Carrie LeDuc has been involved in four biotech startups, including two in Maine, over the course of her 26-year career.
Though her startup stints were separated by more than five years working at The Jackson Laboratories in Bar Harbor, LeDuc said an addiction to building startups kept calling her back.
Her latest company, GenoTyping Center of America (or GTCA), which she co-founded with three colleagues, sounds more like a nonprofit research lab than a biotech startup, but it has gained traction in the life sciences industry with its genetic testing services. The Ellsworth-based company, which has five employees, has also begun to realize its services can be marketed to other industries, such as the craft beer industry.
In her interview with Maine Startups Insider, LeDuc discusses the personal challenges of building startups, her philosophy around raising equity capital, and her advice for those who think they want to be entrepreneurs.
Maine Startups Insider: Tell me briefly (and in layman’s terms) what GTCA does and who your market is.
LeDuc: GTCA performs genetic testing on customer samples. If there is a question regarding the genes in a sample we will help to answer this. For example, we work in life sciences to support human disease research and in the microbrewery industry to assist in quality control. Every living thing has DNA. We answer questions about the genes which make up the DNA. This can be used to compare to a disease state—having this gene means something with regard to having the disease. Or, you can use it for simple identification of a living thing—having this gene sequence means you are an African Elephant.
Has the company’s focus remained unchanged since being founded in 2012?
We have always been focused on genetic testing, but have expanded from life sciences into other businesses, like the microbrewery industry, which can utilize this sort of testing to improve their operations.
What was your entrepreneurial experience before co-founding GTCA?
I have worked for state and federal agencies, private companies, and startup companies. After working in a biotech startup or two, I was addicted. I moved to Maine because I wanted to live here. After gaining some great experience with the Jackson Lab, I partnered with others of like mind to start GTCA.
When you first founded GTCA, did you feel prepared?
I don’t think you are ever really prepared. What you need is guts and endurance. You have to be OK with being out of your comfort zone, with working VERY hard for little immediate gain, and you have to be your own source of confidence and strength.
What’s been the largest challenge you and your team have faced in starting the company?
There are a tremendous number of challenges. I would say that we have been lucky overall at GTCA. The team is highly functioning and pulls together very well. Our biggest challenges have been around having enough time to improve all that we want to in order to make the company even more successful. We are bootstrapped so we run with few resources and spend carefully.
How have you overcome that challenge?
We have partnered with other businesses on grants from MTI. We train interns and volunteers. We consider venture capital funding and partnering with larger companies.
What personal challenges have you faced in co-founding a startup?
My family time has been decreased as has my income. I am very busy, but I’m actually not as stressed as I was working in other environments. This lifestyle would not have been right for me personally even five years ago. It really depends on your life outside of work and how much time you are ready to give. It is so important to keep life balance and running a startup is a huge time investment.
What has surprised you about building a company?
How much there is to learn and how much support there is. It can be hard to learn all financials, marketing, trade show, programming, and all the other things that you need to do yourself at the start. But, there is support for entrepreneurs in organizations, in government, and in other entrepreneurs. The City of Ellsworth’s Center for Innovation has been a life saver.
How have you funded the launch and continued operations of your company?
All the founding partners have invested to fund the launch and initial years of operation of the company. We have not raised money from investors, but are considering a small first round of $300,000 to $500,000.
What’s your philosophy around selling equity in your company? How does a founder know when it’s a good idea to take VC money and when they should try to avoid it?
We heard from one very savvy investor that we should “stay away” from guys like him “as long as possible.” But I think GTCA is right at the point where we need to consider it. I think there are many reasons to consider VC money. It comes with consequences—you now have a boss or bosses and they also own the company. But I would say for GTCA or any company, when it is time to scale your operation and prepare for a jump in business, it is time for outside investment.
Have you benefited from mentors? If yes, what impact has mentorship meant to your career?
We have absolutely benefited from mentorship. This comes from more formal mentors in programs like Top Gun or MTI staff and affiliates and it also comes from other people who have started companies, or managers in government, or lawyers for small business. Listening to all of their opinions and experiences has taught me and my co-founders at GTCA a great deal. Talking to others is how we grow as individuals.
What are your long-term goals for the business?
We would like to see GTCA to continue to prosper, to reach break even, to employ 5-10 staff in Ellsworth and to continue to support the research and product quality of our customers. We would like to continue to grow as fast as we can without sacrificing quality. We are considering VC funding now as we would very much like to have a revenue stream that would support ourselves and our employees well while also allowing more research and development, but, our true focus is quality and contribution rather than dollars. We’ll get there, each day we’re improving.
If you could give two pieces of advice to someone thinking of starting their own business, what would they be?
It is great to take your idea and work with other people of like mind to make something grow. Find a local incubator or innovation center and get support early. If you have cash to fund it yourself, what are you waiting for? If you don’t, vet your idea with others and look into grants with federal and state agencies. Keep an open mind about the business model and take risks. If it doesn’t work, move on to something that will. Learn from colleagues and stay humble.