For this episode, Nikunj chats with Nish Bhat (@nterminus). Nish was most recently working at Color Genomics where he was one of four cofounders. Prior to that, Nish worked as a software engineer at Lookout.
In this episode, Nish talks about his journey to founding Color Genomics. Some highlights being:
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Music: Nowhere land & Wholesome by Kevin MacLeod.
Nikunj: [00:00:28] Today I chat with Nish Bhat an angel investor helping early stage biology companies. Nish was most recently working at color genomics, but he was one of four co-founders. Prior to that, Nish worked as a software engineer at lookout in this episode, Nish talks about growing up, wanting to be an academic biologist. How he made this shift to software engineering, the power of cold emails, early struggles at getting color off the ground and how color evolved its product offerings and distribution.
Hi Nish I thought a neat way to begin our talk today would be to hear where you are right now and what prompted your move.
Nish Bhat: [00:01:19] Yeah, so I'm in Taipei, Taiwan right now, which I moved here, almost exactly two months ago. landed here on September 22nd. I've been wanting to make the move out here for a long time. and. just because of my life situation, had lots of things tying me down in the Bay area.
Recently became a lot more free and, I thought, finally, in 2020, I'm going to make the move out to Taiwan then because of COVID, I thought it would not happen. but then, I was, able to get a visa out here and it was still a pretty, I would say a pretty stressful situation, but, managed to make it work.
And, now I'm living out here, learning, Chinese as well as scuba diving. and, have a couple of projects that I'm spending my time on as well. So it's been good.
Nikunj: [00:02:01] That's fascinating, but you grew up in Cupertino in the Bay area. Do you remember what your early experiences there were like?
Nish Bhat: [00:02:12]
Yeah, so I grew up in the Bay area. I've been there pretty much my whole life. coming out here to Taiwan for me is a way to change, life context and get more of a global experience. I've always been envious of friends of mine who either grew up in other places and then came to the Bay area for work or school, or studied abroad in college.
And, I didn't really do any of those things. So this is my first experience, really living anywhere else besides the Bay area. and school was a mixed bag for me. this isn't something I've shared with a lot of people, but I was actually held back in the fourth grade. So I actually, repeated fourth grade and did that, twice.
my teachers felt like I wasn't making a fast enough progress and they thought it might be beneficial for me to do that. I remember thinking at the time that it was really embarrassing, to be, held back and also to be like put out of sync with, people who were my close friends at that time.
I, would no longer be on the same track as them and would probably, lose touch with them and, have to make a whole new set of friends, when I rejoined school again. so that was quite, quite challenging. but I also saw it as a personal, an obstacle to be overcome rather than a total setback.
I thought of it as a this means I'll have to just work hard to prove myself to catch up to where my friends are, was how I ended up thinking about it. it made me more motivated to, to do better in school and, and, maybe study harder than I would have normally, to make sure that I didn't get into that situation again was what my thinking was.
Nikunj: [00:03:50] That sounds rough, but I assume it was a good learning experience as well. What kind of things were you interested in growing up?
Nish Bhat: [00:03:59] so I was really interested in the natural world, especially like zoology and, entomology in particular. I used to spend a lot of my time, in our family's backyard, as well as going on hikes, we would, also travel to, travel to India, visiting relatives, et cetera.
And, anytime I found myself in nature, I was always just fascinated by everything that was around me. I would try to look categorize. All of the different insect species that I would see all the different plants, all the different animals. and, I ended up reading a good, percentage of my local libraries, books on, entomology in particular and, zoology as well.
And to my parents' credit, I think it was almost weird. It was pretty weird how obsessed I was with this kind of stuff. But they were incredibly supportive, which I, Which I now give them a lot of credit for, they would let me watch TV shows about, zoology and entomology, et cetera.
they helped me get in touch with local experts so I could ask them questions. and they were supportive of me doing various, having very strange hobbies, collecting, capturing these insects and growing them into Merriam's inside our house. we, they got me a microscope, so I could look at little microscopic things that I was digging up in our backyard as well.
This is a very, it's a very weird way to spend a kid's time. but, they were very supportive of it and I think it's what led me on the, the path that brought me where I am today.
Nikunj: [00:05:19] As you were deciding what to do for college, did you then decide to join premed in your quest to being a biologist?
Nish Bhat: [00:05:28] So I actually, I ruled out being a doctor pretty early on. I think it was in high school or something because in high school, I remember taking ninth grade biology and learning about, biochemistry for the first time. And it was my, the first time I started to think about, the living world as this interconnected system.
and I found a. really fascinating, beauty in that concept. and it also got me really curious. I was, we had all kinds of questions around, how, how cellular systems worked and how, all of these questions about biology that, I discovered were surprisingly hard to answer.
and I would ask some of these questions of, some of my family's friends and relatives who were doctors. And I realized, they were actually unable to answer them, because, as doctors, aren't researchers, they're, they're not At the cutting edge of like researching these topics, but they are trying to apply these things to, the standard of patient care.
so I then decided that maybe I wanted to become an academic biologist instead. So I had, cold emailed a professor at MIT named drew endy who, was, working on a field of biology called synthetic biology.
This was a very still developing, field at that time. but, as a high schooler, I found his ideas that he was working on really fascinating. So I called emailed asking if he would be willing to let me work in his lab. And I think I said something cheesy.
Like I would love to be part of the revolution that you and your lab are creating. and, I say, thankfully, he said, yes. and so I spent my summer between high school and college. I was really excited to just fly out to Boston and work in this lab. he had me working with his, one of his grad students at the time who is, Jason Kelly, who, some folks might know has gone on to start a company that's doing pretty well right now.
Called Gingko Bioworks. being in that environment, exposed me to engineering for even though I grew up in the Bay area, I had, did not have much of an interest in, in pursuing engineering. because I thought, my conception of what it was rooted in like electrical engineering and hardware.
and, that was counter to my, my interest in the natural world and biology. but by, learning about synthetic biology, which is the practice of. engineering microorganisms to get them to create natural products that, you can control, got me interested in, topics like information theory, in coding, and computer science, which, led me down the road of Oh, maybe I should start taking some computer science classes.
Maybe this is a topic I would actually find pretty interesting. So I really credit that experience with, giving me a broader exposure to what academia is like, but also, also the engineering discipline
Nikunj: [00:07:59] But you were pretty set on being an academic biology professor, right? you went to UC Berkeley. What were the early years like there?
Nish Bhat: [00:08:10] I entered Berkeley, bright eyed thinking. I wanted to become a professor. So I was like, all right. What, and I even, adopted that mindset when choosing what classes to take. So I tried to take, some of the more advanced, classes. that I could, so that would put me in a position to start taking graduate school classes may be towards the end of my, undergrad experience.
I also wanted to get involved with research pretty early on. so after, after the first, after the first year I started, I started like looking for research opportunities, similar to what I had done the previous summer. And I had cold emailed. there were a Berkeley had a few programs, to, connect undergrads with professors, for undergrad research opportunities.
but, but all of those opportunities would just get flooded by people or, trying to. w who ha know that they want to do some kind of research, but not exactly what that would, so I realized, there's going to be a lot of competition here. maybe a better thing I can do is try to just look through the directory of, of faculty at Berkeley and try to email everyone I can and see if any of them have any research opportunities.
So tried to create my own opportunity of that way. and, eventually worked, one, one professor, unfortunately now the lady, Tom Alber, responded to me and, he, I remember having to, actually go in person, to verify 'cause, he'd expressed interest that, they might have an opening in their lab.
and he introduced me to one of his grad students CMA, Chao, who then, we started to talk about her research and how it could help her out.
she was working on, creating, crystal structures of. Proteins involved in HIV transcription, and then doing a what's called x-ray crystallography, which is basically a technique to use that crystal structure and, using an x-ray laser, and the resulting diffraction pattern from that x-ray laser, determine the 3d structure of the protein.
so I thought the problem was really intellectually fascinating. So I was really excited to work, work with her. when I was a freshman, I was, again, trying to take the most, some of the more ambitious classes that I could take, just so I could get to the point of. getting through my, required, degree classes faster. some of my friends, were in chemistry majors were in some of the more advanced chemistry classes.
I remember, a group of close friends, we would meet up once a week to, study, organic chemistry together.
And we did this all throughout the first, first semester. And it was pretty tough. I remember. feeling a lot of stress at the time about, around the, around grades and that, exams, et cetera. but we're like, all right, we shown ourselves, we can do this time to do it again for the second semester.
and we start taking the second semester classes and, I'm meeting with my group of three friends once a week. and then I think it's around week five or six, I show up at our usual meeting spot and, I am, I'm the only person there and I'm like, okay, this is a little strange. so I give a call to, to one of my friends who's there.
And, I can hear him like laughing on the other side. he's Oh yeah. we forgot to tell you, we dropped the class and I was like, what. I Oh, okay. I, and then they're like, Oh, we also forgot to tell you we dropped the major too. So we're no longer chemistry majors. then I just hang up the phone and I'm like, okay.
I just I'll just study here by myself, I ended up finding other people to, to study with, I ended up sticking with being the only person out of our group of friends who stuck with the class. and, and I ended up finishing it. I don't think, I don't think I did super, excellent in that class.
I would say given the other stuff I was working on, but, yeah, I was, at least, at least gave myself credit for getting through it.
Nikunj: [00:11:49] Did you end up, like your friends? how did you end up making the shift to being a software engineer?
Nish Bhat: [00:11:56] so yeah, my initial path was, to become an academic biologist. So up until my junior year, I had mostly been taking, biology and chemistry classes. and I'd also started doing some biology research.
but that, that real practical research experience, showed me that maybe this wasn't exactly the path that I wanted to do. and, seeing my friends, taking computer science classes, got me curious about those concepts and, made me want to explore what that side was like. and I, I realized that, contrary to biology, software engineering had very fast feedback cycles.
it's a very deterministic, discipline, and people were very collaborative. the classes seem to be hard, but people also really help each other out, to get through their problem sets. And, I'd made a decision at that point that I no longer wanted to be an academic biologist for my career.
so I struggled and, realized, okay, I guess I have to get a computer science internship. And at this point I'd taken maybe two or three computer science classes. The first computer science class I ever took was artificial intelligence, which again was an upper division class, required a bunch of prerequisites that I had not taken.
And I really struggled with, and definitely worked harder than anyone else in that class to get through it. but that experience showed me that, I was able to get through it and it gave me the confidence that if I work hard, I can ramp up on a new subject, enough to might make my way through it and do something productive.
so I'd started to apply for a computer science internships, but, on paper I looked mostly like a biologist. Most of my extracurricular experience was in biology. most of the classes I'd taken were in biology, as I mentioned. so I really struggled to get my foot in the door pretty much anywhere.
and, I remember cold emailing the Dropbox team, because drew Huston had come by our, our UC Berkeley one time and said they were thinking about starting an internship program. if that had worked out, maybe I would have been one of their first interns. but, not only was it hard to get my foot in the door, but it also didn't know how to interview.
So the few interviews I did get, I had totally flubbed and I remember it just Blanking on, on answer is that in retrospect should have been really obvious.
I, had, a good friend of mine, in college who, at that, at this point was a senior, he'd just gotten a job at Google. So he was checked out, senior-itis was in full effect for him. so he was like, all right, I'm going to make it, my hobby to get you a computer science job.
So in between classes and in the evenings, He, personally, coached me through the programming interview process. we got some, where we got some books and some practice materials. I think a cracking the coding interview maybe had just come out at that time. and, we drill for example, implementing hash maps and, sorting algorithms and a set membership and all kinds of things like this.
And, I ended up getting offers from, from two places. and I think the reasons that they worked out were quite serendipitous. I was still getting rejected by a lot of places, due to my background and just lack of interview experience. a nine, which is an Amazon subsidiary had given me an offer, because they thought my kind of my background have been a mix of, computer science plus biology was interesting.
and, LinkedIn was the other one to give me an offer as well. and I'm pretty sure the only reason I got my foot in the door at LinkedIn was because I was talking to, YURI who eventually became my coworker. and he was, at the booth on that day, about a, a class I was taking at Berkeley where we implement, artificial intelligence for StarCraft.
and so we start to start nerding out about StarCraft and, he like looks through my resume and like the starcraft, the one thing that like sticks out and we have a little bit of a conversation there around that. but we had fun talking about that. And I think that personal connection was, what got my foot in the door at LinkedIn.
And, so joining a smaller company, even though LinkedIn, it feels weird to call LinkedIn to start up joining a smaller company. We're still seeing this kind of a risky move at that time. but, Ultimately, what made me decide to go with them was, the opportunity for growth. I, had become friends with Jessica ma who is the founder of, inDinero and was also in one of the early YC batches.
And, the way she put it, I don't remember the exact words, but she said at a start up, your, your growth potential is limitless. Basically the ceiling for growth is only limited by your ambition. whereas in a much bigger company, there is already a ceiling based on the existing structures that, that are already put in place.
that really resonated with me. so I, and was what made me join, LinkedIn, for their 2010 intern batch.
Nikunj: [00:16:29] Was that the same reason why you decided to spurn LinkedIn full-time and join Lookout, which was a much smaller security startup?
Nish Bhat: [00:16:39] Yeah. So yeah, you make it sound a little harsh, but LinkedIn ended up giving me a full-time return offer. which, I was very excited by, initially. And, I had actually accepted, signed that offer.
So then I went back to school for my senior year, so I was taking classes, et cetera. And I remember one thing that's, I was thinking was how different the experience of working at LinkedIn was from, any of my classes. and I think this is generally true that college courses do a very poor job of preparing a one for an actual career in a software company.
so I realized, my main goal for this year should be to improve my software engineering chops and become a better software engineer. My second semester of my senior year, I actually, I actually dropped out of Berkeley. I was actually no longer taking classes. and, I was using that free time to just.
Hack on side projects, build a portfolio of projects and, teach myself, software engineering, using a bunch of open source tools that were getting popular at the time. things like node JS, Jango, A Mongo DB, et cetera. and, basically, every two weeks roughly I would work on a different project and kind of launch it and then see what happens.
a tool that I built, was to, basically sync a window of Chrome tabs between two computers.
so Google Chrome now has this functionality built into it. this kind of tool isn't needed anymore, but. at the time, if you were on your university computer, and you're doing research and you have a bunch of a window of like budget with a bunch of tabs open and you want to keep reading it at home.
there, I wanted an easy way to push that window of tabs to my home computer. And, I remember also, attending a conference, that get hub was throwing in San Francisco called code conf
but tickets for the conference were, like 500 bucks or 400 bucks or something like that. And, definitely not something that I could afford, being a fresh college dropout basically.
and so I emailed, the organizers of the conference and said, Hey, I'm a student at UC. Berkeley really would really love to attend this conference. But, I can't make it work out financially. is there some way I could maybe volunteer for you guys and, do some, work for the conference and, maybe join for the actual conference itself.
We made that workout. And, I, I think I volunteered for half of one of the days and attended for the rest of the conference. one of the organizers came up kind of ad hoc and was like, Hey, we have a bunch of extra time. we just want to make, leave this time open. If anyone wants to do lightning talks, sign up on the whiteboard.
If you want to do a lightning talk, we'll give you five minutes and you can talk about whatever you want. So I went up and, put my name down and, funny story, the guy who went after me
was working on a project, to, enable developers to, create very clean, development environments, within a virtual environment. and at the end, he was like, my project is called Vagrant and I'm Mitchell Hashimoto.
Let me know if you have any questions on this. So this was, so this was obviously before he'd founded Hashi Corp. so when I went up, I'd presented the project that I described to sync the window of tabs.
And, afterwards, I, some of the folks from the audience, wanted to talk to me and, it was some of the early folks and the co-founders of this company look out, walked up to me and said, Hey, we think your project is really cool. We have this company that we started, we also started it as a college, kind of college side project that's. Now we've now turned into this like 50 person company.
And I was like, Holy cow, a 50 person company that started as like a side project. That's insane. so I, wanted to, learn more about what they built. little did I know that they were roping me into an interview process and, I think I was like quite naive at the time. I was like, Oh, you want me to come by your office for lunch?
Woohoo. Free lunch. they said, okay, we'd love for you to come by for an interview. So that's when I was like, Oh, wow. I guess they are serious about this. I did the, I went through the interview process with them just to get that experience.
and eventually I, had a conversation with my recruiter at LinkedIn, who again, with whom I'd sign this offer, and, Doris Tong, who was the, recruiter at that time. And I are still good friends, but, it was, quite a tough conversation to, explain to her like, that I've found this company.
And I think based on what the interest that I have in the goals that I have, I think a much \smaller company would be, would be a lot better for me. And, to her credit, she was actually very supportive. and we, we were able to sign things, they're on good terms. and, even to this day, I'm still a very thankful for that.
Nikunj: [00:20:58] Doris was my recruiter too, when I joined LinkedIn in 2012
Nish Bhat: [00:21:01] Amazing. she, yeah, she really knows what she's doing.
Nikunj: [00:21:04] what surprises me about that story and some of the other ones you said is cold emailing actually works. The third occasion where you cold email to get into something, a research lab an internship, and a conference. And, it worked out. So for people listening take notes, it actually works.
When you joined look out, what were your first couple of years there like? What did you learn?
Nish Bhat: [00:21:27] part of the reason I was excited to join aside from the size of the company was, generally the vibe that, everyone was still working really hard to turn this company into something. So it was like 50 people.
You can literally hear the energy from that kind of environment is very exciting. You can literally hear the company being built around you. and it felt like, I was placed on the security research team, which, felt like a good opportunity for me to learn about, computer security concepts and practice.
my first week of work there, was, literally getting on a plane and flying to Las Vegas for Def con where I like hung out with all my coworkers, at, at Def con, which was a really cool experience just to total deep dive into the all aspects of the security industry from. Both the bigger kind of enterprise players to the NSA and FBI to some of the kind of more basement, hacker types.
So I'm still very grateful to have had that. and I would say also matured very quickly as a software engineer to, again, just having had one internship experience and just university classes before that. this isn't something that I had a lot of experience with. So things like how you get work done, like what the role of product or project managers are, how to, get feedback from your users and incorporate that into the product itself.
these were all things that I, that I had to learn very quickly, while, building kind of a consumer product for these folks. and, another thing I would say that was hugely valuable is learning how to work with a team. because in university, a lot of your assignments are you do collaborate with people to get things done, but ultimately you submit answers that are your own.
whereas in, in the work and the working environment, I had to learn how to, actually get work done, in a collaborative nature where you're splitting up tasks and, and getting work done together. sounds basic, but, I think these are some of the skills that are, that ended up being really useful in the workforce, that are hard to get from a purely, academic, experience.
Nikunj: [00:23:25] from your dream of becoming a biologist to then an Academic biology professor, you are now an engineer at a security startup. Did you miss the world of biology?
Nish Bhat: [00:23:37] Yeah. I did, and I don't know if I fully realized it, but, I would credit actually several of my good friends for seeing this before I did, I would catch up, get up, catch up for, lunch or for drinks with some, some of my friends who have known me throughout my life and they, there'd be like how's so how has look how's your job going?
They're like, Oh, okay. That's good. So when are you going to go back into biology? And then I w I was like, Oh, I don't know am I? And, and then I, after some soul searching and, reflection on that, I realized they were actually right. Like I did. Still miss, the, the world of, biology.
And ultimately when I reflected on what I wanted, my life's work to be, I realized, at least for me personally, I wanted it to be within that discipline. I still wanted to make an impact on our understanding of healthcare of biology of the natural world.
so I, I realized that's what my passion was ultimately at the end of the day. so I started, socializing this idea with my friends that, I wanted to work at the intersection of genomics and software. and part of my reasoning for that was, because of the decreasing cost of genetic sequencing, and because of our ability to, usefully model, the effects of, at least monogenetic diseases, the, the real bottleneck with our understanding of genomics was becoming a data problem.
We were able to generate data at a much higher rate than ever before. but, our ability to apply software to analyze that data was, was lacking. so I saw an opportunity to use some of the best practices of software engineering that I'd been learning through my experiences at LinkedIn and look out
into the genomics world. So I would tell people this and most of them would be like, Oh, okay. that's cool. Good luck with that. but I was, one day I was actually catching up with, Andy SU, who was, one of the other, Indinero co-founders. And, I wasn't really expecting him to be able to help, but when I told him this, he was like, actually one of my investors emailed me saying, he's interested in starting a company at this intersection of genomics and web software.
and, he might be looking for, a founding engineer. Was that something you'd be interested in? I was like, Yes, please introduce us. I'd love to, I'd love to talk with whoever this is. turns out it was Elad Gil who ended up becoming one of my co-founders. and I already knew, who aloud was because I used to read his blog and, knew that kind of, he had this storied background in.
in the tech and, angel investing world. but also himself had a background in biology. so I was, really just really excited to, meet him and, get to hear more of his story. But, also hear more about, what we might be able to build together at this, at this intersection.
Nikunj: [00:26:09] tell us a bit more about the co-founders. So it was you Elad and.
Nish Bhat: [00:26:14] Yeah. So there were, there were four of us, at the beginning it was, it was me, Elad, Gil, and, Othman Laraki . Othman and Elad had together built, a company before that got acquired into Twitter. So the two of them were working as, executives at Twitter, at the time that we were thinking about starting this company.
and then our fourth core founder was a taylor sittler there who, himself, has a background in cancer pathology. So he's a medical doctor with a specialty in, cancer pathology. but also happened to be doing research at a genomics lab at UC Berkeley at the time. he was a really good fit for our team cause he was, involved in writing code at the, in the early days.
but also was, able to get us connected to some of the clinical players in the space, which would have been, it's always harder to do that when you don't, when you're not someone with a formal medical background. I would say what I brought to the table was, bridging the gap between the, the wetlab side and the software side.
and, and so we all had a relatively non-overlapping set of skills, which worked out nicely for the initial stages of the company.
Nikunj: [00:27:16] For people that don't know, what did color genomics do early on? what was your mission?
Nish Bhat: [00:27:22] Sure. Yeah. we, initially we didn't know exactly what we're building, but, we, there were two things that happened in the year 2012 that, led us down the path that we ended up pursuing. So we knew we wanted to build something that, commercialized and, democratized access to high quality genetic testing.
companies like, 23 and we existed to do, more, recreational grade. genetic information,
but for clinical testing, there was really only one company in the US that, was the really big player, which is myriad genetics. and, they, in particular for, breast and ovarian cancer, testing, they held patents on these two genes,
BRCA one, and BRCA two
that are, implicated in the risk of getting breast and ovarian cancer.
so Myriad had held patents on these two genes, which allowed them to, be the sole provider in the U S of this kind of genetic testing. and. fortunately for us a group called the college of American pathologists had filed a lawsuit against them, which, and had ended up going up to the Supreme court and the Supreme court decided that myriad could no longer hold these patents because they were essentially patenting, naturally occurring human genes.
And, it set a precedent that a naturally occurring genes in general couldn't be patented, which was a huge shift for the genetic testing industry. And to be honest, it allowed our company to do what we ended up doing. and, overnight you started to see like a lot of other companies in the space offer genetic testing at a lower price.
So for comparison, Myriad was offering their testing for 2000 to 4,000 us dollars. which is, out of the range of spending of a lot of people for whom, insurance isn't covering this test. there were a few other companies that came in at, around the $1,000 range. but we felt like with, with automation and software, we could bring the price down even further.
the first test that we launched was a breast and ovarian cancer risk test, where we tested, 19 different genes, for $250. And there was one other thing that happened in 2012 that pushed, that drove demand into the space, which was a Angelina Jolie's op-ed in the New York times about, her experience getting tested for, one of these mutations and, the surgical action that she took.
it really opened people's eyes that, that, learning about these genetic mutations is not a death sentence. you can actually get actionable information. There's things that you can take to, to, extend your, both your lifespan and your health span. and it ended up driving a lot of demand, across the board for this, these kinds of genetic tests.
Nikunj: [00:29:51] do you remember any early moments of failure or pain?
Nish Bhat: [00:29:57] so many personally, at least, in the early days I was building our, bioinformatic stack for the product. We ended up over time hiring a few other software engineers, but, I was still, largely responsible for shipping.
Our, that the offline processing engine that was really generating test results. accuracy and thoroughness is like super, critically important for this kind of system. and part of what we were, building before we could launch as well was a system that would be clinically validated as well.
So we were going through all of the proper, license validation channels before. Oh, we could actually offer this test on the market. and I remember just being overwhelmed by the scope of, of what we were building. And, I was even doubting myself as to whether this was something I was capable of building.
and. it just felt like a lot of, a lot of pressure on, all at once. and, I, I remember like expressing, that, I'm not totally sure if I can do this. so I remember taking, I might've taken the day off. Or at least, or at least an evening off, we were working pretty hard at that time.
And, I remember just catching up with some friends, over dinner and just getting a total mental break from the Headspace of working on this, working on building this product, to just catch up with friends and hear what their problems were. And, I didn't necessarily talk about, or arrive at any solutions to my problem.
just, putting myself out of that Headspace and hearing about other people's problems for a change. and emphasizing with them, was a good way for me to get just a different perspective and realize that actually, in the grand scheme of things, my problems aren't all that bad.
that small mental shift was, enough for me to come back to the problem with fresh eyes. And, I ended up finding a path to making the problem I was working on work and,
we ended up being able to ship, that version of the bioinformatics engine.
Nikunj: [00:31:46] so your first product was, testing for breast and ovarian cancer. How did colors product offerings evolve?
Nish Bhat: [00:31:55] yeah, so as I mentioned, initially, we launched, the first version of our test was the breast and ovarian cancer risk, tests. we, pretty quickly after that we had to go from, from one product to many. we had to look into other types of disease indications.
So building a breast and ovarian cancer risk test, it was very natural to expand into other types of cancer because some of the diseases, or some of the genes we were sequencing, were, also implicated in other types of cancer.
so we worked on a 30 gene testing panel, of cancer indications, expanding the test from 19 genes to 30. we, built collaborations with, several key opinion leaders like professors, and academics who, we're, well-known for being at the cutting edge of genetic testing for these types of disease indications.
And, we were constantly thinking about how to keep costs low while offering more and more to our customers for the same price point. we eventually expanded into heart disease as well. at first we had a four gene panel and that wouldn't expand it to 30 also. and we're always thinking about if there was another company coming up, what can we do to preempt the product that they might build?
How do we effectively cannibalize our own product and, build the better version of what we've already done. at this point we had, two different tests. One was a cancer panel and one was a heart disease panel in both. each of these tests were $250. And I think we gave a discount if you bought both of them.
so the natural move for us to do was. to, actually combine these products into one product.
a single genetic test, that covers, everything that we've developed so far. so it was a bit of a risky move. and it was definitely perceived as a risky move to kill off our existing product lines and, offer a single one that had the benefits of everything that we'd offered so far.
but, but ultimately it w it, made things a lot simpler in the eyes of the consumer. And, it was definitely the right move to make.
Nikunj: [00:33:48] I remember how you said. other companies are charging thousands of dollars for a single gene test and. you guys made it so that for two $50, you can get tested for many things. And that's crazy and incredible to see the progress there. How did, color get more mainstream adoption?
You started with selling with individuals first right and then moved up channel.
Nish Bhat: [00:34:12] yeah, the first step of the product that we were selling was I would describe maybe as a verticalized telemedicine product for genetic testing. it's still a physician ordered test. but the experience of, purchasing the test. Is one that can be done from home.
So an individual can, purchase the test and it gets sent by mail to their, home address. on the backend, there is a physician who, places the order based on the questionnaire that we provide them. and they can just provide a saliva sample and mail it back and they get their results.
over the internet, as well as a consultation with a genetic counselor who actually talks through the results with them and, describes to them what possible actions they could take based on their family history . , After a while we started to see a lot of inbound demand from doctors who wanted to offer this within their clinics. similar to what, some of our competitors were doing. They really saw the value of, of the expanded genetic testing that we were doing.
And some of these physicians, even from day one that we launched, they called us up and said, how can we offer this to our patients? And, we weren't really set up for, physician ordering. It's a whole different workflow. aside from accepting insurance, billing.
just the way doctor's office has handled billing in general is totally different. You can't exactly use Stripe with them. like we were with consumer or the individuals, one of the bigger blockers was we didn't have a fax machine and a lot of doctors will only accept orders through a fax machine.
Nikunj: [00:35:33] Even in this age?
Nish Bhat: [00:35:35] Oh, especially now. some of these shifts take a very long time to actually happen, unfortunately. and yeah, doctors are still keeping fax machines in business. and, I remember some of our team members, were accepting some of our very first physician orders by literally just like calling some of the staff members on these.
of these doctor's offices on the phone and like writing down, payment information and an order information on literally pieces of paper that they would. And then the next iteration of that was we built a, an internal kind of like web UI, so they could enter it into there and it would go into our database directly.
but, I think it was maybe a year or year and a half later. we ended up building a, provider portal like a web application for the doctors themselves to place workers. it was, we hacked hack together something until, until it was in a better place, until we had a workflow that was, that was much more robust, And we could actually start serving that audience.
so then we leaned very hard into, the physician ordering, flow. and, eventually we, I think it was my co-founder Elad who may have had the idea initially, that since we were offering genetic testing at such a low price point, It would start to make sense to offer, potentially offer this kind of testing as a benefit to employees of companies, especially for companies who underwrite their own insurance policies.
who might benefit from their employees, detecting incidences of cancer at a much earlier stage when it can be treated. so initially we, worked with startups who were really just friends of us and wanted to offer genetic testing to their employees because it was like a cool perk.
Oh, and also to signal to their employees, that they really care about their longterm health. we built the product to be clear such that, patient privacy was totally preserved. there was no way for the employer to know whether any particular, employee had taken a test.
and, color still feels very strongly about, privacy in that regard. and, at first we were working with these much smaller companies, but eventually we worked our way up market to larger and larger companies. eventually Salesforce, visa, Levi's and Verily ended up becoming a few of our, our larger customers.
We were looking at the landscape of genetic testing overall. and, we realized that the, the space of physician ordered genetic testing, had a lot of competition. So there were a lot of other companies that were trying to play in this space as well.
and so the best we could do, even if we, grew the company massively was to capture a piece of this pie that was more or less static. So trying to think about what, is enabled by cheaper genetic testing and how else we could provide value. we started to think about, this concept of population health.
in our interviews that our biz dev team was doing, they started to notice that, there were a number of organizations across the U S larger hospital systems, for example, groups like Kaiser Permanente. like North shore and Jefferson are a couple other hospital systems.
and, even, at the U S government level of some of the, the national Institute of health, some of these organizations were thinking about, deploying genomics, within their own, standard of healthcare. And, the first step of that would be to buy a bunch of Ilumina machines, for context,
these are the actual machines that do genetic sequencing. but, but that alone doesn't get you a genomics program. You actually need software to be able to analyze this data at scale, you need infrastructure to be able to deliver results to people. and, give them recommendations for, precise interventions that are different for each person, because our person has different genetics and, different family history.
and, you also need to offer them genetic counseling as well. So you need, access to a lot of genetic counselors who can deliver this stuff. we saw massive budgets being allocated for developing these programs internally at, within these health systems. and they would not go anywhere because it's just really hard to build these programs out.
we had been spending the last five years building up this exact infrastructure. This is exactly what, what our company does. so we realized we could, start to plug into these systems, and basically offer to them, to outsource the genetic testing component to us.
And we would provide them, genetic testing results, provided natively within the interfaces they're already used to seeing, so that they can start to deploy that As part of their standard of care. Jefferson and North shore, two of the health systems, I mentioned where some of our, early customers who were, were very grateful that they, started to work with us, and very proud of the, of the work that we've been doing for them as well.
and, towards the end of my time that I was at color, we were working with the national Institute of health to, plug into this program called all of us this a million person research project to collect, both, electronic health record information on individuals and combine that with, genetic information to create an open source precision medicine dataset that can then be used to advance the standard of care globally.
we were very lucky to have that opportunity to work with them.
Nikunj: [00:40:18] Early this year, you decided to leave color. Leaving a company you co-founded couldn't have been an easy decision. What prompted the move for you?
Nish Bhat: [00:40:29] Yeah. so every company goes through several stages as they mature and, and grow. I'd been, with color since the beginning, so it had been seven years of that journey at that point. it was my first experience, with a company that was, had grown from, pretty much nothing to getting to this growth stage.
And, so the entire experience was totally novel to me. every, any time the company would, grow or reach, another kind of stage of growth, the entire nature of what the company does changes the way, the organization is structured changes, the kind of work that needs to get done changes.
and all of that was totally new to me. as a founder, my tendency was to always to run where the fires were, so to speak. Like I would see some kind of existential problem facing the company. And, I would see some alignment with, what I knew how to do and where my skills were. So I would go and help out with, with those problems, my thinking being well, we've hired this amazing team and I want to be really protective of their time and their, their energy. So I'm going to work on this, existential problem. That's maybe a little bit boring to work on so that we can unblock the team from working on the work that they find really challenging and exciting and is really impactful for the company ultimately.
and, I realized that this put me in a place where I was no longer really, excited day-to-day by the exact work that I was doing. the work that I was enabling was really exciting, but the work that I was doing was not exactly where my passion was anymore.
in retrospect, one lesson that I've learned is. that were I to do that again, I would be more thoughtful and conscious about, where I spend my time and what kind of projects I put my energy into to really make it more of a sustainable thing. And at that point we were a company was around 200 people.
so we were at the point where, the work that I was doing could be distributed to other people who would be, more excited by that work and would also just do a better job than me, to be honest. so I realized, after talking with my co-founders realized that the best move for me to make was, to step back and think globally about all of the opportunities that are available to me and, decide where to spend the next kind of like.
five to 10 years of my life, to, dig into another project. so that was how I thought about, about that decision. definitely wasn't, easy and, almost as soon as I made the decision, I immediately started to miss, all of this really smart people that I was working with every day.
And just being in this intellectual environment of building a really exciting product that was making a difference for people but ultimately I think it was the right decision to make.
Nikunj: [00:42:57] What's next. how do you think about the landscape shifting, especially with COVID.
Nish Bhat: [00:43:03] at the time that I left my initial plan was to relax and spend time with family. And I'm very grateful that I did do some of that. I had a six month period where I was living at home with my family. It got to see them every day. and just have space to, to think about, about what I wanted to spend my energy on next.
it felt like I was lifting my eyes out of the sand when they left. I had my focus, on, on building the company for so long that I'd ignored or missed out on a lot of the really interesting technological developments that have happened over the last seven years.
when I took my artificial yeah. Intelligence classes as an undergrad, I think neural nets were mentioned maybe as an academic curiosity, that kind of what people were interested in the seventies, but they're like, Oh, but, but this is not what people actually use in real life.
And obviously neural nets have totally taken off and I've felt like I missed out on that. CRISPR had been developed and there were a lot of really exciting developments there. And I felt like I was at a removed from what the latest developments were there. So I was really excited to learn more about that.
and also trying to round out my knowledge of biology. I know that whatever I work on in the future will be related to biology and the life sciences. So I was trying to narrow down what my focus would be there.
and I remember in 2019 seeing the original neuro link announcements and before it happened, I was thinking I should be able to understand it. And then, I've watched the initial neural link announcement and. I realized, wow. I have no idea what they're talking about. Like this whole brain machine interface thing.
I didn't know. You could do that. how much of what they've developed is novel. I have no idea. and, it literally the words I used to describe it at the time were alien technology. Like it really looked like something that, I could not have seen coming and just had no mental framework to think about.
I started talking to some of my friends who, got PhDs in neuroscience or were working in the field and. they were like, Oh, like these parts were not that novel. They hype this up a little bit, but these other parts were novel and interesting. So I was like, wow, there's really a lot of nuance here that I'm missing out on.
And there's a total gap in weight and knowledge that I have. so I looked to try to fill that up as, as fast as possible. so I started like going very broad with my exploration. It was like, I started taking the fast, fast.ai course.
And if anyone out there is interested in learning about, deep learning at a practical level, I highly recommend the fast.ai. and then I started, learning, teaching myself about neuroscience as well.
after going through a few textbooks, my attitude was I was willing to take my time with it and give myself a really strong foundation of understanding as if I was, going to school again. And, as if I was an undergrad studying the subject. Talking about these ideas started to organically lead me tow a rds companies that were in this space. after I left color, I started to get a lot of organic inbound from other people who were starting companies or, thinking about starting companies. I had a few requests, from people who wanted me to co-found a company with them.
but also just people looking for advice, for their company. because of the network I was starting to build on the biology side. several of these were academic folks who were, starting to spin out companies out of their wet labs and looking for advice.
So I almost organically started angel investing in these companies as well. as a way to, hold myself accountable to learn about their problems and, and, assist them in any way that I can. then as a way to like necessarily make a lot of money, I viewed the investing, this particular kind of investing, as almost tuition for.
to learn about these, the problem domain rather than, as a financial instrument, if that makes sense. so I started to find that stuff really fascinating. so more recently. Yeah, I've started, advising companies in the space and, angel investing in, biology companies more broadly.
I was surprised to find that there's a huge gap in the funding and support ecosystem for biology companies. so if you're a biology founder who is starting a company and looking for funding,
the kinds of support they need at the early stage is also very different. and with these firms, you end up, applying a lot of frameworks and mental models that are really designed for a software companies to biology companies. and, it ends up that we collectively don't have really good playbooks or mental models for how to think about, building, and supporting biology companies at the very early stages.
These days, I'm working on a project to think about how to better support these founders. And I've realized that with a combination of what I've seen before and the people I'm connected to, I hope I have something to offer them.
Nikunj: [00:47:30] To round out the conversation. I would love for you to share a time that felt like a rollercoaster. And what did you learn from it?
Nish Bhat: [00:47:39] in my sophomore year of, undergrad when I was still working at an academic, biology lab. And, it was, the moment when I realized that I no longer. Wanted to do that kind of work as a career. cause that experience had started to show, or opened my eyes to the reality of what working in a biology wet lab was like, there's a lot of really good things about it.
And I've come around to realize that, there's a lot of really exciting work that can only get done under the grant funding model, but, comes with, funding and publishing dynamics. there's really a lot of politics involved around what projects get funded.
what, projects get published, which affects what problems get incentivized to work on? the feedback cycles can be very slow. again, you're dealing with living systems rather than, compiling code. so generally the cycles with which you get feedback can be very slow there.
and, people also tend to be very protective of their work, again, because of funding and publishing dynamics. people are afraid of getting scooped, for example. so these reasons led me to realize that maybe I didn't want to pursue academic biology. full-time as my career, so I really went into kind of an existential crisis after that.
my whole identity up, from really when I was a kid up until this point, had been around becoming a scientist to becoming an academic. And I was now realizing that dream was falling apart. and, I considered like all of my options. Like I was like, what do I want to do?
Do I want to do I want to work in, as a writer, do I want to work as like a, I don't know, a physicist, maybe I was still wanting to stay in academia, but do a different kind of, like academia. I'd remembered, like learning a little bit of programming when I was in high school. not in any serious capacity, but because I think, some of my friends had, gotten me into it and, I remember not really thinking that's what I wanted to do either, but I ended up, ended up sticking with it and taking that artificial intelligence class.
And, that experience really showed me that everything that I didn't like about academia was the opposite situation in software engineering. So the feedback cycles were very fast. people were a lot more friendly and willing to share information to help each other out. there was this whole open source culture.
There was this whole hacker culture, and ultimately you could very quickly see the results of what you were building. so that's what led me to, led me to pursuing software engineering full time. And it was really, a very, a very emotional journey to get to that point.
I would say
Nikunj: [00:50:01] thanks so much for the time Nish. If founders wanted to get in touch with you, what's the best way they can do that
Nish Bhat: [00:50:08] yeah, probably the best ways to message me on Twitter. so my Twitter handle is N-terminus, it's N T E R M I N U S.
Nikunj: [00:50:17] Awesome. Thank you again. This was great Nish.
Nish Bhat: [00:50:20] Thank you so much for the time