Steve McCloskey, CEO & Chairman of the Board – Scaling Humanity in San Diego’s Ecosystem
A fresh Q&A series featuring ambassadors of innovation and technology, fueling entrepreneurship at UC San Diego and beyond
Big Innovations Start Small. It is said that the breakthroughs of the future will all come at the nanoscale.
Nanome is transforming how we interact with and understand science, creating a virtual world where users can experiment, design and learn at the nanoscale. They are building an open platform to solve age old problems of collaboration, incentivization and siloed information – creating a world with open access to science & technology.
What has been your experience with UC San Diego in developing a diverse entrepreneurial culture?
During my undergraduate experience, I always wanted a better interface for becoming a nanoengineer. UC San Diego is like a sandbox, there are a bunch of resources but you have to find them. We ended up acquiring an art studio that was in the Structural and Materials Engineering building through the Art department. They meant the building to be a cross-over for scientists and artists to work together, like the Bauhaus movement. We met incredible people in visual arts that would form the basis of our company.
During the summer of 2016, we moved into The Basement, where we got to further develop our VR software, utilizing students from the Mathematics department. That year, we also received an iCorp grant through IGE. We tried to work with everyone. No one was telling us no. We did what we could to get as many resources together to make success happen at UC San Diego.
Now we’re working on growing Nanome and continue to work with the UC San Diego community to help find talented employees and investors passionate about helping solve some of humanity’s biggest problems.
What excites you about your work?
I came in as biochemistry major…I always knew I wanted to help people. However, I wanted to help more than one person a time. Nanoengineering is a way to help billions of people, you can completely change the world, from helping other people develop better medicine to advancing technology more rapidly. We are saving lives.
Our applications help people make better medicine – whether it is to cure cancer, heart disease, viruses like coronavirus, or build better anti-bacterials. We are helping all of those at the same time. If you can even improve efficiency 1% for the entire pharmaceutical/biotech/R&D pipeline, you are saving countless lives. We think our efficiency could be closer to 30-50%. If you multiple that to the global scale, you end up with a very rapid pace of innovation.
We get to work with so many smart people around the world, travel around the world and connect people from diverse background and geographies. It’s amazing to see the passion so many people have for their fields of work in molecular sciences.
“Nanoengineering is a way to help billions of people, you can completely change the world, from helping other people develop better medicine to advancing technology more rapidly. We are saving lives.”
Describe a typical day in Startupland. What does your day look like?
I love interacting with customers, collaborators, and our team. Getting feedback from a lot of smart people every day helps us to better develop both our product and our business. I like to spend some time in VR either with one of our users, or using our software for various projects going on like work on the Covid19 coronavirus. There’s also lots to uncover from other applications put there to see what the realm of possibilities are in VR.
You need an interface that’s smart, adaptive and understands what the user wants to do. We want to get Human/AI teams working together to develop better medicine…faster. If you own the interface for designing things from the nano up, you can own the entire landscape of what humans are going to be making in the 21st century.
How do you define innovation in the 21st Century?
Biology has been the best nano engineer for years, and now humans are smart enough to do it on our own, engineering new things that weren’t seen in nature before. The world is not in a great shape on the climate side – innovation should look at ways to survive in the 22nd Century, make sure that we clean up the things other generations have left.
Professor Benjamin Bratton at UC San Diego started the speculative design major, as a branch of the Visual Arts department. They are thinking of completely new things that are speculative. We should always be looking outward to examine the next frontier and what is possible.
What role have mentors played in your success/journey?
One of the biggest strengths of UC San Diego is the huge network of people willing to help, each one specializing in a different area that can connect you with the people you need. My PI Kenneth Vecchio gave me a great foundation in nanoengineering. Looking down at a microscope and seeing atoms during my first year…the whole picture connected in the lab.
You always learn something new with each person you meet. You are able to piece together a global view of what is really going on. San Diego is just getting off the ground – we need more entrepreneurial seeds to develop and help grow the eco-forest and get it off the ground.
What are some of the biggest challenges you faced in the startup process? How were you able to overcome them?
In the early days, nobody knew what VR was, everyone was super confused. Those problems went away as VR became more prevalent. Getting our first big pharmaceutical customer was huge, last year we published a paper with the Genomics Institute of the Novartis Research Foundation in the Journal of Molecular Graphics. It was a huge milestone, which took years of building those relationships and working with the scientists.
Since then, we have just kept growing. Working with people over four to five years, you have to be very understanding and have a lot of empathy and know that you are all on the same team. Lots of startups fail because co-founders have a falling out and are not able to piece it back together.
“There are not many opportunities in life to start a company. Many companies fail because it was not a passion project.
The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago and the second-best time is today. Just go out and do it.”
What advice would you give to a UC San Diego student thinking about starting a company?
They should only start a company if it’s the right thing to do in their life. There are not many opportunities in life to start a company. Many companies fail because it was not a passion project. Make sure you are really passionate about it.
This company embodies my life goal. Everyday I wake up and I’m re-committed and re-confirmed that this is the right thing to be doing. You can bail out at any moment and fail the company. If you don’t have the will to keep going day after day and continue the mission, you are just going to abandon it. The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago and the second-best time is today. Just go out and do it.