Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, most professionals have been forced to adjust to remote and asynchronous work. Many professional industries have adapted successfully — however, the adjustment has been particularly difficult for the scientific community, an industry where experiments require specific tools and measurements, regulations are strict, and records are traditionally kept in paper notebooks.
The problem isn’t new, but the need for speed, accuracy, and transparency in the scientific community was forced into the spotlight in the wake of 2020.
Enter Colabra, a collaboration and data integration platform designed specifically for scientific teams. The platform enables scientists across an organization to track their workflows, provide feedback, and — most importantly — share data and outcomes. These capabilities combine to eliminate inefficiencies and foster more innovative research.
It was just this past December that co-founders Aoi Senju and Philip Seifi, both former On Deck Founder Fellows, set their mission to bring the scientific method to the 21st century. Just eight months later, we’re proud to announce that Colabra has raised an overextended $1.5 million funding round — in a lightning-fast three weeks. The round included Village Global, Builders VC, Inovia Capital, BoxOne VC, On Deck Runway Fund, Longtail Health Ventures, Duro Ventures, Jude Gomila, and others.
Aoi, the CEO of Colabra, sat down with us to tell us about how Colabra’s mission will revolutionize scientific research, how coincidence led him to find the perfect co-founder match in Philip Seifi, and what their fundraise means for their vision of the future.
Thanks, Aoi, for taking the time to talk! Can you give us some insight into what’s led you to create a company that serves the scientific community?
Aoi: I was born in Japan and moved to the U.S. when I was young. Japan has a very rigid education and career system, and my parents wanted to raise their kids in a place like the U.S. where personal individuality is more valued. Knowing all the sacrifices that were required — my parents leaving their entire family and network behind — influenced how I thought about my life. I didn't want my parents’ sacrifices to lead to only improving my life. I wanted their sacrifices to translate into benefiting as many people as possible.
Going into college, I decided to focus on the biggest problem that I could find. At Princeton, my focus was clean energy. I studied chemical engineering and went into battery research, where I ended up publishing a paper and getting two patents. I was also the lead engineer on a $3.5 million grant from the Department of Energy ARPA-E (Advanced Research Project Agency - Energy) working on a lithium metal solid state battery.
The reason I left the scientific research world was because I started to see that scientific research takes a really long time to get to commercialization, sometimes 30 to 40 years. As a scientist in my 20s, the idea that I wouldn't be able to see the fruits of my labor until my 50s and 60s was discouraging.
I decided to move into software and data science where I thought I'd be able to have a larger impact — sooner — by contributing to the clean energy sector indirectly. I founded a machine learning solar lending company, Jumpstart Energy, and exited when it was acquired.
This transition from science to software planted the seeds for what eventually became Colabra. It was during this time that I began to notice that many of the best practices we have in software, like code review and agile project management, are just not practiced in science. This leads to many of the inefficiency issues that I had observed while doing science.
So, you’re not entirely new to entrepreneurship. When you joined the On Deck Fellowship, what were you hoping to get out of it?
Aoi: A number of friends were doing the On Deck Fellowship and kept talking about how it's a great network to meet other entrepreneurs and learn best practices. It's also a tight knit community, which I was looking for in the midst of the pandemic.
I was working full-time while in ODF5, which was challenging. But since everything was remote, I was able to do everything on my own time — I could work during the day and take meetings before my workday began or after it ended. And all the videos are recorded, so I was able to watch the videos later as well.
Initially the value of On Deck for me was the community and the ability to meet people who are all working on really exciting things — which incentivizes you to go out and build your own thing.
But I’ve actually continued to leverage On Deck even today. We used On Deck’s fundraise concierge during our raise, and right now I'm researching materials in On Deck’s resource libraries on building community with our early users. (Aside: we're building a community for scientists and entrepreneurs to share best practices. Join us here!) The recorded sessions and available materials in the On Deck Directory have been a gift that’s kept on giving. It's a resource that's always there — whenever you're ready for it.
It sounds like the pandemic influenced your trajectory, did that play out in other ways?
Aoi: As someone that was trying to find ways to interact closely with other entrepreneurs in a COVID-safe setting, I heard about Launch House happening in Tulum. I went in October 2020 and spent a month and a half living there.
My assigned roommate was Philip Seifi, who incidentally was getting ready to start ODF7 himself. We regularly paired up for hackathons on weekends, and quickly realized that we made a really good team. We really liked working with each other and we had very similar worldviews.
Philip is the best entrepreneur I've ever met. He's a fantastic strategist and a leader, but he's also a coder and a designer. So he's someone who can have an idea and build something on day one and then launch it on day two.
He also has this very clear way of thinking about how to take a product to users. That kind of intersection of a strategic person, a design person, and an engineering person is completely unheard of — I’ve never met anyone like Philip before.
At the end of last year, we asked each other, “What else are you working on? What do you want to work on next?” And that’s when we started talking about Colabra.
How did you get to the vision of Colabra?
Aoi: In science, there’s a multi-trillion dollar data loss problem because of a lack of software and infrastructure, which leads to disaggregated and unsearchable data. This has always been a massive problem, but it’s come to the forefront with COVID.
Scientists are some of the most brilliant people in the world, but most of the time, they’re working in silos with an inability to share their findings with anyone. They can’t easily access the work of others who currently work at their company, and it’s nearly impossible to find the work of people who previously worked at their company.
For example, if someone wants to start a new experiment, they almost always start by going to the person who's worked at the team the longest to find out if the experiment has been done before. The next step might be flipping through a notebook that's gathering dust in the corner of a bookshelf. Through all of the scrawled notes, they'll try to find the page about that experiment and hope that it's reproducible, because no one has ever looked at it other than the original scientist.
Inevitably, there's a huge problem of people doing incredible amounts of redundant work — experiments that others have already done, or dead ends that others have already run up against. This becomes an increasing problem as the team size grows, and data silos increase.
But we found that during COVID, scientists were actually beginning to radically change the way they did their work. Scientists who traditionally did everything in person and on paper were beginning to adopt software tools like Slack, Google Sheets, or Asana for the first time, so that they could continue to do research remotely. Scientists were more receptive than ever to adopt tools to improve the way they work. Here, we saw an opportunity for a tool purpose-built for science.
With Colabra we wanted to provide a holistic data integration and collaboration solution. In creating a product specifically for the scientific community, we allow scientists to more accurately communicate data and information to each other.
The product allows scientists to find any experiment anyone on their team has done in the past, find all experimental inputs and outputs in one place, and easily build on the work of others. They’re able to integrate various scientific data formats, create protocols, and track experiment workflows. Plus, Colabra complies with regulatory requirements, for example FDA 21 CFR Part 11, which is necessary for work to be admissible in court.
It sounds like finding a great co-founder, your background and connections, and COVID-19 exacerbating the problem positioned you to move quickly, especially for your fundraise. Can you tell us how that process went for you?
Aoi: Yes! We launched a closed beta in March of 2021. Our early users were former colleagues, friends, and people that I've met in my previous endeavors — we have a biofuels company, a carbon capture company, and a biomaterials company, among others, using Colabra.
We were able to raise $1.5 million in about three weeks. We actually initially set out to raise $500K. But a lot of people said, “If you don't raise at least a million, no VC is going to take a meeting with you.” So, we decided to raise a million, which we closed in two weeks. We then decided to open up another $500K — which we also immediately closed.
Congrats! What are the immediate plans? Especially with the extra capacity from an overextended round.
Aoi: We’re using this capital to first build up the engineering team. We just hired an Engineering Lead, and we're going to continue to hire to launch features faster and prepare for the needs of B2B clients who’ll have different security and compliance requirements — like SOC 2 Type 2.
The other thing that we're investing in is integrations. What we think makes Colabra valuable is that it brings together different data sources into a really friendly, familiar, no-code format. Scientists can interact with data collected via completely different equipment and interact with it all under a single interface.
We wanted to raise funds so we wouldn't have to be concerned about how many months of runway these integrations would eat into. We wanted to have the resources to build any features and integrations that our users asked for.
How does that fit into the big picture vision you have for Colabra?
Aoi: Our mission is to increase the world’s scientific output. We've already gotten feedback from our current users saying, “I can't believe that we haven't used this kind of platform before. We wish Colabra existed years ago when we started the company, because we'd be so much further ahead.”
We built Colabra because we see what is possible with improvements to the software and infrastructure that scientists have available to them.
In the future, we want to aggregate scientific data not only to come up with meaningful conclusions from the experiments, but to derive deeper insights that scientists would have missed in the past. There’s a lot of really valuable data that’s being ignored and thrown away today because of this lack of integration and sharing.
What makes us really excited about the future of Colabra is the depth of collaborations that it will enable. Look at how the COVID-19 Pfizer vaccine was developed — it was a global herculean effort between BioNTech, a German company, Pfizer, an American company, and Fosun, a Chinese company. This collaboration took a multi-year scientific effort and made it possible in several months.
We see Colabra further enabling this kind of global collaboration for future scientific breakthroughs. Colabra will be the platform that enables the world to solve climate change, figure out human longevity, and prevent future pandemics — by leveraging and building on the brainpower of every single scientist at an organization.
“As a founder of an oncology startup, I watched our scientists try many different iterations of solutions for planning, executing, and analyzing their experiments. Initially, we had folks using traditional paper lab notebooks, then we moved into general-purpose tools like Evernote, and finally, we tried adopting enterprise-grade lab notebooks that I don't think anyone would describe as user-friendly. When I was introduced to Aoi and Philip from Colabra, their description of their own journey identifying these same issues and the initial product they created with a clean, user-focused design with the ability to search across experiments was a ‘hallelujah’ moment for me. Colabra has the opportunity to speed up productivity and insights across industry, startups, and some of the most important research organizations on the planet.”
— Matt De Silva, Founder of Notable Labs and Longtail Health Ventures, Venture Partner at Builders VC
Note: This is part of a series where we talk to On Deck Founders alumni about the companies they’re building and what it will take to propel them to the next level. Consider joining our incredible community of founders who have launched over 1000 companies worth over $9B. Apply here.