From Immigrant to Entrepreneur: Lessons Learned in Building an Innovative Business

View PDF

As an entrepreneur, I stepped away from a fulfilling position in a large and established company to go out on my own and build something new. My decision to leave the advanced research department at Illumina, Inc. to create a start-up might seem like an extreme leap, but I am very familiar with the risks of starting over.

After earning my bachelor of science degree in biotechnology from the University of Tehran, I immigrated to the United States. I left my family and the only country I had ever known because I had a passion to pursue scientific breakthroughs that I could not make at home. Here are some key lessons I’ve learned along the way. I hope to inspire the next generation of innovators wherever they are in the world.

Entrepreneurial Lessons Learned
Speak up even before you “earn” the right to do so. Ask questions as they occur to you. I first felt the pull of entrepreneurship when I was 10 years old. My father and uncle had started the first modern coffee shop in Tehran, serving lattes and cappuccinos. Like traditional shops, this one closed from midday until about 4 pm. It bothered me that we turned away three hours’ worth of business. Although I barely could reach the espresso machine, my dad and uncle agreed to let me keep the store open in the afternoons. They put a stand underneath the counter to raise my height, and that summer we started showing some sales. The shop has been open during those hours now for over 25 years. And I never forgot that first success.

I believe that more people are “wired” to be entrepreneurs than those who actually choose it as a career. Innovators start early and drill into problems, question everything, and challenge the status quo. I might not be an entrepreneur today if I had ignored that first impulse or if another entrepreneur (my father) hadn’t given me a chance.

Take risks, but have two or three plans because you can’t count on the first plan to work. When I decided to emigrate at age 22 to earn my PhD in the United States, I wasn’t an entrepreneur yet — but my decision to become an immigrant was an entrepreneur’s choice. I wanted to be part of translating science and technology into solutions for big problems to improve people’s lives. So I had to leave every person and everything I had ever known to start over in another country — a risk I was compelled to take.

Entrepreneurship requires extreme mental toughness. Each well-thought-out, risky decision has better prepared me to face the next. In a large company, difficult trade-offs are made for us. Start-ups cannot succeed without a strong appetite for risk — and entrepreneurs need the balance to sharpen our aim with life experience, competent execution, scenario planning, and great team-building both inside our companies and with customers and business partners.

Ask other people what you should do, then make up your own mind and act. Many business professionals want to help entrepreneurs succeed. Be open and coachable. Connect and accept their help. Of course, my father would back my ideas in our coffee shop. And in the years since then, I have received similar support from many other people, some of whom I’d only just met. I’ve been amazed to see how many people around the world with different jobs, goals, backgrounds, and experiences show spontaneous, generosity and affinity for innovators and entrepreneurs.

The risks we take attract good will. So entrepreneurs do not have to go it alone. Ask for advice from other inventors and company founders; seek out mentors who know things you don’t. Entrepreneurship forms a worldwide community that transcends boundaries.

Don’t be afraid to let your ambitions show. Be bold enough to outthink others and brave enough to hire people who can outthink you. Today, Clear Labs delivers a cost-effective genome-sequencing tool that most anyone with a basic level of expertise can use. We expanded our entry into the clinical market by releasing a product in record time for COVID-19 analytics. Before we could accomplish that, we had to learn how to tell our story.

I was a scientist, so I’d never before had the experience of fundraising. I had to learn what to say and how to say it. Technical founders are married to their technologies, but that is just one aspect of creating a scalable business. Narrow up the world of possibilities into an executable business plan, and tell your start-up’s unique story so that influencers and investors can understand and buy in. Success requires establishing relationships with people — those who not only listen, but also like your narrative and business plan. The same goes for both investors and customers.

Learn all you can from the COVID-19 pandemic. It has been a master-class in business management and survival. No skills are more important to entrepreneurs. From business survival to a mega-shift in work practices, supply chain disruptions, and inspirational medical discoveries, the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic has been a unique opportunity for entrepreneurs to learn in weeks what might in more normal times have taken years. My company began with the application of next-generation sequencing (NGS) technologies in the food industry. We focused on food safety, raised venture funding, and launched products all according to plan — then the pandemic erupted.

As the world shut down, tracking the evolution of a cryptic and virulent pathogen as it spread and mutated became an immediate need. We believed that our technology could help. But could our young business bear the risks of bringing a new product to market in the middle of a worldwide shutdown? We decided to try — bringing our team members, investors, and board together in a new direction — and we addressed the clinical need in mere weeks.

Entrepreneurs face the unforeseen every day. We take risks that would scare other people away. That’s part of the fun in the journey. Ask yourself, “Will I be happier in life if I can make an impact?” If the answer is yes, then go for it.

One critical part of the entrepreneurial experience is cultivating a team of passionate people. Creating a healthy, thriving company culture is one of the most rewarding aspects of an entrepreneur’s journey. You could be a genius, but without a team who can help you build and scale your vision, it will not be achievable. You’re building not just a company, but also a family. And the more diversity in backgrounds and ideas you can bring together, the more likely you are to succeed.

Every entrepreneur has a story of what fostered that person’s passion for building a business. From my childhood experience in a coffee shop through the academic rigors of earning scientific degrees and the personal challenge of starting over in a new country, ultimately to founding a company — my story is not uncommon. Many people like me from different parts of the world have taken journeys to success as business people and entrepreneurs. They should inspire us all.

The Bottom Line
When unexpected opportunities arise, stay grounded in your plans and experience, find an inspired team to support you, and then be bold enough to act.

Sasan Amini is cofounder and chief executive officer of Clear Labs, Inc., 1559 Industrial Road, San Carlos, CA 94070; 1-650-257-3304; sasan.amini@clearlabs.com; https://www.clearlabs.com.