With a mission to back disruptive biotechs that invent the future, HomeLab powered by LabFellows provides startups with all the operational support needed to do more science. HomeLab at UC San Diego has helped founders collectively generate over $1B through fundraising and exits over the last two years alone, including Amplyx which was recently acquired by Pfizer.
A Chula Vista native and Founder & CEO of LabFellows, de Unamuno operates HomeLab at UC San Diego located within the Center for Novel Therapeutics, with a keen vision for accelerating growth and translating science from the lab. With a nearly 20-year career in science, three children, and one of the fastest growing technology startups in the region, read more on his journey to success.
You are an expert at accelerating growth and translating science from lab to the market. What is your superpower for making that happen?
I have always looked at systems and how I can break them so they can work for me - many times out of necessity growing up as a Latino kid in a blue collar family. It made me naturally curious. My superpower is pattern recognition - I can see models that work for the tech industry and have the curiosity to apply it to biotech. Sometimes it works spectacularly, sometimes it doesn't!
“I love teaching founders how to embrace being uncommon,” said de Unamuno. “Where is your excitement? You aren’t presenting a poster, you’re pitching life-saving technology. You have to pull some heart strings, you have to get people excited.”
Innovation is all about that. Have fun in ways that surprise you! Stay open. I love teaching founders how to embrace being uncommon. Where is your excitement? You aren’t presenting a poster, you’re pitching life-saving technology. You have to pull some heart strings, you have to get people excited.
Raised in San Diego, how have you seen the tech economy nurture a more inclusive and diverse approach?
I've had a foot in both the Bay Area and San Diego, sitting between tech and science my whole life. In science, we are trained to embrace pedigree, and only show our successes. The startup culture in tech celebrates first-time founders and failures which builds a founder-focused ethos and leads to less of a “not from here” mentality that opens up their industry to trying new technologies, even from completely unrelated industries, and apply it to their own.
Locally, we need to focus more on training up new scientists to be the drivers of their companies. We need to break the pattern of biotech investors kicking founders out too early because they don’t have enough “gray hair”. The longer the visionaries can steer the company in the direction they want, the better. Unlike tech, science startups enjoy the benefits of having more diversity and equity due to the international nature of science. Combined with a confluence of all the resources we have at UC San Diego – infrastructure, technology, and the most talented innovative thinkers in the nation – it’s a fertile ground for students and alumni to cultivate a new era of biotech startups.
You've worked on anti-cancer research with million-dollar instruments and computational chemistry tools. How do these tools help UC San Diego stand out in this research?
At UC San Diego, we have access to data and information by some of the most talented thinkers in the country. The density of talent is really unique. Founders on campus come together in ways I haven’t seen in other industries. They are foundationally solid. Their inventions have to be substantive in a less capitalized market like San Diego.
“I was a brown kid out of South Bay. I didn’t see labs, I didn’t see biotech companies outside my window. UC San Diego reached out and it allowed me to do summer training as an undergraduate, with juggernauts in the field.”
San Diego doesn’t get enough credit for its commitment to diversity - I was a brown kid out of South Bay. I didn’t see labs, I didn’t see biotech companies outside my window. Universities in San Diego reached out and invited me to do summer training as an undergraduate, with juggernauts in the field. This early exposure to youth is absolutely essential and what kick started my career. Currently, LabFellows’ workforce is 90% diverse with minorities or women comprising 75% of management. We believe the best teams win, and the most diverse teams make the best teams. So we built ours to reflect the diversity of UC San Diego’s community.
You have curated a mastery of diverse life sciences skillsets. What is really driving your passion moving into 2022?
In 2022, we are exploring how we can leverage community and massively parallelized resources the same way UC San Diego has done for the COVID-19 response, but more broadly to attack other areas in healthcare. Currently, what's missing in biotech is a plug-and-play environment. My big, hairy, audacious goal, starting with HomeLab at UC San Diego, is to help connect folks to campus resources as a backlot studio for entrepreneurs so they can build their next billion dollar breakthrough right here in San Diego.
Innovators are now building amazing breakthroughs that are changing what we eat, materials we wear, and even how we care for our pets. Applications like plant-based meats or thumb drives storing information using DNA instead of silicon are billion dollar products being brought to market in 3-4 years versus 3-4 decades. In an industry where companies traditionally never generate $1 in sales before they are acquired, biotechs are now scaling and serving customers faster. These solutions help traditional therapeutics be discovered, developed, and delivered to patients faster.
What interested you in sharing your vision and perspective as an Entrepreneur in Residence at UC San Diego?
One of my core beliefs is that the best teams are the most diverse teams. Becoming an Entrepreneur in Residence offers a bigger platform for me to mentor the next generation - to watch their eyes light up at the outstanding impact they might only have imagined. We want to train first-time founders in a safe space to be successful but also fail. Community to me has meant humility.
At LabFellows, we have extended our teaching beyond borders, even giving dreamers down in Latin America training and job opportunities to help run and operate our network of biotech research labs using our remote lab management solutions. This offers a great opportunity through science to make a better life for them in their communities.
Describe one of the most valuable lessons gained from a mentor in your journey and how has it continued to guide you today?
“One of my mentors once said - ‘you don't always do the best things, you do the right things.’ This has become my guiding principle. Even in your darkest times, you have to stick with your values.”
Building a company, you have your ups and downs. I’ve made some tough decisions over the years running my own startups. When faced with one such challenge, one of my mentors once said - ‘Julio, you always do the right thing even when it may not be the best thing for you.’ This has become my guiding principle. Even in your darkest times, you have to stick with your values.