When science and SaaS unite: Two female leaders on how work gets done in biotech
Creating software for scientists requires a level of domain expertise and knowledge that is uncommon for Silicon Valley tech companies. But for Benchling, it’s been a priority since day one that science and tech have equal seats at the table. This is embodied in the Benchling team, which is a unique 50/50 blend of people with scientific backgrounds alongside technologists and operators.
Two female leaders at Benchling, Chief Product Officer Shawna Wolverton, and Head of Solutions Delivery Lauren Shields, Ph.D., come from distinctly different worlds — one an enterprise SaaS vet, the other a former Fulbright bench scientist. We asked them why this blending of backgrounds is so critical in the pursuit of providing scientists with modern software.
What motivated you to leave your respective fields to work on software for science?
Lauren Shields: I was that lab scientist capturing findings on paper towels. I loved thinking about the science, but doing the science with old school paper-based tools didn’t move fast enough. I came to Benchling because I wanted to be a lever to help the world of scientists do their science faster.
Shawna Wolverton: When I started my career, it was the beginning of SaaS. In those early days we were inventing entirely new ways to deliver software to the world — the opportunity for scale and transformation was beyond our comprehension. This is where my mind goes when I think of biotech today. Science is at this exciting tipping point. Look at how fast the Covid vaccine came to market, and how biotech permeates everything, from the foods we eat, the medicines we take, the household products we use.
If I can be a part of making science better, faster, more efficient, that’s where I want to be. Leaning on my SaaS experience, I see so much opportunity to make an impact. Half of scientists’ time today is spent not on the actual science, but instead on managing R&D data across a jumble of applications and paper notebooks. And that is the last thing you want the most important people in your company wasting their time on.
What are you bringing from your respective backgrounds that helps scientists do their work?
Lauren: Coming from the bench, I’ve walked a mile in our customers’ shoes. That means I can easily translate their science into software needs. I've used those same instruments, dug through freezers myself for that one sample I'm looking for, and struggled with sharing data via email or Excel.
It’s more than just the scientific knowledge. I understand what it’s like to be working endlessly at the bench, running and reoptimizing experiments. I never take for granted my role in helping to alleviate scientists’ burden with software. A large portion of our customer success team at Benchling is made up of former scientists, so my mentality here is not unique. Meanwhile, the rest of the team brings expertise in tech. This marriage of science and SaaS is why we’ve been successful. We understand the customer from both sides and are a really strong partner.
Shawna: Generic or point software solutions can do more harm than good, especially for a highly specialized industry like biotech R&D. While we’re asking scientists to figure out the next breakthroughs, we’re also in effect asking them (and the IT teams that support them) to stitch together a fragmented ecosystem of apps and tools that aren’t fit-for-purpose.
A simple tenet I carry over from my experience in creating SaaS platforms: Build for the specific needs of your audience. How do you do this? First, the teams creating tools for scientists need to be a blend of people who truly understand the work of science and people who have a mastery of what works and what doesn’t with enterprise SaaS. Second, an ecosystem approach is important. This means making Benchling the activity hub for the full R&D lifecycle, becoming a convenient and central source of truth for the scientists’ everyday work.
To truly build for your audience, you also need community. I know from my work creating Trailblazers at Salesforce and community programs at Zendesk, that companies and customers are enriched by having a deep community connection.
In biotech, we’re seeing this massive pent-up demand for more community from our customers. At the community events we host, customers are so eager to share best practices and how they’re doing science on Benchling. We get to hear about wins and challenges across all segments, whether it’s RNA therapeutics or developing new plant-based proteins or sustainable seeds. It’s really easy to over-rotate on the voices of a few big customers. But community gives you a way to diversify and hear from a huge number. Hearing from the community helps me be a better product leader by deepening my understanding, not just about features, but about the bigger-picture problems they’re trying to solve.
What are some differences between how you approach science with software, as compared to other industries?
Shawna: We didn’t go for a horizontal land grab at Benchling. We’re focused solely on the biotech industry, which by the way, includes not just biopharma, but also agriculture, CPG, industrials, and diagnostics. And so we are building for a world where we deeply serve 5,000 customers, not 500,000.
A lesson I’ve quickly learned: Not everything needs to be designed for massive scalability. This is very different from the horizontal enterprise SaaS world. We entrench ourselves with our customers, have an ear to the ground on which advancements we need to build for, and keep delivering new products that address their specific needs.
Take cell therapy as an example — we supported the first companies doing breakthrough research beginning six years ago when the field was young, and now 65% of the top cell and gene therapy companies use Benchling. We've worked side by side with these organizations, determining empirically which models and processes work best over time. We have those hard-earned lessons, and now, we're codifying them into standard solutions so that the broader industry can benefit. Bear in mind that there are currently less than 200 companies working in cell and gene therapy, so the scale is not the same as a typical enterprise SaaS, but our penetration with those customers is much deeper.
Who are the female scientists or technologists who inspire you?
Lauren: Seeing women being titans in the field has shaped me — women who are not only making critical scientific discoveries, but their impact on the business and the course of biotech is also monumental. I think of Susan Lindquist, formerly of the Whitehead Institute at MIT, and her lunch and learns, where I grew so much as a student. And Jennifer Doudna and the entrepreneurship and spin-offs coming out of her lab. Also personally, I’ve been inspired by my mother, an emerita professor in virology and microbiology.
Shawna: Compared to my experience in tech, science feels like it’s further along in female leadership. I show up at customers' offices and round tables, and I’m seeing a really high representation of women in biotech.
So much about how you get more representation in a field is about seeing those leaders at the top. The biggest name in science is hands-down Jennifer Doudna. The impact this has on young women and girls is huge. Doudna is a publicly recognizable household name; young women can see a future for themselves in science.
For me, the inspiration began in first grade with my teacher Janet Stetler. Mrs. Stetler was a bench scientist working in chemistry and left to become an elementary teacher. She brought the same curiosity that I’m sure drove her in chemistry to everything that we did in that first grade classroom. I left first grade feeling that 100% I’d be a scientist like Mrs. Stetler. And while I didn’t get to be a scientist, I took that curiosity with me to everything I did.