Office Hours: I have founded 3 biotech companies, finished my PhD by age 23, and teach AI at Stanford. I'm Sohila Zadran.Featured

Hi! My name is Sohila Zadran. I am a neuroscientist and advocate for women's health innovations. I completed my undergraduate studies in Molecular Cell Biology and Neurobiology at UC Berkeley, and my doctoral studies in Neuroscience and Neuro-engineering at the age of 23. I subsequently completed my post-doctoral fellowship in Systems Neuroscience, Bioinformatics, Computational Modeling at the Caltech as a National Institute of Health fellow. By the age of 25, I had published over a dozen first-author publications in leading scientific journals in the field of genomics, systems and computational biology. I currently teach a course on Artificial Intelligence and Neural Networks at Stanford University. I am also a serial entrepreneur. I had founded three biotech and digital health companies, one of which was in partnership with the California Institute of Quantitative Biology (qb3) and the Johnson and Johnson Innovation Centers (Janssen Labs). I currently serve as an advisor to several biotech, digital health companies and several Silicon Valley accelerators including Fem Patch Co, Smart Skin Biome, UC Berkeley's accelerator Skydeck and qb3. I was also part of the investment teams at BCG Digital Ventures, Khosla Ventures and Strawberry Creek Ventures and currently do angel investing. Given the current fundraising ecosystem, ask me about federal research grant funding (SBIRs and STTRs) through NSF and NIH for early stage start ups conducting R&D
Amazing background! How do you manage your time effectively and/or prioritize? How much do you work in a typical day?
Thank you Miesha45 for the question! I really like Tim Ferris' book on time management. It has some amazing gold nuggets in there that you can pick and choose to meet your lifestyle. For me personally it varies from day to day - some days 12 hours and some days 8 hours. No matter what I try to disengage one day a week so I let me mind and body recharge. I also have made an effort not to write an email after 9 pm - always felt that the brain is too tired and not as focused as it would be the next day.
Unlike other startups in other sectors, that have to deal with the following:- longer commercialization times- higher R&D budgets- continuous R&D plans- higher regulatory costsHow did you manage (1.) keeping the above costs as controlled as possible as well as (2.) timelines as optimized as possible?
Thank you for the question Tiniapina. As a scientist, I never was trained formally on putting together a pro forma and mapping out project costs. Later in my career, I realized how important a properly constructed pro forma and road map was. It allowed me to map out the costs, project future costs and really think through costs and timelines (and leave room for flexibility). Another tool that I used was really thinking about projects as product first. What are the necessary experiments/milestones needed to get this product to market - would it be nice to test it in other use cases? yes -but is it necessary to get to market? no. Focus, focus and focus on getting the product to market. I have also used FDA consultants quite a bit even before starting a project to get a sense of what it is going to take to get my product in market and what sacrifices do I need to make in terms of claims in order to commercialize faster. One of the more challenging approaches to reduce costs and commercialization efforts for a product is to do it with a corporate partner. Corporate partners are giant machines with a lot of capital, human talent, market understanding and commercialization expertise. Partnering with them tends to offset risk and costs - however these partnerships are difficult to put in place because big corporates tend to be risk adverse by nature and very slow.
OMG so exciting. Two questions: 1) What's your fav productivity tool and/or scheduling app?2) What's next for women's health? Thanks!!
Thank you for your questions Nizhanxi! I have to say that I have tried Asana, Hubspot and looked into SuperHuman and have to say that I still prefer the old school making lists on paper. Something about physically writing out the task and the satisfaction of crossing it out when done is soup for the founder soul for me. It's old school, but think of it as equivalent to slamming a flip phone after a heated call. Nothing like it right now. The sound of the pen when crossing out a task? Yes please. There has been a lot of buzz in women's health the last 18-24 months. Nothing like I have ever seen before. However, most are in the services space (fertility at home, marketplaces, digital health). I think there needs to be a big push in innovating women's health technologies. If you pull the original patent on the tampon from the 1930s, nothing really has changed in terms of engineering or design. There has to be more sophisticated approaches to women's health and hope to see an emergence of disruption in product/technology offerings in this sector.
Hi Sohila! Wow, you have an amazing story! I am at the point where I am in the middle of my PhD, also in Digital Health and I have started with some friends a parallel endeavor. Some of them think we should go open about this to our boss/supervisor (I am paid as a research assistant) but I am not sure it is a good idea (I am afraid that he will think I am not committed enough to research). The second thing I would like to know, how a company could be initially funded by those grants? Any resources are appreciated 🤗.
Thank you Asasso for the question. Congrats on your PhD progress. I definitely understand your predicament. I think you need to think about what is most important to you and understand the policies of your university. Many times, IP developed by students, researchers and faculty while they are at the university are automatically a part of the university. If you are developing this on university time and receiving a PhD stipend - you may have to disclose it to the university and your advisor anyways. I can see you serving as an 'advisor' to the company in which most universities and faculty would see this more of an extracurricular activity. Depending on how related your current digital health project is closely tied to your faculty mentor's current research, you may want to disclose it to him right away so there is no conflict of interest. In my personal experience, transparency in everything has always been an easier path. Sometimes I feel that when founders work in stealth - it isn't because they are worried of competition, but rather because they want room to experiment and make mistakes privately before going live. In this case, I think you need to speak with your advisor. On the funding front, SBIR grants are granted by the NIH and NSF here in the US. These are small 200K grants (no equity involved) that is to be used for R&D. The organizations have a couple of cycles a year and every submission goes through a review process. A complete list of SBIR requirements is here:
Thank you so much for your answer! It makes a lot of sense ☺️ and thank you also for sharing the link, I will definitly take a look!
@sohilazadranphd That is a lot of brainwork. Kudo! :) First, I have to ask, did you get to see any J&J formulas for baby powder and the likes?Second, how do you feel about the AI - human implant that Elon Musk is pursuing right now? Lastly, have you heard of a conscientiousness chip?
Thanks! Nope, not much interaction with JnJ baby powders thankfully! I don't even think any powder is really necessary anymore for babies. I actually was in a lab one floor up from a lab that was working on these implants while doing my PhD in 2010. These implants have been in our phd ecosystem for quit some time and excited to see it translate and commercialize. Singularity - 2050!!
Thank you for your reply! Singularity 2050? You mean human and computer as one? What about hackers? lol
First wow! Seeing women accomplishing milestones like you have make me excited for the future. Second, do you know someone exactly like you, only who is as passionate as you are about biotech about re-engineering shopping so it's quicker, easier, more honest, more sustainable and less monopolistic? I figure birds of a feather flock together... Tysm.
Thank you for the kind words! I have to say that I do not know much about reengineering the retail experience. I do know that the last year we saw an explosion in personalized shopping experience and a bigger push toward online shopping. I also saw a move away from subscriptions, but in this new Covid-era world, I think we will be seeing some really interesting innovations coming up in the retail world as a consequence of a new shift away from traditional brick and mortar retailers. Not a single person comes to mind at the moment, but I would look at venture funds that actively invest in D2C and their portfolios to get a sense of the players in the space
Hi! I’m a current Stanford student studying Neuroscience and Neuroengineering. You sound so cool and are an inspiration! I am wondering what you think about the new, emerging neurotech space in terms of its ability to change lives? Also, do you think more neuroscience research should be incorporated into law?
Thanks for the kind words CaitlynMcGinely! Stanford is an amazing place fore neuroscience research! I think there is a lot of work that still needs to be done to see the translation of neuroscience into day to day lives. W are starting to see a trickling of it - natural language processing, visual recognition - but feel like that is only the tip of the iceberg for neuroscience and neuro-tech. What always fascinated me about neuroscience - is that for every discovery made in trying to understand the brain unraveled half a dozen new questions about the brain. In regards to anything being incorporated into law - I will leave that to the discretion of politicians and policy makers!
First of all, you are amazing! Would love to know if you plan to take any of your ventures outside the US since women's health is a worldwide issue. Also, what are some innovations in the area that you'd like to see (or plan to bring to life) in the coming years? :D
Thank you for the kind note. I would love to expand internationally, but as you can imagine every country has its own ecosystem and market nuances to understand so it makes it more challenging. Being digital however has definitely made the world feel more flat and accessible
Welcome Sohila! Your accomplishments are very inspiring. Do you have any advice for undergraduate students who dream of starting their own medical device/biotech company one day? Is pursuing a PhD the best way to get there? Thanks! Clara
Thank you for the kind words! My advice to young students interested in this space is to find mentors within the industry and to learn as much as you can about the biotech or medtech business by being in the trenches and working in the sector. Learn the business models, the areas needing innovation and what the landscape looks like. Pursuing a PhD is definitely not necessary to be able to do this and they can start now. Pursuing a PhD is a great way to learn about new ways to see the world on both a macro and micro level - to ask questions and to be fearless. Some would argue that getting a PhD doesn't help build a business, I would say that getting a PhD teaching you to see the world very differently and that can be a great advantage in business.
Hello!I am a mom of a teenage girl who has great aptitude for math/science but is still too young to know what she wants to pursue. Can you tell us about your childhood? Did you know exactly what you wanted to do by the time you entered UC Berkeley? Did you leave high school early to pursue this? I would love to know more about how your passion developed. GG
Thanks GG for the questions. My personal experiences shaped my journey and are unique to my life. I am the daughter of Afghan refugees that placed a heavy emphasis on the power of education and living a life that was meaningful and impactful. I also experience all of the struggles and frustrations of being a women in science and in venture. One piece of advice I would give you and your teenage daughter is to learn to enjoy the journey. I wish I could go back in time and tell the younger me to experience the journey and not just focus on one milestone to the next. I spent three years at Cal and was glued to the library and never went to a Cal football game or sat on the lawn in front of the library with my peers. I have learned now how important the journey is to appreciating the milestone. The beauty of undergraduate is that is allows students to explore different fields until they find something that they love.
Thank you!
Congratulations! Such amazing accomplishments. I would be interested in talking to you about my startup. We are launching an AgeTech product based on AI and neuroscience and thinking about applying to NIH for a research grant focusing on dementia detection. Thanks!
Congrats on the launch and would love to learn more!
@sohilazadranphd wow!As a healthcare expert, what is the best way for my firm to educate early-stage founders on how to best find participants for patient-related virtual focus groups?
Thank you Amelia - there are a lot of companies and consultants that work on providing this service. However, if the company is too early to engage an outside CRO or marketing service, using social media to recruit for focus groups is great - it has been a gold mine for us. Some of the facebook groups have anywhere between 16K and 40K members and people have been really helpful and engaged.
Uh... How?? You are way too impressive!😍😮Where does you motivation come from?
Thank you for the kind words! My motivation comes from my humble beginnings I suppose - my my parents being my biggest inspiration
@sohilazadranphd Hi Sohila, you are amazing!! <3 It's wonderful reading about someone who has truly done great work, "paid their dues" and making meaningful contribution every step of the way! I wanted to ask about what opportunities are available or where can one start, for people (women) with a medical background+startup experience, in biotech companies. For example, if they are not interested in starting a company, but want to work hard and contribute meaningfully at a biotech/digital health company. Thank you so much.
thank you for the kind words!
Hi Sohila! Wow, you are so incredibly accomplished and have done all of the things that I aspire to do (e.g. be a serial entrepreneur in the biotech/digital health space and teach a course on AI). Interestingly enough, like you, I also worked at Strawberry Creek Ventures! I also worked in the AI + healthcare space at Microsoft, Stanford, etc. and I am cofounding a digital health startup now. A couple of questions for you:1) We are currently applying for the NSF SBIR/STTR program! Do you know what they typically look for? Any tips on what we can do to better position ourselves for success?2) We just launched the beta version of our health information management app a couple of days ago ( We are trying to get lots of feedback and iterate quickly to get to product-market fit. What was your experience getting to product-market fit for your startups? How did you roll your product out into the market? I would love any advice that you have about getting to product-market fit and/or the startup in general (or anything else)! I would be happy to do a phone call instead if that might be easier for you!3) How did you end up teaching a course? Any advice if I am interested in doing something similar as well?Thank you so much for all your time! :)
Thank you for the kind words. Most of work has honestly been just a result of random series of events. My advice on NSF/NIH SBIRs is to follow the program solicitation closely and to engage the program directors as early as possible to take a look at your proposal topic and determine fit. NSF for example has a presubmission process there program directors review the proposal topic before letting you submit the full proposal. There are a lot of grant writers and consultants that I would also engage to help you review the grant before submitting. Will take a look at the beta!