about the team, its hunger and the drive to make the enterprise a success that differentiates a great company from an average one," I replied emphatically. In the next couple of months, DeNovo Sciences would meticulously go through dozens of ideas to finalize the best idea that fit the company's mission of making an impact on society and the team's passion in life sciences.

The toughest part during the initial discussions was to talk about the finances of the company. A start-up by young people barely out of college and internships is rare; a life science tech company built from scratch by young people is unheard of. DeNovo Sciences was lucky because unlike my peers, I was financially secure owing to a supportive executive husband. I had put aside all my earnings from Esperion to kick start DeNovo; and so an intern's accumulated salary became the first pre-seed fund for the company. Saedeh, Chris and I vowed to make a few sacrifices like working on minimal salary in order to achieve our final dream of raising a successful company.

Our first adventure happened when we heard about Accelerate Michigan, the biggest entrepreneurial event in the state. Last year, the team did not even have money to pay for registration, so we devised a DeNovo strategy of participating as volunteers. Not only did we make important observations during the course of the event, it also allowed us to network with other entrepreneurs and community leaders who gave us important insights into the world of business. It was at Accelerate Michigan that our very resourceful team member Saedeh managed to impress a reporter from Concentrate into writing a story on DeNovo. The article not only boosted our morale, but also managed to expose our story to the local community.

Another lucky break for DeNovo was meeting Sandra Cochrane from MI-SBTDC. As the three co-founders of DeNovo Sciences came from a science background, writing the business plan was a big challenge. Sandra gave an in-depth review of our business plan and steered us toward a winning direction (we went on to win the Great Lakes Entrepreneurs Quest "Best New Business Idea" category). The next few months were spent on reconfirming the problem that the company had determined the solutions for by talking to customers and thought leaders in the field, and brainstorming the technical ideas with our engineer, business and biology friends over delicious Indian and/or Persian dinners (we called it Dinner Diplomacy, which is another exciting story altogether). Through our diligent work and unconventional de novo ways, the company not only managed to get a strong business and scientific advisory board of local executives and thought leaders, but also found collaborators in the academic world; particularly, a prominent cancer researcher, Dr. Ramzi Mohammad from Karmanos Cancer Center, to do the validation studies on our prototype and also serve as our scientific advisor.

So far, DeNovo Sciences has exceeded all of the company milestones, such as competing and winning GLEQ, developing the proof of concept prototype, filing for IP and SBIR funding, collaborating with thought leaders in cancer research and hiring a CEO. DeNovo Sciences has also recently moved into a laboratory space at the Michigan Life Science and Innovation Center and is proud to be amongst like-minded innovative life science companies.

The team has reached this point through its razor-sharp focus on the milestones, sheer hard work, unparalleled devotion to teamwork and unconventional but creative de novo ways. The team is also extremely thankful to our advisors who had faith in the team's ability from the beginning and supported us morally and in kind throughout our journey so far. Today we are actively seeking angel investors to fund our product development. Things are looking up for the team of DeNovo Sciences!