Keean Sarani

Keean Sarani

Interview: From College Dorm Room to Y-Combinator at 21

Banner image attribution: Keean's personal facebook
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Keean is 21 years old, currently studying pharmacy at the University of Waterloo, and is the co-founder of Avro Life Science, which has thus far raised over $2.5M, and graduated from the Y-Combinator W2018 cohort this year. Just to reiterate, he’s 21 years old.

Avro develops skin patches for generic drug delivery. Their technology is catered towards the young and the elderly but they have plans to reach millions in the pharmaceutical market.

“When you deliver drugs transdermally, you significantly reduce liver toxicity and boost bio-availability. This means pharma can rescue drugs that just barely failed in Phase III. Pharma will pay a lot for this,” said Seth Bannon who is another big deal in tech venture capital).

Avro Life ScienceAvro Life Science's transdermal patch. Picture from TechCrunch.

So you met Shak [co-founder, 2018 Thiel Fellow] in first year? And you were related but didn’t know?

Yeah, so I met Shak in first year through mutual friends and he was in chemical engineering. We were talking and I found out he had the same religious background as me and we’re a part of a very small community. So everyone knows everyone.

I go home and ask my grandparents if they know his last name and he does the same thing, and they say, “Oh, they’re like cousins of this cousin and they’re indirectly related to someone married into that family…small world.”

What was the experience of getting into Y-Combinator (YC) like? How did Velocity, and all these other factors help you stand out in the application process amongst tens of thousands of other companies?

I think that being a young founder is a very common trait in YC but also being young in deep tech, medtech, or biotech is a little bit different because people typically complete either their PhDs or postdocs to work in this field. The fact that we were, at the time, both 20 years old…I think Shak might have been 19 at the time and were doing our transdermal delivery startup, might have been interesting.

The biggest thing though, was the growth that we showed between applications. We had applied before, and that was kind of a spur of the moment application. It was super late at night, we crammed the essay and applied. For our second application, there was a section saying, “If you’ve applied before, how have you grown?” and we were able to completely fill up that section. During the five months, we had grown a lot from our team winning several grants, achieving actual business development, having a real game plan, beefing up our IP portfolio by filing a provisional, hiring co-ops, and winning the Velocity $25K. We did a lot in that time- we even started working on early-stage animal trials.

I think showing that growth was a big thing for YC. Because if you start and end YC and your business has not changed at all, you’ve totally wasted those three months. Even the funding is useless. The whole point is to show hyper growth between day one of Y-Combinator and Demo Day.

Tell us more about your YC experience! How did the program help your startup?

YC hands-down lives up to the hype that it’s been made out to be. Any problems you have, any questions you have, they’ve seen it before, they’ve dealt with it before, and on the off-chance they haven’t, they will go out of their way go to war for you, to make sure you’re getting the help you need.

For example, we’re in a niche market for YC companies with transdermal drug delivery patches. The new YC bio partner, Diego Rey, is experienced in pharma, he sold his diagnostics therapeutics company for like half a billion dollars to Roche [Molecular Systems]. So he has pharma experience but he doesn’t have transdermal experience. He reached out to his entire network personally, to find someone with transdermal tech experience to help us out with that.

Another thing that stands out is probably Paul Buchheit’s workshops [founder of Gmail, serial angel investor, and YC partner]. He’s one of our investors; super, hyper intelligent guy. He held office hours around the topic of “Building a Billion Dollar company”. That really forced founders to think about their very long-term strategy and work backwards from that billion dollar valuation to figure out how to get there. He worked with individual companies to help them roadmap their own trajectory, so that was phenomenal.

The last thing is, it’s single-handedly the best raising vehicle in the entire world. There is no better mechanism to raise money than YC. We were fortunate enough to raise a little amount of capital before Demo Day and we went into Demo Day with half a million dollars. On that day, our partners were absolutely rooting for us. Our YC partners would tell us, “Hey, I might have a handshake deal for you over there, go talk to this guy.” That’s so different from the startup world in Canada. But at the YC Demo Day, people will literally shake your hand for a half a million dollar deal and that handshake is equivalent to a signed piece of paper. For YC, handshake deals are everything and you don’t break those.

The amount of deals flowing around the room, risks being taken, from VCs, from startups, is tenfold compared to the Canadian ecosystem.

We had a lot of Canadian investors that we were talking to three months before YC, hoping that by Demo Day, we’d procure investment from them, but ended up not going through. But people we met at YC for an hour on Demo Day were some of our investors and biggest helps to date.

From all of these people that you met at YC and the environment that you were put in, what would you say were some of the most important learnings?

One of the biggest things was that Shak and I were pretty young. We were quite nervous because we didn’t know what to expect in YC where people are running their second, third, fourth businesses. The average age is 29.5. Someone in our batch founded “Boosted Boards” and had moved onto their next business. Soylent too, those guys were onto their second business in our batch and I thought, “Soylent’s here, I use Soylent!” And we’re on the same playing field. We were definitely nervous going into that but there is zero age judgement in Silicon Valley which was bizarre to me.

I remember cold-calling around for an internship in Toronto and they’d ask, “How old are you?” I’d respond 20, and they’d just say, “Okay cool, see you in 5 years.”

Nothing of that sort happens in the Valley which is very cool.

Did you see that there was a big difference, because you were so young, in the way that you guys thought vs the other people in YC?

Yeah I definitely think so. I think we experience that now to be honest. We just hired two full-time employees.

One of them is a recent post-doc from Mac [McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario] and one of them, he’s a little bit older and has been in the industry for 20+ years. It was odd at first, interacting with someone like that but I think YC helped prepare us to realize that just because you’re young, doesn’t mean that you don’t have authority in a startup setting. You need to take control of your business, you can’t be complacent and just let older people run your business for you.

You’ve talked a lot about the good things that happened throughout YC and your experience with Avro, but do you mind sharing something of a low-light or a screw-up you’ve had? And why was it important?

I’d say basically the second six months of the first year of us as an actual business. This is when we’ve done some of the Velocity pitch competitions, started our team, figured out what the hell we’re actually doing. Then we all went home for that summer. I didn’t have co-op, I was still in honour science first year. I went back to Richmond Hill [suburban neighborhood 40 minutes north of Toronto]. Shak, I think was in Waterloo on a school term and Jiwoo [co-founder, left in 2017] was on a co-op term and things kind of fell apart. We weren’t communicating as effectively, we were super complacent with all that we had done and didn’t realize how important growth was. We said, “Oh we’re only in summer for four months, we’ll move slowly but steadily.” We started stagnating and things started falling apart then. We didn’t realize that it should be like exponential growth, all the time. There is always something to do and I think that six-month period was a real kick in the ass to show us that we wasted half a year. We could have been a year ahead, raising funds, like what were we doing?!

When we came back together, the four of us locked ourselves in a room at Velocity and just worked on the game plan that entire day. We were yelling at each other, everyone was so angry and in the end, it brought us closer together as a team. That was the day we really figured out what we were actually doing.

So those 6-months in, what I think was 2016, were awful. I will say though, this was our first time running a business and we didn’t really know what we were doing which showed us that we actually needed to reach out to people who have experience.

It seems like you went from one end of the spectrum which was very relaxed and complacent, all the way to the other in YC, where Avro crushed it. How did you find the mental balance throughout all that?

I’m the type of person that likes to be throw in the deep end, so I really enjoyed that. It’s almost fun for me, it’s like picking up a new skill or a new sport so I think that’s kind of what YC was. Shak is totally the same type of person so he feeds off that environment, being around all these hyper intelligent people. It definitely was a huge change going from a super lackadaisical summer to coming back in the school year, moving into the Velocity garage, and stepping it up a notch. Luckily, because of the support system we had at Velocity, we had all these people that had gone through YC.

Jay Shah, the director of Velocity has been a very close personal mentor to us and steered us in the right direction during that time, while still allowing us to make our own mistakes and decisions.

The last question we have for you is since you’ve had so many mentors and people that you’ve met in the space, talked to, received advice from, etc. What is the best and worst piece of advice you’ve received?

The best, I’m pretty sure, is from Eric at ExVivo which is based in Waterloo (YC alumni, Velocity, alumni). He’s been super helpful, a huge inspiration, and what he told us was at the end of the day, this is still your company. You started it, to run your own business. The culture is how you always dreamed a company culture should be, the way you interact with your employees is how you wish your former employer interacted with you. Don’t let other people come in and try to mix it all up and make it theirs. At the end of the day, this is how you want to do things. If you don’t want to take money from investor A, because you don’t believe in his morals, or his ethics, don’t do it. At the end of the day, you have that ultimate decision. That piece of advice has really stuck with me.

The worst piece of advice would be the flip side of that where you have to follow X, Y, and Z to be successful. It’s like Facebook did X, Y, & Z, you should do that too and you will be successful. Businesses are not a recipe by any means, there isn’t a formula and you will fail if you do that. If you follow someone else’s company structure and the steps they took for them to be successful, you’re totally disregarding all the other factors and outliers that happened in their world.

Best purchase in the past year of less than 100 bucks give or take?

Waterproof bluetooth speakers for showers, the beach, everywhere. I’ve used it every single day for the past 2 years. I have the UE Boom waterproof speakers.

Keean Sarani's Favourite Books and Resources

Sources Keean Sarani

Guns, germs, and steel is a phenomenal book, I loved it. It gave me a very broad look on the world as a whole and very, very macro analysis of the world. In context, and startups, looking at what the world could be like in the next thousand years, in the next hundred years, in the next 50 years, and not focussed on what are we going to do to further our business in the next six months. I started looking at the business, with a very long-term approach. (Keean's Notes)

Read More

Jared Diamond convincingly argues that geographical and environmental factors shaped the modern world. Societies that had had a head start in food production advanced beyond the hunter-gatherer stage, and then developed religion --as well as nasty germs and potent weapons of war --and adventured on sea and land to conquer and decimate preliterate cultures. A major advance in our understanding of human societies, Guns, Germs, and Steel chronicles the way that the modern world came to be and stunningly dismantles racially based theories of human history.

Buy

I’m a science kid, right, or STEM but obviously, you go in and out of phases where you’re super into what you’re studying, and then… and then you’re not. You feel like there’s no light at the end of the tunnel and it’s just dragging on but I think this book got me back into synthetic biology, chemistry, looking at evolution from a gene-specific point-of-view...

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It kind of re-sparked my interest in pharmacy and STEM. (Keean's Notes) Professor Dawkins articulates a gene's eye view of evolution - a view giving centre stage to these persistent units of information, and in which organisms can be seen as vehicles for their replication. This imaginative, powerful, and stylistically brilliant work not only brought the insights of Neo-Darwinism to a wide audience, but galvanized the biology community, generating much debate and stimulating whole new areas of research. Forty years later, its insights remain as relevant today as on the day it was published.

Buy

This book is about how different successful people were outliers; the specific environmental parameters that helped them become where they were, maybe it was the month they were born in, or the culture they were brought up in. It focuses on all these different factors that can influence a person’s success...

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That book was actually recommended to me by one of our founders who’s no longer with us, Tom Chong. So that book also has personal meaning to me. (Keean's Notes) In this stunning new book, Malcolm Gladwell takes us on an intellectual journey through the world of 'outliers'--the best and the brightest, the most famous and the most successful. He asks the question: what makes high-achievers different? His answer is that we pay too much attention to what successful people are like, and too little attention to where they are from: that is, their culture, their family, their generation, and the idiosyncratic experiences of their upbringing. Along the way he explains the secrets of software billionaires, what it takes to be a great soccer player, why Asians are good at math, and what made the Beatles the greatest rock band.

Buy

I have awful time management and don’t have much time for pleasure reading, but this book is full of really good short stories. They’re called mousetrap stories because you know where the story is going and you know what’s going to happen, but the way he tells the tale is so thought-provoking and interesting, and every story is such a bizarre concept...

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You don’t know how Vonnegut conjured this up. I actually just got the sequel for that called Look at the Baby so that’s what I’m reading now. (Keean's Notes) These previously unpublished, beautifully rendered works of fiction are a testament to Kurt Vonnegut’s unique blend of observation and imagination. Here are stories of men and machines, art and artifice, and how ideals of fortune, fame, and love take curious twists in ordinary lives. An ambitious builder of roads fritters away his free time with miniature trains—until the women in his life crash his fantasy land. Trapped in a stenography pool, a young dreamer receives a call from a robber on the run, who presents her with a strange proposition. A crusty newspaperman is forced onto a committee to judge Christmas displays—a job that leads him to a suspiciously ostentatious ex-con and then a miracle. Featuring a Foreword by Dave Eggers, While Mortals Sleep is a poignant reflection of our world as it is and as it could be.

Buy

I’ll start by telling you, I’m awful with time management so Morning Brew is one really good thing that helps me because I just don’t read the newspaper. The news that I’m interested in is politics and tech, and Morning Brew just condenses those two topics every single morning into my inbox...

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It’s very bite-sized so I know exactly what’s going on, and if I want to learn more, I can just click into the hyperlinks. (Keean's Notes)

Buy

Paul Graham, one of the founders of Y-Combinator, is notorious for his essays. I feel like every famous person in the startup world will reference his essays. I remember reading “How to get startup ideas” in first year. That kind of helped me start thinking about startup ideas and throwing ideas around with my friends. We’d meet up on Sundays and imagine if we could make like, X, Y, or Z...

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Just super far-out there ideas and eventually we funneled it down and landed on transdermal patches. Another essay was “What startups are really like,” that was kind of a slap in the face and a real wake-up call, coming to this realization that the whole world of small business is not glamorous and awesome like the giants make it sound like. In the early days, it’s super time consuming, it’s not rewarding, you don’t want to do any work. You have so much work to do and you don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. This essay really laid it out saying, if you’re serious about something like this, this is the real world. With all of PG’s experience, and him founding YC, he took all this information from other founders and gave people a real world look at HR culture in startups’ early days of 1-5 employees. So I guess those two essays, “How to get startup ideas” and “What startups are really like,” are super important to me. (Keean's Notes)

Buy

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