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💡 Founder Spotlight: James Sinka

Presented by James Sinka, João Tomé
Originally aired on 

This week is Cloudflare's Founder Spotlight on Cloudflare TV, featuring dozens entrepreneurs from across the tech industry and beyond!

This session features James Sinka. James is a scientist turned repeat startup founder, with a passion for deeply complex and technological startups. Having created startups in both climate tech and human performance, James now runs the Deep Tech fellowship at On Deck, where he works with scientists and engineers to commercialize their new innovations.

Visit the Founder Spotlight hub to find the rest of these featured conversations — and tune in all week for more!

Founder Spotlight

Transcript (Beta)

Hello, everyone, and welcome. I'm João Tomé. I'm a content writer here at Cloudflare and welcome to Founder Spotlight.

We continue our conversations that shine the spotlight on the stories of startup founders all over the world.

Today, we have the co-founder of the Deep Tech Fellowship at the startup OnDeck.

He's also co-founder of other startups, James Sinka.

Hello, James, and thank you for coming to our show.

Thank you so much for having me. It's a pleasure to be here. So let's start.

Where are you? Actually, I did a segment here on Cloudflare TV with someone who in India.

Where are you now? So right now I'm in Boston, Massachusetts. I did a tour through the US.

I was born in Brooklyn, spent a lot of time in upstate New York, a few years in San Francisco, did a year in Texas, and now back to my origin in the northeast of the US.

Nice. So it's cold there, definitely, this part of the year.

But can you explain to us, before we go to your amazing experience, can you explain to us shortly how your involvement on the OnDeck startup, on this fellowship called Deep Tech, started and what it's about, really?

For sure. So both of the startups I had started previously were both scientific inventions that I had developed.

Both of them actually happened to be at undergraduate. My background is in chemistry and materials engineering.

And so figuring out how to take a scientific invention into a startup was actually a surprisingly intense challenge for me.

There's a lot of information you can find out there about how you can start a software company.

At this point, it's relatively well documented. But that wasn't the case for how you would start a solar cell printing business or a 3D printing company.

And so through the process of learning how to do hardware innovation and create companies around them, I took those learnings and co -founded the Deep Tech Fellowship at OnDeck to teach other deep technologists, other scientists, other engineers, how they could also do the same thing and basically the common pitfalls of starting a company that is deeply rooted in hardware and deep technologies.

So examples of that are artificial intelligence, robotics, hardware-enabled platforms, that'd be like semiconductors, biotechnology, space.

Those are all uniquely challenging sectors because not only are they expensive to work in, but the cost of experimentation, of iteration is really high, unlike with software where you're like, oh, we can just change our website and in a couple of minutes you do it for pennies.

Interesting. In terms of the OnDeck startup, how many years the company has and when do you enter the company to do this fellowship really?

Yeah. So OnDeck started three years ago and initially they were focused that they only had one fellowship.

It was the OnDeck Founders Fellowship.

And so it started off as like a dinner series where a bunch of folks that were either starting companies or interested in starting companies would come together just to have dinner and discuss what their experiences were.

And it turned out that doing that, putting all these like-minded smart people in the same room together, you got to share so much unique knowledge.

So these are things you can't easily go out and Google, which might be like, how did you think through your startup idea?

How did you decide that this was the thing you're going to do? Because often startup founders have a lot of different ideas that we could possibly work on.

It's a very classic founder trope of just like, there's so many things that excite me, so many places I could go.

And so after- The importance of focus there, right?

For sure. Absolutely. But uniquely, if you talk to someone who started a company, they can help you think through some of the basic assumptions of what might be a good idea versus a bad idea.

So a classic example of this is if you tell your startup idea to a friend of yours, because they're your friend, they're probably going to like your idea no matter what it is, just because they like you.

Or your mom, your mom's going to be very excited about anything that you're working on.

And so using your friends and your family as a check, a barometer for, is this a good idea?

Is not a good idea. Instead, what you should be doing is going out and seeing if you can pre-sell whatever idea it is you have in your head to someone.

And ideally they would give you money for you to build that thing and give it to them.

And so that's something that seasoned entrepreneurs, people who have done this before can advise you on.

And it turned out that creating a ecosystem where other entrepreneurs could share their experiences with people that wanted to start companies was really beneficial for everyone involved.

Because when you teach something, you also become a better master of that thing yourself.

So from there, OnDeck became or created a fellowship, basically like a educational bootcamp style program where we grew from, I think it was 10 people a year to now over 9,000 people have gone through the OnDeck programs as a whole.

And there was strong bias, like I mentioned in the beginning, where there's a lot of people that were in the software industry.

And so as more and more hardware people wanted to find a community and wanted to get involved, but there wasn't a lot of hardware experts, OnDeck decided, okay, let's see if we can make a fellowship or a segment we can isolate for these people, the right kind of expertise, the right kind of mentors, the right kind of community that you need for, like I mentioned, space, robotics, AI, microbiology, so on and so forth.

And so that's what we built. In April of this year, we sat down, thought through what the right things we wanted to teach to new time founders, how we could bring the connections of the people that we met in industry in.

So as an example, we bring venture capitalists like Dalian from Founders Fund.

He happens to be the co -founder of a company that is printing in space.

So literally 3D printers. 3D printers, yeah. Exactly. In space. Because the microgravity environment allows you to make materials that would fall apart under earth's gravity.

So it turns out that earth has enough gravity to, at a molecular level, at a very, very small atomic basis, actually make atoms not coalesce in quite the right way.

And they fall further away. But if you can do this in space, because there's not gravity there, you can actually make really, really perfect crystalline structures.

And so that's an example of some of a technology where there isn't really a playbook.

You can't just like Google, how do I start a factory in space?

And so having someone that can talk about that experience, how they thought through the process, we realized was really important to inspire and inform the next generation of people who want to build in the space industry.

And again, that type of expertise also applies to making new types of semiconductors or biotechnology, artificial intelligence, so on and so forth.

That's very interesting. In terms of the process, you build your own companies before.

You had two companies before. You went to the Y Combinator. I think also that helped you as an entrepreneur.

But in terms of your experience as an entrepreneur in those two companies, doing two different things, how was your experience?

Well, it didn't took off, of course, but what did you learn from there?

And I can give you an example. In the previous conversation I had, we were talking about how even when launching products or companies, you must fail fast, not to take too long.

If it's going to fail, it's better to fail fast, to learn what you have to learn fast and go to the next one after.

What do you think about it?

I think that that, as an example, is a really great piece of advice. One thing that I really learned that I didn't understand how important it was, was truly the power of talking to your users, of talking to customers.

It's very easy to build a product that you have a vision for and that you're very excited about.

But at the end of the day, if all you're making is a product that you alone love and can use, then you'll never be able to satisfy the needs of a market of lots of customers.

And it might sound really simple. You're like, oh yeah, of course you would talk to your customers.

But the kinds of questions that you ask matter a lot, right?

Like, do you like this? And similarly to, like I mentioned earlier, talking to your mom or talking to friends, people don't want to be mean.

They don't want to say like, no, no, no, I don't like this.

Here's what I don't like about it. And so you have to be very intentional about the things that you ask in this regard.

So for context, my second startup, we, at the end, we transitioned into being sleep coaches that plugged into the wearable data we would get from sleep trackers, like the O-ring, Fitbit, Loop, and Apple Watch.

And a mistake that we made was asking people how they liked the product instead of asking them what it looks like when they want to improve their sleep.

And that might sound like a pretty minute difference there.

But in the case of asking what it is that they want to do, it would help us figure out how can we empower them, how can we accelerate this behavior that they already naturally have, that is already something that comes to mind and doesn't add more friction.

It's just what they were going to do anyways. But we make it a little bit easier as opposed to trying to create a whole new behavior from scratch they're not familiar with, they're not used to, and trying to get them to get used to this new behavior.

And so that would be something where talking to someone that could be your customer would be the difference between making the right product and making the wrong product.

Interesting. And there, like you were saying, you are bringing people to a company that are very focused on a task, on a speciality, something that is really particular in those cases, the sleep tracking area.

But you also had a solar panels company, right? Absolutely, yeah.

So the first startup, we were printing solar panels. And the vision there was solar is one of the most clean sources of energy that humans have ever invented.

And as a technology, it was first done in the early 70s, 1970s. So it's out of category, like 50 years old.

And it's been the same dominant type of solar, which is silicon.

So the panels that you see on someone's roof or on a solar farm, almost always, I would say 95% of the time are silicon solar panels.

The downside of these panels is that they're heavy for one thing.

And the second is they are traditionally very energy intensive and potentially wasteful to make.

So the amount of energy that it requires to go in and make a solar panel is actually pretty high.

And so if you think about it, you don't want to pollute in order to try and create renewable energy.

It's a little bit of a chicken and egg situation.

I mean, since as panels have become more and more efficient, more and more powerful, as the technology has gotten better, that trade-off has definitely transitioned.

But the vision that we had and the innovation was what if you could take the same hardware that would be printing newspapers.

And instead of printing inks that were black and white or different colors for like a magazine, you printed dyes that would absorb light and create electricity.

And it turns out that that technology is feasible.

It can be done. Not only that, but there's also hardware not being used as with the modern world.

A lot of newspapers, a lot of magazine companies are no longer printing as many magazines and newspapers as they used to be.

Everything's digital, right? And so we knew that there was hardware that was just sitting idly that could be readily used.

One of the people that we reached out to work with was Kodak.

And if you know that name, they invented the cameras where you take Kodak moments.

Kodak moments, yeah. Yeah, exactly. Yes, yes, yes, yes.

The film that they would produce is layered, layer by layer. And it turns out if you layer the right materials, one on top of the next, you can make a solar panel.

So you can imagine, you can envision seeing panels being printed like you would reams of newspaper.

And even though the technology for this works, because this was a company, a business, I had to very quickly learn about economics, which was something that as a scientist, I didn't have much of any exposure to at all.

And so when you start to look at the economics of solar as an industry, again, if you look, if you think about panels that you have on someone's roof or on a farm, the panel itself, the thing that absorbs the light that makes electricity is roughly 5% of the cost of installing solar.

The vast majority, about 50%, is the manual labor cost of going to install those panels themselves.

So the margin of profitability of innovating on new panels is so slim and so small that it was extremely difficult to build a big, profitable business.

When we projected out what it looked like for our panels to become more and more efficient for us to print more and more and more of these, we realized that actually silicon panels were getting better and better and better.

And so we couldn't in the five or 10 years down the line that it would take to really start to make a bunch of these in the same way that Apple makes millions of phones, but when they first made the first iPhone, they maybe made a million or 500,000 or something like that.

We realized that economically, we wouldn't be able to compete with silicon.

And so even though, again, the technology was really brilliant and it was a lot of fun to build this company, because at the end of the day, you're a startup founder and you have to make a profit, we moved away from that business.

In terms of those businesses, what do you take from them as a founder?

Of course, you can have patents. I think you have a patent in your name throughout the work you did in previous startups, but as lessons, what do you take from those experiences?

Most founders say normally you don't have success in your first startup.

That's true. And if you look at the statistics, starting a startup is hard.

It's an endeavor that many fail at. And so you shouldn't be ashamed of failing.

One of the things that I love about the mindset of Silicon Valley is your failures don't matter because the next time you can succeed, there's a possibility for success.

In a lot of other industries and spaces, the number of times that you make a mistake are really counted deeply against you.

You can imagine, it's not like driving a car, where if you get into a car accident, it's a really bad situation you want to avoid.

With startups, assuming you were honest, you didn't cheat, you didn't steal, you didn't lie, you gave it your best shot, you really tried.

Everyone that worked with you, the customers that you worked with, the investors that you found, the co -founders, the people that you hired, so on and so forth, they're all going to see your passion, your grit, your energy, the work that you put in.

And at the end of all that experience, you've come out knowing more than you knew initially, like you're on a learning trajectory the entire time through.

So if you can take what you learned, right, like I gave you the example of talking to a potential customer and trying to sell them an idea, as opposed to just telling your mom, hey, do you like this, what I'm working on?

If you can take those learnings and you can compound them, the idea is eventually you will finally make all of the correct moves based on your experience when you find the right idea and the right startup.

So I believe, and I've seen this as well, I have friends who have started several companies.

One friend of mine right now is on his fourth company, his fourth startup, and they raised $7 million this year.

So it has been his most successful startup ever.

And he attributes a lot of his ability to have gotten there, to having had the experiences with the previous startups that also weren't billion dollar companies.

Hmm, exactly, exactly. I was also curious to know in terms of you work with scientists, you are a scientist yourself.

And of course, there's a lot of in the academia, we know that a lot of people get out to work in companies, others now more than probably ever want to build their own companies.

Where do you think, where is the line where an experienced guy in terms as a scientist wants to build their own company?

Where do you think is the line for them to go ahead or stop and know where to stop?

And when you say know when to stop, do you mean because they've started and they see, oh, it might not work?

Or do you mean when they have the idea to say, I want to pursue this, I'm going to stop working in academia, and I'm going to go all in on the startup?

Or even if they really should be entrepreneurs, because there are people, it's a lot of work, like you said, there are people there probably isn't good for them in terms of what they should do for their lives.

So where do you draw the line in those terms? For sure, that's a really, really good question.

And I think it's actually something that isn't spoken enough about in the entrepreneurial community, because to your point, we're seeing a lot of attractiveness in the portrayal of entrepreneurs and of startups in social media and pop culture.

And it's true, the high moments are high, like the good moments do really feel good.

But the painful low moments are very, very, very stressful.

And so because of that, you have to really think that doing a startup is the best possible thing for you, and that there's no other better way for you to bring whatever dream it is you have to life.

So going back to the scientist, if you as a scientist have enough funding from writing grants, from doing corporate ventures or work, and you don't need a team of 100 people, let's say, or a ton of millions of dollars of venture capital, and you can do all the work that you want to do with the 500k grants that you get every year, then starting a startup is putting unnecessary weight and burden and stress on your life.

And to that point, I think that not everyone handles stress the same way.

I think it's important for you to understand that you shouldn't sacrifice yourself and your livelihood just to start a company, because it seems like a great idea.

A lot of people don't take as good care of themselves, because they're busy going all in for a startup.

And that's a very real situation.

I've done that myself. And so if there's another way to do it besides starting a company, you should explore that path.

You should try that way.

Where it becomes clear that a startup needs to be started is when it seems like there's no other possible option.

A classic example that I like to think about is with Elon Musk starting, or co-founding, I should say, Tesla.

When Tesla was first started, they were licensing technology for their electric motors from a company called RC Propulsion.

And initially, they asked RC Propulsion, hey, would you guys mind making a car?

Instead of just making this part of a car, would you consider starting up an entire car manufacturing arm like Chevy, Chrysler, GM, BMW, et cetera?

And they tried very, very hard. Elon and the entire Tesla founding team tried their hardest to get RC Propulsion to actually start the company and to make a automotive manufacturing organization.

But they just didn't want to.

And so only by trying and seeing that there was no other way besides doing it himself that Elon decided, OK, I have to do this myself.

So for the scientist that's also wondering, well, should I start a company?

It looks really cool.

It's like, if there's other ways to do it, do it the other way. But if you've tried and it seems like there's no other possible avenue to bring the vision that you see that the world can be to life, a startup is a really, really great way to do that.

And in terms of sharing ideas, of course, scientists, even entrepreneurs, share their ideas.

How do you think in terms of building that company, you should bring the best people, but also motivated people into your realm in terms of building that?

Not being alone could also be important, right? Yeah, yeah, definitely.

And I think that there's something you touched on, which is an important trade-off that founders have to make, which is, how do you pick between a candidate that doesn't have a lot of experience, but is extremely excited and is extremely hungry to work really hard versus someone that has a lot of experience in the space that you're working in, but maybe isn't so passionate and crazy excited?

At the end of the day, both of those people have their unique value to the company, where sometimes you need experience because you're running across a problem you never have before.

And then sometimes you just need people who are as passionate and want to work on this problem 24-7.

And that passion of wanting to work on the problem 24-7 is sometimes what gets founders in trouble, right?

And where you stop taking care of yourself, right? You stop eating, you stop working out, you stop seeing your friends and your family.

It's just like you're completely consumed.

That's a common side effect of starting a company. But again, to your point, you can't do it alone.

And so figuring out when you need which one is a situational challenge.

There's no hard and fast rule, but you cannot build a company without other great people.

And so one thing that I really try to encourage entrepreneurs and founders is to talk about their ideas, especially at the early stages, right?

If you have a really advanced product or really advanced company, they may be talking about the special secret sauce that you use to make your phone 10 times faster than someone else's, isn't a good idea because someone might steal that.

But at the very early stages, because companies fail so often, most people are too busy doing their own thing, minding their own business to want to steal your idea, let alone put in all the effort that it requires to start a company to try and steal your idea.

So there's this overemphasis on, oh no, if I talk about what I'm doing, there's an opportunity for someone to take it from me.

And so it's fine to keep a certain small kernel of the very core base of how you're doing it secret.

But you can talk about, as an example, Tesla could say at the early stages, hey, we're trying to start an electric car company.

They don't have to say, oh, we're buying these components from this other company and we're putting it together in this way.

Exactly, exactly. These are the batteries we're using and here's where we're getting them from.

No, no, no, no. But if you talk about like, hey, I'm really passionate about electric cars and I'm starting a company there, then it does two things for you.

One, it allows you to find other people who are also passionate about that thing.

And again, like I mentioned earlier, you cannot build a great company without great people.

The people make the company.

And then the second is you can't easily find other evangelists, other people that are also in love with the idea who will introduce you to potential customers, potential investors, potential hires that you can make if you don't talk about what it is that you're doing.

And so I encourage founders to be excited and passionate and to let that show through instead of being shy about whatever their idea is.

Makes sense. Do not let them inside themselves in those matters. We're two minutes and a half already up.

I want to ask you also in terms of areas, you probably have a lot of startups you help, a lot of entrepreneurs, a lot of people you help in some way.

There's a lot of talk about climate change as an area of interest, but there's also other areas right now, space you talked also.

What are the main areas you would say for a founder to look more because there's good business and good chances there?

Absolutely. So you touched on one, which is climate change. There's been a huge interest in companies and people wanting to put in extra effort to find products that are sustainable.

So if you look even at Google maps now, they'll suggest routes that consume less gasoline, even if they take a little longer to help people make the eco conscious choice.

And so because of the interest culturally in caring about climate change, right, even 10 years ago, climate change was still something that not everyone believed in.

And even still, some people don't, but by and large, there's so much interest because we only have one planet.

A lot of people understand that. And so helping us transition as a society to a renewable energy system, but also how to recycle plastics is something that is really interesting in demand.

And one example of that is there's a company called AMP Robotics that using robotics and computer vision and artificial intelligence, they were able to make unprofitable recycling, actually make a profit because the robots could actually run 24 seven.

And it was more effective than using a human to do that process.

So that touches actually into the second point, which is automation.

What's beautiful is, is as human beings don't have to do as much of the really brunt work, like we used to as as a species be entirely farmers.

And now that that everyone doesn't have to farm, there are people that can do other more creative and exploratory paths for problems they can solve.

James, sorry, we're running out of time. I just want to say, thank you so much for your time, and hope you enjoyed it too.

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