Aoi Senju
Philip Seifi
This article is part of a revealing series of founders who met co-founders through On Deck. Finding the right co-founder is exceptionally hard, especially if you don’t share a history through friends or prior work. You’ll walk away from this piece with an intimate look into the co-founder relationship of these talented founders, how they navigate co-founder issues, and what advice they’d give others seeking their missing piece. You can head here to learn more about On Deck.

Repeat founders Aoi Senju and Philip Seifi entertained many conversations to pinpoint a problem they would both be passionate about solving. “We discovered that we shared similar frustrations with the many problems of scientific research and the failings of scientific software,” explained Aoi. And thus, Colabra was born.

Colabra is a platform for scientists to integrate and share research data in a shared workspace, and has since gone on to raise $1.5 million in pre-seed funding. Their mission is to increase the world’s scientific output by accelerating the time it takes to reach and commercialize scientific discoveries – the faster scientific discoveries can be shared, the more lives can be saved, the sooner the climate crisis can be solved, and the greater material prosperity can be unlocked. Read on to see how these two have committed themselves to that goal, and how they structure their processes to reflect these values of collaboration and documentation.

What was your first impression of one another?

Aoi: The first time I met Philip, I was captivated by his worldliness and adventurous spirit. I immediately wanted to be friends because I knew that there would never be a dull moment with Philip around.

Philip: Aoi is passionate about building something big, making an impact, independent of where that ultimately leads us. In my experience, startup projects rarely succeed where they originally started. So this drive he displayed, detached from the specific problem and solution, and combined with the desire and ability to learn whatever it takes to move forward, made a positive impression on me.

How did you know your co-founder was “the one”? 

Aoi: Philip is one of the most talented entrepreneurs I've ever met. We paired up for several hackathon projects before starting a company together, and I was initially impressed by his end-to-end ability to design, code, and launch a product. As we continued to work together on different projects, I was further impressed by how he combined creativity and grittiness to work through technical challenges.

I think startups only fail when the founders run out of ideas. I was confident that if I worked with Philip, we'd never be without an idea. - Aoi

Philip: We worked well together and had a good connection on a personal level over a month of conversations on a variety of topics. The first few months working on our MVP further strengthened my conviction that we complement each other well, and have a shared vision of how to iterate the business to success. 

Was having a co-founder what you expected?

Aoi: A company like ours cannot be built without an entrepreneur with strong design and product experience. Our organizational processes cannot be built without a careful and thoughtful hand. I doubt I'd have been able to get far on my own.

Philip: Beyond Aoi’s industry experience in scientific research, this project has required a tremendous amount of customer discovery I’d be unlikely to get through on my own. I've started all of my previous businesses either alone, or with the same co-founder, so it's been a leap of faith to partner up with someone new on this project. It turned out great in the end, and I could not imagine getting to where we are on my own!

What’s a strength of your cofounder that you didn’t know you were looking for?

Aoi: Philip is an elite operator. When we decided to build an asynchronous and remote team, we quickly set up internal tooling for product discussions, daily check-ins, hiring, etc. that were well outside the norm of traditional in-sync companies. These processes have helped us build a world-class remote team, and our team tells us that Colabra is the best place they've ever worked. This is thanks to Philip.

Philip: Aoi has a habit of reaching out to both friends and complete strangers to learn from others' experience, and some of these learnings have turned tremendously valuable. I've never been as proactive at tapping my network, at least until I face a very specific challenge I can't resolve through experimentation and online research.

Do you have any advice for founders who are considering a co-founder?

Aoi: It's a really good idea for most people starting a company to have a co-founder. Most people (including myself) start companies because we want to work with the best, smartest, most interesting people – and most early-stage startups don't have the financial ability to hire these people. Having a great co-founding team keeps a startup alive in the earliest days.

Philip: Think of picking a co-founder more like a marriage than a regular hire. It's not about raw skills or immediate impact, but rather the trust, ability to learn, and a shared temperament — the way you manage your emotions and approach difficult situations.

How do you navigate disagreements?

Philip: We make most decisions in long-form documents (RFDs, or Requests For Discussion) and aim to align on a solution through logical reasoning and relevant data. Each discussion has a clear owner who makes the final decision, even if we fail to reach a consensus. These documents enable us to weigh all of our information, with all of their corresponding assumptions, and course-correct in light of new information.

Why are you two the right people to solve this particular problem?

Aoi: We are maniacal about building a great product that will change the way that science is done today, and we're willing to challenge all conventional wisdom. Science has many sacred cows that have kept R&D from improving for many decades, but Philip and I have no sacred cows.

Philip: We combine a deep understanding of the challenges research labs face daily, with practical insights into the tools and workflows that have transformed other industries, such as product and engineering, but did not yet reach scientific R&D. We are also open-minded about our final destination, and continuously iterate on our solution based on almost daily conversations with current and potential clients.

Connect with Aoi and Philip, and check out Colabra

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Note: If you’re looking for a co-founder, wanting to validate an idea for a startup, or preparing to fundraise, consider applying to On Deck Founders. We are a community of founders who have launched over 1000 companies. Apply here.