Evan Floden tells us about the risk of starting Seqera Labs, the opportunities in sequencing and the challenge of growing into a CEO role.
Evan Floden is the CEO and co-founder of Seqera Labs, the Barcelona-based business providing data orchestration and workflow software for the life sciences sector. It raised €22m earlier this year and has also secured several grants from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI).
“A CEO in a tech company needs to wear many hats — from setting strategy and direction to being a public face for the company to ensuring we conduct ourselves according to our values,” Floden told SiliconRepublic.com.
“My main role is empowering our team. The more I can support our team, the better they can support our main mission – building software indispensable to our customers’ research efforts.”
‘Like many start-ups, we saw a problem that needed to be solved’
– EVAN FLODEN
What are the biggest challenges facing your sector, and how are you tackling them?
Our sector is going through rapid change. We’re seeing massive increases in the scale of data that needs to be analysed. New sequencing and imaging methods are evolving almost daily. The recent pandemic has only accelerated these trends. Organisations have needed to scale their computing and analysis capabilities dramatically.
These trends are well understood in our industry. Part of our approach has been to get ahead of them by anticipating second and third-order problems and solving them. For example, it was no secret that customers would want to shift workloads to the cloud. However, we realised they would also need portability, automated provisioning and optimisation features.
Reproducibility is also critical in our industry. We could anticipate needs like version control for pipelines and datasets and better ways to manage containers at scale. Solving these and other problems has guided our development agenda.
What are the key sector opportunities you’re capitalising on?
I think there are several opportunities in our space. More than many other industries, biotech firms have been massive adopters of cloud computing. We’ve been working to make the experience of tapping cloud compute and storage services seamless, offering integrations with every major cloud and cloud storage technology.
Another opportunity is the idea of ‘seq-everything’. Not long ago, sequencing a genome was horrendously expensive. You’ve heard the story – sequencing the first human genome took 13 years and cost billions of dollars. Today, costs have plummeted to well under $500.
The barriers to sequencing have fallen rapidly, and Seqera Labs is at the forefront of addressing the next bottleneck – making it fast and cost-efficient to analyse all those sequences. The combination of fast, inexpensive sequencing and analysis is exciting. They will lead to more genetic screening, better preventative care and more effective genetically targeted drugs.
What set you on the road to where you are now?
Like many start-ups, we saw a problem that needed to be solved. My partner and co-founder, Paolo Di Tommaso, worked on analysis tools at the Centre for Genomic Regulation in Barcelona. His job was to help make the research teams more efficient, and it was evident there were many problems with the tools of the day.
He created open-source Nextflow, and the adoption has been phenomenal. It turns out that lots of people had these same problems. Today Nextflow is a vibrant open-source community with thousands of active users, downloaded over 55,000 times monthly.
We realised that organisations had other unmet needs related to automation, secure collaboration and cloud infrastructure automation. We also saw the need to make complex pipelines more accessible to non-IT specialists. We needed to think bigger if we were going to tackle this next set of problems, and we decided to launch Seqera Labs in 2019.
What’s the biggest risk you’ve ever taken?
I guess that would have to be founding Seqera Labs and deciding to go all in, full-time, with no revenue and minimal cash. We were fortunate that we were able to attract some early seed funding. Thankfully we also had a community of talented people who had been working on Nextflow for years. They shared our vision and precisely understood the problems we were trying to solve.
On the open community side, we’re grateful to the CZI for providing grants under their Essential Open Software for Sciences programme. They recognised the value of Nextflow and a parallel community called Nf-core with over 1,000 contributors.
What one work skill do you wish you had?
I’ve had to grow into my role, and it’s not lost on me that leaders can be blind to their weaknesses. I’m lucky that I have a grounded team around me who aren’t afraid to tell me when they think I’m wrong.
I’ve been conscious of the need to shift my mindset from that of an individual contributor to CEO. I find the technology fascinating. Left to my own devices, I’d probably pack my day with customer meetings – pitching the technology and learning about the interesting problems customers are trying to solve.
My time allocation problem is starting to take care of itself, however. As Seqera Labs has grown, I have many more demands on my time, and I’ve been forced to delegate. As we’ve built out our management team, I’ve consciously looked for people with different skills and experiences than I have. Hopefully, this will help mitigate some of these potential blind spots.
How do you get the best out of your team?
Our leadership team has a similar philosophy. We look for excellence but also try and give people the space they need to grow and try things out. We have been fortunate to attract talent at the top of their respective disciplines. These people are already self-motivated. I believe what works is to describe the desired outcome and trust their judgment around how to get there.
I think keeping a flat organisation and being transparent are also important. We try and recognise success and foster a culture that encourages team building and collaboration. Values are important. While we have been heads-down focused on growth and improving the platform, we have also spent time thinking about the type of organisation we want to be.
It’s not lost on us that maintaining a great culture gets more challenging as a company scales. In this respect, scalability depends on building a leadership team that ‘walks the talk’ and leads by example.
Have you noticed a diversity problem in your sector?
Absolutely. Bioinformatics sits squarely at the intersection of high-performance computing and biology, both fields dominated by males in the senior roles.
We can manage diversity in our workplace, but on the open source/community side, this is another area where the CZI has been instrumental. We run an annual community State of the Workflow survey. This year, we began collecting demographic information to achieve some baseline measurements. We are doing better than the overall high-performance computing community in terms of diversity, but not by much.
The CZI funding has enabled us to run active outreach and mentorship programmes to underrepresented groups and geographic regions. In September, we published an article detailing the results of the first Nextflow and Nf-core mentorship rounds. Our second mentorship round started in October, and we hope to demonstrate that we’ve moved the inclusivity needle in future community surveys.
What books have you read that you would recommend?
When I’m not playing Fortnite, I like to read non-fiction, especially related to science. The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee is one of the finest examples of weaving epic storytelling with deep domain expertise that I’ve come across.
I suppose it appeals to me because the topic is in our wheelhouse. The book deals with challenges in oncology and, of course, the emperor of all maladies is cancer. The book tracks our understanding of cancer over thousands of years. What makes this exhilarating is that our generation may finally be the ones that understand and defeat it.
What are the essential tools and resources that get you through the working week?
Like most start-ups, we run a lot of internal tools – from Notion to Slack to HubSpot to Zoom.
My bicycle is also an essential tool for getting me through the week. It not only helps me get to the office in Barcelona, but it gives me a chance to relax and clear my head on long weekend rides. This always helps me gain some perspective and, hopefully, makes me a more well-rounded leader.
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