Leadership Series: Full-time Phage Scientist, Part-time Nature Lover

November 29, 2022
Catie Tanji, Interviewing Dr. Nathan Brown, Co-Founder + CSO, Parallel Health

Hi, Nathan! Tell me about yourself. Where did you grow up? Where did you go to school? 

I grew up in rainy Corvallis, Oregon, which is a gorgeous little university town. I also went to undergraduate there for microbiology. I later went to Moscow, Russia and worked at the NIH for a year after graduating. I got into phage therapy while doing research in Russia. After that, I did my PhD at the University of Pittsburgh where I studied tissue regeneration. Then, I went back to Oregon State to finish my phage work. In the UK, I was fortunate to receive a grant from the Gates Foundation to do phage research. 

Earlier you went to study phages in Russia. What did you discover? What was it like there?

I went to the national libraries in Moscow and the Central State medical school library and looked through the card catalogs since databases weren’t digital yet. I ended up getting more data from the NIH and when I translated it, I learned Russia had been using phages for wound patients with exceptional results. I loved the culture in Moscow – the ballet, museums, and art galleries. The metro is also quite the experience!

You have an extensive academic and work history in different countries and companies. Can you tell me a little about how it was starting a company during covid?

It was crazy! After leaving my last job, I started thinking about what to do next. I wanted to continue working with phages so I built a server to see if skin microbiome tests were something we could do. It was a bit stressful during an uncertain period, but worth it.

We heard from Natalise that you met at your previous company. What qualities did you look for in a co-founder? How did you know the other person was “the one”?

At the time, I was a scientist looking for a business partner. As a PhD, you are given the psychological tools to do something novel, take risks, fail, and move forward as an entrepreneur. You can’t be a stranger to failure. However, in practice, you may not know business norms or where to start. So, in addition to accelerators and mentorship, a business partner is really helpful. At our previous company, Natalise and I bonded over our curiosities, nature, and the various wonders in life. In particular, Natalise is an exceptional and experienced business woman with superb intuition and is truly grounded. She knows how to set reasonable expectations, negotiate, and has a calming influence. We also agreed on our shared values and vision on how to build the team.

Similarly, as you’re building Parallel’s team, what have you been looking for in potential employees?

When we were first looking for people to join the team, we wanted people who liked working with us, liked their role, and believed in the mission. Natalise and I want to cultivate a culture of respect, transparency, and ownership. Even though there’s a hierarchy, we all listen to each other equally. Within our startup, we are able to work closely together and bridge departments so employees really understand the company.

Now, going back in time. It has been 2 years since starting Parallel. What advice would you give yourself back on day one?

I would say to relax and not be so worried all the time. Also, don’t forget to add some balance to life. 

You mentioned adding some balance. What do you do to destress?

For the past 2 months, I have been working out every morning. It’s hard to create boundaries with work. Going to bed and waking up at a regular hour has helped me set a routine and find regularity to avoid burnout. I also delegate tasks and trust them with it. Letting go of control and setting boundaries of what I can and cannot do has been helpful. I’ll also go for a run on the beach, go on a hike, or do things around LA. I recommend going backpacking in the wilderness without any electronics to get back into a natural rhythm. 

For your employees, how do you ensure a good work-life balance, especially during crunch time?  

Unfortunately, in a startup, there is a lot to get done. Sometimes the lab schedule may be unforgiving. If the lab team works late, I don’t want them to feel pressured to come in early. We emphasize schedule flexibility to have space to take care of yourself and reduce the anxiety associated with an early stage startup. For startups, there is no set vacation policy. But, we trust everyone to manage their own time. I also try to model teamwork and integrate collaboration into the lab to support each other. 

Startups are made to fail and take miracles. Where do you see Parallel in 30 days, 1 year, and 10 years from now – in terms of sales, location, and operations?

  • In 30 days, we will have launched our serum. It may be imperfect, frustrating, and nerve wracking, but we will have done it. It’ll be a milestone for us. 
  • In a year from now, I see us having contracts with large companies, building a reputation in the consumer industry, expanding the marketing team, and building trust with our consumers. I can see us maturing as a team to know each other's strengths and weaknesses to support one another. 
  • In ten years down the road, our brand may be acquired by a larger company or be working independently. Everyone on the team will be making strides and taking initiative in their respective departments. 

Who do you look to for business advice and inspiration? How do you know when to take it with a grain of salt?

I always listen to Natalise for business advice and I trust her 100%. For scientific advice, I draw from many sources and weigh opinions from those different sources. Business is driven by experience, data, and intuition. But, science – it’s almost entirely evidence driven. So, our team talks to people who have done the experiment and looks at the data and results. It’s much more concrete.

If there’s someone out there who wants to be you when they grow up, what would you say to them?

If you want to cofound a science-based startup, I think the key is persistence. You have to take this famous advice:

“…trust yourself when all men doubt you,

   But make allowance for their doubting too…”

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