Scientista sat down with Nanxi Liu, a business-major-turned-STEM-entrepreneur. At the age of 23, she has already co-founded two biotechnology companies—Enplug Inc., recently featured in the Wall Street Journal, and Nanoly Bioscience. Read on to learn how she did it.
By Vijayalakshmi Kalyanaraman
Though Liu majored in business at UC Berkeley, her passion for biotech drove her to spend countless hours teaching herself biology and computer programming, along with a number of other interesting skills.
While she was still an undergraduate, Liu co-founded Nanoly Bioscience, a biotech firm that develops polymers to prevent the denaturization of vaccines. In 2012, she founded her second company—a technology company called Enplug Inc. that creates and manages a network of electronic billboards. Both companies’ products require advanced engineering and research skills.
From Business Major to Biotech CEO
“I started to build things for fun. When I was starting high school, in one of my engineering classes, I, together with my team, built a software program that allows a light bulb to turn on and off,” explains Liu.
Coupling her engineering studies with her love for art and design, Liu continued her studies, learning HTML and web design on her own. Individually and collectively, she has built a Caller ID app for Android phones, another Android app called CrimeFighter, designed to allow crime reporting via cell phone on college campuses, and an app called RootMusic, which helps musicians manage and enhance their Facebook presences via a platform called BandPage.
Her desire to continually learn has allowed Liu to keep an open mind to new ideas, and more specifically, those ideas that make a positive difference in people’s lives. Little did she know, her next entrepreneurial endeavor would come very close to home.
While in Colorado, on winter break from graduate studies at UC Berkeley, Liu had an opportunity to meet with her childhood friend, Balaji Sridhar. A PhD candidate and medical school student conducting research at the University of Colorado, he shared with her the idea of starting a firm in order to create a polymer for vaccines that required no refrigeration to survive.
Much of the initial research had already been completed because the polymer was being considered in cartilage regeneration. Liu was on board, so they decided to work together to develop a business plan.
That’s when she founded her first company, Nanoly Bioscience. The company’s innovation has been recognized nationally and internationally, resulting in an array of awards and research grants.
Liu studied biochemistry concepts on her own, once again using only the Internet, while creating the business plan for a company projected to make healthcare strides in vaccine transport and dissemination.
Did you take any related courses in computer programming in order for you to build software tools and smartphone apps?
“No, I learned everything on my own.” Liu explains.
She learned how to program off the web, by googling her questions when she didn’t know how to do something. She did, however, supplement her undergraduate degree with a certification in operation control at the department of industrial engineering (UC Berkeley), where many of the courses were based on computer programming.
“I love learning about random things,” Liu says.
For instance, she did an engineering internship at Cisco Systems during college when she was majoring in business. She was part of the business fraternity club, Delta Sigma Pi, and was executive vice president of UC Berkeley’s student government.
Her extracurricular activities are not limited to that alone. She is a music lover—she performed piano on a couple of occasions in Utah. She has also spent many hours volunteering. Currently, she serves on the advisory boards of the UNICEF Chinese Children’s Initiative and Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation.
Her educational pursuits and extracurricular activities often leave her with just 3-4 hours of sleep each night. Although one should get at least six hours a night to lead a healthy life, this deficit doesn’t seem to impact Liu’s work. “Oh! I can’t remember when I last slept for six hours!” says Liu laughingly.
Would it have been possible for you to start both a biotech firm and a technology firm without having learned any biochemistry or programming skills?
“Yes, it would have been possible, but without biochemistry, engineering or programming skills, it would have been very difficult to start the companies that I did,” says Liu.
After much self-teaching, Liu acquired transferrable skills quite beneficial for her leadership role within her newest company as well as for future projects.
“In the biotech firm, everyone except me holds a PhD,” says Liu. “Likewise, I am not a specialist in software programming. The research ideas are communicated to me, and I need to understand them while making strategic decisions in the company. My programming and biochemistry knowledge I acquired are needed then. I also learn the subjects along with others in the company.”
According to Liu, with passion and hard work, one can learn any subject at any point in one’s life and put that knowledge to very good use.