Pioneering in biotech, rooted in climate consciousness

Given she upped and left her life overnight to co-found a biotech start-up in Silicon Valley, you could be forgiven for thinking that Inja Radman had had her heart set on a STEM career for as long as she could remember. 

Throughout her schooldays, though, Inja’s interests ranged far and wide. Growing up in sun-soaked southern Croatia, she was a real generalist, dividing her time between mathematics competitions and Youth Parliament social activism. Towards the end of high school, however, that suddenly changed. Inja fell in love with genetics and life sciences and knew that was the path she wanted to follow. 

The deciding moment was a project called Summer School of Science, or S³. Held each year in Croatia, it’s open to high school students from all over the world. ‘You work on a real science project with PhDs or postdocs who run a two-week programme to bring a snapshot of their research into the lab,’ Inja tells me. She jumped at the opportunity to experience what lab life would actually be like, working on concrete projects that students wouldn’t usually get the chance to tackle until university. 

S³ turned out to be a pivotal moment in her life, but things almost turned out very differently. ‘I was fortunate enough to randomly see a note about it and I applied last minute, after the deadline. My Mum helped me; we ended up calling them because I really wanted to get in and they accepted me!’ That drive and determination won Inja a place on S³ during her final two high school summers; summers that would set the course of her career. 

‘That was absolutely formative, because I had the chance to work on one computational biology project on bioinformatics, and one experimental project where I was actually producing these different proteins and working with microbes. That was just so exciting, you know, hands-on. I worked for two weeks, 15 hours a day, and we had this final presentation to give and that was the moment that I knew that I wanted to be a biologist,’ Inja tells me. And that was that. 

Aged 18, Inja moved to the Croatian capital Zagreb to study for an undergraduate degree in molecular biology. ‘My studies were quite interdisciplinary, with a lot of chemistry and physics involved,’ she tells me. ‘I dreamt of studying abroad and pursuing a PhD one day, but it was way too expensive to do something like that.’ 

A doctorate seemed out of reach, but Inja was still driven to work exceptionally hard on summer internships throughout her undergraduate studies. Over those months, she met scientists and mentors who’d help shape her professional future. ‘One of them, Ivo Sbalzarini, was a young professor at ETH Zürich,’ Inja tells me. ‘With his support and reference letter, I applied for the highly competitive Excellence Scholarship at ETH Zürich, which would fund my Master’s studies there in biophysics.’ 

Prestigious scholarship won, Inja spent two years in Zürich attending world-class lectures and conducting research with leading scientists. From there, the rest of her academic development path was set in motion. Her favourite course in chemical biology was run by Don Hilvert, an inspirational figure who injected the latest literature into his teaching of core scientific concepts. ‘For his exams, we’d have to read the newest papers that were out and learn about the latest technologies,’ Inja tells me. 

That’s how she first heard about Jason Chin’s pioneering ribosome engineering work in Cambridge. She knew she had to get into that lab. One contact led to another, and Inja cemented a spot in Jason’s lab at Cambridge’s MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB) for the PhD in Synthetic Biology that had once seemed so far out of reach. ‘It was a fantastic time in Jason’s lab, not just because of the science but because of the team in the lab… the people I learned to do science from,’ Inja recalls. 

Inja never planned to stay in academia for long, though. When she first came into contact with WATT, she was working for London-based consultancy Concentra. ‘My work was about all possible angles and areas that deal with data across both the private and public sectors,’ she shares. 

‘The world is generating so much data that one of the first challenges is how to effectively track it, store it, maintain it and prepare it for analysis. Then, the challenge is to extract insights and learnings from the data, but the data journey doesn’t end there, as findings need to be shared effectively with a spectrum of different stakeholders. This bit is all about visualising, presenting and communicating findings, and at the highest level it becomes an art.’ 

Inja was challenged and engaged by the entire data analysis pathway, which suited her generalist personality perfectly. But above all, she was motivated by ‘contributing towards making a change for the better, no matter how small or big the change is.’ 

One project in particular stands out for her in this respect, where she worked with the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) to track and consolidate millions of patients’ data, supporting analyses aiming to identify predictors of widespread health issues such as heart problems or diabetes. ‘That was what was so lacking for me personally in academia,’ Inja tells me. ‘I’m too impatient to wait for twenty years to see the results of my work!’

Although Inja was making a tangible difference to her clients and wider society day to day, she still felt there was something missing. While working at Concentra, her core beliefs and lifestyle began to radically shift. She turned vegetarian and became hyper-aware of modern society’s waste problems. She took ‘pretty extreme’ action, Inja says, working hard to create a zero-waste lifestyle where she moved away from using any plastic at all, even making her own cosmetics at home. 

With such extensive change happening in her private life, Inja wanted her professional life to contribute to the same causes. ‘Climate change has become such a real and big threat that it was something that I wanted to work on from one angle or another,’ Inja explains. She was considering taking a role in data policy, working with NGOs on climate and waste management issues, when, completely out of the blue, she got a message on LinkedIn that turned out to be very much worth replying to. 

‘By a virtue of life, I don’t know how, serendipitously, this random person contacted me on LinkedIn one day,’ Inja tells me. That random person was Matt Gibson, who was looking for a science co-founder to realise his vision of creating real, delicious and authentic dairy, without involving a single animal. 

How? Using synthetic biology, a field which is now gaining just as much interest from the scientific and investment communities as electric vehicles were around a decade ago. Via cellular agriculture, scientists can grow fully vegan animal products in labs, using the latest technology to recreate the actual proteins that make up real milk, real cheese and real meat. 

‘Of all the animal products, we thought that cheese was the most exciting and the least represented in the plant-based world,’ Inja explains. This was the gap Matt had spotted in the market for his start-up, New Culture: producing vegan cheese via precision fermentation that – unlike the substitutes that are currently on supermarket shelves – has the luxurious taste and texture of the real deal. 

Although Matt was based half the world away in New Zealand, his drive, ambition and vision captured Inja’s imagination. Not only that; this was the ideal opportunity to align her professional life with her personal motivations to tackle climate change, some way and somehow. 

Globally mass-producing animal products via fermentation would be a game-changing development not only for animal welfare, but for the environment. Cellular agriculture uses a fraction of the land area of traditional agriculture, as well as far less water, Inja explains. ‘It’s energy-efficient and doesn’t produce nearly as much CO2 or greenhouse gases. It’s technology that’s sustainable and that can feed the world. Founding New Culture seemed like a unique opportunity to really contribute where my skills and experience are strongest.’ So, Inja had found her cause. She just hadn’t necessarily expected it to revolve around vegan cheese!

With her extensive lab-based academic research and consultancy-based business experience, Inja was the ideal candidate to head up New Culture’s entire scientific pipeline. She was rapidly introduced into a booming Silicon Valley synthetic biology scene that, until that point, she wasn’t even aware existed. 

Matt, on the other hand, had been glued to the cellular agriculture sector since Dutch scientists showcased the world’s first lab-grown burger back in 2013. He knew, Inja tells me, that they’d need to launch New Culture’s research and business model via a start-up acceleration programme to be in with a chance of surviving on the hyper-competitive Silicon Valley scene. He had one in his sights, too: IndieBio, the world-leading biotech start-up accelerator.

From the outset, Matt had a crystal clear vision of how, where and when he wanted New Culture to develop, on which Inja began to collaborate as they drafted detailed project and research proposals. IndieBio, however, was set to be the make or break. When the news that they’d been accepted onto the programme reached them, Inja recalls, ‘Matt and I packed our bags, left our lives overnight and moved to San Francisco, where we met for the first time actually in person.’

It was a leap of faith, that Inja’s not looked back from since. IndieBio gave her and Matt four months of lab space, $200,000 and a monumental challenge: developing a Proof of Concept to show that New Culture’s vision was scientifically feasible. Those four months were a whirlwind of groundbreaking progress, which culminated in a Demo Day where they presented what they’d managed to develop. New Culture’s extensive research and obvious potential made a real impression. Their IndieBio success transformed into the launchpad Matt and Inja needed to raise $3.5 million in seed round investment, led by​​ Evolv VC, a venture fund backed by Kraft Heinz. 

‘The rest is history,’ Inja tells me. Since IndieBio, New Culture has accelerated from strength to strength, pursuing its mission to create ‘fantastic-tasting mozzarella, that is real dairy, but completely animal-free.’ By repurposing methods of producing proteins that have been used for developing drugs and antibodies for decades, the New Culture team aims to expand its vegan, real dairy cheese production to mass scale, churning out affordable commodity products.

‘That’s the mission of New Culture,’ she explains. ‘We’re a cheese company at the end of the day, even though we’re a food biotech and we’re developing really complicated science. But for a consumer, we’ll be a fantastic animal-free dairy cheese, probably the first in the world.’  

It’s been a phenomenal journey so far, Inja tells me. ‘It’s a very, very challenging thing to raise money and start a company, especially for completely novel ideas, ideas that are going to take years to bring to market,’ she says, matter-of-fact. ‘There are so many struggles daily, and there will be for years, because we are an early-stage start-up in a very deep biotech field. We’re developing technology that will only be commercially viable in two to three years.’

As things stand, New Culture has expanded from Matt and Injas’ founding twosome into a team of twenty; a ‘serious company,’ as Inja puts it. Day to day, Inja plays a cornerstone role in the company, as founder, Chief Science Officer (CSO) and manager to her lab-based team. 

‘Founder is a role in a company that you learn when you start a company,’ she explains. ‘It’s not your job role hat, because on top of being a founder I’m a CSO and Matt is a CEO. That’s our actual job, but as founders of a company we’re actually parents to that company. We care about that company the most, so even though it’s not my job, I still work with Matt on all of the external work that’s important.’

‘Managing your time is really challenging, sitting in all these different roles. Internally, I’m actually leading the science, and there are two areas of challenges. One is the work, definitely. In a start-up like this, you have to keep making progress. Daily. It’s not like in academia, where you work for five years on a project and then you get your PhD. We have to make progress daily, we have to be relevant, we have very ambitious milestones we have to hit… it’s very different to academic research. And then there is the responsibility towards people.’ 

In her first managerial role on this scale, Inja has multiple scientists reporting directly to her. Faced with the ever-present pressure to propel New Culture’s research forward, she feels the weight of that responsibility. ‘These are real lives; they have families, maybe some of them have kids, and you have to balance your expectations for the job with their personal lives.’ 

In an exciting Series A fundraising round in 2021, New Culture raised a new money injection of $25 million from a prestigious group of investors and partners, led by UK-based investment firms CPT Capital and Ahren Innovation Capital. However, finances are never far from Matt and Injas’ minds, as the next fundraising round will be happening in 2023. 

‘There are struggles on all ends, but the excitement of what we do covers for those stresses,’ Inja tells me. ‘If I look back, it’s been three years. With the amount of exposure I’ve had and what I’ve learned, it’s been like a life school. I wouldn’t have learned so much in any other job.’

Diving into the Silicon Valley start-up scene has served up some crucial lessons, too. ‘You do definitely have to earn your spot and show your worth to build connections,’ Inja says. ‘Networks are there, networks are built, they exist. Part of those networks is what helps you get through in some ways. Not in a bad, nepotistic way, but in the way that you have built a reputation and that people will vouch for you and support you. I do see that that’s also challenging for minorities and women, definitely more challenging than for a typical average white guy.’

‘Coming here, I definitely feel that I’ve had to earn my place at the table. Now, I do have a strong network of investors who are supporting us financially, but not just financially. They’re supporting us as coaches, as advisors, as people I text with and chat with to discuss what’s happening in the field, how we’re doing and what’s going on.’

‘The struggle of being a start-up founder is a very unique one,’ she adds. ‘Running and starting your own company is a whole role on its own, and the best support you can have is from people who were in your shoes before.’ In Inja and Matts’ case, an invaluable source of support and guidance came in the form of other IndieBio start-ups and founders. 

Her main piece of advice to any budding start-up founders would be to use established networks for all they’re worth. Reach out to people in the know, including founders, to build a solid base. Go through start-up accelerator programmes, too; IndieBio was a vital launchpad for New Culture, without which they may not have got off the ground. 

‘You can’t do much by yourself, that’s really what you learn in the start-up world,’ Inja says.

‘There is probably more opportunity in the US, rather than in the EU,’ she adds. ‘It’s not that it’s easier in any way, but there is more appetite… America has always been a place that embraces change and pioneering technologies. In the EU, we are much more risk-averse. That’s one thing that’s been slowing down our innovation.’

Aside from crucial support from her new Silicon Valley network, Inja’s most vital source of resilience simply comes from her nearest and dearest.

‘Living abroad, living in the turmoil of US politics, and on top of that Covid-19 and climate change, I find that my biggest energy and inspiration comes from my family and my friends. I’ve really realised – which I always knew – the value of your closest people, your closest network, in keeping you healthy and sane – even from far away!

When WATT first contacted Inja, everything that she’s built with New Culture was still yet to come. When she got in touch with our team, she wrote: ‘My ambition is to work for a social cause one day, not only in my spare time but throughout my full professional engagement. In order to be useful in that sense, I believe I still have a lot to learn, as well as pick the battles I want to fight for the most.

Do not leave anything for later – life is too short and passes so quickly, do what you want today and now. Your aspirations will also change over time – do not be harsh to yourself when that happens, but rather embrace the change and thrive on it.’ 

For Inja, one entirely unexpected LinkedIn message brought her personal ambitions in perfect alignment with her scientific expertise, opening the door to a new life, a fresh purpose and work that challenges, motivates and inspires her daily. She picked her battle, transformed her aspirations overnight and is thriving on that cascade of change. 

All in all, a pretty perfect example of following your own, very sound advice, staying true to what you believe in, and gathering the courage to take leaps of faith in life. They might just pay off in more ways than you imagined. 

Written by Abi Malins

16 May 2022

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