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The Winding Road to Success

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— Part of an ongoing EE Times series: Diversity & Belonging in EE.  Previous parts can be found here.

Tech entrepreneur Olga Batygin did not start her career in the tech world. Her path included getting an emergency medical technical (EMT) license, attending nursing school and holding a variety of jobs in college, where she majored in molecular biology. It took several years on different career tracks and leadership roles before she realized her real strength: translating science into industry.

Batygin started her career as a molecular biologist, earning her Bachelor of Science in biology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and working at Caltech Labs for several years. She was on her way to a Ph.D. before making the decision to instead earn a Master of Business Administration.

Seeing a big gap between research and industry was a big motivator.

“That is really what motivated me to go into technology and business to bridge the gap between the research space and industry and get that research into people’s hands,” Batygin said.

Today, Batygin is the co-founder and CEO of AI startup Lucinetic in Pasadena, California. She has a background in molecular biology research and is a longtime member of Caltech’s community and a member of several boards, including an executive committee member of the Caltech Entrepreneurs Forum and vice president of the Board of Trustees at The Children’s Center at Caltech.

Co-founders are university professors Konstantin Batygin of Caltech and Greg Laughlin of Yale University. Konstantin Batygin is head of technology and Laughlin is head of science at Lucinetic.

Lucinetic’s AI platform is about building AI into the human workflow, Batygin said. It creates applied-language–modeling products that enable companies to leverage their data streams.

But before Batygin reached this point, she traveled along a winding path.

A few major life occurrences impacted her decisions. She traveled a lot because of her husband’s career trajectory as a professor and they also had a family to raise. So she tried a lot of different things that included becoming an EMT and attending nursing school. She also has held a lot of leadership roles in operations, administration and communications.

Batygin always felt like she was trying to fit herself into a space where she could be of service. “I didn’t really know who I was, but I had this longing to make a difference and to do something that I was really passionate about,” she said.

This also meant taking a mid-course career correction. She was on her way to earning her Ph.D. when she decided it was not something that she wanted to pursue.

“I realized that I don’t have to do this to prove myself, so I ended up getting my MBA and moving out of science,” she said.

After earning her MBA, Batygin was hired at GNS Healthcare, now called Aitia, a leader in causal AI and digital twins for pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies.

Lucinetic’s Olga Batygin (Source: Lucinetic)

Batygin said GNS Healthcare bridged her desire to work near research and to be involved in a science and business development environment. This is where she realized her superpower: being able to interact with both technical people and business leaders. She was able to easily work and manage technical people while also working with business leaders to get deals done.

“I’m really good at translating science into industry and speaking both languages because I had the opportunity to go from an academic space into a biotech AI space,” she added.

“In a highly technical and engineering environment, my superpower was being able to connect with people and be able to understand how I can make them successful, how I can help them grow in their careers, and understand and have empathy for the fact that they might not be very social or particularly extroverted,” she said. “I think having that understanding that not everybody communicates in the same way has helped me and my career, specifically in the technical space.

“That is where I can make a difference and that is where I can help people shine,” she added.

The other part of success is mentorship and a continued connection and interaction with people who have been supportive in your life, she said. “I’ve been very lucky to have them believe in me.”

Two of those people include Colin Hill, CEO and co-founder of Aitia, and Tom Neyarapally, who was formerly Aitia’s VP of business development.

Starting the business

Lucinetic was founded in 2021 with her husband and Laughlin. Batygin had a long-standing relationship with co-founder Laughlin, who participated in the early days of natural-language processing (NLP), at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where he was a professor at the time.

It became obvious to Batygin that AI would grow rapidly and be the next big thing.

“I think as academics, we understood that this technology will be used for good and it will be used potentially for harm,” she said.

What was interesting to the team was solving a problem that they understood and only they could solve using this technology.

“For us, because I’m an immigrant and first-generation college student in the U.S., that [problem] was letters of recommendation,” Batygin said.

“In 2019, the NLP models were not good enough to write long-form text, so it was also really an interesting challenge for my co-founders to understand this new technology and to use it in a way where it was going to be helpful for students, families and faculty who are immigrants and who need help writing letters that are still going to be very targeted toward the actual experience that people had,” she explained.

Letters by Lucinetic is the company’s first product, which launched in November 2022. It is an SaaS product that uses AI for language and workflow to help support writing and submitting letters of recommendation and cover letters.

Now the company is moving forward in many other different ways as well, she said.

Lucinetic’s technology is designed to streamline workflows by using data-driven applied-language models, powered by generative AI. It is currently developing technology that can transform large amounts of data into actionable decisions, particularly by non-technical people.

“What we see is this chaos, specifically in business, where there’s a huge amount of information,” Batygin said. “Data is being created every day, every second, every millisecond, and it’s just mounting and mounting, but to actually be able to find the information that you need and make sure that it is the information you’re looking for and then to be able to make decisions based on that data is a real challenge, especially for people who are non-technical, and so we’re really looking at this problem of what happens next.”

Next for Lucinetic is the development of artificial specific intelligence (ASI). ASI is described as a technology that allows businesses to translate complex data-driven information into models that allow individual users to understand that data and then make predictions without having to be a data scientist.

This technology has the potential to deliver a wide range of prediction applications, from climate modeling to fuel efficiency in the shipping industry.

The technology aligns with Batygin’s personal goals of using the technology for good as well as her passion for the environment and the planet.

“There’s a lot of really complex scientific software that needs to be operated,” Batygin said. “We’re working on creating an AI interface essentially where humans can interact with really complex data-centric software so that you don’t have to be a biologist to interact with a piece of software that’s biology-centered or you don’t have to be a geologist to be able to interact with climate and geographic information system data, for example.

“It’s a really exciting time and I think humans really need to work together to figure out how we can get all this data to work for us and for the planet,” she added.

Startup challenges in a male-dominated industry

Batygin initially did not give any thought to being in a male-dominated industry because she did not feel like she had the time or mental space to think about it or allow that to be part of the equation. That was until she became CEO and joined a group of women with similar experiences.

This group taught her to embrace the differences. “They taught me to embrace the femininity and to embrace the fact that there are so many amazing ways in which women have superpowers that make them successful CEOs,” she said.

“In the recent few years, there has been a new group of truly successful female CEOs, which has inspired me,” she added. “I went from ‘I’m not going think about that’ to ‘let me embrace that fact that I have skills that are different,’ and sometimes that really is an upper hand in being a tech CEO.”

When asked what was the best and worst thing about being a CEO, the answer was the same for both: being underestimated.

Batygin gives credit for the answer to Sara Blakely, founder and former CEO of Spanx. “I’m giving credit where it is due, but it is 100% how I feel.”

It was sometimes unpleasant to be underestimated, she said. But when “you get to show that you’ve been underestimated, that feels so good.”

One of the biggest challenges was financing, which was “a whole beast of its own,” she said.

But looking at it from a high-level perspective, Batygin said starting a company was very difficult because practical skills are either not taught in business school or not very well, so having a business education does not always prepare you for starting your own company.

What was crucial was the ability to “just take on risk,” she said. “It is a tremendous amount of risk, and you should be in a position to feel comfortable even if things go poorly.”

There is a gender component to it, with women having additional pressure because a lot of the time, they have the responsibility for most of the caregiving, she said.

However, Batygin feels “incredibly privileged” that she could start a company. “I grew up poor, with my parents going to great lengths just to feed the family, so the level of appreciation I have to be able to act on the opportunity to start a company goes very deep.”

She credits her husband for providing her with extra support. “I have an amazing partner, and he said, ‘This is your time and I’m going to do everything I can to support you.’ If I didn’t have that, I wouldn’t have the internal risk profile to start the company.”

For women-led startups, Batygin believes there is a lot of work that needs to be done.

All the chatter on LinkedIn or startup communities is about how great it is to start your company, but it also comes with real stress and real risk that people need to be more supported on, she said.

Women accelerators are helpful from a financing perspective and at the idea stage, she said. There are also free resources for small businesses that can offer tools and advice.

But Batygin did not have any of this information when she started. “I did everything wrong. I learned by making a lot of mistakes.”

One of the most difficult areas was fundraising, especially as a woman founder. Batygin said the percentage of women who have received venture funding has decreased this year to 1.9%. This is from 2%, which is “shameful,” she said.

Along with the lack of access to funding is a mindset that founders do not need to get paid, she said. “People believe that if you want to get a salary, you do not really believe in your business. This is just so harmful, especially to women.”

A lot of these factors, along with the culture of startup life, come into play in this lack of support for women founders, she said.

Batygin’s advice to women in technology who are thinking about starting their own company is to be laser-focused on your destination and eliminate the outside chatter, establish a successful founder community for mentorship and take advantage of small-business resources.

“There is a ton of chatter and noise that is just completely irrelevant,” she said. “You go online and see these communities and startup blogs and networks, and all the stuff can be extremely disorienting and overwhelming, with a lot of them saying opposing things, so my advice is to just cut that chatter and select people that you trust or who are trusted in the community and have them as resources and trust your intuition as much as possible.”

Batygin lost her way during the first year of founding Lucinetic by second-guessing herself because of the chatter and noise. “Am I making all these mistakes? How do I do this when random newsletter 621 is telling me that I’m doing it all wrong?” she said.

The other crucial piece is to find people who have started companies through networks, ask them to be your mentor and ask them to either support you through investment or introductions, she said. “Select a few people who are going to be that sounding board.”

Asking CEOs to be your mentor does not have to be a formal process.

It can be asking them to look at your pitch deck or asking for advice, she said. “Follow your intuition; you can sense when people really want to help you.”

This concept goes hand in hand with financial investment. “When people financially invest in you, they are also invested in your success,” she said.

The highlight of Batygin’s career so far has been the launch of the company’s first product. “It was an impossible achievement that I never imagined.”

It wasn’t even about the KPIs, she said. “We had a team that worked together to create and build it. I think [it was] that feeling of accomplishment and the fact that we could take a brainchild and really create something that will be useful and helpful to people.”

She described the perseverance to get to the point of launch as “a beautiful roller coaster” ride.

“The rewarding thing is when you keep building and you keep creating and you’re working with an amazing team, you really feel like anything is possible and that feeling is really where I love to live in that space.

“The world is really changing with technology, so for me, I’m motivated by making it more ethical and making technology be something that we are proud of,” she added.

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