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Tales of a Startup: BrilliantBiome


Dr. Sierra Simpson, a native of San Diego, has always been deeply passionate about nature. This passion propelled her towards a career in science. She embarked on a journey in molecular, cellular, and developmental biology at UC Santa Barbara, with a specific focus on developmental neuroscience under the guidance of Dr. Joel Rothman. Following her graduation, Sierra made her way to the Bay Area to join Dr. Merritt Maduke's lab at Stanford where her research centered around chloride channels. There, she played a pivotal role in contributing to the creation of a powerful chloride channel inhibitor.

After her time at Stanford, Simpson became the inaugural team member at Circuit Therapeutics, a startup specializing in optogenetics that emerged from Stanford University. As the first employee in the laboratory, she played a crucial role on the novel targets team. There she began engineering light-sensitive proteins to create models for various systems, including the lungs, bladder, and pain pathways. However, her ultimate ambition to pursue a Ph.D. led her back to San Diego, where she joined the research group of Dr. Olivier George at the Scripps Research Institute.

During her doctoral studies, Simpson dedicated her research to exploring the impact of the microbiome and related metabolites on the brain circuits involved in opioid withdrawal and intoxication. Drawing from her experience in the industry, she founded BrilliantBiome in 2020, aiming to bridge the gap between her Ph.D. findings and their practical application in both the public and private sectors.

At its core, BrilliantBiome is a precision medicine microbiome company that operates on a platform approach. By employing metagenomic sequencing and artificial intelligence/machine learning techniques, the company predicts disease risks and identifies novel microbiome-related biomarkers. In the context of opioid use disorder, BrilliantBiome utilizes the microbiome to reduce withdrawal symptoms and relapse rates in clinical settings. The company actively engages in collaborations with academia and industry partners as it continues to develop its direct-to-consumer products.


"BrilliantBiome’s mission is to explore the uncharted universe of the microbiome. We aim to reveal how microbes help educate our immune system, aid in digestion, and promote brain and mental health. Leveraging cutting-edge machine learning and precision medicine practices we can reveal microbes that are critical for the prediction of disease states. Our work is infused with scientific creativity and the excitement of charting new territory into a healthier future -- one that views health from a “whole-person” perspective. As we look ahead, we are committed to pushing the boundaries of microbiome research and advancing the field to benefit people around the world."
                                                                                                                 - Dr. Sierra Simpson

Describe a typical day in Startupland. What does your day look like? 

The beauty of startup life is that every day is different, so there's always something new to learn and exciting challenges to tackle. I usually start the day with a matcha or turmeric latte and check my calendar. Once I have a handle on the schedule, I typically spend a few hours in meetings with potential investors or collaborators. As a founder, it's important to have a solid understanding of the market and industry trends, so I try to stay on top of the latest developments and build relationships with key players in the field.

In the afternoon, I often work on strategic planning and developing our long-term goals. This includes refining our business plan, setting budgets, and analyzing our progress towards key milestones. I also spend time reviewing the work of our team members and providing feedback to help them develop their skills. Finally, I end my day by checking in with the team, reviewing progress, and planning for the next day.


What are some of the biggest challenges you faced in the startup process? How were you able to overcome them? 

As a graduate student, I had taken a significant pay cut to pursue my studies, so I knew that I couldn't rely on personal savings to fund the company. Instead, we focused on bootstrapping and leveraging resources available to us, such as pitch competitions and grants. While it wasn't always easy, this approach helped us get off the ground and start building momentum.

Another challenge we faced was figuring out how to build a strong team. When you're just starting out, it can be tough to attract top talent, especially when you don't have a lot of resources to offer. To overcome this, we focused on building a strong company culture and fostering an environment that was collaborative, supportive, and mission-driven. By prioritizing these values, we were able to attract talented and passionate individuals who were committed to our vision.

Finally, I think one of the biggest challenges we faced was navigating the complexities of the startup world itself. There are so many moving pieces to keep track of - from fundraising and product development to marketing and sales - and it can be overwhelming at times. However, by immersing myself in the startup community in San Diego, I was able to find mentors and resources that helped me hone my business skills and develop a better understanding of the landscape.

Ultimately, starting a company is all about perseverance and staying focused on your goals. While there will always be obstacles to overcome, by being creative, leveraging the right resources, building a strong team, and staying committed to your vision, you can overcome even the biggest challenges and build something truly great.


How did you balance your life while running a startup?

Balancing life while running a startup can be a real challenge, but I've found a few strategies that have helped me stay centered and maintain my sanity.

One of my go-to tactics is taking my dachshund, Mergle, for walks. It might sound simple, but getting some fresh air and letting my mind wander can be incredibly therapeutic. Often, when I'm feeling stuck on a problem or grappling with a difficult decision, taking a break and going for a walk can help me gain clarity and come up with new ideas.

Another strategy that has been really helpful for me is blocking out time on my schedule for everything. From workouts to personal errands to work tasks, I try to schedule everything in advance so that I have a clear roadmap for my day. This helps me stay focused and avoid being bogged down in distractions or allowing my work to bleed into my personal time.

Of course, there are still days when things get crazy, and it can feel like I'm juggling a million things at once. However, by prioritizing self-care and taking a structured approach to my day, I've been able to maintain a sense of balance and stay focused on what matters most - both in my personal life and in my work as a startup founder.


UC San Diego always looks to celebrate the many contributions of women in history, culture and society. What ways would you like to create and transform the entrepreneurial space for women?

I believe in creating and transforming the entrepreneurial space for women by addressing the unique challenges they face in the business world, such as limited access to funding and mentorship. These challenges can hinder their success and prevent them from reaching their full potential.

One of the most valuable resources I can offer is mentorship. Taking the time to mentor young women and show them that entrepreneurship is possible has been instrumental in building and maintaining my team and company culture. In a fast-paced society where time is limited, simply sitting down over a cup of coffee and listening to someone's struggles can make all the difference. I also strive to instill in young women the importance of mentorship and empower them to become engaged leaders and mentors themselves in the future. By helping women entrepreneurs establish valuable relationships with experienced business leaders, we can provide guidance and support, helping them navigate the challenges of running a business and increasing their chances of success.

I also believe that the entrepreneurial space should create more resources specifically for women entrepreneurs, such as access to funding, education, and networking events. In San Diego, there are pioneers like Athena and Stella Labs, spearheaded by Dr. Silvia Ma, that are making a significant difference in the lives of women entrepreneurs. These resources can help women entrepreneurs overcome the unique challenges they face and thrive in the entrepreneurial space. Moreover, they can serve as models for women from all walks of life, demonstrating that it is possible to be an entrepreneur. By fostering a culture of inclusivity and diversity, we can create a more supportive and innovative environment for all entrepreneurs, regardless of their gender or background.


How do you define innovation in the 21st Century?

Innovation in the 21st century is about embracing the unconventional and exploring uncharted territory. As someone who has always been interested in the fringes of two seemingly unrelated fields—the gut microbiome and addiction—I have personally witnessed the power of looking beyond the status quo.

While many considered my attempt to bridge these two fields as crazy, I saw it as an opportunity to break down silos and uncover something truly groundbreaking. This kind of creative thinking is precisely what we need more of in the 21st century.

Innovation today involves pushing boundaries, taking risks, and forging new connections. It requires openness to new ideas from any source and the courage to pursue them. It also demands the ability to adapt quickly to changing circumstances and stay ahead of the curve.

As our world grows more complex and interconnected, the need for innovative solutions becomes increasingly urgent. Whether it's addressing climate change, advancing healthcare, or promoting social justice, we must think creatively and collaborate to make a difference.

Let us embrace the spirit of innovation in the 21st century—being bold, curious, and open-minded. Let's challenge ourselves to break down traditional barriers and explore new frontiers. Together, we can create a brighter, more innovative future for everyone.


What advice would you give to those thinking about starting a company?

If you're considering starting a company, my advice to you is to cultivate curiosity, persistence, and a willingness to seek help. Much like in scientific pursuits, embarking on the entrepreneurial journey involves encountering unexpected challenges, twists, and turns. However, with dedication and an inquisitive mindset, you can overcome any obstacle.

As a founder, one of the most crucial aspects is to deeply understand your customers. Who are they? What motivates them? What obstacles do they face? By gaining profound insights into your customer base, you can tailor your product or service to effectively address their needs and create real impact.

Do not hesitate to ask questions! Abundant resources are available to assist you on your journey, such as mentorship programs, startup accelerators, and networking events. By leveraging these resources and seeking guidance from those who have walked the path before you, you can avoid common pitfalls and expedite your path to success.

Remember, failures are an inevitable part of the journey. However, by maintaining curiosity, perseverance, and a refusal to give up, you can transform those failures into opportunities for growth and learning.

In essence, my advice to anyone contemplating starting a company is simple: embrace your curiosity, actively seek resources and mentorship, and always place your customer at the heart of your endeavors. With hard work, persistence, and a commitment to learning, you can accomplish remarkable feats and make a tangible difference in the world.


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