Last year, Darren Zhu was in his sophomore year as a chemistry major; this year, the former member of the Yale Guild of Carilloneurs is marching to a different tune as he launches a biotech start-up company in Palo Alto, California. The 2,600 mile transition was facilitated by Zhu’s selection as one of the recipients of the 20 Under 20 Thiel Fellowship, sponsored by Peter Thiel, a prominent Silicon Valley venture capitalist who is perhaps best known as the co-founder of PayPal and the first investor in Facebook. The son of a professor and an engineer, Zhu cultivated his interest in science and technology through science fairs, classes at the North Carolina School of Science and Math, and research experience during his senior year of high school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. At Yale, he dabbled in chemistry, mathematics, economics, computer science, and biology. However, he realized that his true interests lay at the intersection of science, technology, and business after helping start and run Yale’s team in the International Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM) Competition. While working with this group of students to engineer E. coli to churn out a new anti-freeze protein, Zhu became immersed in the field of synthetic biology, an area with a diverse array of applications in biotechnology. “Founding a biotech start-up became a dream of mine, but I didn’t think that it would be accessible until much later in my career,” he explains.
Yet less than a year later, Zhu won a $100,000 Thiel Fellowship to pursue his interest in biotech. He started by teaming up with David Luan, another Yale student and Thiel Fellow, to start a biotech robotics company, Dextro. Zhu and Luan sought to build a company that provided end-to-end automation of large-scale experimental procedures to remove the tedium and error that frequently plagues scientific research. This process involved making connections with various professionals, including pharmaceutical/biotech industry officials, business advisors, lawyers, and various science/technical experts because, as Zhu explains, “you truly have to be a jack of all trades to found a start-up.” Recently, Zhu and Luan decided to abandon the project due to the fact that high system infrastructure costs limited the product’s market to big biotech companies and that many of those potential customers indicated that they were planning to significantly reduce research and development spending. However, Zhu is far from discouraged. In fact, he found the process to be a fascinating learning experience, adding that “the best way to learn how to run a start-up is to jump right in there and try your hand at it: try to make something out of nothing.”
Zhu recently received a new $100,000 grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and plans to shift his focus for at least the next 12 to 18 months back towards synthetic biology to develop an in vivo diagnostic biosensor. He is currently fine-tuning the parameters of this project, working through logistics to acquire lab space to carry out his research and exploring a host of foundational synthetic biology techniques, such as next-generation DNA sequencing and synthesis that will support the research. His current project aims to supplant chemical- and microscopy-based diagnostic methods by developing an organism which is capable of detecting disease via the use of engineered microbes coated with surface receptors specific to various antigens.
While Zhu is doubtlessly excited about his work in Silicon Valley, it is also clear that a part of him misses Yale. His suite at Yale has been replaced by a house in Palo Alto with seven other start-up entrepreneurs, working on everything from electric motors to an e-commerce website and online educational tools. “Being away from Yale makes you appreciate various things that you don’t really see while you are immersed in it,” he said. “It is rare to be surrounded by constant collaboration, constant social engagement, and literally thousands of high caliber people with a diverse array of interests.” Would Zhu consider returning to Yale eventually? “Of course,” he says, “but only if I run out of money or ideas.”