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Member Spotlight

August 12, 2020

10x Genomics CEO, Serge Saxonov

With a vision of mastering biology, 10x Genomics is supplying platforms and products to help bring discoveries to life.

Serge Saxonov, CEO, 10x Genomics

10x Genomics

10x Genomics is building tools that help researchers look deeper at the inner workings of biology to bring new insight. Can you explain more about the company’s mission of mastering biology?

The fundamental premise of 10x Genomics is that there’s huge potential as we look to biology, life sciences and healthcare in the coming decades. Things that would have seemed like science fiction just a short while ago will start becoming possible. We have amazing opportunities ahead for improving health and curing disease, but the big obstacle for making all that a reality is that we actually understand very little of the underlying biology.

This is a commonly stated but still vastly underrated fact: the amount of biology that we don’t know and don’t understand is so much greater than what we actually do know and understand. And it’s a huge challenge because biology is fundamentally very complex. All of us are comprised of close to 40 trillion cells. Each one of those has this enormously complicated orchestra of quintillions of molecules interacting with each other. The way to address that complexity is by building tools and technologies to help scientists—and ultimately clinicians—better understand biology, harness it, and ultimately improve human health. That’s what 10x is all about.

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Can you walk us through your personal journey?

I grew up in the Soviet Union—the former USSR—that’s where I was born. I was there until I was about 13 years old when my family immigrated to the US. We settled in New York City, Washington Heights. From there I was fortunate to go to a really good high school—Bronx High—and then went to college at Harvard.

I always had an interest in science and biology specifically, and I have to credit my high school teacher for freshman year biology who made it incredibly interesting. From that point on, I was fascinated by the workings of biology and the importance of it. At the same time, I was good at math in high school and in college, and ended up majoring in Applied Math, while taking a lot of biology courses. My initial inclination was to become a doctor or a scientist.

Somewhere along the way, I realized that I wasn’t going to make for a very good doctor. I was still totally fascinated by science and really enjoyed working in a lab. About midway through college I came to the realization that building companies would be enormously rewarding.

A lot of it had to do with this notion that to build a company well, it must be all-encompassing, and the idea that it gives almost overwhelming purpose. You’re working for something unambiguously good to create value, which I found really appealing. Because of that, I decided to come out west to Stanford for graduate school, where I got a Ph.D. in Computational Biology, Bioinformatics. Part of the reason I wanted to be at Stanford is precisely because of being here in Silicon Valley. This is the epicenter of new companies and the commercialization of innovative ideas.

I had heard amazing things about California, growing up and reading about it from the east coast. It’s turned out to be as great as I had imagined. I’ve been in the Bay Area for 20 years and love it.

“This is where I learned in a very tangible way the value of multidisciplinary kinds of work—when you have people from other backgrounds, other technical abilities, other expertise—and how productive that can be when they work together.”

What was your entry into the business world like?

As I was finishing grad school, I had a lot of thoughts about what I’d want to do next. But what was consistently central in my mind was the appeal of building companies. A friend of mine and I were considering building a company for relating genetic information to consumers. As we were exploring ideas around this, I ended up meeting Anne Wojcicki, the soon-to-be co-founder of what became 23andMe. I eventually joined the founding team in 2006 to create the company. This was tremendous fun because we were doing human genome interpretation before anyone else in the world. This is a confluence of multiple technologies coming together. There was this visceral sense of creating something new and so valuable it could potentially change the world.

23andMe was very much built to be a software company. We were doing data analysis and software—very close to my background in computational biology and data analysis—so it was a lot of fun.

But it also started feeling constraining at points. Later, I was drawn to join another early-stage startup that was building physical tools: hardware and chemistry and reagents, in addition to the DNA analysis, which I brought to the company. The company, called QuantaLife, had a team of people who were dramatically different from those at 23andMe. It was a totally awesome, invigorating experience when you go in and everyone speaks a different technical language than you.

We ended up building instruments for measuring DNA very precisely, which we named Droplet Digital™ PCR, and brought to market. The company was acquired in 2011 by Bio-Rad, a larger life science company.

This is where I learned in a very tangible way the value of multidisciplinary kinds of work—when you have people from other backgrounds, other technical abilities, other expertise—and how productive that can be when they work together.

That definitely stuck with me as we started building out 10x.

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“Starting a company—regardless of the initial resources or the people involved—it’s a really difficult thing to do. You have to approach it with the intensity that it requires—there’s just no substitute for that.”

How did you arrive at your current role leading the team and building the roadmap for 10x Genomics?

After leaving Bio-Rad in 2012, I got together with Ben Hindson, who was the CSO and co-founder of QuantaLife, a chemist by training, and someone with a different technical background than mine, but we had a really productive relationship. We got together in 2012 in a coffee shop in San Francisco and started bouncing ideas around. Really, the impetus there was that we just wanted to work together.

He had some ideas about where the world was going within the next 5, 10-plus years, and then came up with a few different technological approaches to address them. That’s kind of how 10x got started.

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Being the first employee at 23andMe must have been incredibly exciting. You’ve been at multiple life science companies since inception. What attributes do you find contribute to long-term success for early-stage companies?

First of all, I would preface by saying there’s not a single formula that applies to all companies. With any given rule that works for one successful company, you’ll find another successful company that breaks it. Having said that, one thing that I’ve found in my experience is the incredible importance of working extremely hard.

Starting a company—regardless of the initial resources or the people involved—it’s a really difficult thing to do. You have to approach it with the intensity that it requires—there’s just no substitute for that. Another point is that you need the courage to run towards things that scare you the most. The natural human tendency is to not think too much about things that you fear. But the trick to building a successful enterprise is zeroing in and overcoming that. If you have this inkling that something is uncomfortable and you don’t want to be thinking about it, that’s precisely the thing you should be focused on.

What has worked for me is building companies around ideas that are non-incremental; you want new ideas, or big new markets that you’re going after. When I look at companies that become successful they tend to either have a significant new idea of doing something old or they see a big new trend, big new markets opening up where they can do better than others. Both of those scenarios require you to be contrarian.

Part of being contrarian is being able to think from first principles, not necessarily falling into patterns of what others have done before. Breaking down your reasons for why you’re doing things oftentimes puts you on a sort of a contrarian path relative to others.

You’ve been successful in leading several rounds of funding, what are the most important aspects to consider when partnering with VCs and other investors?

From my experience, what is important is that they understand your company, what makes it tick, and what can make it successful. They need to share that understanding with you. They should also be self-aware to defer to you on things that they don’t understand.

Once you raise your money from investors, they become part-owners of the company, and you kind of need to, on occasion, do what they want you to do. You want to ensure that they understand what makes your company great, and won’t force you to do things that are not right for the company. That understanding is crucial. The other thing that’s particularly important is predictability, that you can rely on them, that they do what they tell you they’re going to do, and they don’t overreact in a moment to things.

And then, I look for the same attributes that I look for when I’m hiring people: a track record of success, intelligence, reputation, and being able to work hard.

“If you have this inkling that something is uncomfortable and you don’t want to be thinking about it, that’s precisely the thing you should be focused on.”

Looking through your life in your career, what are some of the greatest lessons that you’ve learned over the years? And how do you feel that you’ve persevered through these challenges?

First of all, the central lesson is the importance of talent. What has turned out to be true again and again is that hiring the very best people who are intelligent, driven, passionate about their work, collaborative, and sort of obsessed with making great things happen is really important.

In terms of lessons that I had to learn the hard way, I’d stress the importance of communication. I am arguably still learning that lesson. I tend to have an aversion to saying things that are obvious, but I’ve learned that often things that are obvious to you might not be obvious to others. Whether it be because you have different data, you’re in a different position, or for all kinds of other reasons, you have to over-communicate and overstate things. Oftentimes, especially if you’re in a leadership position, people take comfort in hearing things they already know, because it validates the direction of the company. It’s something that a leader should pay attention and put an increasing amount of effort into as the company grows.

Another lesson is to be smart about your culture. Elements of your culture early on and what enables you to be successful in one stage of a company may not be what will make you successful later. You have to let your culture evolve and as your company gets bigger, you’re going to have a strong drive to lose some of the elements that made it successful in the first place. So it’s a balance where you have to keep monitoring the things that make your company successful.

One more thing is, even if you go super-fast—and I would argue that at 10x we’ve consistently had a high velocity of execution—things generally take longer than you expect. Because of this, it’s important to take the long view. Build and invest in your foundations so that you can go further and faster later.

Recently, 10x Genomics celebrated a major accomplishment: 1,000 peer-reviewed publications leveraging 10x Genomics technology. Talk to us about the significance of your company’s technology being used to advance research and human health.

It’s mind bending to think about where we are now, to remember the very first paper that came out using 10x technology in 2016. And now, four years later, we’ve had this explosion of science and discoveries that have been made. What’s really rewarding for us is the breadth of applications, areas of biology, where our tools are being used to make discoveries. It’s hard to think of any area of biology where our products are not making a fundamental scientific impact, spaces like oncology, immunology, autoimmunity, infectious disease, neuroscience.

It’s really rewarding seeing the kinds of discoveries that are being made and how they span the full gamut of scientific inquiry. They go from very basic foundational biology where you’re trying to understand what is there if you take a basic sample of human tissue to making new discoveries around human cells and genes and gene networks. There have been discoveries with clear medical potential like understanding disease, and also work that’s happening in translational and clinical contexts with clinical trials already underway. It’s exciting when there’s a clear view of how these products and discoveries could impact human health and in fact, have ultimately saved massive numbers of human lives.

In fact, we’re seeing an enormous demonstration of that over the last several months. Researchers around the world are jumping in to better understand COVID-19 and making numerous discoveries with rapid velocity using our tools. Part of the reason our technology has been so successful is that it kicked off this big change in how biology is done and a goal of single cell evolution which is being applied in many different areas. It’s hard to think of an area of biology or disease where our products are not making a fundamental impact.

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As the world aims to solve the immediate crisis of COVID-19, how has 10x Genomics helped researchers uncover the intricacies of this once-in-a-century pathogen?

As the world aims to solve the immediate crisis of COVID-19, how has 10x Genomics helped researchers uncover the intricacies of this once-in-a-century pathogen?

This is something that appeared on our radar first in January because we have customers in China. As the virus started spreading, customers began approaching us, asking to place our instruments in labs where they could perform research on infectious pathogens. There are multiple avenues of research that only our customers have been pursuing and we quickly responded to their requests. What we’ve seen come out now is research that focused on creating antibodies and then translating those antibodies into potential drugs for treating the infection.

Those drugs, which could be given to address the symptoms of the infected person or as a prophylaxis before a person gets infected, are probably our best near-term hope for therapy. In fact, we know a number of pharmaceutical companies that are racing to create these therapies and to validate them. It makes me optimistic that by the fall they’ll be available and will make a significant impact on this pandemic.

But in addition to creating therapies, there’s a lot of work in understanding the disease itself. We need to be able to know how the virus actually infects. What kinds of cells does it go into? How do they respond to the virus? How does the immune system respond to it? How do we understand biologically and mechanistically what makes all these patients different from each other. Knowing this, we can understand the high-risk and low-risk groups and treat them differently. We can also use that information to develop new drugs.

What will be hugely important in this fight is understanding what happens when we give different vaccine candidates to patients so we can understand the response of the immune system and the virus in a safe effective way.

Have you had any big realizations since the pandemic hit?

One thing that became clear quickly is that people in general are pretty bad at predicting exponential change. That’s the problem with pandemics. The numbers may seem small on a given day, but they might explode a few days later. You can see that especially between different levels of governmental preparedness and pundits in the media. It’s something that’s really hard to wrap your head around. Things that have a 5% chance of happening tend to be underestimated in many peoples’ minds—in many institutions’ minds as well—even if it’s the job of a particular institution to watch out for those risks.

The other big realization is that the pandemic has reinforced just how little biology we understand and what the consequences of not understanding biology are. Right now, we’re still dealing with a pandemic the same way we would have dealt with it 400 years ago, which is that everyone retreats to their houses and quarantines.

Scientists are working really hard to develop new drugs and new treatments, and that will come, but it shows you just how important scientists are and how important technology is. We wish we would have had these technologies and this level of preparedness before the pandemic hit. My hope is that we’ll be more prepared before there’s another pandemic in the future.

What’s on the horizon for 10x Genomics and what are your hopes and dreams to what the company can still aspire?

Well, circling back to how we started the conversation, I see this as the center of biology and the biggest value creation opportunities lie in the future ahead. These opportunities—improving human health and curing diseases that have been with humanity since the very beginning, infectious diseases, cancer, neurodegeneration—will be done with new technology and new tools. We will ultimately be able to beat these scourges and we intend to help make that happen.

We’re building a company that will be around for a while; my goal and intention is that it’s around 100 years from now. And so, while it feels like we’ve come far relative to where we started eight years ago when Ben and I were sketching out some notes in a notebook in San Francisco, this is just the very beginning. We’re just getting started. The future belongs to biology, and we want to bring that future forward.