Mark Kiel, Founder and Chief Science Officer of Genomenon, shares his comeback story at Startup Story Night 2019 at the Marble Bar in Detroit. Genomenon has come a very long way. Like any good story, we had our ups and downs, moments of excitement and fear while rapidly growing in a developing industry. Read about or watch our story that begins with our Founder, Dr. Mark Kiel as he explains it from the Start Up Story Night stage…
Don’t Call It a Comeback
I don’t know what I look like to you but I’m actually a doctor. I’m in fact a double doctor. I have both an MD and a PhD degree and my friends and family sometimes call me Dr. Dr. Mark but they usually do it when I’m struggling to put together IKEA furniture or when I’ve done something dumb like tried to shred a document in a dehumidifier. So I have those two degrees, one is a medical degree and the other is a research degree and in the lab I studied how stem cells made life. I was a data scientist so I was most comfortable looking at spreadsheets that were so big they crashed my computer or spending hours in a microscope closet counting coloured dots on glass slides. But every once in a while I got to do what we called “wet experiments”, which was with cells or were sea animals and I remember one of those experiments I made heart cells beat in a petri dish and I would just look with wonder at those cells beating in that dish. So I was learning all that and then I entered into the clinical world and in the clinical world I learned how cancer kills.
So I remember rounding on my patients one morning in my short white coat that students wore that signified we didn’t know anything. We had rounded on our patients and we heard over the PA that there was a code and I don’t know if you know that that is, but it is not good. It means that one of the patients was dying, her heart had stopped and she was a patient on our team so the attending physician rounded up the students and we all lined up outside the room while we watched this code take place. It’s not like TV, it’s more dramatic. Dozens of medical professionals descended into this room and they started doing chest compressions and calling out vitals and trying to ventilate this patient who was dying in front of our eyes. I was watching in the back because I could only watch, there was nothing I could do and I remember seeing the patient’s mother in the corner of the room and she was stone-faced and I can only imagine what she was thinking and I was so far back that I could see the hallway and I saw the patient’s husband who presumably been called and he came up the hallway. When he got to the room he did a double-take at the number because he just could not believe that this was his wife and so you can imagine how the students were affected. We hadn’t seen anything like that before and believe me, I never want to again. But we have an attending physician who is in charge of the students somebody we look up to, somebody who corrects our stupid mistakes but when he saw that this had happened and he saw the effect that it had on us he rounded us up and he took us down to the cafeteria and it sounds silly but he bought us all ice cream. I remember leaving the hospital that day at the end of what you could consider to be work and I just I stopped in the parking structure in the stairwell and I just sat down and I was all alone and there were no colleagues around and I just cried, I just felt so helpless.
So that was one of the few times that I’ve cried in my adult life we’ll get to the next one but let’s fast-forward. I’m a geneticist, I studied genomics. Genomics is the science of how the three billion letters of our DNA make us all unique but sometimes those letters can cause disease and in my research I studied what those letters meant and I sought to find treatment for my patients, like the patient that I just described. So when I entered graduate school it cost three billion dollars to sequence a patient’s DNA and it took a decade and as I was leaving graduate school there were a couple of companies that had figured out how to make that happen in a day for a thousand dollars. That wasn’t even the hard part, the real hard part was making sense of that and figuring out what that meant and that’s what my research did so you can you can imagine if Google had gone to med school and got a doctorate in genetics that was the kind of software that I built and genomics while I was going through this phase in my career was taking off and it was all at the hands of startup companies. It was all because of industry and if I wanted to make a tangible difference in genomics I knew that I had to get in that game and so we’re during the three decades of my training as a student I abandoned my dream of becoming a professor and I adopted the dream of becoming an entrepreneur. So this was like taking a u-turn at 30,000 feet and believe me my wife thought I had lost my mind but I was truly convinced that I was the only one who could make this dream I had a reality and that starting a company was the only way I could do it. So I founded a company and I called it Genomenon. I’m a bit of a nerd so it’s Greek and it means “It Had To Be Born”. I had university professors for my training and they contributed to the company but they weren’t about to quit their day jobs and so I found a co-founder and my co-founder and I were in the basement of an old brewery believe it or not. We would whiteboard our ideas in the morning and argue and make up and have more ideas and then at night we would code those ideas to life on his laptop.I have an identical twin brother who’s in many ways much smarter than me because he started having a career about a decade before I did. He’s a patent attorney and his bonuses are much more than my salaries ever were but he gave us some money for a prototype and I was so grateful to him because I knew how hard he worked for that money and it really meant something to me because I’d never had any of my own and I felt for the first time that this was truly a reality and it was make-or-break for me. It was really do or die and earlier I had figured out how to get some money from the University to support the research that we were doing but it was never enough to keep the lights on and so I had to go for broke. I started writing an application for a very large grant. I practically lived in the library while I was writing this grant from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. just writing, writing through lunch and then in the evenings I would continue writing looking at the data and making figures for this grant but this is like a lottery level longshot grant so fewer than 1 in 5 of these grants even gets considered for funding so I knew that I had to make other plans. So I refined my investor pitch deck and I got really good at PowerPoint. Where I first spoke from prepared notes that I would read later on, I won awards for the pitches that I gave and I wrote a really convincing business plan that even convinced some of those investors to give me money. I remember one meeting we were having lunch. It was me and I think four investors and it’s literally the case that they were talking about yacht maintenance! Their own yachts and then the conversation meandered aware they were gonna travel for the summer and Europe or Mars or whatever and I was sitting there just listening patiently and I was petrified that they weren’t gonna pick up the lunch bill because I had maxed out two credit cards and I had $0.16 in my debit account. They didn’t give me money I didn’t really want it but I did get money from investors for the company and from that money I gave myself a salary, a small salary to support my wife and myself. I was comfortable with spreadsheets but not the kind with dollar signs in them. I needed to have a little bit of extra help and so a very good friend of mine with finance experience had joined our cause and he took care of many of the aspects of the business while I focused on the other aspects like the science.
Gradually word got out about what we were doing and we had perfect strangers come to us and want to be part of the mission that we were starting. There was one of them whose visa I had sponsored so he could stay in the United States and we even supported his trip back to his home country to get married and me and my employees we would go to trade shows and show customers or potential customers our software and these were big-name customers names that if I said them (which I won’t) you would probably recognize. It even got so good that another name that you would recognize offered to buy our company. I felt like we were just newborn and this person had us fly out to Chicago on a private jet and at the meeting he made an offer for the company and I turned him down. Later on a phone call he doubled his offer and I still turned him down. It seems kind of brazen to say now but I felt at the time that we had so much potential that we could live up to and while all this was going on this is a group of entrepreneurs you’ll recognize fully that life is going on while you’re being an entrepreneur.
My wife and I were trying to have a child. She had always wanted a big family and I had always envisioned myself being a Dad and I’m a doctor so I knew what to do. So she got pregnant and then so I had my first board meeting. I want you guys to imagine that everything is going great and I had my first board meeting and we had these really expensive deli sandwiches catered and people were laughing at my jokes even though it was a tough crowd and people were smiling when I talked about our conversations with customers and they nodded when I put up our financial projections and my lawyer came up to me afterwards and she said that was the best first board meeting she had ever been a part of. It didn’t count for much because I was paying her to be there but this whole time (this was many months) I was just elated and everything was going right and I felt like I was flying and I made the mistake of asking myself what could possibly go wrong and so there were things that went wrong after seven months having had raised this money.We were starting to run out I had made a very common first time entrepreneurs mistake that second time entrepreneurs don’t make. I had under raised and overspent I had over-promised and under-delivered and where we were impressing these customers the market just wasn’t ready to give us money. The board and I discussed things and we had a couple months to live and the company was on life support. So my second board meeting went a little different than the first. There were no sandwiches there. There were no smiles and my lawyer came to me in the hallway and she said that was the worst board meeting she’d ever been a part of and we had to fire her because we had no money and the employee whose visa I had sponsored just a couple months before we had to let him go too. I remember the same sort of helpless hollow feeling when I had to deliver the news, I could just faintly feel my heart beating in my chest but I couldn’t feel anything else. He and his wife had to go back to their home country and I just I was devastated because I felt like instead of saving people’s lives, I wound up ruining them.
So the Board God blessed them and they started helping me because I needed it as a first-time entrepreneur. They put some restrictions in place about spending, we stayed at some very questionable Airbnb’s, sharing a futon and having customer meetings that were make-or-break and they never were made and my salary was cut. I remember my finance friends sent me an email that with a subject line that said “The Direness of Our Situation” and that was really what I felt. My sleep became extremely restless and I was tossing and turning and my wife kicked me out of bed because she said it wasn’t good for the baby. I was going through the motions of life trying to keep the company and myself alive during the day and then at night I would I tried meditating. I would listen to whale noises on the floor of our unfinished nursery with my earbuds. just listening to these whales talking to each other with their distant whistles and I felt like they were talking to me.
So two very bad things happened while I was going through this procedure. There’s almost an out-of-body experience on a customer call. The best prospect we had we were told that there was some “structural reorganization” and that they wouldn’t be able to purchase for a couple quarters. Again, I was just on the floor and I talked to the board and they started to lose confidence and they started talking about aborting the company and on another conversation with another customer I got a text from my wife and it said come home. I said what’s going on and she said just come home there’s something wrong. Later that week we learned that our baby’s heart had stopped beating and we lost her. A lot of people don’t appreciate that affects fathers too and so I was with my whales and they were talking to me and I would feel like I was talking to them. I would think about unicorns, the billion dollar startups that everybody reads about and hopes for and I just could not stop thinking about these whales, these oceans of startups that had failed and I was worried that was going to happen to my company.
Fast forward a week of this and I don’t know what happened but I said to myself, what are you doing? You’re talking to whales that aren’t even there you were on a billionaires jet who wanted to buy your company for several million dollars and now you’re talking to whales in the dark. So I fired myself. In many ways I feel like a start-up is like a baby, it’s fragile and it’s frustrating and it’s needy but it’s awesome and full of potential and I talked myself into the idea that if I couldn’t be the parent that Genomenon needed yet, then I would find the person who could. So I looked for my own replacement and I found that person and I feel like I’m learning from him about being an entrepreneur because he’s been through this before and made the same stupid mistakes that he wouldn’t make again and he and I raised more money from investors who believed in us and we started converting those customers and then we started converting more customers and that grant that I wrote that long shot lottery grant I won that grant. It was from the government so it took a long time to get it but we got it.When I was in med school we learned from patients and one of my patients was a patient lecturer and she got up on stage in front of 200 med students and she told us her story about going through her experience of having a child with a genetic disorder and this obviously still sticks in my mind, but she said it was like she had been preparing her whole life to take a trip to France learning French studying the culture and craving the food and then finding out in mid-flight that her ticket said Spain. She said Spain is still awesome and there’s still a lot to learn from Spain. There’s no reason to hijack your own flight just because you’re on a different journey and I feel like that now. I feel very proud of what the board and and my new copilot have done with the company. One of the first things that we did was make our software freely available so that patients like the patients I’ve talked about that I haven’t would of benefited from who gave us the information that we were collecting and the possibility that it was making a real difference. Everyday we get letters from doctors who tell us that their patients lives were improved or saved because of information that only came from our software so I am extremely grateful and very proud and thankful to my wife and the board and the investors who believed in me and my colleagues and my co-workers and when now I’m in my nursery with my wife by my side and I look down at my daughter and how perfectly perfect she is I feel like for the first time in a long time I know exactly what I’m doing and what I’m doing it for.
(Event Images photographed by Steve Koss)