Connect Spotlight: Lifebit

Posted: 4 Nov 2020

Founded by Dr. Maria Chatzou Dunford and Dr. Pablo Prieto Barja in 2017, Lifebit endeavours to organise the world’s human genomic data to eradicate disease and improve our quality and understanding of life. Not a small task, but if anyone is up for it, it’s Lifebit. In just two years, they’ve built a brand new product, attracted influential customers, won ground-breaking contracts at a national scale — all with only seed funding.

In this month’s Connect Spotlight, Sitar speaks with Maria about the hands-on experience that sets Lifebit apart, the importance of democratising data for the future of our planet, the best way to capitalise on opportunities without losing your focus, and the exciting future envisioned by some of the brightest minds in bioinformatics today.

Sitar: Let’s start from the beginning: What’s the story of Lifebit and why were you and Pablo drawn to solving this particular problem?

Maria: When my co-founder Pablo and I were working as researchers in Barcelona, we dealt with huge amounts of genomics and multiomics data. We tried to make sense of everything from basic biology to how we are who we are, and ultimately, how we could use that to diagnose and cure different diseases and everything in between. Doing that work, we spent the majority of our time — I’d say 80% — dealing with data management and computational hassles. To help us waste less time, we built many computational methods, algorithms, and so forth, which quickly became very popular and widely used. We understood that the problem we perceived as being niche was actually a greater issue: more and more, the world was trying to make sense of big multiomics, genomics, and biomedical data, and translate it into impactful day-to-day applications. When we realised that we had already solved this massive problem at a smaller scale, we formed a very clear idea of what a wider solution would look like, and we created Lifebit.

Genomics/bioinformatics isn’t an area typically associated with an amazing user experience and great products. Why did you decide to make UX a core value of Lifebit?

Precisely because of that!

In a sense, genomics and bioinformatics are a space that resembles computers in their early days. They were perceived as these ugly things, pitch black, destined to be used exclusively by super nerdy people.

I think the perception around bioinformatics is similar, except you’re imagining mad scientists in weird labs. You may think scientists are the only ones looking to make sense of all the genetic and biomedical data out there, but the reality is, just like with computers, bioinformatics is something everyone needs to make sense of — to inform clinical diagnoses, for disease prevention, towards general population health. Now, with COVID, I think that has become very clear to everyone. All this information, our genetic code, the data of our bodies, it tells the story of what makes us us, what can help ward off certain illnesses, treat us when we get sick, inform us of genetic predispositions, and so on and so forth. I think that’s the big shift we are witnessing in bioinformatics.

When we started Lifebit, it was staggering to me that no one was seeing it from that perspective. For us, it is very clear. We are just at the beginning of the Apples of the world, or the Microsofts of the world, where people realise these presumably ugly things actually need better operating systems.

And that’s what we’re doing — building a better operating system for this field. At the same time, we’re creating a really delightful user experience, the same way Apple did with their products.

Why do you think this gives you an edge over your competition?

I think it’s back to basic principles. If you want something to be used and embraced by the masses, you need to make it extremely user-friendly. How do you do that? UX has to be top-of-mind, and carefully tailored to different people’s needs. That’s pretty much what we are doing.

What’s your product design process? How much do you involve your customers and potential customers in the process?

We do many different things. We are lucky in that we are both the creators and the users of our own products. So number one is that our internal users give a lot of product feedback. Often, they’re actually the most strict about it! Beyond that, we work very closely with our clients. The company offers what we call ‘Extreme Delivery,’ which takes client focus up a notch to user experience focus. At the end of the day, you’re always catering to a particular user experience, not just a client. Different clients have different needs, depending on which users they’re trying to serve, too. We are obsessed with this.

We won’t consider a product delivered until we know we’ve completely satisfied the user experience requirements. To do that, we treat our clients like partners, and even involve our clients’ clients if that’s what it takes.

It’s an extra investment Lifebit is committed to making, both for our clients’ satisfaction and to help us better understand how they’re using our tools.

I’ve always been impressed at how much you’ve done, how quickly, and with very limited resources. You built a product from scratch, won marquee customers, built an amazing pipeline of some of the biggest biopharma and biobanks in the world, and raised an A round — all in about two years and with only seed funding. What’s your secret? What would you tell a founder starting out now to help them achieve the same level of success?

Not sleeping that much! [laughs] I would say we are a little bit blessed at Lifebit because, as I said, Pablo and I come from a world where we already did this. So when our clients come to us with a problem, often, we’ve already encountered it. It may not always have been at the same scale or level of complexity, but usually, we will have seen it and solved it before. That’s one of our unique secrets to success.

The second secret is that we’ve been very clear from the start about what we are building, how we are doing it, and why. From that point, all we needed was to decipher the different marketing inputs and market intelligence to find what people were willing to pay big money for, and prioritise that. Pablo and I spent a lot of time on this.

The third secret, in my opinion, is just being lucky. Of course, luck favours the prepared mind, but at the end of the day, it is a matter of timing, opportunity, and knowing how to make the most of each one you are given. By knowing exactly what we were aiming to achieve and how we should prioritise it helped us capitalise on every opportunity luck threw our way.That’s my advice to founders.

When you close a big round and you’re wondering what you should be doing, just lock yourself away with your co-founder for a month somewhere, form a crystal clear idea about what exactly it is you are trying to do, and how you’re going to do it.

Create customer decks, pitch stories — everything you can think of. When you’re done, keep it simple. Go out to as many people as you can, pitch all of those things, and see which ones people are prepared to pay for. Once you’re in the game, opportunities will always appear. Taking the time to prepare for them is what will make the difference between success and failure.

Speaking of opportunities, you recently won a major contract with Genomics England to support researchers working on a COVID vaccine. Huge congratulations! You fought off stiff competition to win this partnership. How did that come about?

In a nutshell: a global pandemic happened. People started dying, and the UK decided to do something about it. Opportunities rarely have something to do with you. You just happen to be at the right place, at the right time, and hopefully you are prepared enough to take it head on. We obviously did not wish for a global pandemic, but there it was, and we had the ability to help.
When we heard about the project, we were actually already late to apply. There were big names in the running, and we were definitely underdogs. Then, we started demoing the technology; we walked them through the user experience; and we won them over. Our offering was very much aligned with what Genomics England needed around security and data usability, but it’s the different technical people and clinicians who were helping to evaluate the various offers that tipped the scales in our favour. They just felt excited about us, they loved our user experience, and they liked the Lifebit attitude.

That’s a clear example of how you just can’t compete with building brilliant products that delight customers. Talking about the data, Lifebit has cited that over 500 million human genomes will be sequenced by 2025, creating more data than YouTube and Twitter combined. Why is democratising this data so important?

When I started in the bioinformatics space, what was most fascinating to me was just getting to understand what makes us who we are, what created life on this planet, along with all the shapes and forms it has taken. Many people wrongly assume that life started with a water molecule but in fact, it was cell division. From there, organisms started forming and life evolved into what it is today. A lot of that history is in our DNA, and in the DNA of every living organism out there. We can actually understand this now. And with it, we can make an impact in preventing and curing diseases, in extending and improving the quality of life, in protecting our environment and building more sustainable cities — it relates to everything life touches.

Going back to my computer analogy, I believe that DNA will have a similar significance on how we live our lives in the years to come. We cannot even imagine it yet, but as soon as genomics and multiomics data start to get used properly in every aspect of our lives, they will have the same level of penetration that computers, computing systems, and automation have today.

That ties nicely to this next question: What is the big, hairy, audacious vision for the future of Lifebit?

Google wants to organise the world’s information on the internet. Lifebit wants to organise the world’s biomedical and genomic information in life.

We want to provide practical insights and business technology around it in order to significantly improve our quality of life.

I often imagine Google pitching in their early days, when we didn’t even have proper internet. The definition wasn’t even in the dictionary. They must have seemed like lunatics! Sometimes, that’s how I feel. When you speak to investors and they’re drilling you on how you aim to do this or that, and all you can say is “we don’t know, but we’ll figure it out” — it’s daunting. Ultimately, many of the things we need for the company to evolve are simply not yet here, and that can make our vision difficult to define. But like Google, we’re optimistic that we’ll get there, and permeate the landscape as we do.

That’s what we love the most. You guys are basically creating a category and you’re creating it first. To finish, do you have any go-to podcasts, products, or books that you’re loving right now and want to share?

The one book that I’m reading now is called The Challenger Sale. It is a Bible. If Predictable Revenue is an awesome book about sales, then The Challenger Sale is even greater for B2B businesses especially. They’re complementary, but I will say this: if you master and execute everything that Predictable Revenue does, it won’t guarantee success, but will get you about 50% there. If you do everything The Challenger Sale suggests, it will get you 90% there, even if everything else you do is crap.

My all time favourite book is Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy Seals Lead and Win. We actually give it to people at Lifebit and ask them to read it. It’s an incredible book, especially for founders shaping culture and effective processes. You asked me how we accomplished so many things so fast — that’s it, Extreme Ownership.

Thank you, Maria, for your time and valuable insights. We can’t wait to see what other opportunities you’ll take on in stride as you continue to make your imprint on the world.