Unexpected turns… My SILTA F22 experience by Sam Sihvonen

Unexpected turns…  My SILTA F22 experience by Sam Sihvonen

Starting a company while dropping med school was not the turn I was expecting in my life.

In the Fall of 2021, I started medical school in Helsinki, the most prestigious med school in Finland. Last wishes of becoming an entrepreneur were from my Aaltoes board year in 2017. Now, the point was to become a doctor, finish a PhD on the same day as graduating med school and start specializing in to an area which I found intriguing. The days of medical school were full of rhythm and order. Going for a run in the morning or the evening, doing school from morning till around noon and then working part time at Meru Health.

That plan started eroding on a day in April 2022 when I attended an event about antibiotic resistance. I realized that this is a problem that would affect society, the economy and people in a dramatic way if left unattended. I was intrigued, I wanted to build something. There had to be a way to make a dent into the problem of resistance, to have some kind of impact. My first thought was to make the diagnostics faster (which, like most first ideas, has been scrapped since). Armed with a computer science bachelor’s degree, I knew I could make a difference.

After the event, I cold called one of the professors. The professor answered on the first call, and we arranged a meeting with the two of us to talk more about the topic. We talked about antibiotic resistance, DNA sequencing and models to predict resistance. After the meeting, I read articles every evening, and learned more and more about the subject. I had planned a hackathon for myself the weekend school ended. I remember telling a friend: “If I succeed, I’m not coming back to school in the Fall.”

Best way to get lucky – work hard, trust your intuition, stay tough (and also just get lucky).

First obstacles, first wins:

I programmed that weekend, and I was done in a day. It was exhilarating to have built something concrete for the longest time. The software prototype predicted resistance from the bacterial DNA with 96% accuracy. I wanted to share this with people. I called another professor and arranged a meeting to show what I had managed to create. He was not impressed and mentioned this was being done already. Ouch.

Same week, I got an email from the neurosurgery department asking to join them to start my thesis work there. It was something I had been hoping for a long time, but at the same time, building something from scratch that potentially had a world changing impact felt so compelling. This was all a test, I knew: so I declined the offer. The next week I met with, Kristian Ranta, co-founder & CEO of Meru Health. He was excited about my project and told me to keep pushing. He said I should apply to this program called Silta.

The second I looked at what the program was about, I knew I had to apply. It was the only way for me to start the company with 100%. I think that by staying in Finland, I would’ve cheated myself about being able to start the company and doing medical school on the side. For me, Silta symbolized jumping into the chaotic nature of entrepreneurship and the first true test that I had to ‘pass’, by deciding to go and do the company full time, before there would be any kind of success possible. Choose your sacrifice.

Applying to Silta was thrilling. Building the first pitch deck, seeing my own work of the past few months drafted into just a few slides. The first time I was putting myself in play for real. The questions asked in the application varied from why your company will succeed to telling about your own background. It was refreshing and challenging to understand your own thinking on why you’re applying. And on a beautiful evening in June, I clicked send.

I listed three main goals for Silta: 1. Build a network of people, who could be relevant for our company. 2. Enable the network to help us get started with finding first pilots 3. Finding the first pilot for our product. But in the midst of these three very actionable goals, I had a secret one: to test, would I have what it takes to build a company. If I’d be able to get something meaningful done within the few months, I’d be convinced that maybe I’d the right person to pursue this particular idea.

Leaving to California

I left Finland at the end of August with ambivalent emotions. Leaving everything in Finland behind, but starting a company was one of the most thrilling thoughts I had at that moment. I knew I had a month less than everybody else, so I had to use my time better than anyone else. That’s why on the second day after landing, I went to Stanford for my first event. I was so nervous to talk to anyone right after the speeches that I just waited in the lobby for the person that I wanted to speak with to come out. I realized I had to up my game with being ok with talking to new people, such Finnish problems.

Some of the best company next steps happened when I was on long bicycling rides during the weekends. Here’s a view right before a 15-minute downhill to Muir Woods.

Luckily, from very early on, I attended a lot of random events, that I somehow found interesting. Being in environments, where you don’t have to be the expert about your company eased me into being more extroverted and more comfortable talking with these super smart people from Silicon Valley, where 95% of people are doing something extremely cool, like building rockets or curing cancer. It’s most definitely a huge mindshift for a person to be surrounded by such ambitious and smart people. You start to think very differently about yourself and your goals. In these kinds of environments, I met a lot of cool people this way, and a doctor I met on a trail run led us to finding our first pilot.

Learnings from the Bay Area

Being a founding CEO or a founder in general requires you to be a networking machine. Ultimately, your network is everything you have as initial credibility when you’re building a company. You have to think what you need and who could help out with that. But most likely no one will help you, if you haven’t helped anyone before. Some people will always be more helpful than others, but one should never forget reciprocity, and the understanding that everyone is just trying to progress and feel important, so you should help people do that. This applies to the founding team, potential advisors, investors, employees, customers, patients. Everyone.

Being in Silicon Valley forces you to think like this, otherwise you will not get anywhere. One of the advisors of Silta, Jyri Engeström, mentioned in an early call with us that the most important rule in the US is to be more interested in other people than yourself. In general, I think, that’s a very good attitude for life. In an environment like Silicon Valley, I personally encounter quite a lot of imposter syndrome, but focusing on other people’s benefit and doing my best at that every day seemed to be the most potent medicine for it.

Next steps…

Our amazing founding team has been hurdling over obstacles, building our product and findings users. We’ve already managed to find our first users in the EU and US. Advisors helping our company have been instrumental in finding our first users. We’re on an exciting track to make a dent in to the antibiotic resistance problem and at the same time, reinvent the way bacterial genomics is managed. We wrote a blog post on our company website explaining what our next steps will be.

“Marc: “Do you know the best thing about startups?”

Ben: “What?”

Marc: “You only ever experience two emotions: euphoria and terror. And I find that lack of sleep enhances them both.”

Quote from: “Hard things about hard things” by Ben Horowitz, couldn’t be more true.