Ravata Solutions uses electrical engineering to scale the generation of new transgenic animal models. Their system is significantly faster and more efficient than current methods.
We caught up with Ravata’s CEO and co-founder, Arshia Firouzi, to find out more about his technology and his journey from electrical engineer to life science startup entrepreneur.
What does Ravata Solutions do?
We produce a device that allows high throughput embryo engineering to create transgenic animal models. It is over 100 times faster than current methods.
How does your technology work?
Our technology uses microfluidics and electronics. It traps single embryos in individual wells and uses electricity to open pores in the cell and nuclear membranes for a few milliseconds. This allows CRISPR or other gene editing tools to enter the cell and the nucleus and create any desired genetic changes. Hundreds of embryos can be transformed at the same time, which is much more efficient that what happens in labs right now. At the moment, someone has to microinject the embryos by hand.
How did you come up with the idea?
This is nothing like the idea we started with – we came to this idea after a long series of failures. My co-founder, Gurkern Sufi, and I started by using electricity to kill specific cells. We spoke with lots of scientists, mentors, investors and potential customers. We went through prototyping and had many people test the device and worked out how much it would cost to produce, how much we could sell it for and whether we could scale production.
We went through a series of pivots that led us to realize that our technology was much better suited to transforming embryos than killing cells. We went into IndieBio (the accelerator program) with this idea.
What is your business model?
We first thought about acting as a service where we would perform the transformations for customers but we quickly realized how expensive it is to run a vivarium or animal facility. They cost millions of dollars to set up. A startup can’t do that – raise $2 million off the bat without knowing what we are doing.
Instead, we decided to sell our system to contract research organizations (CROs) who create transgenic animal models. These range from university facilities to big suppliers like Jackson Laboratories. Our current partners include UC Davis and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. We are running pilot studies with our partners using our device to generate transgenic mice. We are starting with the mouse because it is the biggest and most underserved market, but the device can be easily tailored to rabbits, zebrafish, flies, mosquitoes, plants and yeast.
How will your system change research?
We are making it cheaper and easier to produce animal models at scale. Right now people have teams of micro-injectionists to create these models. It can take a year to generate a new mouse model and cost tens of thousands of dollars. There is a bottle neck at this step.
We are also bringing reliability to this one step in the process. There is a lot of variability from facility to facility because developmental biology is complicated. For example, if pregnant mice are kept in cages at different conditions, they will have different litter counts. Our system creates reliability and reproducibility at the transformation step.
Who invented your technology?
Myself and my co-founder, Gurkern. The original idea was something totally different that we came up with while we were at UC Davis. We went through the proper commercialization channels there and the university came back to us with a letter of nonassert saying that they would not pursue ownership of the IP, probably because it was a bad idea!
We improved upon our idea and moved forwards, and backwards, and at the point we came up with our current plan, we were no longer part of the university.
Did you have to patent or out- or in-licence any technology? If so, how did you navigate that process?
We didn’t have to licence anything. We have filed for a provisional patent with the help of a law firm. We went with a deferred payment plan.
In Silicon Valley, law firms will do a deferred payment plan. They will help you incorporate, draw up contracts and do IP work up to a set amount, anywhere from $10,000 to $50,000. After a certain amount of time or when you raise your seed or Series A money, you have to pay them back. They don’t ask for extra money, they use this to build relationships with entrepreneurs in the hope that you will continue to work with them.
We got advice from others entrepreneurs about deferred payment plans which I want to share here – when you aren’t immediately paying for it, it can be hard to keep track of how much everything costs. You may not realize that each email to your lawyers is costing you tens of dollars. Over time this really adds up. Find out how much phone calls, emails etc cost before you send them. Ask other people for advice, you don’t have to take every question to your lawyer.
Do you have funding? If so, how did you get it?
When we were at UC Davis, we got a small grant through a foundation called Venture Well. That got us going. We also attended an entrepreneurship academy where we learned how to prototype and write a business plan.
Then last year we were accepted into IndieBio which comes with some funding.
We are in the process of raising money right now.
How did you get into the IndieBio accelerator program?
In the summer of 2016, we applied for IndieBio with a crazy idea that caught the attention of one of the founders and he invited us to come and talk. We presented our idea to him and his feedback was that it didn’t make sense and we needed to think it through more and make some changes.
That conversation made us completely pivot. A few other people had said the same thing so we took their advice and changed what we were doing but we didn’t give up. We came up with our new idea in September and I emailed that same IndieBio founder and said, “Last time you gave some great advice. I would love to run our new idea by you.”
He invited us back and when we got there, he and the other founders asked us to do a quick pitch, which we weren’t ready for at all, we were there for a chat not to officially pitch, but we did it and they were slightly intrigued so they asked us to present to them in an hour.
We didn’t have a presentation ready so we ran to a coffee shop and put it together and presented it to them. Afterwards the founders and other IndieBio teams questioned us for an hour and a half and we were accepted that day, which was two days before it started. We drove back to Davis, threw all our stuff in the car, drove back and stayed with family and friends.
Do you have any advice for other entrepreneurs looking for funding?
Indiebio was my first time fundraising ever, so I am not an expert but any means, but you have to put yourself out there and be resilient. I am going through another cycle of emailing people and showing up to events that I’m not invited to. No one will hand you money. You have to be really convincing.
How many people work at Ravata?
Three right now – myself, co-founder Gurkern, and our Chief Scientific Officer.
What did you look for in your co-founder?
We’ve been close friends since freshman year of college but both Gurkern and I agree that you want a co-founder who is hard working, resilient and who you get along with. I spend more than 12 hours a day around my co-founder. If you can’t get along, you will be miserable.
What has been your biggest challenge and how did you overcome it?
Every day I do something new so there’s no one challenge that stands out – I could go through 100 because I’m a first-time entrepreneur with this project. Learning fast is what this is all about.
What do you think makes someone a good CEO?
You have to be resilient because you are going to fail 100 times for every victory. If you can’t keep your head up and keep trying, you won’t make it. I send dozens of cold emails and make many cold calls every day. No one wants to talk to me until eventually they do. I’ve been called a virus because I emailed 18 employees at one company but it worked because we ended up having a 40-minute presentation with them.
You also have to know how to repurpose a failure without completely starting over.
Do you have any other advice for startup entrepreneurs, particularly those coming from academia?
My background is in engineering and I’m now somehow in life sciences. You have to be ready to learn and take on new knowledge at an amazing rate. I am slowly starting to consider myself a little more of a business man but I started out as pure tech.
If you are excited about what you are doing, you will do well. You really have to want to do it. When we started this, I slept on a couch for three months but if you like what you are doing, it’s a blast. This is the most the fun I’ve ever had doing anything.
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