A technical founder’s journey: an ag-biotech startup CEO with a vision

Dr. Fatma Kaplan
5 min readNov 23, 2019

I often have to convince people that I am the right CEO for Pheronym, an ag-biotech startup.

Dr. Fatma Kaplan, CEO of Pheronym

Frequently I hear, “You would make a great CSO.” I know I would be a great CSO, but I am the only one who can be Pheronym’s CEO.

Let’s start with “What does a startup CEO do?” Everyone knows that the CEO is the person in charge, but what does that mean for a small startup? Startup CEO’s can play very different roles depending on the type, stage, and founding team. For example, digital healthcare, digital agriculture, biotechnology, consumer-facing and B2B startups all have different needs. Furthermore, a startup is expected to create something visionary that will transform the industry or create some new and novel technology. So the startup needs a CEO with a vision.

It’s always been my belief I had the vision required. In 2005, when I accepted the position to identify the model nematode’s (Caenorhabditis elegans) sex pheromone, I knew how these discoveries could revolutionize agricultural pest control for nematodes. Soon after we published the work in Nature (2008), the USDA-ARS recruited me to apply this discovery to control agriculturally important nematodes. After all, pheromones had been used to control insects successfully for decades. Why not for nematodes? When I was at the USDA, I won the 2011 American Phytopathological Society Schroth Faces of the Future, Nematology Award for my vision of using pheromones to control parasitic nematodes. Then, in 2014, my article on the future of the nematode pheromone field won an essay contest sponsored by the Genetics Society of America and was published in the GSA Reporter. When I started thinking about filing patents and commercializing my discoveries, I realized that I was the only one with the knowledge, passion, and vision to make it happen.

With this vision, I built a multi-institutional team that won multiple grant awards (2017–2020). Within 2 years, we were able to show that our technology works. For biotechnology product development, this is fast. Our team’s progress has been recognized by both the business and science communities. In 2018, Pheronym won the 2018 Sacramento Region Innovation Award for Food and Agribusiness. This award recognizes the people and organizations that…