Narges Bani Asadi
If Narges Bani Asadi hadn’t been afraid to leave Iran in 2003 to attend graduate school in the United States, she may never have become the CEO of a startup company before she turned 30. At the time, she was finishing up her computer science degree at the University of Tehran and wondering what to do next. She had gotten into Harvard’s graduate program, but was nervous about leaving home, so she declined.
A year later, though, after listening to her elder brother’s advice, she was ready. In 2004, she accepted a graduate position at Stanford in the cradle of Silicon Valley. That was the catalyst for Asadi starting Bina Technologies, a technology company using a high-performance computing appliance plus some fancy algorithms to create customized medicine based on a person’s genetic profile.
Her ability to connect three different branches of science and apply her knowledge around data and computers to benefit medicine is one reason she’s on this list. The other is her ability to overcome her fear of leaving her home for something new, and then striking out as a lone founder at a startup. Bravery and brilliance are a powerful combination in times of change.
A convergence story
“When I came to Stanford, I had no clue I was going to start a company. I thought I’d be staying in academia, because that’s my passion — science and technology,” said Asadi. “But the cutting-edge research that happens at Stanford and maybe a few other universities in the U.S., you see a very closed kind of relation with the industry and how [the science] can be productized and applied … So definitely being at Stanford was one of the major reasons I started Bina.”
The lure of applied research that might actually do something to change the world — like cure cancer — was one reason she started Bina, but another was because she could continue to work with the people she’s already met and worked with during her years at Stanford. She’s hired some of them at her startup. She was at Stanford from 2004 through 2010 with a short internship at IBM’s T.J. Watson Research lab in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. Yet her lack of business experience, or even a job outside the confines of a research-oriented organization, hasn’t intimidated Asadi.
She has chosen the path of CEO as opposed to becoming a technical founder in part because she hasn’t found someone else to take on the co-founder role, despite being open to having one. When she was creating the company in Stanford she had three other founders who decided to stay put in academia, while she moved forward with her idea. She calls her business sense “intuitive,” but she also spends a big portion of her time recruiting people who have the skills she doesn’t, from a CFO to someone who has experience in medical sales.
And going it alone has its price. One she’s painfully aware of, as her days start at 6:30 AM and don’t finish till 11 p.m. or so. Sure, in that time she’s got a commute to the office and time for an hour-long run, but the rest of the time it’s work. On weekends she takes one day off to recharge, meeting with friends or relaxing. As such she doesn’t have a lot of hobbies, although she’s recently taken up yoga in an attempt to regain a little balance between Bina and the rest of her life.
The right spot at the right time
But in some ways her life has prepared her for this journey — from her education at an all-girls school in Iran to her serendipitous decision to reject Harvard out of fear. When she went to university in Iran, her computer science classes were an equal mix of men and women, unlike classes in the United States, so she never felt isolated in her choice of profession.
When she came to Stanford she luckily found herself immersed in the burgeoning field of bioinformatics, where she could use her knowledge of programming and math to interface between the computing, statistics and biology departments. She also found herself in the heart of a culture that not only accepted the risks associated with starting a new venture, but embraced them. In this way she fell in love with biology and found the idea that ignited her desire to start a company.
Asadi’s path may ultimately help doctors eventually customize medicine to cure patients of various diseases. And if we trace that path back, we can credit her original fear of emigrating and her choice of Stanford over Harvard for our healthier lives.