Trailblazing Women: Elizabeth Iorns, CEO of Science Exchange, Part-time Partner at Y Combinator

This interview is part of a series on Trailblazing Women role models (Entrepreneurs and Leaders) from around the world and first appeared on Global Invest Her. You have to see what you can be.


"Creating Science Exchange has been the most rewarding and challenging adventure I have had. I've gone from being an academic scientist to running a Silicon Valley based technology company, with 50+ employees, working with the biggest pharmaceutical companies in the world. I am so grateful for the opportunity."

Dr. Elizabeth Iorns is the Founder & CEO of Science Exchange, the Co-Director of the Reproducibility Initiative, and is a part-time partner at Y Combinator. Elizabeth has a Ph.D. in Cancer Biology from the Institute of Cancer Research (UK), and before starting Science Exchange in 2011 was an Assistant Professor at the University of Miami (where she remains an Adjunct Professor). Elizabeth has received a range of honors and recognition, including the Kauffman Foundation Emerging Entrepreneur Award, one of Nature Magazine's 'Ten People Who Mattered', and one of WIRED's '50 Women Who Are Changing The World'. Elizabeth is focused on the development of innovative models to promote the quality and efficiency of scientific research.

Visit her website at and follow her on Twitter @elizabethiorns or @ScienceExchange

Who is your role model as an entrepreneur?

I don't just look at one role model to emulate as an entrepreneur. Being in Silicon Valley, you get a lot of exposure to both experienced and up-and-coming entrepreneurs. You can take pieces of their stories and use them to help you with the challenges you are facing. Being part of the Y Combinator community is incredibly valuable and one of the reasons is because you can usually find an entrepreneur within that network that's faced a similar situation. I've found that a really important component is to be able to look to peers as well as more experienced entrepreneurs for inspiration. I am always inspired by people who are unafraid to take risks, to take their own path. A lot of times when you start something that is going to be disruptive, people tend to dismiss you and think that you are a little crazy. It can take a lot of courage continue on that journey and inspire others to help you. Something that's always inspiring to me is seeing people being able to take a 'crazy idea' and be able to execute on it effectively. Elon Musk is a great example of that.

What is your greatest achievement to date?

For me, the single achievement I am most proud of is obtaining my PhD in Cancer Biology. The program definitely tested my perseverance and was very challenging - I think that's what makes achievement the most satisfying.

"If you feel very strongly that you have a problem you want to solve and are really committed to solving that, then do it! The biggest regrets are always the things you don't do, rather than the things you do."

What has been your biggest challenge as a woman entrepreneur?

In some ways, I have been very fortunate as a woman entrepreneur. My company has been relatively buffered from any discrimination because I have a male co-founder and in some cases, I've found being a woman entrepreneur an advantage, because you stand out from the crowd. However, I have heard a lot of stories that are not ideal and the disadvantages are real. For example, it is harder to build relationships with funders or other entrepreneurs if you are the only woman in that network.

What in your opinion is the key to your company's success?

The key is that we are solving a real problem. Pharmaceutical and other R&D focused organizations increasingly rely on external service providers to discover and develop their products. The global market for pharmaceutical outsourcing now exceeds $250B annually, and has a 7.5% CAGR, with nearly 50% of R&D dollars now spent externally. This shift in R&D from internal resources to external service providers has created significant challenges for the industry. Science Exchange solves these challenges by providing a software platform for ordering services from the world's largest network of scientific service providers. Through Science Exchange, clients gain access to 3000+ qualified service providers, all with pre-established contracts in place that protect client intellectual property and confidentiality. This enables organizations to efficiently access their external R&D partner network and consolidates their research outsourcing spend into a single strategic supplier relationship with Science Exchange. This model has saved our clients thousands of hours of legal, business operations, and scientist time, and driven significant cost savings.

What helped us initially was finding a good client to partner with. We worked with that partner to optimize our offering and achieve product-market fit. That resulted in significant benefit to our client because we were able to solve the challenges they were facing working with their external network of R&D service providers. We were then able to leverage the success of that initial partnership to expand rapidly with new clients.

If you could do 1 thing differently, what would it be?

I try to not look back and think of what I could have done differently too much - there are always unforeseen consequences of doing something differently that you couldn't have predicted. The only thing I can think of immediately is that I would probably have tried to interact with a broader segment of potential clients earlier. In the beginning we saw Science Exchange as a consumer-facing product where we saw scientists as consumers. Now we understand that it's an enterprise product, where we need the buy-in of several stakeholders to get adoption at an institutional level. We could have learned this quicker, if we had of interacted with a broader segment of potential clients earlier on.

What would you say to others to encourage them to become entrepreneurs?

It's all about seeing role models that other people can aspire to. Silicon Valley is the hub of entrepreneurship, where it is almost the social norm that entrepreneurship is the acceptable thing for anybody to do. The network effect is very powerful. I was a Silicon Valley outsider before I came to Y Combinator - that allowed me to tap into the Silicon Valley network really quickly. At the time, there were very few women entrepreneurs in the program. Since then, many women have gone through the program and been successful, and that enables other women to see that this is a path they can take too.

From a practical point of view, it's important to take advantage of any resources available to you to get started. The inertia of not knowing how to set up your company, raise money, having a vesting schedule etc could be overwhelming, so having access to an accelerator program is very valuable.

These questions would have been very overwhelming to me if I hadn't of had the infrastructure available from Y Combinator. An accelerator can really help you to take that next step.

How would you describe your leadership style?

I am very practical. I like to see how each team is accomplishing their goals and look for opportunities to improve. My team knows that I will always do anything it takes to help the company succeed. If they are working late to meet the needs of our customers, or ship some part of the product, then I'll be there beside them.

What advice would you give to your younger self?

At each stage of my career I've questioned my ability to succeed in new and challenging environments and I've had to push myself to take those steps. My advice would be to not be afraid to fail - I've always regretted the things I haven't done more than anything I have done.

What would you like to achieve in the next 5 years?

Over the next 5 years I want to focus on growing Science Exchange into a mature global company working with clients in all major R&D focused industries. We have significant market share in the biotech and pharmaceutical industry and we are currently expanding into cosmetics, agricultural, chemicals and other R&D focused sectors.

3 key words to describe yourself?

• Driven
• Committed
• Curious


Watch Anne Ravanona's TEDx talk on Investing in Women Entrepreneurs.

Learn more about Global Invest Her @GlobalInvestHer

testPromoTitleReplace testPromoDekReplace Join HuffPost Today! No thanks.