Liran Belenzon is the CEO of BenchSci and a graduate of the Rotman MBA program. BenchSci is a machine learning-based startup that has taught a computer to read scientific papers and identify the specific antibodies, as well as other variables, such as specific techniques, tissues, and diseases, used in specific scientific experiments. We had an opportunity to talk with Liran about his entrepreneurial journey, the part that CDL played in it, and lessons learned along the way.
How did your entrepreneurial journey start and what has shaped you as an entrepreneur?
I am originally from Israel. I was in the army and served as an army commander for three years.
I got invited to do my law degree and during my second year of school started a startup that was the first B2B marketplace in Israel. We were successful and made around $2M in sales in our second year of operation. A few years later, we sold the company to one of our biggest customers.
After I finished my law degree, I moved to Canada to be with my partner, who is now my wife, and started my MBA at Rotman. Towards the end of my first year, I started working part-time at CDL. One of my responsibilities was to find startups and encourage them to apply to the program, and one of the startups I recruited was BenchSci.
I was really excited by what they were doing and asked them if they would be open to me joining the company full-time after I graduated or after we raised money. We agreed on a two-month contract, whereby they would be open to the option of having me join the company full-time with some equity and some sort of C suite position. In the end, I joined the company as a cofounder and became the CEO after a few months.
Your background is not in science, so what attracted you to a science-based startup?
The business opportunity and the market, from a business perspective, were really attractive to me. The fact that we are building a company that does something positive was also appealing.
What is the story behind BenchSci?
Tom Leung, who is one of our cofounders, has a PhD in epigenetics. During his research days, every time he wanted to buy a new antibody for his experiments, it would take him days, weeks, or even months, to find the best one that would work with his experiments. The data that actually shows what is going to work was buried in medical papers.
Tom then reached out to David Chen and Elvis Wianda, also cofounders, and they started working on a project to teach computers how to read the medical papers, so that scientists can instead focus on their research and accelerate drug discovery. That is essentially what we do now.
How is what you do now different from your other entrepreneurial ventures?
The scale. This is the first time we have raised venture capital. The thinking is much more grandiose as well. We imagine how we can make the biggest thing possible and how we can have the greatest impact.
How did you first hear about the CDL program and why did you decide to join it?
I heard about CDL through being an MBA student at Rotman.
I worked at CDL part-time during my first year of the MBA and learned more about the programming. I have a background in entrepreneurship and felt that CDL could nurture that further. I decided to apply as an MBA student and joined BenchSci after I recruited them.
What have been the key benefits of the CDL program for yourself, apart from being connected to BenchSci?
I think the CDL is what you make of it. It really depends on you. It is not structured in a way where they guide you how to build a company, but they open all the doors for you.
The benefits you will reap from the program depend on your tenacity and perseverance. They introduce us to some incredible people and those folks help us think better about what we do and how we should be thinking about our company.
The startups in the program have an incredible opportunity to learn and that has been very helpful for us. It is also an incredible network to have.
How have you leveraged CDL’s resources once you are out of the program?
We have a few people from the program, including Allen Lau, who have invested in us and so those relationships will always keep us connected to CDL. I personally keep in touch with people as well.
Any advice for people thinking of joining the program or applying, whether as a company, student, or founder?
CDL is what you make of it. You are going to be exposed to a network of extremely smart people – make sure you capture all the value from them.
You have to ask for what you need; nothing is going to be handed to you.
What is your long term vision for BenchSci?
We eventually want to go public.
You are an extremely busy individual. Do you have any down time and what do you do to relax?
I go to the gym at 5 AM and listen to audio books, but I do not have much down time.