Founder Focus is a “Humans of New York” style spotlight on the human stories behind diverse startup founders, their life experiences and perspectives, the origin stories of their startups, and the path they took to where they are today. This episode features Cindy Wu.
And we're live. Hi everyone. Welcome to another episode of Founder Focus. I'm your host Jade Wang.
I run the startup program at Cloudflare and today our guest is Cindy Wu from Jelly.
Hi Cindy, welcome to the show. Thanks for having me. Cool. So very briefly, can you tell us what Jelly is?
So Jelly is a new-ish startup that I'm building with my co-founder here in Honolulu.
Our primary goal is just to make doing science fun.
We're pretty early stage. We have a product that's up and what it does right now, it makes reading scientific papers a joy.
And so if you've ever tried to read a scientific paper in the PDF form, there are a lot of challenges with that.
And we take PDFs and turn the PDF content into a web page. And that's kind of where we're at today.
Cool. Can you tell us a little bit about the community of scientists that you've already gathered into a big Slack channel?
So we have a Slack channel. It's called the Jelly Community Slack. And I think one of the things that I wanted to do differently this time around, so just to give some context, Jelly is the second startup that I've started.
The first one is a company called experiment.com.
And when we started experiment.com in the early days, there was this community of founders or like science tool builders that were very collaborative.
And this was around, I think, like 2011, right when I graduated college.
And there were, it seemed like there were many conferences where we would attend and other people that were building other science tools would also attend.
And then around 2013, when many of these companies or organizations raised often venture capital, we kind of just like stopped collaborating, stopped talking to each other.
And it almost felt like, because I don't know why, but it felt like everyone was trying to like, conquer this thing that was like science stuff.
And I don't, I think the outcome of that was that we didn't, none of us achieved our goal of democratizing science.
And so this time around, we wanted to create, not only are we building our tool out in the open, so you can go on GitHub and see Jelly's code and it's all open source.
We want to encourage other science founders, other science tool creators to all work together towards this common goal of democratizing science.
So the Slack is, it's mostly people that build tools for scientists, but we see a lot of practicing scientists also in that group.
Nice. I read a few of your blog posts since the launch of the company.
And in one of them, you talk about the capital, big problems that exist in science today.
And a lot of them I found really relatable. Can you tell us a little bit about some of the systemic issues across all these different scientific disciplines?
Sure. The list that we have on this blog post is pretty short.
I think the list could be much longer. The one problem that I think I'm most focused on is that doing science just like, isn't fun.
And it isn't fun for many reasons.
It isn't fun because oftentimes you're doing science by yourself. It isn't very collaborative.
The tools don't really allow you to be that collaborative. Most people are still taking notes in like a paper notebook.
Scientists don't have the tools like Git and GitHub that's used widely across the community.
Other problems in science are scientific publishing is really slow.
If you discover something new, you can't just put it on the web.
I mean, you can, but if you don't stick to the system of publishing a peer -reviewed paper, which often can take months to maybe a year, two years to get your work out there, then you won't collect the, I guess I could call it like points to be able to advance in your career.
The publication credit, the notches on your belt. Let's zoom in a little bit on the problems with scientific publishing.
And this is something that I've spent a good amount of time in research myself.
And I feel like there's something that biologists as a group or a chemist do this quite differently from the physicists who have this whole preprint archive system.
But even a few decades ago, when I was in the research world, open access was kind of this emerging force.
Can you educate our audience on the landscape of scientific publishing and the problems that exist and also how some disciplines do it better than others?
Sure. So the difference between scientific content online or a scientific paper that's online and like all other content is that scientific papers to be accepted by the community as like a thing, it has to be peer-reviewed.
So you have to take your new discovery, which is in the format of a paper, which usually has an introduction methods, data results discussion, and you submit it to a journal.
And then that journal will find other scientists that are qualified to review your work and say like, okay, we checked their work.
It's good. And then once it's between like two to five people have said like, this is good to go, then it will get published in that journal, which would be all great if like it were online and open, but the majority of papers aren't online and open.
And what happens is the scientists that submitted that paper to the journal is submitting to a journal that's often owned by for-profit corporation.
And that for-profit corporation then says we own the copyright to this PDF or paper.
And in order to read this, even if you're the author, you have to pay us like $85.
And the reviewers don't get paid either.
Reviewers don't get paid, authors don't get paid. And the reason why, the way that these corporations make money is they go to the universities and they say, hey, will you pay us a certain amount of money to get access to all of the content that we've collected and like now own?
And so these universities do pay them like millions of dollars annually for contracts, but you're starting to see that shift because in 2019, I believe, the UC system said, we're not going to play this game anymore.
And we're not going to subscribe to the Elsevier contract.
And so then you, now we're starting to see this like fallout of that event.
And I think you're going to see more and more universities follow UC's lead.
So I want to dive in a little bit of, so Jelly is a benefit corp, right?
A public benefit corporation.
So can you tell us a little bit about how that's different from a for-profit versus a non-profit and what impact that has on your overall mission?
So public benefit corporation is kind of new in the United States. Other public benefit corporations are companies like Kickstart or Patagonia.
The only difference between a public benefit corporation is we are a Delaware C-Corp with public benefit thing added on.
And it just means that we have an additional statement on articles of incorporation that say that we have another mission.
I don't think it's enough to be a public benefit corporation because we've never seen a case go to court.
No one's ever said like, oh, you didn't put your public benefit above making money for shareholders.
And so when we started Jelly, we went looking for, I guess, a more robust solution.
And one of the things we came across is this thing called steward ownership.
And steward ownership has two principles.
It just means that the profits of the company always serve the purpose and that the company is always self-governed.
So one of the things that we're exploring right now, and we've had a lot of help from an organization called Purpose Foundation.
They're the ones that have coined the steward ownership term, and they're also one of our investors.
And we're exploring right now how you can create a organization where investors can still make a lot of money from the investment, but the investors, or just by investing capital, doesn't mean that you automatically get management rights in the company.
So one of the things we're exploring is separating management rights from from the rights that allow you to make a return.
So let's dive into the overall mission.
What does the world look like in five years, 10 years, 20 years, if everything goes according to plan in your mission?
So if everything went according to plan, I think I'm much more optimistic that this plan will actually work out, because I've been seeing other projects trying to do the similar things that we're trying to do.
And it's that science doesn't need to be this thing where you're like, okay, now I've discovered this thing.
Let's say we discovered fire-breathing dragons today.
And I write this paper on my laptop by myself.
And then I'm like, I just secretly submit it to this journal. And then those people find five other people to secretly review it.
And then if they think it's good enough, and they believe me that I found this fire-breathing dragon, then a year from now, we'll wait for the printers to print it on this magazine and then mail it to my friends down the hall.
I think all of that will unfortunately slowly move away.
And we're going to see science published in real time as the author is ready.
So if you have a data set, if you have thought, you can just put it online. And you can put it online in a way where your content has a permanent address.
Your DOI? Like a DOI, except for a DOI is managed by the central source, right?
I think what we're going to see is that it's going to be managed in some other way that isn't controlled by some organizations.
So I think we're going to see things like blockchain and these types of things come into play.
I don't exactly know how.
But once you publish your data set, it'll be verified that you're the person that published.
You could be anonymous. It'll be just attached to your account.
And then you can also have it verified by the community. So instead of using this system where you have to submit to a publisher or to a journal, I could put something up and then you could come and see it and be like, oh, yeah, I also saw this fire-breathing dragon in Austin, Texas, and then verify that that thing was real.
And then the community works as a decentralized and distributed network to verify what is what is scientifically sound.
I think we're a long ways away from that.
But I do think if everything goes as planned, that is the best way to do science, I think.
And I think that we see that in the software community and GitHub.
Like I wrote some code yesterday. I put it online and someone else is using it.
And it would be really cool if we could see that for science.
So what's your take? So diving into that a little bit more, what's your take on the preprint archives and the shortcomings as it exists today and also its advantages?
I think that we should all support preprint archives, the more the better.
I also think it's really important to have multiple preprint archives and not just have one centralized source.
The shortcomings of the preprint archives is I'm a fan of preprint archives, but I'm not a fan of PDFs.
And I'm not a fan of like, sticking with this, like, when you share your science, it has to be in a paper format, it has to be a PDF, you can't put any raw data on your data, videos in there.
I think I somebody sent one of our users sent us a PDF to put into Jelly the other day.
And I was like, in this PDF, there are videos except for you have to go and search for the video.
I would like to see preprints be more preprint servers be more progressive and try out those new types of mediums.
But so far, the big ones, they haven't adopted technology like that yet.
Yeah, it'd be really cool to be able to click through, essentially, you know, read somebody's paper and writing and then be able to explore it like an infographic like if you were watching, if you were reading, say, a New York Times article that had all the data that you could page through.
I found it really interesting the way that, you know, the way that the preprint archive has been used since 2020 began with the pandemic has really changed.
Like, you know, you see reporters trawling through the preprint archive.
I subscribe to a newsletter that is curated by Canadian medical students where they summarize all the new preprints that are related to SARS -CoV-2.
These are things that you really didn't see prior to 2020.
Can you tell us a little bit about how 2020 has been for Jelly as a product, as a community, for you as a founder?
Yeah, I think, I mean, we're still really early stage.
So we don't, we're not at this point where we're trying to grow the number of users we're still building.
I think 2020, especially with COVID, just has shown the need for faster distribution of scientific results.
And we need faster distribution of scientific results, because if we get faster distribution of scientific results, then people's lives will be saved.
And that's a positive thing that that's happening.
And I wish that it would happen faster.
And I wish that we didn't need COVID for that to be so front and center. For Jelly, I think the way that COVID has played a role is mostly that Jelly is a tool for distributed teams to collaborate together and like tools like Zoom and Figma.
When everyone is working remote, tools like Figma and Zoom and Jelly just become more obvious to people because you can't be in prison.
In one of your blog posts, I quote, if we could start from scratch and reimagine an ideal version of science that can take us farther, what dials and dots could we reach for as we reimagine the maturity of science?
Can you elaborate on that for our audience?
Sure. I wrote that blog post a long time ago. And I think the one big one is that we talked about earlier is like the structure of the organization and why the standard like startup for profit structure won't work for this.
And I think that's the most, that's like the dial that is hardest to turn because I don't exactly know how to turn it because there aren't very many examples that have like worked in tech.
So most tech companies are just in the United States are for profit corporations and you follow this track.
And for Jelly, if we follow that track and we become a successful corporation that's does the same thing as these publishers, like then at that point, some new startup will have to come and be like, ah, we got to like redo all your stuff.
And so for us, I think the the dial or knob that we're trying to figure out how to turn is like, how do you create a structure that ensures that your community, your team, your profits are always serving your purpose and your mission, which I think is still a still a journey that we're on.
Purpose Ventures, which one of our investors, Purpose Ventures, they're the ones that are pioneering steward ownership.
When I speak with our friend there, Camille, she's always encouraging me and Denny to think creatively.
And she always brings up like, look, Cindy and Denny, this like structure and this knob that you're trying to turn isn't something that people know how to turn yet.
And so. She always encourages us to get creative with what will work best for the scientific community and and I think go go from there instead of look at other examples, because there just aren't very many examples in America.
Well, thank you for that. I want to shift gears a little bit and shine the spotlight on your own personal career journey from, you know, now and jelly rewind to experiment.com and then rewind before that to research and and how you got into caving.
Can you give us a brief overview of your of your career trajectory over time?
There. So I grew up in Seattle, Washington. I went to University of Washington for my undergrad and during my undergrad, I didn't really know what I wanted to study.
But there is this program that Howard Hughes Medical Institute put together that was like, let's fund these kids that like don't have a science background but have an interest in science.
So that's how I got involved in the lab.
And I started working in this bioengineering lab where we were designing a universal vaccine for well, it's universal for everything.
So my main project was we took we take out your white blood cells, your immune cells, and then we'll show it things like tuberculosis or show it like specific cancer, and then teach it that cancer and put it back in your body.
And then your body is like, okay, I understand cancer.
Now this specific type of cancer, and I can kill it when it's in your body.
So that's how I got started in science. And that summer, my co founder, Denny and I, we, I don't know why we decided to do this.
But in the evenings, we're like, let's go work in another lab.
And so we worked in David Baker's lab in the biochemistry department.
And David Baker is one of the professors responsible for developing folded, which is the largest protein folding crowdsource protein folding video game.
And so anyone can go online and you can visualize these proteins, you can change out parts, and design proteins that then we test in the lab.
And that summer, it was me, Denny, my little brother, who's like 17, and a few other friends.
And Professor Baker, he was like, Oh, we have this project that the US Army put together for us.
And they gave us a grant, but no one wants it.
Why don't you guys try to work on it. So the goal was to design a therapeutic for anthrax.
This was maybe 10 years after 9-11. And so we were like, okay, let's use this video game.
And we made 87 different mutants of a specific protein.
And we tested those in lab and two of them were able to do the intended thing that we wanted to do.
So anthrax bacteria has this protective coat on the outside of the bacteria.
And it's just, it's mostly sugar. And because it has a sugar on its protective coat, when it enters your body, your body's like as normal.
And so it takes over and kills the host. So what our protein did is it cuts off the sugar on the outside of the bacteria.
And then your immune system's like, Oh, this is bad, we should kill it.
And we presented that project at the largest synthetic biology competition at MIT that year and won the, I think it was like best health and medicine.
And then the year after we won the global championship.
And that was that experience was the experience that made me think oh, maybe I as a 20-year-old kid and my brother who's 17 in high school, maybe we can do real science that is on the same level as people that have been doing this for decades.
And I think what really made me confident in that is that my brother ended up publishing a paper in a high impact journal at the age of 17 for that anthrax project.
And I was like, wait, my brother who's 17, who's like just hanging out playing video games in the summer can like come to this lab and then publish a paper that's not just a pre-print or like some report, but something that like other scientists can build off of.
That experience is what led me and Denny to really focus on experiment, which is a crowdfunding platform for science.
So we were like, well, if my brother Sean can do this and other people like Sean could also do this, then let's try to democratize funding for anyone that has good ideas.
So experiment as a project has raised almost $10 million for small scientific projects.
So it's like $4,000 to $5,000.
They do the research, they share the results back with the donors.
And working on experiment and seeing all of those scientists like bring those projects to life, I think is what led me to switch gears and focus on Jelly, which is really about building tools, workflow tools to make science more fun for the individual, but also more fun when you work collaboratively.
Jelly as an idea was not, it's not an idea that like came up two or three years ago.
It's an idea that came up the first year that we started experiment.
And it was inspired by me quitting my job in the lab because I wanted to work on experiment and going to my professor and being like, hey, Professor Breyers, here are all my notes.
Like here's my paper lab notebook, here are my napkins and here are my Excel spreadsheets.
Good luck. I hope that somebody else works on this project. And I knew that in that moment that no one was going to be able to reproduce my work.
Like even if I went back today and was like, oh, let me try to reproduce my work, it would be really, really challenging.
It's probably better if I just started from scratch.
So that year, actually, when we were starting experiment, I had considered building a GitHub for science.
And we built a prototype for this hackathon in Seattle.
And then we won that hackathon. And that's one of the reasons why we ended up in the Bay Area is that hackathon sent us to the Bay Area.
And when the judges were like, are you going to keep working on this project?
We're like, no, we have another project called experiment.
So we're going to work on that one first.
And so in 2019, I finally was like, okay, I'm going to go back to that project.
That project is a much more jelly as a project is a much more daunting project than experiment.
And I said, we're going to try and we're going to support everyone else who's also trying even if they're competitive.
So it looks like we have an audience question.
And by the way, for viewers jumping in, we haven't you can either type you can either email or call in a question at this number.
It's also down below.
Let me hit play on here. Hey, this is Jason calling from San Francisco. Great session.
Really enjoying this conversation. Jason, Cindy. Here's my question.
Cindy, what are your thoughts on pre registering experiments? And does that play into your platform at all?
Thanks a lot. Thanks, Jason. So the question is, what are our thoughts on pre registering experiments?
I think that people should pre register their experiments, but only if the author wants to.
So I don't think it's helpful to say like, everyone has to do this.
But I do think we should make the tools that allow people to register their experiments, register their data sets whenever they're ready.
And I think that a big difference that I see with Jelly versus other open access projects is we're really focused on like doing what's best for the author and what will help author's like creative juices flow.
So yes to pre registering experiments, but only when the author is ready.
Well, thank you. It looks like we are off the air now. And that concludes our show.
Thank you so much for joining us. Thanks, Jay. This is fun.