FGC Interview: Carina Namih
Find out how catalyst Carina Namih is pushing boundaries in stealth mode.
By Kat Wendelstadt
“It’s only the beginning” was the headline of the latest DLD Conference to take place in Munich in January. Attracting the Davos crowd, this invite-only summit showcases the most recent tech trends and leading entrepreneurs. Each year, speakers like Mark Zuckerberg, Ariana Huffington, and Uber’s Travis Kalanick take center stage. But this year, health tech entrepreneur, Carina Namih of HelixNano held one of the most thought-provoking talks. A catalyst in health technology, she spoke on how health care and ultimately our lives will be transformed thanks to the latest advances in DNA nanotechnology, software, and DNA sequencing. Carina’s company is responsible for pushing these trends alongside trailblazing projects such as Google’s Calico.
Carina is nothing short of impressive: graduating with First Class Honors from Oxford University before being hired on Wall Street. With several years of commercial experience under her belt—first at JP Morgan and then Goldman Sachs—she was soon recruited by a technology start-up, and backed by top venture capital fund Kleiner Perkins. Immersed in the San Francisco tech community, she went on to cofound HelixNano during her time at Singularity University. The company is now backed by Johnson and Johnson Innovation and is busy building their prototype in stealth mode.
We caught up with Carina to pick her brain…
Tell me a bit about why you decided to become an entrepreneur.
After a corporate career, I felt a strong urge to apply my energies to building a better future. I wanted my work to have an impact, to make people’s lives better. It also became clear to me that, whether we like it or not, technology is the biggest driver of change in our lifetime. But this change can cut both ways—bad and good. I want to embrace technology and push for the latter. I think I’ve probably always been a dreamer-doer with a tendency to look for better and fairer alternatives.
What inspired you to work at the intersection of technology and health?
It was the convergence of two reasons. Firstly, improving human health and quality of life is a clear route to positive impact. I have seen how devastating poor health can be within my close family and friends. Secondly, I think the intersection of software and biology is a bright spot for innovation right now. There are so many incredible technological advances in this space and so many opportunities to chase down. I see this field as being where the computer industry was in the early days. I want to be ahead of the edge, not behind it. It’s also an area with real intellectual depth, which is important for me to stay motivated.
How did you come up with the idea behind HelixNano?
Creative sparks happen when you get experts from different fields together, scratching their heads about the same problem. I think that’s how you get big breakthroughs rather than incremental change, and that’s how HelixNano started. We were at Singularity University. My team and I were focusing on the emerging intersection of software and biomedicine. We were thinking about the two major challenges in healthcare: 1) late diagnosis and 2) one-size-fits-all treatment. We had a spark of insight.
What is your start-up working on right now?
We are in stealth mode right now (i.e. building things!), so it is hard to give details before the end of the year. The team is busy coding and building our prototype in the lab at Johnson & Johnson’s headquarters. We are receiving generous support from their Innovation Center as well as from public grants and private investors.
What are some of the key lessons you would share from your experience building deep technology businesses?
A piece of advice I always emphasize to young entrepreneurs is start with a nail, not a hammer. In other words, it’s much better to identify a real problem first and then build an appropriate solution, instead of trying to go the other way. Too often, entrepreneurs lose sight of solving a real unmet need in the market. Cool technology for the sake of cool technology is not a business. Secondly, a start-up is only as good as its team members. When we recruited, employees for HelixNano, my co-founder and I interviewed hundreds of people. It’s too important not to. And finally, be bold and go where others fear to tread. Find white space. It might be more challenging, but the rewards and the impact are potentially much bigger.
Tell me a bit about your experience leading a cross-functional team.
Building and leading team of diverse specialists can have its challenges. Without a common language, there can be difficulties in communication. As a leader, it is your role to create a space where such a diverse team can collaborate effectively. Setting and emphasizing a common purpose shared by all certainly helps. I also like to work with “T-shaped” people: i.e. people who are expert in something but with enough breadth to communicate across fields. When it works, the pace of progress can be astounding.
You are in ‘deep technology.’ How would you describe the interplay and synergies between the commercial side and the technology angle?
You raise an interesting point. In a startup like mine, the technical and commercial are two halves of a whole—one cannot thrive without the other. I hear this time and again within the investor community—they see too many teams that are technically brilliant but lacking the commercial know-how or experience to make a viable product. A start-up must ultimately make itself relevant to the market, and navigate strategic issues along the way.
You are working on a moonshot product. How has that been received in the market, by investors and collaborators? Do you sometimes feel you are a step ahead of everyone else?
Like I said before, I think it is a huge advantage to be working in white space. Many of our investors and collaborators are actively seeking that. But, it is often said that the difference between a visionary and a heretic in Silicon Valley is simply a matter of timing. It is important that the enabling technologies and the ecosystem surrounding your product are also coming of age. Otherwise, you can get stuck in a bottleneck. In our work, we are acutely aware of this. In fact, we are riding the wave of enabling technologies—like the massive advances in DNA sequencing.
How do you see the health/biotech market changing currently? What are the major trends that people are pursuing? And what do you believe is needed to win here as a startup?
Although biotech is traditionally a slow moving space, the costs of healthcare and drug discovery have been mushrooming for too long. The industry is hungry for innovation. And the front-edge is moving fast—whether in the push towards precision medicine, advances in sensors and wearables or the rise of the microbiome. Besides the usual requirements of a good product-market fit and a powerful technology, I think that to win, a start-up in this space must balance navigating the old system while also disrupting it.
You have had previous experience as a technology entrepreneur but in a different field. How does that experience compare to working health technology?
Ultimately, I think the fundamentals of building a business are the same, no matter the field. There are certain lessons that I have learned from my previous experiences (both successes and failures) that help me to this day. I also lean heavily on my community of fellow entrepreneurs, since we are often tackling the same challenges. As far as working in health and biotech—I would say that the technology is pretty complicated, and the commercial hurdles can be high. But you can use these barriers to your advantage.
You have built businesses in the US (San Francisco) and Europe (London), what are the major differences and similarities there?
I’m a Londoner, born and raised, but moved to San Francisco three years ago because I wanted to build things. I now split my time between both. I think that Europe has a great deal of expertise and talent. But I did learn a lot from the Silicon Valley mindset. There is an open sharing of ideas because they know that ideas are plentiful, but execution is tough. There is a more positive attitude to risk, where failure is embraced as a learning experience. And the investors in the US tend to be ex-entrepreneurs, which means that they fundamentally understand the asset class they are investing in.
Which woman inspires you and why?
My mother, without a doubt—the challenges she has overcome, the things she has achieved, but always with integrity and humility. That is my example.