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Growing a microbiome startup from 0 to $62M Series B — Native Microbials Co-Founder Mallory Embree

The journey of starting and building an animal microbiome company — from management and hiring practices, to how the company has evolved over time. 

By Aoi Senju in Interviews

Mallory Embree is the Co-Founder and Chief Scientific Officer of Native Microbials. Native Microbials is focused on improving animal health and nutrition by leveraging the microbiome. The company raised a $62M Series B in mid-2020, and today has over 50 employees. She explores the journey of starting and building the company — from her management and hiring practices, to how the company has evolved over time.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Aoi: Mal, it's so great to have you here. Do you think we can start by talking about your scientific background and your journey to starting Native?

Mal: I have a PhD in bioengineering from UC San Diego. I was in Dr. Bernhard Palsson’s lab. If anybody's familiar with him, he does a lot of flux balance analysis and E. coli models.

I was a little bit like the black sheep in his lab. I wanted to study complex microbial communities. My focus was on developing new kinds of wet-lab and dry-lab methods to study these complex microbial communities that live throughout our environment and in humans.

As I was wrapping up my PhD, I started looking for jobs, and, at the time, I wasn't really happy with a lot of the options that I had. There were a lot of tech services jobs. There are a lot of postdoc jobs, and I don't believe in postdocs. I was getting frustrated and upset. I talked to my mentor, Dr. Karsten Zengler, and he urged me to start looking into startups. Maybe this would enable me to have creative freedom and develop my own path, not necessarily follow someone else's research ideas.

Native Microbials was not actually the first startup that I started. There were two before that. The first one that we conceptualized was this company that would go out into nature and find these weird, novel, fungal species that nobody's ever characterized and then try and find new antibiotics to try and combat some of this mass antimicrobial resistance that's growing. And we had a little bit of angel investment secured for that. At the time, I was working at it full time, but my co-founder was still doing his PhD. And just based off of some disagreements, all of it imploded.

I got really upset. This is what I wanted to do. But that was enough of a sign to me that I was on the right path. That I wanted to be in startups just because I was so upset over the situation. I went back and tried to find a new idea, all on my own, with the intent of getting some grant money to fund it.

I began to work on different things. The citrus industry has this disease that's infecting all of their trees, called citrus greening disease. It's caused by this psyllid, which is like a little fly. The psyllid carries around a bacteria that infects the trees and causes this disease that kills the tree. The problem is, they don't have a cultured representative of that microbe, so it's very difficult to even try and create a treatment. I was going to try and find new ways to pull that microbe out and hopefully get some grant money to do it.

While I was working on that, though, I met my co-founder Mike Seely. We met through Karsten because Mike had worked on another startup with him a year before. And Karsten basically told him, “Hey, you need to meet this person. She's living in a trailer, trying to get something to work. I think you guys will hit it off.”

And it did. Mike identified the livestock space as one that's in dire need of new technology. It turns out that dairy cows, beef feedlot animals, and chickens receive a lot of microbes in their feed today, but they tend to be these human grass, probiotic streams. They'll get saccharomyces cerevisiae, which is a yeast, or bacillus subtilis, which is a soil microbe, or lactobacillus acidophilus, which is this yogurt microbe. We came up with this hypothesis of maybe we can find better microbes. The ones that are already living in the animal and hopefully feed them back to the animal in greater quantities so that they have a significant impact on the animal.

Back in 2015, it was still a hypothesis. And needless to say, at this point, we've shown that it is possible. We have some pretty cool products coming out now that are just live microbes that we've isolated out from these different animals and figured out how to scale.

Aoi: Now Native Microbials has, I believe, over 50 employees. How did you learn how to do all of this? Where did you learn your best project management practices? How do you currently delegate responsibilities across your team? And are you still involved day-to-day in the science, or are you more bird's eye view at this point?

Mal: I think we've just rounded 50, but we're hiring people every other week. It's almost hard to keep track at this point.

At the very, very beginning, I'll admit, I had no idea what I was doing from the project management side. Just because, like, the first year of our lives, it was me and Mike. And we just had a couple of RAs that were helping come up with our first product.

When you're managing that small of a team, it's not that big of a deal. It's very easy to make sure everybody's aligned; that people are working on important things. And for me, I set up a lot of the original protocols we were using. I knew exactly what every single person was doing. I was just so familiar with everything that it was almost second nature. And now, if you compare my team to what it was back in 2015, it's completely different.

Right now, my team, we're still technically the discovery team, so we're the early-stage engineers that pick out all of the weird microbes that go into our product. My team is generally molecular biologists, microbiologists, bioinformaticians, and some computer science people. We're all doing this nice microbiome science, anaerobic microbiology. The interesting thing is, even though that's still the core competency of my team, they're doing more than just R&D at this point. My entire team, almost every person, straddles science and something else.

That something else might be regulatory. Trying to make sure that we're in compliance with the FDA, for example, as well as some of the foreign countries that we're selling into because they all have regulatory paths that you need to work your way through.

Some members of my team are supporting process development as well, just because they're the ones that originally isolated the microbes. They understand physiology the best. They can interject and help as we figure out how to scale them up.

And some of my team is on the commercial side, too. We're actually selling the product now. We've found that just sending out some of my PhD microbiome scientists with the sales team is incredibly valuable because, ultimately, our product is very technical. And it does require some education with our customers, so they understand what they're buying.

For me, I found that the best way to try and handle this is I need to sit in this bird's eye view position, just to see how all the pieces fit. Since I'm on the executive team, I talk with the other executive members to make sure that we're always pushing forward on the pieces that are most important and valuable to the company. For example, we just launched our next-gen dairy product, which we call Galaxis Frontier, for anaerobic microbes. And we need to show that we can get sales. Now, when I look at my team, I keep that in perspective and figure out, “Okay, is there anything that my team could be doing to help push us forward even faster? Is there any hole that they can fill on the manufacturing or production side to increase our chances of delivering the product on time?” It's those little things. But I think helping make sure that things are prioritized correctly will ultimately lead to our success.

Everybody also needs to understand what's going on and how their piece fits into the bigger hole. I found that when people truly understand, not only what they're doing but why they're doing it, they'll see things that I don't even see. Just because they're in the weeds.

There are certainly times that I've had to jump into the lab, too, just because it was too much work for just a couple of people to handle. I'm always happy to try and take some of that burden as well. Because at the end of the day, we're all on the same team. Anything I can do to help make sure that we're successful, I'm going to do it.

Aoi: What's interesting about your role is how you straddle so many different fields. As you mentioned, on your team, you have people working on regulatory, process, commercial, etc. When you went about building out your team, how did you hire these people? How did you find them? How do you know how to evaluate them? What was your process?

Mal: I'm from the microbiome world; I have a lot of contacts there, so it's pretty easy for me to find microbiome people just through my network. For me, that's the number one way that I love to hire people. Find someone that receives high praise from somebody that I'm either close friends with or that's already on my team.

More recently, especially as we expanded, we've hired a commercial dairy team. There's not much overlap between the microbiome world, and the guys who sell dairy products in Tulare, California. In that case, we use recruiters to help us try and find top talent. It just depends on the role. Some of these more managerial higher-up positions, like C-level executives, we also use recruiters to make sure that we are getting the best people that we can.

In terms of evaluating people, I found that some of the most valuable people were the ones we hired in the beginning and stuck it out. Especially in the early days, it's important to try and retain those people so you don't lose the history of all the mistakes you've made as you grow the company. And, honestly, personality is hard to screen for.

Technically, it's pretty easy to see if people know their stuff. If you start asking technical questions, they should be able to answer them with some reasonable confidence and speed.

Personality is always hard to screen for, especially if you're only interviewing for an hour or two. I found that the best way to do this is to try and find a topic that the person's passionate about. I like to dig into people's previous research, and then just start asking them questions. The type of person that I like to hire is usually so enthusiastic that you almost can't get them to stop talking about it. You just keep on asking questions, and they get so excited and jazzed up about everything that they've worked on in the past that it gets you excited too. That has been a really good sign for me that it's someone that loves what they're doing. When they come across a challenge, which they definitely will in a startup, they'll have the perseverance and tenacity to try and come up with a solution rather than wait for it to fall in their lap.

I found that a lot of our early hires had that personality. The ones that are just determined to try and find a solution, and they'll leave no stone unturned until they figure it out. That's one thing that I look for in pretty much every person that I hire.

Aoi: One of the things that we've been using for our hires is along the lines of “can they teach us something new by the end of it,” because you're bringing on these people to be experts themselves. And if they can't teach you something during the time you have with them, then it's indicative of their communication style or how well you'll be able to work together in the future.

What do you think is something about leadership or hiring or building an early stage team that less experienced managers might get wrong, that you've learned with experience.

Mal: Sometimes you'll hire somebody. And it turns out they're a total asshole. They’re great at their job; they’re producing results, which you desperately need because you're at an early stage and you're trying to get ready for your next round of funding, and you choose to ignore the asshole bit just because there's such a high producer. My recommendation would be to fire that as quickly as possible and get someone new in. It's very difficult to reset the culture once you start rewarding it.

Aoi: What would you say is the difference between when you evaluate candidates coming from academia versus when you evaluate candidates coming from industry?

Mal: I think it all comes down to perspective. With somebody in academia, you're just very used to the academic culture. Things are a lot slower. You have to be a lot more frugal, because most labs aren't overflowing with grant money. But the benefit, though, is the academic type tends to have these crazy creative ideas. You're not bound by the real world when you're in academia; you don't have to worry about turning a profit. The things that you can do are limitless, and when people come from that setting, those are the kinds of experiments they come up with, like these weird novel, cool ideas that could lead to something groundbreaking.

But it's completely unconstrained by the real world and regulatory requirements or manufacturing requirements. I've also found that academics can get stuck in rabbit holes. When I interview someone from academia, I look for those crazy creative vibes. Is this someone who is so enthusiastic about what they're doing that it's just inspiring? Like the rabbit hole thing, I see that as something I can fix and help guide. It's very important to me that they have creativity.

Looking at the industry counterparts, I see these as the people who are more used to processes and implementing documentation and being focused on reducing costs. Basically, all the real-world aspects that academics are missing. And, depending on if this person from industry is from a big company or a small company can make a really big difference. I found that people from bigger companies are used to having more resources. Sometimes that can be a pain point in the startup because you have to do more with less. We don't have millions of dollars to drop on specialized Tecan robots. You have to hire someone to do it by hand. Maybe in another five years, but today you don't get the specialized, fancy equipment you had at whatever big enzyme company you were at before.

I find both profiles essential. Academics can make some of these more industrial people more creative about their ideas, and the industrial people put the bounds around the creative within a space. It's when those two work together that you see magic happen.

Aoi: I think one of the hardest things about managing is providing feedback, particularly because in academia, there isn't a lot of feedback provided by your PI or from the professor or whoever. How do you give feedback, and what do you think makes feedback good?

Mal: I agree with that. I think I met with my PI during my PhD three times a year.

I found that the best feedback is always personal. It needs to address something the person's doing wrong, but it needs to be addressable and constructive. For example, one of the best feedback I got was from my co-founder. One thing he told me early on is that 80% is good enough. When I started, I was absolutely a perfectionist. I think they drive that home in the academic world. But in startups, you don't need to. 80% is generally good enough. And the effort it would take to figure out that last 20% is generally monumental. And to take it even one step further, to go from 99% to 100%, even more effort. That was good because it gave me some perspective. When I was running my experiments, I'd always stop and ask, “Is this good enough? Can we move forward here with the decision, or do I need to keep on putting more effort in?”

Aoi: I used to think about feedback as an uncomfortable process, but what I realized is that when I wouldn’t give my feedback, I would end up having much worse feedback to give in a year. And that's not preferable to anyone. It just struck me that many future conflicts would come from uncommunicated expectations that were thought to be made explicit. Feedback just becomes so important to minimize possible future conflict.

Mal: I agree with that. Nobody likes giving bad feedback. But it is necessary. If someone's doing a bad job and you think it's something fixable, you need to just sit down with that person and be, like, “This is what you're doing wrong. Try doing it this way. I'll work with you.” You need to have that camaraderie.

It boils down to how it's communicated too. As you said, this person probably doesn't even know what they're doing. If you start getting blamey, they'll get defensive. When you need to go into those situations, I write things down. Like, this is what I want to articulate to make sure that everything comes out, especially if it starts to get a little heated. But you always need to end it off with, “Okay, we're in this together. I'll help you do this. If you need more help, just come to me, or here are more resources.”

Aoi: Are there any skills that you're still working on today and trying to improve?

Mal: I think for me, it always boils down to communication. Even just person-to-person communication, as you said, I always assume that nobody understands or knows what I'm talking about. I’ll say the same thing on different days just to make sure it's drilled in. And that people understand my expectations and what I'm asking them.

And I found, too, it helps to have them parrot it back. Like, “Okay. I just explained this to you. Can you say back to me what's in your head and what you're thinking?” Just to make sure that we're aligned and on the same page.

I think as a company too, we're also working a lot on culture. Once you get past 50, it's not as personal anymore. We don't know every single hire, and we don't interact with every single person every single day like we did five years ago. Making sure that we're hiring the right people, establishing the right culture, and growing the company in the direction that we want is something that we actively work on all the time.

Aoi: Amazing. Mal, thank you so much for your time.


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