Q&A With the Founders of KIILN, New York’s First All Female Founder Step-Out Life Science Incubator



I had the pleasure of meeting the co-founders of KiiLN, New York’s first all female founder life science step-out incubator.

They are an amazing group of women scientist entrepreneurs who are leading the way for New York to become a life science entrepreneurship capital by building an incubator that will help companies with 2+ teams “step-out” and expand. It is the first of its kind and helps address the resource gap that exists from when a company exits its seed stage to when it enters its growth phase.

The incubator will reside in East Harlem and will provide critical wet lab space, mentorship and classes for scientists. Above all, it will be a site that focuses on fostering and supporting the innovative efforts of scientists and entrepreneurs in the NY ecosystem as they continue to grow.

Moreover, KiiLN represents the spirit of what is happening in New York’s scientific and entrepreneurial ecosystem and is a statement about the role women leaders can play in STEAM.

Here is what Kiiln is all about, in the words of its founders:

1. What is KiiLN? Why did you start it?

KiiLN stands for Keystone for Incubating Innovation in Life Sciences – NYC. The acronym plays on the idea of a kiln firing up creative ideas and is a reflection of what we are developing: a wet lab incubator space for biotech startups growing out of the New York area academic institutions.

We at KiiLN identified a need for a space in the city where biotechs spinning out of academia can grow and succeed. While NY is a thriving hub of life science research, there is a dearth of biotech incubators in the city where startups can develop their projects in a wet-lab facility and interact with the experts who can help them grow from an idea and succeed on the market.

2. Tell me about your team. How did you meet?

The idea for KiiLN was crystallized when the founders came together in the inaugural QED class offered by the Center for Technology, Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Mount Sinai. At the time, we were five postdoctoral researchers working in areas ranging from diabetic and non-diabetic kidney disease (Gabriella Casalena and Ilse Daehn), systems biology in neuroscience (Yana Zorina) and neurodegenerative diseases (Nicole McKnight and Merina Varghese). Our shared interest in converting discoveries from the lab to drugs available to patients drew us together to work on KiiLN. Ilse has since been promoted to Assistant Professor and Yana has moved on to Acorda Therapeutics as Scientist, but both are still actively involved in KiiLN. We are also good friends and have enjoyed spending time together working on KiiLN.

3. What is it about life sciences that inspire you?

MV: I have always been fascinated by what drives life and how the microscopic components of cells make us what we are. My research interest lies in learning how brain cells use energy and process proteins. By understanding these processes, I hope to uncover how brain cells die in diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

ID: My main research interest lies in understanding cellular and molecular mechanisms of diseases. How does certain (oxidative) stress alter the cellular environment driving chronic diseases and cancers? Understanding these mechanisms will help uncover key therapeutic targets for treating human diseases. I am also interested in identifying what early markers in the blood or urine can help us predict early stages or progression of chronic diseases.

NM: I am originally a molecular and cell biologist but am now working in the field of neuroscience.  I am very fortunate to be translating my PhD studies of the cellular membrane trafficking pathway of autophagy into studies that may identify a target for a drug to treat neurodegeneration by using mouse models. I worked in a startup in Cambridge, Massachusetts before I began my PhD and loved it.  I was employee number seven and we grew to over 30 people in the 2 years I was there.  Everyone pitched in and worked together as a team, doing all sorts of different jobs from DNA cloning and protein expression to building out lab space for various uses.  I cannot wait to get back in the startup environment.

4. What do you want to do with KiiLN?

MV: We envision KiiLN being the keystone of the growing biotech hub in NYC. More than ever, team science is needed for innovation and KiiLN seeks to promote collaborative efforts among the NYC area research centers by bringing together talent and expertise from all these centers.

GC: As scientists, we share the common ambition of changing the life of patients by finding medicines to cure or prevent diseases. We all put our hearts and minds in achieving valuable new results in our labs but we are well aware that the only way to really move medicine forward is allowing the brilliant ideas born in academia to further develop and find a way toward commercialization. KiiLN will likely catalyze this process.

NM: I know you hear it all the time, but New York City has everything it needs to be a huge biotech hub including more than ten world-class research institutions (we receive the second most amount of money from the NIH annually!), an energetic and highly-educated workforce, money and successful industries like tech and media, from whom we can learn valuable lessons.  KiiLN wants to contribute the missing factor (affordable incubation space for startups) that will help NYC be what it can be in the biotech world.

5. What does it mean to be a woman in science?

MV: With increasing awareness about the paucity of women leaders in science and recent findings about an inherent bias in the perception of women scientists, I find it important to mentor young people, both men and women, who are interested in science and to speak up about issues that may drive talented people away from careers in science. By actively participating as a mentor in the summer research program at Sinai and serving as a member of the Postdoc Executive Committee, I am working to make a difference in the lives of young researchers in the Sinai community.

NM: Throughout my education, from elementary school through my PhD training and my postdoctoral fellowship, I have experienced nothing but equality between the boys and girls and men and women in science education, which is something that should be celebrated and commended.  In fact, 55% of Mount Sinai postdocs are women. But we are reaching a critical point in our careers when woman start to drop out and we see in the academic world that men greatly outnumber women when it come to positions of lab heads and especially beyond that, department chairs.  Perhaps this is leftover from our previous generation but it is certainly something that we need to work on.  I have a signature in my personal email account that states: ‘Nearly 40 percent of women in New York with a bachelor’s degree hold them in science, engineering and related fields, yet women hold only about 8 percent of the tech and scientific jobs in the city. About 18 percent of startups in New York have women founders (data from the New York City Economic Development Corp).’ But we can do it and I think over time this will improve.

6. What do you think is the best part of entrepreneurship? The hardest part?

MV: As entrepreneurs, the excitement of having a good idea recognized for what it is and encouraged by the community is a great motivator. Perhaps the toughest part is facing entrenched attitudes about how research should be done.

ID: Much like being a scientist, being an entrepreneur means you need to be a forward-thinker and it also requires talent, creativity and patience. However, what differentiates an entrepreneur is outside-of-the-box thinking and the hardest part – willingness to take action.

NM:  The best part of entrepreneurship comes when you actually make something happen.  When we are finished building KiiLN and we are with the mayor and all the people who have helped us along the way at the ribbon cutting ceremony, that will be a pretty amazing day and well worth all the efforts.  The hardest part is the energy that is needed to succeed.  There is always one more e-mail to write and then a response to that e-mail!  But persistence, consistency and enthusiasm seem to be rewarded in the field of entrepreneurship.

Reprinted by permission.

About the author: Dr. Charlene Ngamwajasat

Dr. Charlene Ngamwajasat is the creator and writer of the blog Just Curious. She practices in New York City, specializing in internal medicine. She describes herself as a physician who loves to travel, read and experience new things.

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