Solving Software Challenges for Scientists: Insights from Benchling’s VP of Product

BY Jon Fan
January 4, 2022
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Jon Fan, Benchling’s VP of Product, brings a blend of start-up innovation and big company execution in SaaS software to his role leading the Product team at Benchling. Jon’s experience spans products across collaboration and security software, and roles in product management, engineering, IT operations, and customer support. Prior to Benchling, Jon led the Enterprise Product Management team at Box, was a co-founder and the CEO of Subspace, was an IBMer and an early employee at BigFix. 

I’ve built products and led product teams for a long time. However, when I first found out about Benchling, it was initially hard for me to place myself in the context of what the product was and the perspective I could bring to a product that I wouldn’t use on an everyday basis. After all, I haven’t been a bench scientist. While I deeply understand collaboration, productivity, and data from my past experience, how could I gain the right insight to guide the product?

Before I answer those questions, let me provide a bit of background about Benchling in case you’re not familiar with what we do. At Benchling, we’re building software for the scientists and organizations who are leading the future of biotechnology. Our customers are leveraging biology to solve some of humanity’s most pressing issues: curing and preventing diseases, creating more nutritious and higher-yield crops, and growing brand new materials that will reduce our dependence on petrochemicals and help address climate change.

Benchling is the software that empowers these scientists to be faster in how they impact medicine, agriculture, materials science, and the environment. We enable our customers to accelerate the pace at which they can adopt new scientific technologies, gain insight on an ever-increasing amount of data, and ultimately bring their products to market. Here are a few examples of what our customers are working on:

  • Outpace Bio is reimagining cell function and protein design to tackle incurable diseases. The Outpace platform combines custom-designed biological functions with cellular control modalities that program the right response at the right time, in the right place. Their approach creates therapeutics that are as unique as the diseases they are treating. A few of the cellular mechanisms Outpace works with are cellular signaling, cell fate decision-making, and drug-induced regulation.
  • Modern agriculture is reliant on biology and big data. Companies like The EVERY Company (formerly called Clara Foods) are developing technologies to create animal proteins without the animals. With these technologies, we’re no longer limited by natural resources and capable of producing foods at a high volume — bringing down the cost to help alleviate world hunger.
  • Bolt Threads is engineering biomaterials like synthetic leather from naturally occurring substances such as spider silk and mushrooms. These engineered materials are both stronger and more sustainable.
  • …and even the labs of Nobel-Prize-winning scientists are using Benchling to accelerate their work.

I found all of this extremely motivating and fascinating. I also know that I enjoy doing the thing I haven’t done before vs. doing the exact same thing again. Time and again, I’ve looked to use my past experience to bring a new perspective to an adjacent problem space. I was intrigued by Benchling and the potential to contribute to the mission of helping our customers solve these vast problems.

So, as I spent more time with the company and product, what I found out about Benchling is that building products here is 70% enterprise and SaaS software experience and 30% combining that with the scientific use cases. So what does that mean?

We’re building for scientifically oriented end-users, the managers and administrators that own the software, and the developers that build on top of Benchling. It’s amazing that the world’s most cutting-edge scientific research — done by brilliant PhDs working in multi-million dollar labs — is conducted using paper and pen, spreadsheets, and the like. They deserve better and they need better.

With that in mind, Benchling is software that solves these problems through:

  • Fostering collaboration and productivity for incredibly skilled individuals
  • Ingesting an ever increasing amount of data, both human-entered and machine-entered
  • Accelerating the understanding and insight into that data through visualization and analysis
  • Bringing automation to bear to make that cycle faster

When you think about it, these are challenges that product managers and designers are very familiar with in enterprise software. We often work on products that focus on one or two of these at a time. At Benchling, our product is addressing all four of these at once — what differentiates Benchling is bringing all of this together into a unified suite, and that’s a part of the unique challenge and problem we get to solve every day.

But it’s not just horizontal enterprise software. We start from an understanding of the scientific use cases as well. We spend a lot of time with subject matter experts inside our company who have worked on these products in their past lives. We also spend a lot of time with our customers, often designing the overall user flows and detailed interactions hand-in-hand with them. We get to go deeper into the user’s workflow rather than hitting the lowest common denominator in our designs. The end result is a product that feels like it was built for scientists instead of one roughly adapted to work for science.

From a product perspective, we work every day to build the best experience for scientists to ideate, collaborate, and push the boundaries of cutting-edge R&D. To do this, our team combines the understanding of our customers’ science with technique learned by working for some of the best names in enterprise and consumer SaaS. The combination of these backgrounds allows us to reimagine how science can be done when you build it with modern, cloud-based techniques.

Interested? We’re always looking for the next Benchling product managers and designers. Come join us!

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