SkyFounder Spotlight: Jill Fuss of SkyTeam CinderBio
This week’s spotlight is on SkyTeam CinderBio co-founder Jill Fuss. CinderBio harnesses three billion years of biology for today’s green industry. They use the most extreme microbes on Earth to make a new class of ultra-stable enzyme formulations for industrial applications.
Q: What problem does your startup solve?
A: We are solving the problem that current industrial enzymes are very limited in the temperatures and pH that they work in. Our enzymes work in high heat and low pH so they greatly expand the range of industrial enzymes into many new applications and industries.
Q: What was your experience before working in the startup industry?
A: I’m a scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and I’ve worked there for about 15 years. Before that, I was a graduate student at UC Berkeley in Molecular and Cell Biology.
I made the jump into a startup pretty blind, but feet first. What I mean is that we filled in what we didn’t know by taking advantage of all the resources in the Bay Area to help scientists with a technology start a company. Our first exposure was to QB3. QB3 runs a lot of workshops and they have incubator space. They helped us get our foot out the door, and gave us some of the base knowledge that we needed to start the company. Since then, we’ve gone to workshops, taken online courses, just trying to build knowledge. I think scientists have a lot of skills that can transfer to the startup world. We’re used to doing hypothesis-driven research, and when you’re doing a startup, it’s the same. You have a hypothesis of what your customers want, and then you go out there and test it. It’s good to test it before you invest a lot of resources in it. I think there are a lot of skills there that transfer well.
Q: Has CinderBio changed over time?
A: Yes, when we launched from Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, we thought we were going to liberate sugars from cellulosic material for biofuels. That came out of being in a Department of Energy Lab; where we were really surrounded by energy-related topics. We did some business plan competitions, and through the feedback we got in those competitions as well as through a lot of market research including work done by Haas’s Cleantech to Market class, we pivoted to focus on cleaning in the dairy processing industry.
Q: What gets you out of bed in the morning?
A: I really, really want to bring our enzymes to market.
CinderBio came out of our academic research and fit well with my background in enzymology; I was continuously stunned by how amazing these enzymes are. They just really blew me away. We just thought that we had to bring these out into the world, and we couldn’t keep them in the lab any longer. We felt really compelled to bring them to market because of the huge impact they could have on so many industries.
Q: How did you meet your team?
A: Steve and I worked together at the Berkeley Lab. We worked together for 15 years, in adjacent labs on similar topics and in similar fields. We worked together on a number of grant proposals, and grant proposals really test how well people work together.
We started the project together. We co-mentored a summer student over 10 years ago. After that project, we went off in separate ways. I worked on a single enzyme from the organism that we worked on, and Steve went on to develop molecular biology tools that became the technological basis for CinderBio. Through that time, we would keep on checking in, Steve would show me data, I would say “wow,” and he would show me more data, and I would say “wow,” and I think the idea to spin out CinderBio really came from both sides.
Q: What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced?
A: The search for that initial beachhead market, and building a story around that market. Once we had that, other things just seemed to snap into place.
Q: From there, what were some of your bigger milestones?
A: Obtaining funding from the National Science Foundation through Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grants and licensing our technology from Berkeley Lab were two really important milestones. And we then were featured in Newsweek magazine! But even earlier than all of that, we won some early cash at business plan competitions and that just felt huge at the time, it was so amazing.
Q: What advice would you give to someone who’s trying to start a business?
A: If it’s a technology company, coming out of a university, develop it as much as you can before you spin it out, and keep your day job as long as possible.
Q: How did you hear about SkyDeck?
A: I heard about SkyDeck from Picoyune. We met them at one of the business plan competitions, became friends, and they really recommended SkyDeck to us.
The resources for startups are often pretty fractured, so it was nice to come to a place where the resources are brought together.
Q: Do you have a team motto?
A: I have a rule when I’m skiing that I shouldn’t look at a slope longer than it takes me to ski it. I try to apply that to life, as a reminder not to talk myself out things. Sometimes it’s best to just jump in.