Sending the Ladder Down While Still Climbing
On January 3rd, 2014, I sat alone in a nearly empty conference room (Recursion’s first office). I had taken the leap (and a leave of absence from medical school) to start Recursion. I remember sitting there and thinking about an Avett Brothers lyric: “Decide what to be and go be it.” I had, and I was.
A group of folks walked into the conference room a few days later and looked at me with confusion. “We have the room for the next 2 hours,” they said sternly. I replied: “I’m sorry, but I think we have the room.” “Well how long will you be?” the woman who seemed to be leading the group asked. “Hopefully a few years — we’ll see how it goes,” I said, with a cautious grin. “We leased this conference room and the utility room next door from the University for our startup.”
She did NOT seem impressed.
A few weeks later, my co-founder Blake and I loaded up a U-Haul in San Diego with used lab equipment and drove through the night to outfit the lab. We’d later learn that several of the robots we bought didn’t work or couldn’t be used until a service contract was purchased — early setbacks like this were commonplace. We were scared, yet full of hope.
Back in those bootstrapping days, we agonized over every dollar as if it was our own, because it was. We even hosted an office-warming party, invited all our friends, and asked them to bring office supplies.
Our first order of business as a company was to write a Direct to Phase II Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant to the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS). I worked night and day on that grant, and thanks to the amazing help of our early advisors and co-founders, we would end up getting a nearly perfect score (and $1.46M). This started a wave of momentum that has built ever since then.
Fast forward about 6.5 years to today and Recursion has more than 175 employees and has raised hundreds of millions of dollars from elite venture capitalists, partnered with multiple multi-national biopharma companies and advanced a pipeline of dozens of assets, including four that are now in the clinic. We are leading the digital biology revolution.
And while many other young founders in the biotechnology space tell me how Recursion has served as an inspiration to them, it was not easy. I cried, alone, so many times in that first office. I cried at home, alone, sitting in the shower at 2 in the morning. I cried, alone, driving to and from work. I had an incredible, supportive spouse and two co-founders, but being a start-up CEO is lonely. And at times over those first few years we didn’t know if we would make payroll, or even where we would find lab space for our growing team. Recursion almost died so many times in the first 2–3 years.
Since those challenges, I vowed that one day we at Recursion would do something to help the next generation of founders to build their dreams. I hoped we could do something to make it a bit easier for them. I dreamed about doing some small part to help kickoff an entire cohort of diverse life science founders here in Salt Lake City, and to help build not just an individual company, but a true community.
Today, that dream takes physical form as we announce Altitude Lab — a partnership between Recursion and the University of Utah. Our second HQ (the one between outgrowing the conference and utility rooms and our current 100,000 square foot headquarters in downtown Salt Lake) has been transformed into an incubator. Both Recursion and the University are committing significant funds to equip and operate this unique space and program. And we are being led by an incredible Executive Director, Chandana Haque.
To be clear, Recursion hasn’t ‘made it’ — our mission to decode biology to radically improve lives will take decades to achieve and none of our drugs have shown efficacy in human trials yet. But we’ve made it far enough to send the ladder back down. “Radically improving lives” includes not only patients, but our employees and the communities in which we work. We have to find ways to help build a community around us here today.
A particularly exciting source of pride with this announcement is that one of the first companies in Altitude Lab is from a Recursion alumna, Katie-Rose Skelly and her colleague, Dr. Andrea Mazzocchi. Together, they founded Known Medicine to get every cancer patient the right treatment, faster.
I’ve written before about ‘celebrating the departure of an outstanding employee,’ and this time is no different. Katie-Rose was a huge part of creating both the tech and the culture through Recursion’s formative years. But seeing her head off on her own, as part of an incubator we built to inspire and nurture the next generation of biotech founders, tells me that the impact we want to have is already at hand.
If you believe the world can look a lot different in the future. If you have that itch and cannot believe nobody is fixing or building that thing. If you can’t sleep at night because the idea consumes you:
Come apply to Altitude Lab.
If you don’t think you have the right network to make it work, this is your place. We’re here to close the gaps that exist — especially for underrepresented founders — so that the next generation of life sciences companies can be as diverse as the world we live in.
Thanks to Elyse Freeman