Mariana Matus - CEO & Co-Founder @ Biobot Analytics
"As a founder, there are always fires. But, I first have to take care of myself, and then I will be able to take care of the company."
Mariana Matus was born in Mexico City, studied college at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México and received a Masters at Wageningen University in the Netherlands before coming to MIT for her PhD. Discovering her entrepreneurial spirit, Mariana is now the co-founder of Biobot Analytics, a company that develops cutting-edge technology to bring wastewater epidemiology to cities.
Tell us about your background? What inspired your love of science?
Before college, I didn’t know that science was a career option. I chose a degree (Genomic Sciences) that would allow me to take a lot of subjects that I loved (math, biology, programming). It was through this program that I discovered the field of research. What motivated me to go down that path was the intellectual challenge- I enjoyed learning new things and meeting interesting people. Thinking that you will discover something that no one else has done before- that is exciting.
I am actually the first person in my family that has pursued a scientific career. My grandparents didn’t even finish elementary school. My parents attended college, and I pursued graduate school. I have been discovering first hand what it means to be a scientist, because I didn’t know anyone who did science for a living.
I graduated and decided to do a Master’s Degree abroad to combine my genomics background with my passion for environmental sciences. I realized I wanted to make something tangible with my skills and thought a PhD would give me the time to explore career options.
How did you select where you wanted to pursue a PhD and the type of work you would focus on in your PhD?
After my first year, I realized I was very interested in microbiology and its relation to human health. This helped to inform my work. In my third year of grad school, I started working with other students on a side project that we wanted to grow into a startup. We ended up parting ways but the experience showed me how much I enjoyed entrepreneurship and that there is a lot of potential in the human microbiome field.
You are now the co-founder of Biobot Analytics. Can you tell us about the founding story and what excites you about the opportunity?
Newsha, my co-founder, and I met as research collaborators. I started this work as part of my PhD in Computational Biology at MIT. I became fascinated with the idea of extracting information about human health from wastewater, got a grant to support the work and started a collaboration with Senseable City Lab and Newsha. Over time, we realized we were excited about starting a company, and passionate about the work we had been doing together. We complement each other very well, in both skills and personalities. And we both believe in the technology we are building- that it will be present in cities all over the world, and that it will help them to collect intelligence that make healthier communities.
We started by entering pitch competitions and other programs on campus. This gave us a safe space, to get to know each other as co-founders and think about our work as a company instead of a research project. It helped us make the jump and commit.
Has there been anything that has surprised you about building a company?
Three things. I am very used to communicating with other scientists. But in starting a company, I had to relearn how to communicate with people outside of that sphere.
Last year has also been challenging for me personally, as I balance finishing my PhD and ramping up the company. It has been crucial for my cofounder to be understanding.
Finally, if you are starting a venture with a very strong social mission, many people may automatically assume that you are a non-profit.
There has been a lot of focus on male successes in science- how do you ensure you have a seat at the table?
I don’t think too much about it. If I think about it, then it will be hold me back. Sometimes you find people that will not respond well to your actions, but more often, you find that most people are completely fine and see you as an equal contributor.
I try to focus on my work and let it speak for itself.
What matters is choosing who to work with; watch how they treat you and other women, so you know what you are getting into.
On the side, you are a mentor at 1000 Dreamers, 1000 Leaders. Why does this initiative matter to you?
The program is a national scholarship fund for undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children and are protected from deportation under DACA. When I learned about this program, I felt that it was a great way to help kids. The participants are young people in the middle of this controversial program, and are looking for help. Being a dreamer, isn’t something that people from the Mexican-American community talk about, so I was excited to get to know more people from this community. The woman I was helping was finishing undergrad. We made a plan on how to best use her next year to increase her chances of getting into Medical School. It was a great opportunity that I was happy to invest my time in.
Have you had any important mentors in your career in academia or at Biobot that have been influential in your decisions?
This doesn’t happen as much in Mexico. It was new to me coming to the United States, where people of different stages of their career help each other. It was actually a mentor in the Netherlands who encouraged me to apply to MIT. I didn’t think it was worth applying, but I had a mentor who pushed me.
As you think about starting Biobot and creating a culture, how do you think about instilling diversity in the company? And how do you think we can instill more diversity in the founding community?
Encourage more diversity in founders. Entrepreneurship grows in clusters. It may be something that has to do with watching a friend do it, then you realize you can do it too. There is inspiration that comes from seeing someone you know try it.
I was president of the MIT Mexican Association last year. I get invited to a lot of events to talk about my experience. I sometimes talk to people within MIT, but they also have guests, young Mexican college or high school students visiting Boston. I heard many young women come to me to say, I feel I can do this. That is powerful. It is important to have those forums for people to meet and inspire each other.
What is one industry trend that you are most excited about?
The effort to provide health data directly to patients. Due to regulations, even if you collect health data from someone, you can’t show it back to them because it is considered a diagnosis and is therefore regulated.
Do you have a favorite article from the past few months?
These two recent articles were inspiring as they speak of the massive need and opportunity to improve urban life:
Any female entrepreneurs or investors you would most like to meet and chat with?
The founder of 23andMe, Anne Wojcicki.
Do you have a spirit animal?
I think I would be an eagle.
Best piece of advice you have ever received?
It is important to take care of myself as a person. My wellness as an individual comes first. You know when you get on the plane, and they tell you that in case of emergency, you first put on your mask and then you help others. As a founder, stuff is always needed from you. There are always fires. But, I first have to take care of myself, and then I will be able to take care of the company.
Want to learn more about Biobot Analytics? Check out its website.