Whether they started with a brilliant idea that they sensed could help people or were inspired to innovate by current events, every startup founder is changed by the journey.
Sasha Seletsky, Co-Founder and Chief Business Officer of SummerBio, and Ainsley Braun, Co-Founder and CEO of Tinfoil Security, are no exceptions. Both have dealt with challenges and have pivoted when faced with failure. They’ve experienced loneliness after success, and politely tolerated unsolicited advice. But both also leaned on colleagues and experienced unexpected support from people in their networks, learning valuable lessons and skills every step of the way.
In a recent discussion moderated by Jason Baker, SVP of Transportation, Health and Housing Policy at SVLG, Seletsky and Braun spoke candidly about what it’s like to be an entrepreneur, sharing wild stories, useful insights, and inspiring ideas.
When COVID-19 first broke out in early 2020, Sasha Seletsy, Co-Founder and Chief Business Officer of SummerBio, was planning a long vacation that, as it turned out, just wasn’t meant to be. The gravity of the pandemic was becoming clear, and people were dying. He felt called to action, and ended up working around the clock to make COVID testing fast and affordable using a robotic assembly line.
“To me it wasn’t really even a choice — we just had to dive in and help,” he said.
Seletsky came together with several other cofounders with a background in automation, and in a matter of days, the fast-moving team had made remarkable headway. They went from the idea of a nonprofit that would donate testing equipment to a university to creating a for-profit company with plans to raise money and ramp up fast.
“Despite not being totally ready to go back to work, I jumped in and started to find pipette tips that we could buy in hundreds of thousands when you couldn’t even buy toilet paper in Walmart,” he said.
In the next nine months, which were full of grueling 20-hour work days, the company they started, SummerBio, played a major role in the fight against COVID-19. The team has developed the lowest cost PCR test in history, with the capacity to run tens of thousands of samples per day.
In contrast to SummerBio’s solution, which was created in response to current events, Ainsley Braun’s entrepreneurial journey started with a great idea that made its way to the people who needed it via the entrepreneurial process.
After earning her undergraduate degree in Brain and Cognitive Sciences and Writing from MIT, Braun was working as a security consultant for a government contractor and doing UX design for the Army. She and her cofounder came up with a way to help companies increase their security, and they felt that it could go somewhere.
“My cofounder and I at that point in time were using websites in more unique ways, usually finding vulnerabilities and disclosing them, and we said ‘Hey, there’s something here to this. Why don’t we quit our jobs and go and see what this startup world is all about?’”
They co-founded Tinfoil Security in 2011, diving into a vibrant Silicon Valley startup scene.
“We started in June 2011, and haven’t really looked back since,” she said.
Braun is still at it, and plans to to create a nonprofit next. After her mother set aside money for her wedding, she and her then-fiance decided to take an alternate route.
“We decided we’re not going to have a big wedding, we’d rather use those funds to do something good in the world,” she said.
The pair are planning to start a school that would empower women with a STEM education. They are now doing research in different countries to find the best location for this project.
While entrepreneurship can be lonely, help also has a strange way of materializing when it’s needed the most.
A graduate of Wharton and the University of Pennsylvania, Seletsky held finance and product leadership positions at Tesla, McKinsey, ProTerra, and Carbon 3D before becoming Co-Founder and Chief Business Officer of SummerBio. When he and his team sprung into action, their networks rallied to help more than he ever would have thought was possible.
“Everyone knows that entrepreneurship is really hard. I think the fact that it was COVID and a pandemic even further amplified their willingness to help,” he said.
In one scenario, the team was short on reagents, and through a string of contacts they found what they needed.
“We get in touch with a professor at UCSF, and all of a sudden you’re in a dark garage bartering swabs for reagents on a no-cash basis. Just anything to help make progress. I think the communities and network and just people you know coming together to help, was just amazing.”
As a word of advice, Seletsky emphasizes culture and team above all else. If you have the right team on the wrong product, you can pivot, he noted. But if you have the wrong team on the right product, the problem is harder to address.
“It’s hard to recover if you don’t start off in the right direction,” he said.
Now a Product Management Director at Synopsys, which acquired Tinfoil Securities in 2020,
Braun reminded founders to lean on each other. “The top is lonely,” she said. “But luckily there are also founders around you who are hopefully also at the top and are just as lonely, and who you can talk to.”
As she closes in on her planned two-year term at Synopsys being up, Braun is ready to try something new.
“I do think that if you’re lucky, life is long, and I believe that you can be really good at five or six different things, or different industries, by the end of your life.” she said. “I like to think about where my biggest impact will be and who I can become, and what else I can do.”