Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship Executive Director Thane Kreiner on Science, Startups and Social Impact
Thane Kreiner is one of my heroes. As executive director of Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship, Dr. Kreiner sets the vision and trajectory for programs that empower students and entrepreneurs to impact hundreds of millions of people around the globe. Prior to diving into leading the center, Dr. Kreiner was an entrepreneur himself, starting four biotech companies in the span of just three years. Before starting his own companies, he worked for 14 years at pioneering DNA-sequencing company Affymetrix. After doing his undergrad at U.T. Austin, Dr. Kreiner got both a Ph.D. in Neuroscience and an MBA from Stanford. No big deal.
Thane has just written a new book called "Composition of Life: A Memoir of Science and Spirituality," which you can check out here.
In this conversation, we dive into everything from deep sea creatures to formative startup stories, big life decisions, work-life balance and more.
Gavin Cosgrave: How did you get into diving?
Thane Kreiner: I love being underwater. Some people say they feel claustrophobic when diving, but for me it’s exactly the opposite. I feel completely free underwater. I can be wherever I want, flowing with the currents. The beauty of creation under the water completely astounds me—the biodiversity of fish and corals.
GC: You studied chemistry in college at UT Austin, what were your career plans in college?
TK: I had no career plans, it’s very different today. I studied chemistry because I was putting myself through college with a scholarship that paid me $1,000 to study chemistry. It was a major that came to me for economic reasons. It was during my senior year that I got interested in neuroscience. It was a convergence of how the human brain works, why some people think differently than others, causes of mental illness. I was really interested in how the brain connected to the mind, and that lead me to California for my graduate studies.
GC: Why did you decide to work in the private sector?
TK: In grad school in neuroscience at Stanford, I graduated with five different publications and finished in a little more than four years. I knew that I wanted to stay in California. At the time when you got a Ph.D. from a prestigious university, the expectation was that you would set up your own lab somewhere.
When I did my post-doc, it was a very different experience. The missing ingredient was really leadership. I decided to explore different career options and I went through what we now call “vocational discernment” talking to people in different parts of the biotech industry. I wanted to apply science to help people, and I saw biotech and pharmaceuticals as way to do that.
That lead me to apply to an MBA program at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. I got my MBA in 1994 then spent the next 17 years in the biotech industry leading life science companies.
GC: You spent the first chunk of that time at one company, Affymetrix. Were there any experiences during that time that shaped you?
TK: I often tell my students that I could teach almost any course in business school based on my experience at Affymetrix. I learned so many things that you can’t learn in class from the experience from being in a high-growth company with an incredibly innovative disruptive technology. I started as an intern there writing a private placement memorandum for investors. I had no idea what that was while I was doing it, but I learned through the process what we were doing, who owns what in the company, and what the motivation was. I learned about how to capitalize and finance companies in the process of doing that.
I was project manager and it was a phenomenal experience learning how to lead by influence rather than authority. That’s one of the biggest lessons of my life: that you’re much more effective in influencing people towards common goals rather than telling them what to do. Most people don’t like to be told what to do, and a lot of defensive mechanisms come up.
I was part of the IPO, set up the business in China and Japan. Based on some of the ethical issues that came up regarding the use of a chip that could look at the entire human genome, we formed an ethics advisory committee that I led. That led us to ask some profound questions about who is responsible for the use of genetic information.
GC: How did you end up founding multiple biotech companies?
TK: I left Affymetrix in 2007, and my plan was to take a year off. Then a funny thing happened. I got a call from a partner at Kleiner Perkins, which is one of the best-known venture capitalist firms in the world. They said they had found an interesting technology and asked if I would come in to have a conversation about it.
I went in for what was supposed to be a 45-minute conversation, and we ended up white boarding three different strategies for commercializing this new technology called induced pluripotent stem cells, where you basically take a skin cell and reprogram it to behave like an embryonic stem cell without using an embryo. So, there’s no ethics issues, you’re not using human embryos. In our imaginations, the idea was that you could take these cells and regenerate any organ for someone, and you wouldn’t have any rejection because you were using your own cells.
I was consulting with them for a few months, and right around the holiday season, they asked me to be startup CEO. I had never done that before, but I came on board, licensed the intellectual property out of Japan. One of the inventors got a Nobel Prize a few years later. As we started understanding what the VC’s wanted in terms of financial returns and in what time period, it became clear that it was going to take 15 or 20 years, and that horizon was outside of reasonable venture return expectations. We honed in on the best use of the technology as a platform for pharmaceutical drug discovery which wasn’t my background.
Around the same time, I was talking to a former customer who was a pediatric neuro-oncologist, talk about a hard job when 80% of your patients die, and they’re all children. But he’s phenomenal at it, and he had come up with the technology for testing whether a cancer drug would work for a patient’s tumor. So, we decided to start a company out of that.
In parallel with that, my mentor Sue Siegel had gone to Mohr Davidow Ventures, and was a partner there. They had come up with an idea for a telemedicine company, so I was doing some consulting with them.
I was also working with my friend Jim on starting Pre-Sage Genomics. It became apparent that the company was more biology than technology focused and it needed to be located in Seattle. So, we hired a CEO for that, and with a friend, we started Second Genome, which is a human microbiome company. And that’s how I started four companies in three years.
GC: Had social entrepreneurship always been a part of you? Or were you starting a new chapter when you joined Miller Center?
TK: When I went to business school, one of my aspirations was to apply science and technology to help people. In biomedical research and biotechnology, there are a lot of ways to improve devastating conditions with technology. In the process of starting four companies, I realized that my drive was about how the science and technology would help people, but my job as CEO was to maximize returns for the venture capitalists.
I had imagined that at some point in my life, when one of my companies had a liquidity event, I would do something else that would just be focused on doing good, but I didn’t know what that was. Then Santa Clara came up serendipitously.
GC: There are so many gigantic problems in the world, from human rights to climate change, to oceans to poverty and inequality. Are you optimistic about the future?
TK: There are days when I’m very optimistic because I’ve been in the field with social enterprises and I’ve seen how community-level engagement can create transformative change, and how that can scale to address problems of climate change by creating resilience in the places that are most affected.
Miller Center is doing a program with social enterprises focused on refugees, migrants and human trafficking survivors has opened a new way to showing how entrepreneurship can positively impact the most vulnerable. I think the principles of social entrepreneurship hold promise.
At the same time, there are troubling political wins that could destroy the planet around us. It’s a frightening time at least in my history.
GC: How do you make decisions about how to spend your time?
TK: I believe in a work-life balance but I’m not sure I exemplify it. My life and my work are very integrated. There’s not a clear boundary. Work is a vital part of my life. I’m doing something I find immensely fulfilling.
Taking care of myself is something that’s also important. I exercise every day and grow a lot of the food that I eat. I’m working harder than I ever had in my life, because there are so many opportunities that I can’t stop thinking about them.
GC: What are you most proud of up to this point in your career?
TK: I would probably say the Global Social Benefit Fellowship if I had to pick one thing. When Keith Warner and I started contemplating how we could create a transformative social justice learning experience, it was 2011. What the program has done is phenomenal, beyond what I could imagine. We’ve had eight Fulbright’s and three valedictorians in the program, and all the students feel like my children.