Lieza Danan, Ph.D. is a serial entrepreneur and Co-Founder and CEO of LiVeritas Biosciences, a company based in South San Francisco, California that accelerates and streamlines integrated mass spec (MS) analysis of drug candidates through its proprietary AI-powered platform. As Co-Founder & CEO/COO/CSO at InterVenn, Lieza spring-boarded the AI-driven glycoproteomic platform company from Seed to Series A, raising $9.4 million.
Prior to InterVenn, Lieza was mass spec function lead and key contributor to biotech startups Stemcentrx (acquired by AbbVie, 2016) and Sutro Biopharma (IPO, 2018). While serving as Genentech Pilot Site Lead and as Principal Scientist at Eurofins Lancaster Laboratories, Lieza developed a strong interest in all phases of drug development.
Lieza holds a Ph.D. in Biological Chemistry from the University of California at Davis and a B.S. in Chemistry (Honors Program) from the Ateneo De Manila University. Lieza’s other passions include empowering Asian-American and women leaders in the life sciences towards transformational and visionary
How do you find a big market opportunity in a deeply technical, even boring field like chemistry?
How do you overcome years of training as a scientist and learn entirely new and uncomfortable skills as a founder?
And when you know you’re new, how do you develop the insight to know which “expert” advice to take and which to leave alone?
In this episode, scientist and founder Lieza Marie Danan talks about her long journey in the field of mass spectrometry, how she learned to identify a growing market need from large pharma companies, how she patiently honed her skills and built an enviable network of other scientists, how she transitioned into a founder mastering pitching, financial skills and much more
- What mass sprectrometry has to do with your Vitamin D levels, or why hard science startups matter
- How to build an advanced product platform one module at a time
- The difference between a tech startup and a tech enabled startup and why that matters for your startup
- How to overcome the pitfalls of building a startup as a technical founder
- How to find the right business model for your startup when it flies against Silicon Valley wisdom
- How to find and nail the make-or-break factors in designing your deep-science product
- How to slim down your funding needs so your startup has the best shot at success
- The go-to-market advantages of starting as a deep-science founder, and how to maximize that advantage
- How to build a powerful personal brand in a “dry” technical field and why you should
- A founder’s guide to finding and pitching the right investors for your startup
- The big change for fundraising post SVB and how founders should prepare
- How to survive the bruising fundraising process with your confidence intact
- Why resilience matters, and how to build it no matter what you get handed in your life
Links and Resources:
Liveritas Biosciences: The mass spectrometry startup that Lieza founded
Shubha Chakravarthy: Good afternoon, Lieza. It’s an absolute pleasure to have you here today!
Lieza Marie Danan: Hi Shubha! This is definitely an honor and a privilege to be with you this wonderful day.
Shubha Chakravarthy: I know that you have a pretty fascinating story. You started off with a PhD in chemistry. What made you move from academia into entrepreneurship? Was there a crossing the Rubicon moment that showed up?
Lieza Marie Danan: Well, between academia and entrepreneurship, there was that industry phase of my life where I worked as a scientist and had the function in the drug development industry. The jump was really from industry to entrepreneurship. You can say that it is a combination of different factors. The biggest one would be frustration. I’m a mass spectrometrist and I’ve been a mass spectrometrist for the past 25 years.
I would say the growth of the different tools needed to become an excellent mass spectrometrist has been extremely slow and that caused a lot of accumulated frustration, especially when you work in the industry where the pace is so fast, and you need these tools that have to be spot on. If not, then you are not going to be sleeping. You are going to staying up late until 1:00 AM trying to figure out what is going on with your hardware and software tools.
So, that was a Rubicon moment where I said, “I’m tired of complaining to the hardware and software providers. I might as well create my own software, disrupt this entire slow process, and make a big difference to improve the lives of people like me while also applying it in the drug development space where you can help patients have access to novel therapeutics safer and faster.”
Shubha Chakravarthy: For those of us who are not spectrometrists, and I count myself as one of them, what is mass spectrometry and why does it matter to people like us?
Lieza Marie Danan: Maybe you will remember this from your high school chemistry days, we and everything around us is built of molecules. We are composed of molecules and mass. Instrument or a mass spectrometer is the most sophisticated tool out there that can measure the mass or the molecular weight of individual unique molecules. It can also provide information on its amounts or what we call concentrations.
For example, you can calculate how much vitamin D is in your bloodstream or determine how much stress hormones are in your bloodstream, or for example how much bad pesticides are in drinking water? That is a typical exercise for a mass spectrometry. It is extremely important information that it generates.
Shubha Chakravarthy: You sold me at vitamin D, so, I’m in. What does liver biosciences do in this field?
Lieza Marie Danan: Our high-level value prop is that we improve human health by helping get new therapeutics to patients faster and safer. What we actually do in the company is that we accelerate drug quality testing using mass spectrometry and artificial intelligence. All of these new therapeutics out there for cancer, for cardiovascular diseases, for curing covid, these are all novel drug designs and what we do is we accelerate the testing process so that these novel therapeutics can advance quicker to commercialization or FDA approval.
Shubha Chakravarthy: So, essentially you are an enabler to the pharma industry and you are selling into the pharma industry.
Lieza Marie Danan: We are enablers of drug development leaders, biopharma, and pharma companies. Yes.
Shubha Chakravarthy: Is it fair to say that your industry focus is 100% in the pharma sector, or are there other sectors that you supply to or could supply to?
Lieza Marie Danan: We are slowly getting pulled to other sectors. It is very interesting. Other sectors are inquiring already if we can do specific things for their sector but right now we are extremely focused. We started with biopharma. My background is biopharma. I spent 10 years of my life in drug development. So that’s our niche right now. But we are also able to answer the questions of other sectors.
Shubha Chakravarthy: You have been in the business, so you understand it intimately. You talked about how your frustration led to the creation of this product. You know that there is a market. How did you then go from that to developing what a product might look like and then validating how big the market might be?
Lieza Marie Danan: I am a market insider. I’m a biopharma insider, and the early investors, or and advisors of LiVeritas are mostly biopharma insiders. They were my colleagues in this startup we work for, that was purchased for $6 billion as a unicorn. So, we are pioneers. We are biopharma insiders. We know the pain points. It helps a lot in how we are crafting the product and the services. I know from the get-go that product design will continue to evolve as we create the business because you need to start focused, right?
So, the product will be different when you start focused and when you start expanding, you need to be able to keep on adding. So, the product design is meant to be expandable. That’s one thing that we decided very early on. It has to be modularized.
Shubha Chakravarthy: When you say modularized, is a product a combination of hardware and software? If so, which part of it is being modularized? Is it the function that is getting modularized? So, you go from more basic to more advanced?
Lieza Marie Danan: Yes, exactly. Right now, we are a tech enabled service provider. That is a strategic decision. That is our first business model, and we know that in the future, I believe in about two months, the real product is going to emerge. To be able to operate efficiently in the tech enabled service the modularization of both hardware and software has to be in place.
It is very strategic how we are building it. We are building it from something so basic at its core and then we slowly expand upon it. Now from the software standpoint, we are developing our own platform and later on it will be a SaaS business model. Even with that software, it’s modularized as well. It starts very basic and then it can be expanded. That’s why I’m talking about modularization.
Shubha Chakravarthy: Excellent. I love it. Walk me through the product development process. What were the expertise areas that you needed from a hardware standpoint? What did you need from a software standpoint and how did you put together these skill sets and where did you come in and where did you have to fill in other skills with other folks?
Lieza Marie Danan: Oh, very interesting. So, let me start by saying that most of the things that we are doing right now, I’ve done it before in that previous company, that was acquired as a unicorn. I know exactly how I created it, and it was very modularized as well. Our software development team will help me speed up my turnaround time, so how do I translate that into LiVeritas?
I just had to repeat what I did in the past, so to speak. But now I partnered myself with my co-founders, and one of them is a graduate of chemistry with computer engineering. She knows how to conceptualize it from a programming standpoint. Later on, we expanded with another classmate of ours with a double degree in chemistry and computer engineering, but he practiced more of the software development expertise.
So, it is like, “Okay, we are all interconnected, right? There is first the scientist mindset and then the software development, a hybrid mindset, and then 100% software developer.” So, those three people are very important to always be aligned in terms of pacing of creation of the software product.
Shubha Chakravarthy: Help me understand what is the most difficult part of crafting or architecting this startup? There is a business model and there are a whole bunch of other things. Which was the hardest part? Why was it hard and how did you crack that?
Lieza Marie Danan: Oh gosh. The hardest part is fundraising. Surprise! The reason behind that is, I’m a scientist and my brain functions in a totally different way, away from storytelling. I’m still learning this.
I had to switch my brain in a way where I can tell a story but also stay accurate as much as I can. So, staying loyal to being a scientist and not becoming a storyteller where I’m promising you the moon, the stars, and everything in between, is important or else it is not going to be aligned with my value system and I won’t be able to confidently say it.
So, where I operate is highly technical. The world of drug development is extremely technical, and you have to explain that in a way where laypeople can understand, that it is the most challenging aspect for me, not selling to biopharma, that is second nature for me. Starting a lab? I’ve done that eight times already. So, pitching. Storytelling. That is challenging.
Shubha Chakravarthy: Before we get there, I want to talk about the business model and particularly the revenue model. You talked about mass spectrometry as a service and SaaS is the model that you use. Did you consider other options? What were your other options and how did you pick this revenue model for you?
Lieza Marie Danan: On the first year during the pandemic my advisors brainstormed this with me. They tried to sway me into going straight into a SaaS business model. We explored it for a bit, however, I knew it was not going to be a great fit for what I want to achieve or what I want to build because if it is a SaaS business model straight on, you’ll be dependent on software developers, number one.
Number two, you will be dependent on so many partnerships with biopharma and other people. In the world where I operate, the quality of data and consistency of data is extremely important, and you need to be able to control it. If you start with all types of information, you are not assured of best quality information.
You will not be able to get to the unique insights that you want to put out there. So, I convinced them that the way to go is to generate our own data and in order to do that, we need to have our own lab. It doesn’t make sense to not make it revenue generating.
So, it was natural that the strategy would be create a testing lab, generate your own data, not the data of our clients. Of course, generate our own data along the way and use that as the basis to create that business model where you can go for profitability and then later on, the tech enabled services business model that can fund the software development. That is where we are right now. We are at the cusp right now, where next month we will be cash positive, and the tech enabled service has that capability to fund the entire software development process.
Shubha Chakravarthy: That is fascinating because it sounds to me like first of all, you had to do some convincing against a standard and no-brainer business model to demonstrate why yours is the more value adding. But did it involve a need for more funding to then build the lab, which you wouldn’t have had to do? How did you get over that?
Lieza Marie Danan: So, we had to raise money. We calculated it. It will take about $3 million to get there, but luckily we don’t need to raise that much. So, figured out a way how to be extremely lean the past three years. So, the first race was about very little during the pandemic, but after the presidential inauguration in 2021, that is when we were able to raise up to $1 million. In the period of 12 months, we were able to raise 1.2 million that got us the laboratory and the instrument that we needed with a lean founding team with diverse skill sets.
What we needed was to put ourselves out there and start working with clients. The fundraising is a very interesting art form. We got in touch with over 200 investors and pitched to maybe a hundred. We really put ourselves out there. It is good to be part of an accelerator because the first 50 investors will be through the accelerator. Maybe, over a hundred investors will be introduced. The lesson I learned is that people who look like you will fund you, they are the lowest hanging fruit.
Again, people who look like you will fund you. It is easier to fundraise from them. People who know the quality of your work will be the ones who will fund you and who understand the industry. So, no matter how technical my pitch was, obviously people understand the industry, the pain points, the potential. They are the ones who wrote the checks and then the rest of the money I had to bootstrap. It worked out because we got to where we are right now. Maybe we put in a total of $2 million so far, extremely lean team. Now we are in three different countries. We are in four different time zones.
Shubha Chakravarthy: How did you bootstrap? Did you offer consulting services? What was your strategy to bootstrap?
Lieza Marie Danan: I was lucky to be able to sell some of my shares for my first startup. So, I funneled out a part of that money into my company. Other bootstrapping activities techniques would be getting paid by equity and no, cash. You will have to find consultants; you will have to find co-founders. You will have to find founding team members who are willing to accept equity over cash. So, those are some of the tactics that we have implemented in the company.
Shubha Chakravarthy: Then one more thing on the customer acquisition side – now the good news is that you have already had all this exposure. You know who the buyers are, and you are a very convincing seller because you are a technical seller to a very specific pain point. How did that influence and what was your customer acquisition strategy? How did you find your initial customers and were they any help in providing advanced funding of any kind?
Lieza Marie Danan: Let’s just put it this way – the first five customers were all through referrals. There is one that we acquired through a conference. The best customers and the best clients we have are through referrals and who referred them are friends from the biopharma industry. I made a lot of good friends in the industry. I made great relationships. I calculated it.
Maybe I’ve interacted with over 300 biopharma scientists, engineers, directors, and executives in the past 10 years, working with them directly so they know my quality of work. I have a good reputation that I protected in this period of my life working in a drug development industry.
So, the only thing we had to do was to be in social media and put the brand out there. Luckily my co-founder, Ana was in sales and marketing roles in the past in different mass spec instrumentation vendors. So, she also has a name out there and she has a good reputation as well. So, we combined our networks, so to speak. We covered pretty much California and I have some friends as well from the east coast when I worked at a contract research organization in Pennsylvania.
We combined that and put ourselves out there. LinkedIn is perfect for that because we are B2B. Our target clients are professionals. They are biopharma scientists, directors, and executives.
My former colleagues in the different companies I work for, we were all like senior scientists at that time, or associate directors. Now they are senior directors, CXOs. We all grew together, and they are decision makers. So, it is awesome because having meetings with our clients right now feel like a reunion as it is all friends and colleagues. It has been great.
Shubha Chakravarthy: I just love the networking aspect of it. Just one little drill down question on the social media. This field would be like the last that I would pick for social media marketing, just given how technical it is. What exactly did you do on LinkedIn? What did you publish? What did you talk about to build this reputation?
Lieza Marie Danan: Well, before I started the company, I already had 2,000 connections under my name. So, right now it is close to 3000. I talked about mass spec, I talked about my journey. I talked about what led me here.
Shubha Chakravarthy: So, it wasn’t just like – “The most thrilling recent discoveries in mass spectrometry?”
Lieza Marie Danan: Sometimes, yes. Let’s say “The FDA has made a very good decision about diversifying clinical trials.” I’m like, “That’s awesome, put it out there, talk about the subject matter expertise!” The funny part there is that most of the people in my network know already that I’m a subject matter expert, and so those who become our clients see that already from our previous interactions or the times where we worked together.
We are very lucky at LiVeritas because this company was built on relationships. My relationships and Nas’ relationships with her former clients. It is all about having good relationships the other scientists and the biopharma directors.
Consistently believing that our goal is to produce good quality data all the time, no questions asked is important. If we have a team member who doesn’t value that, then that is not a good team member. We are not aligned there. But at the core of the culture of the company is integrity of the data that we have and quality of the data that we generate for our clients.
Shubha Chakravarthy: You talked about connections, and you talked about relationships. That brings us to fundraising, which is an eternally interesting topic for all founders. So, you initially mentioned that you started out with a list of 200 investors. You talked to a hundred. Walk me through from the start. How did you start thinking about this approach? How did you identify the 200 potential investors? I’m just very curious to hear the whole thing.
Lieza Marie Danan: Oh my gosh. It is just an interesting story for me. I had a list. Let’s say for example, the investors of the startup I used to work for became a unicorn. There is that list. A second list is investors who previously invested or current investors of my first startup.
The third, investors who have no clue who I am, but most likely will be interested in our space because of the sector focus. You analyze that and then there’s another list. So, in the third bucket you have several sources of names. You can get it from the accelerators you are part of or any other events that you participate in.
So, these are all where you start the relationship. Obviously the first two buckets are very targeted and then you make your calculation when you want to reach out to them. Then the third bucket is your trial-and-error bucket. So, that is pretty much what I’ve been doing. Again, the reality is people who look like me and who interacted with me in the past and know the quality of my work, they are the ones who wrote the biggest checks.
Shubha Chakravarthy: Okay, so then you have this list of 200. Where did you start? How many months did you allot yourself to get this money? How did you prepare yourself? In particular, you talked about the storytelling aspect. Can you just walk us through what that preparation looked like, what your challenges were and how you got better in that?
Lieza Marie Danan: Yes, there are several questions in there. So, maybe let’s break it down. First, the storytelling aspect and the pitch deck preparation. That is a long process, First, you need to start somewhere. Start with your deck. Come up with your advisors. Your advisors have to be diverse. Maybe pick two, not more than two, because you don’t want conflicting ideas from your advisors. You don’t want to be overly advised. Start somewhere. Don’t aim for perfection.
Create a storyline first, and then come up with your references for each claim that you are adding in your deck. Create your first draft and circulate to your advisors. Wait for on one week or two weeks, and then pick and choose the feedback that you would like to integrate into your deck. So that’s your first iteration and then do that over and over and over.
Literally we have over 100 versions, maybe 200 versions of the deck in my hard drive right now. It just kept on evolving and if you look at the current version of our Deck versus what it was in year one, it is so different. Allow yourself to iterate over and over. It is a long and tedious process, but it will help you tremendously in the end.
Shubha Chakravarthy: What was the benefit? How did it help you? How did you see the impact of that process?
Lieza Marie Danan: The goal is to align your mindset into the mindset of investors. I’m a scientist. It takes a while for me to align with the investors. I need to understand what they are thinking. So, one of your advisors has to be a VC or an angel investor.
Shubha Chakravarthy: Can you give some examples of maybe types of feedback from the investing type of advisor that helped you reorient your approach or your story or a pitch deck so that it will be investor-friendly versus scientist-friendly?
Lieza Marie Danan: So, after the downfall of Silicon Valley Bank, the expectations of investors have shifted dramatically. Right now, everything is growth metrics. Don’t even bother talking about the story of your company. Just focus on revenue, revenue, revenue, and how things are growing. I got rid of the rest of my deck.
I just focus on growth metrics right now and I sent that to investor. The usual pitch story would be okay. Make highly simplified decks that will capture the attention of an average investor, a non-technical investor. Make sure there are simple words in them and not scientific words. That was some advice they gave me.
Then, everything else is as expected, right? You need to show your forecast. You need to show your market. A very helpful metric was the serviceable addressable market because you have your TAM – astronomical number. But really, how do you calculate your SAM? What is it that you are targeting and assume that, maybe you work with 5% of your SAM and that is still a significant number.
Present that because usually you would want that to be above a hundred million dollars. Every advisor, depending on which coast they are from, will have totally different expectations in your deck. So be open to having at least two versions of your deck, East Coast version and the West Coast version.
Shubha Chakravarthy: Is it true what I’ve heard that the East Coast is very focused on metrics and economics and revenue and profitability and the West coast wants to change the world. Is that true?
Lieza Marie Danan: Oh yeah. It’s reality.
Shubha Chakravarthy: Oh, and has that changed post Silicon Valley Bank? Have they become closer together now?
Lieza Marie Danan: Yes. Now everything is growth metrics.
Shubha Chakravarthy: Growth metrics. So, maybe one and a half versions of the deck as opposed to two versions?
Lieza Marie Danan: Yes. Finally, there is alignment, right? Before this I was like, “Okay, this person is telling me to do it this way and the other person said that is wrong.” I’m like, “Where am I going with this? I didn’t know that there should be two versions at that time?”
Shubha Chakravarthy: How did you factor in this preference at the time? How did you factor in any differences between East Coast and West Coast investors? How did you prioritize and then what was it like to go pitch these investors, especially when they didn’t look like you?
Lieza Marie Danan: So, how do I prioritize – based on who is writing a check first. That is best prioritization. First it is not necessarily the size of the check, right? Who is going to write the check first? Who is the lowest hanging fruit? That is how I prioritize. If it is going to take me a year to convince this person then no, I’ll just table it and then come back later.
Shubha Chakravarthy: How do you figure that out? I mean, you got your list of 200. Let’s say you have narrowed it down to a hundred. They can string you along, you can have a conversation.
Lieza Marie Danan: Oh, yes. So, be careful about those people who will string you along the moment they said, “Not now, maybe later.” That is a “No.” So, table it already, right? Just be sensitive to how they are saying “No” to you. There are many ways of saying no, for sure. So, if an investor is the one emailing you for reminders to meet with you, that means they are extremely excited. Go for it. Prioritize that investor. If that investor has not emailed you back for a week or two, that’s a no already. Those are clear indications.
Shubha Chakravarthy: Okay. Then in the conversations themselves, like when you are pitching, you are having the conversation, you are explaining. Walk me through what that process felt like. What were the challenges that you felt you faced just because of your gender, your ethnicity, or whatever the case might be?
Lieza Marie Danan: When I moved to this country, I had to accept the fact that I will always be underestimated and in the middle of my sentence or trail of thought, somebody will try to interrupt me, or they will interrupt me blatantly. So, it happens too in pitching. You have to accept that reality and learn to navigate around it.
I noticed as well that there are certain people whom I interacted with, no matter how I say things, I will always be wrong in how I stated it because how they want to hear it is better. So, it becomes like an ego play.
It is not fun, but you really need to learn how to pacify your ego at the end of the exercise even when how you stated it was exactly how they stated it a week ago. There is a pattern in here. I’m smart enough to know what is going on here. So, I’ll just let you speak and I’ll nod and I’ll learn how to direct you to where I want you to be.
Shubha Chakravarthy: What were some of the other experiences?
Lieza Marie Danan: There is that personality that always have to be right. But actually, to be honest with you, do we really want to be funded by those people? No. Right? You want your investors to be partners.
The people you want to surround yourself with in your company are those who would be great advisors and see you in the same level where they are and not like you’re a slave.
Shubha Chakravarthy: Sounds like through your process of identifying, filtering, and talking to people, you were able to quickly filter out which ones would be in the partner bucket and which ones would be in the power bucket, for lack of a better term.
Any other experiences in terms of questions? We have heard about this promotion versus prevention bias when it comes to male versus female founders. What was your experience in talking to investors about whether the questions were promotion or prevention focused, or did it even come up in the conversations?
There is some research that has come out that says that when male founders are questioned by investors during pitching, the questions are around, “How can you make this bigger? Where is the opportunity? How big can it get?” When they are asking female founders who are pitching the exact same business, the question is around, “How will you make sure that you don’t drive this into the ground?”
Those are prevention questions, so you are forced to keep defending yourself and then they are like, “You are not excited enough. It is not a big enough opportunity.” Did you ever face that?
Lieza Marie Danan: So, in the first year, I was called a crazy person for thinking that I can create something big that has excellent product market fit. I would’ve been called a visionary. I’m extremely confident that I can create something that big in the sense of the forecast. I’m not saying I created that already, but you want to forecast something big and yes, you know, I guess I was not supposed to hear what that person said, but I heard that I was called the crazy or delusional lady.
Shubha Chakravarthy: That must have been tough. How did you get over that and continue to fight and keep working?
Lieza Marie Danan: I know the company is created in relationships and I know what my background. With my experience in the industry, I have so much conviction and confidence in what can be created that allowed me to keep on moving forward, no matter what because I witnessed it already in the industry.
I’ve been in a CRO testing facility. I worked in a large biopharma company, one of the largest and it was seen as the most innovative company. I worked in a startup that filed for an IPO. I worked in a startup that was acquired as a unicorn.
I’m like, “What else can you experience?” I witnessed back in 2010, 2012, after the economy crashed, how testing became a booming business. As scientists were required to work over the weekend the backlog was over a million dollars just for mass spec testing. I’m like, “Whoa, okay. This is a new thing. It is primetime for mass spec. This is 2010.”
As early as 2010, this boom started happening. And then guess what is happening right now? There is an economy crack. So, something is not quite right in the market right now. This is it. It is happening again. I can see some parallel listens to what happened 10 years or 12 years ago to what is happening now.
Shubha Chakravarthy: It sounds like being able to step back a little bit away from yourself and reorienting towards the problem you are solving and your confidence in your own expertise is what helped you get over that.
Lieza Marie Danan: Yes. It is conviction, self-confidence, whatever you want to call it. It is belief in my capabilities. I don’t want to sound boastful or anything like that, but I just want to stay for it.
Shubha Chakravarthy: Go for it.
Lieza Marie Danan: I experience a lot in the drug development industry for sure. I was exposed to so many amazing experiences from a technical standpoint. I learned so much, and I’m extremely grateful for all those experiences, including my failures.
So, at the end of the day, it is stepping back, as you said, and evaluating what just happened in those 10 years and seeing how you can integrate all of those positive things that happen there and apply it to where we are now.
Shubha Chakravarthy: One last question on the whole pitching process – you talked about projections, you talked about how they need to meet certain requirements for investors to be excited about the business.
How familiar were you with the whole financial modeling piece? How much of a challenge was it and how did you acquire the level of expertise and mastery of that process that you needed to go and pitch? How comfortable were you with financial modeling?
Lieza Marie Danan: I had to learn that through my advisors. During the pandemic, I surrounded myself with advisors from various different backgrounds. They are all entrepreneurs from tech. Entrepreneurs have been around the block for a long, long time. I learned forecasting from them and financial modeling as well.
How am I confident about it is that I had to learn it over the past three years to be confident in really making sure the numbers are correct. What I like about the current version of our models is the fact that it is now based on one and a half years of generating revenue.
So, there is confidence already in the numbers for sure. Also, we filed taxes in the past two years, so we know what our operating expenses are and what the breakdowns are. It is easier to forecast now versus before. I forecasted using my background in the previous companies I worked for but now I feel more comfortable. It is more accurate; it is closer to reality.
Shubha Chakravarthy: Were you pressed on those questions by investors and how confident did you feel answering them?
Lieza Marie Danan: In the beginning I was not that comfortable. Now I can turn it around upside down or do whatever.
Shubha Chakravarthy: So, to round everything off from the beginning in terms of identifying investors, going through the pitch, and then actually talking to investors, mastering the financials, if you had to summarize all of it and say, “Here is the thing I would give another entrepreneur.” What five pieces of advice would you give in terms of the fundraising?
Lieza Marie Danan: First, believe in yourself. Believe in your capabilities. Believe in what you are creating because whatever you are creating, most likely behind that is a decade or two decades or three decades worth of experience. What you are creating is an integration of all of those experiences.
What you are manifesting is based on how fully integrated you are and how confident you are in what you are building. That is number one. Included in that of course, is that you need to make sure your heart, mind, and body are aligned, so that gives you more confidence about yourself.
Number two, believe in the power of the network you created in your life. I believe, especially nowadays, creating a company based on relationships makes you a strong company. You can tap into your network for finding co-founders, for finding founding team members.
You can tap into your network to find partners, advisors, strategic relationships, and early clients. They are also going to be your extended marketing arms. It is very important, believe in the power of your network. So that is community.
Don’t be afraid to fail. It’s important to just try to give it your best. Don’t be afraid to fail. Failing is okay. Iterating is okay for pitching, not for product. Don’t desire for product creation. Okay?
For pitching, be open to the feedback that others are willing to share with you and you don’t need to integrate all of the feedback that others give you. You can handpick those that are valuable to you. At the end of the day, you are holding onto the steering wheel. You are the one driving this company. It is not other people.
Number five, stay focused. There will be a lot of noise. Feedback is not noise. Not necessarily, but some noise is integrated in the feedback, so learn to tune out the noise when the noise is, “Oh, you were just called a crazy lady.”
Go back to who you are. How many decades have you have you worked on this field? What are those things you fully integrated? Your self-confidence and your conviction. What you do to tune out that noise? Keep moving forward. Eventually somebody will write you a big check.
Shubha Chakravarthy: Great. You have talked through a lot of stuff and it has been very enlightening through this process. Internally, you talked about challenges that you had to face. There are many, but is there one that was particularly difficult or that pushed you to your very limit? If so, what was it and how did you find the strength to overcome it?
Lieza Marie Danan: Last year I was diagnosed with Classical Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. So, that is a, form of cancer. Luckily it’s curable. So, for six months I had to go through chemotherapy and that is one of the most challenging experiences in my life.
However, It was also a test of resilience, going through the same treatment for six cycles, 12 times, in the span of six months. It definitely is a test of resilience.
So, how did I go about this? Couple of things. First, I surrounded myself with love. My parents were with me, I am very grateful that my parents were able to help me through the process and recover after chemo as well.
Second, there is a book called Positive Intelligence. I went through the bootcamp. It is a very important tool for so many different things. Keep moving forward. That is definitely one thing you’ll learn from it.
Third, you know, every person has maybe three to five books that changed their lives. So, there is one book by Deepak Chopra. It is The Seven Laws of Spiritual Success. I may be quoting it wrong, but it is a small book. I read it over and over and over. I navigated it and just stayed focused. So, go back with conviction and self-confidence. If I can deal with the chemotherapy, no one can question my resilience as a founder.
Shubha Chakravarthy: First off, kudos to you. I am just blown away and I will send you every positive healthy vibe there is for your long health and success in every aspect of your life. So, on that note, there have been many victories, clearly, what you just described as one of them, but is there one that stands out in your startup journey that made everything worth it?
Lieza Marie Danan: I think it is going to happen in the next two months.
Shubha Chakravarthy: That’s great. Well wish for that. Is there anything in the past that was particularly noteworthy in terms of being just a validation or anything that was a high for you that validated everything that you’ve done so far?
Lieza Marie Danan: Yes, one particular client needed our help, and they were desperate to find the right mass spec testing partner for their drug candidate. They are already in the clinic, and the FDA gave them feedback that their drug candidates needed extended characterization using mass spec.
So, we responded very quickly, and we made sure that we assisted them by providing them good quality data. Now the drug candidate is in phase three. They are one step closer to what we call a biologics licensure application, and that is the gating document needed by the FDA, prior to final FDA approval. We are helping our clients move close to FDA approval phase three. that’s amazing.
Shubha Chakravarthy: I know enough about life sciences to know that phase three is a very magical word.
Lieza Marie Danan: I think there are only about 1000 drug candidates who reaches phase three every year. One of them is the drug candidate of our client.
Shubha Chakravarthy: Congratulations! That is great. So, looking back, if there is anything that you would’ve done differently, what would that have been if you had to start this over again?
Lieza Marie Danan: I didn’t know how important self-integration was in the beginning. I’m an immigrant and I moved from the Philippines to the United States and within the United States, I moved three times. So, from UC Davis to Pennsylvania and then from Pennsylvania to the Bay Area, and then I was moving different companies as well. I had to integrate all of my experiences and the people I met over time in order to really realize the full potential of what I was creating.
Shubha Chakravarthy: So, what did that look like? Help me understand what that felt like and looked like.
Lieza Marie Danan: Before, I was second guessing myself, always going after people, “Okay, I need to meet people. I new people to build a company.” Then I realized, “Oh, I don’t need to look far. I just need to look back.” Now at LiVeritas, my co-founders are one of my best friends from college, one of my best friends from graduate school, and my founding team members are composed of people from the Filipino American community here in the Bay Area. Some of them came from the same university I came from in the Philippines.
My team members in Manila are from the same university where I came from. They were my classmates in college and my classmates in high school. Believe in the network! The people who are our advisors or my former colleagues and friends from the mass spec industry and the biopharma industry, one thing is for sure, maintained throughout this process is that I kept in touch with people who I believe are experts and aligned with my value system. So, reaching out to them and reconnecting with them was like a reunion, bringing them as part of LiVeritas became relatively straightforward.
Shubha Chakravarthy: That is very helpful, and I think on point for so many of us. So, last question. If you had to give one piece of advice to somebody else who wants to follow in the same footsteps as you, life sciences, immigrant, however you want to characterize it, what would you tell them?
Lieza Marie Danan: Again, find your true self, align work towards finding your true self. That can be done by aligning your heart, mind, and body.
Shubha Chakravarthy: Excellent. Is there anything that you wish I’d asked you, but I didn’t?
Lieza Marie Danan: I think we’re good.
Shubha Chakravarthy: This has been a very inspiring and informative conversation Lieza. I really appreciate you taking the time and I can’t wait to see what is going to happen and how high you are going to take your company. So, we will be here rooting for you. Wishing you all the best. Thank you so much!
Lieza Marie Danan:
Thank you again for this opportunity to share my journey, Shubha, and I wish you well as well in your podcast and your next phase in your next projects!