Sunday, December 27, 2015

Terrible news for ISIS. Terrible for Republicans. Good for everyone else.

Iraqi forces have just retaken a major government compound in Ramadi after days of pushing ISIS out of the key city. This is coming on top of a consistently bad year for ISIS: the caliphate-controlled territory has been shrinking each month of the year.

The reaction to the setbacks was yesterday's communication from Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the head of ISIS. In the audio message, al-Baghdadi acknowledges:
Then we were struck by hardship and strife ... and God's trial intensified ... so much so that the Islamic State was driven out from areas it conquered and controlled ... and the land has narrowed down on us ... to the point where the Islamic State enemies thought they defeated and exterminated it. 
 Understandably, he also called for all Muslims to join in the fight. And here comes the worst news for ISIS - the reaction of the Muslims. A uniform mockery of the call, with countless hysterical "sorry, busy washing my hair" responses.

And there goes the entire platform of Trump and the rest of the Republican presidential candidates. If ISIS continues on this trajectory through the next year, chances of electing a Republican will be at zero. Republicans clearly know this too, as Rep. Peter King instantly issued a statement that he disagrees with all evidence (not unusual for a Republican politician) and that ISIS is stronger than ever, and that Islamophobia is as necessary as ever.

So, ISIS is in trouble, and Republicans just as much. Bad for them. Good for us. Great way to end the year.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

A quick note on journalism (in defense of BuzzFeed and Brooke Borel)

This note is quick, but for it to make sense, please first read the excellent article by Brooke Borel, Seed Money: How Kevin Folta got entangled with Monsanto, created a shady podcast alter ego, and spurred a hot public debate over conflicts of interest in big ag. I want to summarize the article, but the story is so bizarre and the writing by Ms. Borel so good, I can't do it justice with a summary. Just read it.

While the article is good, for me personally, it is painful. It's painful because I have been actively defending the scientist Kevin Folta over the past few months against media attacks on him. I am 100% pro-GMO. I know that the science Kevin promotes and teaches is sound and correct. I deeply appreciate the efforts by Kevin over all these years to dispel the myths around GMOs.

The problem is that Brooke Borel's article is not a smear campaign or a hit piece. It's an example of excellent journalism. When I first clicked on the article, I was ready to push back and defend Kevin. By the end, unfortunately, I found Kevin's actions indefensible.

And I know that many scientists and GMO-supporters felt the same way as I did. Many of us said this publicly or privately to Ms. Borel. The problem is that some people felt the same way, and given that there is really no way to defend Kevin here, decided to instead attack Ms. Borel or BuzzFeed. I won't point to the many different tweets on this, but essentially these are as follows:
  • BuzzFeed is clickbait and they just published it for views.
  • Brooke Borel shouldn't have covered it because it doesn't advance the conversation on GMOs.
  • This topic is too important to focus on Kevin Folta - should talk about GMO issues instead.
  • We've talked about Kevin Folta enough; why write another piece?
  • There are bigger problems in the world.
Journalism doesn't work this way. Good journalism is not about promoting an agenda - it's about good and important stories. GMOs are important. This story is good. Kevin was doing things that are likely to result in the opposite of his intentions - less trust in science and GMOs. If you know anything about journalism, it's almost unfathomable that Ms. Borel shouldn't have written this. 

It's not okay to bully journalists when they have written a thorough and factual article by telling them, "you are hurting a cause, so shut up." It's not okay to tell them, "there are bigger problems, don't write about this." If you do, you are practicing the My Outrage Is Better Than Your Outrage.

So I understand that it's unpleasant when we read something that we wish weren't true. But if it's true, we have to deal with that. If you can't defend the actions or dispute the content of an article, there's a problem, and it's not helpful to tell the media or the journalist to shut up. Most importantly, we should all strive to avoid doing things that will give us coverage like this. But when we accidentally make mistakes, which we all do, instead of attacking the journalist, we should apologize and work to prevent them from happening in the future.

P.S. I emigrated from what was then still USSR. That was a country where journalism worked with an agenda. Today, Russia still has a deep problem with free speech. A Russian citizen recently tried to defend Putin to me by saying, "We do have freedom of speech; we just don't have freedom of the press." There are good and healthy reasons to have freedom of the press and to have journalists decide what they want to cover, agenda aside.

Monday, October 5, 2015

VCs to startups: No food for 3 days? Well, you should really force yourself!

A few days ago, Neil Murray wrote an excellent post detailing the unethical startup conference Web Summit/Rise/Collision and how it hurts the startups it's supposed to help. Paddy Cosgrave, the head of the Web Summit group, wrote a non-defense where he decided to attack Neil and others instead of addressing the concerns. That didn't work too well as Robin Wauters, the EiC of, then responded with "Is Web Summit a scam? Well, if you have to ask." What is truly devastating to the Web Summit folks is the comments section, showing beyond any reasonable doubt that this conference is indeed a fraud.

Our startup nearly fell for the Web Summit scam back in April and I detailed our experience to warn other founders. After the comments above, there's really not much left to discuss about Web Summit itself - it's a lavish party, financed by the people least able to pay, with no benefit and a huge loss to the startups falling for the scheme.

There should be nothing left to say, except that I am deeply bothered by a condescending reaction to Neil's and Robin's posts from people who say that the startups falling for this scam deserve it. Many statements such as:

The reason scams against startups are so successful is that there is a fresh and steady supply of inexperienced first-time founders. Inexperienced and stupid are not the same. First time founders are, by definition, novices.

The notion that founders should carefully weigh the ROI for attending a given conference and ought to skip ones like Web Summit if the startup can't afford them reminds me of the joke:
A beggar walks up to a Jewish mother on the street and says, "Lady, I haven't eaten in three days." The woman replies, "Oy vey! Force yourself."
Even we nearly fell for the Web Summit scam, despite being a 3-year-old startup with great advisors, board of directors, at UC Berkeley's excellent Skydeck accelerator. I imagine founders in Ukraine or Brazil, spending the only money they have to travel to these conferences, hoping to raise capital for their effort. The Web Summit is a brilliant and successful scam, run expertly, and it's not trivial to spot that it is in fact a scam. It preys on the desperate and the inexperienced, as most successful scams tend to do. Blaming the founders for not spotting the sham is like telling cancer patients who resort to homeopathic placebos, "You deserve to die because you are so stupid."

Some VCs consistently forget that not all founders are serial entrepreneurs (I wrote before about this). And that's the part that allows these scams to persist. There would be no Web Summit if the VCs didn't attend it and didn't give the keynotes there. But when people like Mark Suster attend and defend such conferences, it lends legitimacy to the events and makes the inexperienced founders pause and say, "Well, perhaps this is exactly how you raise venture capital. If we can connect with people like Mark there..."

It is absolutely true that startups and founders learn from mistakes. But it doesn't mean that Web Summit is a mistake one should make. And it doesn't mean that scams are harmless and somehow select for good startups - that's bullshit. These scams waste money and more importantly time, both scarce resources for startups.  For some, attending Web Summit can be a lethal error, for reasons entirely unrelated to the strength of the startup's team/idea. It's important to take the side of startups rather than scammers in this case.

Note1. I am happy to see Mark making it clear that young startups should not attend Web Summit and the like. But he makes it hard for startups not to by going to them himself.

Note2. Some people have asked why thousands of people attend these conferences and don't speak up. If a scam and waste of time, wouldn't we know that? Well, they do speak up - see the comments here. And those who remain silent - can you blame them when people react with "you are so stupid your startup deserves to die"?

Monday, September 21, 2015

The Ugly Neighbors: From #IStandWithAnn to Bill Maher and Richard Dawkins

I am not worried about racists and anti-Semites who sport Nazi avatars on Twitter. It's the smart and respected bigots like Bill Maher and Richard Dawkins - these are the ones who really bother me.

It just so happens that it's been an ugly ten days of racial/religious hatred in my feed. Started with this article about Russian Islamophobia. Then Ann Coulter tweeted "fucking Jews", I made a comment about it, and suddenly I experienced direct anti-Semitic vitriol for the first time in 25 years.
To be honest, the scum in #IStandWithAnn simply made me reflect on the fact that since leaving the USSR in 1989, no one has called me a kike. The vile hashtag led me to ask if there is an example of a liberal analog to Coulter - someone with over half a million Twitter followers, many of whom can erupt in a parade of racism and xenophobia (still looking, by the way).

But today, Bill Maher and Richard Dawkins took the hatred prize. Richard Dawkins asked if Ahmed actually wanted to get arrested and then attacked the 14-year-old for not truly "inventing" the clock. Meanwhile, Bill Maher essentially said that the reaction to Ahmed is reasonable because Muslims blow shit up.

Maher ended the segment saying that adults should have told Ahmed, "maybe one of the reasons why it happened to you is that in our religion we’re responsible for 9/11, the Madrid bombing, the London bombing, the Bali discotheque bombings, the Kenya mall bombings.” (see at 7:23 below)

My question to Maher - if my daughter is called a kike, do I have to tell her the following?
Maybe one of the reasons why it happened to you is that many Wall Street bankers responsible for the financial crisis are Jewish, and Bernie Madoff is a Jew, and in general, there are and were many Jews who are terrible people.

Ann Coulter is a fringe clown with a xenophobic hateful base. I don't care much about them. But many people that I respect listen to Dawkins and Maher. I see these people pausing and starting to question Ahmed, not realizing that the seeds of doubt are planted by smart bigots who can carefully craft their words so that the hate is almost masked. It's part of the "we listen to Nobel prize winners even when they are spewing nonsense" and I think the Nobel/Dawkins/Maher bigots do way more damage.

P.S. For those wondering, no, Richard Dawkins didn't just lose his mind. His mind is fine; it's just that he is a bigoted jerk. Examples here and here and below.

In fact, there is a special chart giving guidance for when to ignore Dawkins:

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Please stop referring to growth hacking scams as "data science"

I just bumped into an exposé by Data Science Renee of sleazy practices by DataScienceCentral to attract readers to their site. Apparently they create fake profiles of women and minorities and post articles under these profiles because it brings good traffic to their site.

The person behind DataScienceCentral is Vincent Granville. He obviously doesn't like Renee.

On Vincent's Linkedin page, I saw as key accomplishment of his regarding DataScienceCentral:
Delivered $2,500,000 in sales to one of our clients within a 12-month time period, providing a 1,000% return on their ad spend. All our large clients are consistently renewing and expanding their advertising programs with us, as we find new ways to bring new quality leads all the time. 
Leveraged state-of-the-art data science to grow internal revenue and profits by 500% in less than two years, while maintaining profit margins above 65%. Grew traffic and membership by 300% in two years. Introduced highly innovative, efficient, and scalable advertising products for our clients. Used proprietary growth science techniques to outperform competition.
And this language was so familiar and reminded me of the scam artists behind the Web Summit, Collission, Rise conferences (really same scam conference, cloned to different places). I wrote about them before here and here. They pretend to offer free venue to startups, pretend to filter and select you, and then try to squeeze thousands of dollars out of the people who can least afford it. Sleazy folks who also pretend to be data science geniuses:
It’s taken us 4 years to scale Web Summit from 400 attendees to 20,000 and a bunch of physicists have played a big part...
With each passing year an increasing number of people ask how has it grown so fast? When I share the answer it’s almost never what people expect, so here it is:
Our growth has been largely propelled by data science. Or more correctly, in my view, network science. While conference companies hire event managers, we hire physicists with PHDs in areas like complex systems and network analysis...
 If your growth hacking stands for spam, scam, sleaze - please don't run around talking about the physics and data science behind your remarkable growth.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Milo Yiannopoulos destroyed by Emily Grossman in a debate

I just watched the 10-minute debate between Milo Yiannopoulos and Emily Grossman on the scandal surrounding Tim Hunt. It was stunning. Yiannopoulos uttered a stream of unsupported and inflamattory nonsense, and Grossman just dismantled him with facts. I know I would have lost my composure and temper in a debate with him, but Grossman magically remained professional and unfazed by his debate theatrics.

To be honest, I felt slightly bad for Yiannopoulos. Grossman so eloquently and forcefully showed him to be a fool and a clown, it's impossible to watch without sympathy for him. I even heard a rumor that Yiannopoulos cried after the debate and asked for it not to be aired. (Can anyone confirm if this is true or not?)

However, after the debate, in an attempt to recover and spin his poor performance for personal benefit, he wrote Why do feminists cook up stories about misogyny when they lose debates? This is the part where my sympathy for Yiannopoulos evaporates. When you lose a debate, admit it and move on. Write a blog post apologizing for stupid and offensive stuff you said, admit that Grossman destroyed you, and try to do better next time.

Friday, June 19, 2015

An argument FOR electronic lab notebooks

Most existing electronic lab notebooks (ELNs) are terrible. There is a good reason why the vast majority of scientists still use paper. But these are not arguments against ELNs - these are arguments against poorly-designed ELNs.

Below is my e-mail to a professor from a few months ago on this topic.
From: ProfessorX
Date: Sun, Jan 4, 2015 at 9:51 PM
To: Lenny, ProfessorLab

The attached article [How My Mom Got Hacked] is about the latest form of malware.   There is no way in the world that I could ever get authorization to pay the ransom to get any of out data back for reasons you will see.   So beware…..and keep a real note book.

From: Lenny
Date: Sun, Jan 4, 2015 at 11:24 PM
To: ProfessorX, ProfessorLab

Dear ProfessorX and lab,

I think this is a fascinating article and is in fact an argument for a digital lab notebook as envisions it.

ProfessorX, we have repeatedly discussed electronic lab notebooks (ELNs) over the past two years. You argue that the paper notebook has reliability and persistence that is not matched by the ELNs. You cannot access anything from the digital files on the floppies from the 90s, but you can still read your paper notebook from the 70s. You've also told me that the ELN business is the Afghanistan of startups. 

I agree with everything you point out, and these considerations have influenced our approach to the digital notebook since the birth of I agree with everything you point out, but not with your final conclusion that the paper notebook is the best way of keeping records. It is indeed today, but that's just because the existing ELNs are shitty, not because the ELN concept is flawed.

Now for the details:

1. Formats change and startups fail, so you can lose all of your data.

Agreed. That's why we made sure that our journal can be exported as .txt and PDF. You can export the whole thing, print it, put it on dropbox, thumb drive, and anywhere else. And it's good practice to do so periodically, as we do with all of the data that we generate. The important aspect is that your records belong to you and not to

2. ELNs have not been adopted by biomedical scientists because the paper notebook is best.

Agreed that ELNs have not been adopted and paper is best today. However, that's because most ELN companies have been solving the wrong problem. Labguru, eCAT and LabArchives all think they are competing with each other. They are not; their real competition is the paper notebook, and paper wins by a long shot against them because all of them have a terrible product. The existing and dead ELNs all thought the problem they need to solve is the retrieval of information, which is infinitely better in digital format. No. The problem is the entry of the information in the first place. That's where the paper notebook shines in contrast to websites and desktop software. My takeaway here is that as a mobile company, if we really do this right, we can come close to and possibly beat the paper notebook for the entry of the information (e.g. ability to write over the gel image, directly on the iPad). If we do that, we have a shot at adoption.

3. Hard drives can die and computers can become infected, as outlined in this article.

Agreed. This is an argument for backups. Hence we have a daily snapshot of all user data going back a month and a monthly snapshot beyond that. As the article itself points out, this is also an argument for cloud storage. Chances of losing your notebook on a laptop or single hard drive are high, but chances of losing it entirely on our Amazon server or on Dropbox are lower than the chance of losing or burning your paper notebook (doesn't have to burn as the drowned notebooks during Sandy at NYU showed us).

4. The paper notebook stays in the lab and can be easily read by anyone forever.

I agree it stays in the lab forever, but disagree it can be easily read by anyone. Most notebooks can only be parsed by the person who wrote them. So when that student moves on, her inability to physically access the notebookeffectively makes the entire record useless. My PhD notes from 2003-2009 may be physically in the Berkeley Lab, but when I am in Boston for my postdoc, good luck trying to answer a reader's question without me, just from flipping through my notebook. In fact, a paper notebook can't easily be used by anyone, including the author. That's because looking for a primer number or some note, without the ability to search digitally, requires hours of flipping through the notebook.
When students or postdocs leave the lab, they should re-assign their digital lab notebook to the professor. At the discretion of the professor, the student continues to have access to the notebook after leaving the lab. So when ProfessorX gets a question about a 2007 paper from a previous student, he forwards it to that student, student logs in, does a quick keyword search, reads the relevant page, and answer the question precisely. That's how the journal will work.

The inefficiency of the paper notebook, in the electronic age, is staggering. That's why both Novartis and Merck moved last year to ELNs for their chemists and are currently in the process of moving the biologists to ELNs as well. The arguments against the existing ELNs are arguments for a better digital lab notebook product, but they are not arguments that the paper is best. After all, we don't transcribe RNA-Seq or ChIP-Seq data into our notebooks. Nor do we transcribe our qPCR readouts from Excel. We are firmly in the digital age. We need a good ELN, be it from or someone else, and we need good practices to make sure the electronic records are accessible long into the future, without wasting trees.



P.S. I'd love to hear more arguments from everyone, for and against the ELN.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

The PhD Misconception

[This is an anonymous submission]

Currently, I'm nearing the end of my undergraduate career in Biology/Environmental Sciences. From the start, I thought I was doing everything right. I was studying a STEM major and getting involved in the environmental field, a supposedly "booming" part of the economy. I started research my first semester of freshman year, got to know all of my professors, participated in four internships, led tutoring sessions, and kept on the President's List, all while being extremely active with organizations on campus. I always thought I would stay in academia and become a professor - or that is what all of my professors assured me would be the best route. I wanted to do something important that bettered the earth we live on for future generations. 

But, what they didn't tell me about were the messed up hours, extremely low wages, and countless postdoc years. I started to observe all of the graduate students in my department. Most of them did really cool stuff while they were here - ecological restorations, public health microbiology, etc. - but most either ended up chasing postdoc after postdoc, waiting for a faculty position to open up, dropping out, or just...disappearing after graduation, never to be brought up in alumni news or updates.

Now with graduation nearing, I've almost entirely ruled out attending graduate school for the sake of working in academia. While I believe the work I'd most likely do to be extremely important, especially considering the environmental challenges we face now, I also want to be able to live my life fully, and be compensated accordingly for the effort I put into my work. 

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Last post on Collision Conference and Keiretsu Forum

Yesterday I wrote Hey startup parasites! We don't have time for you. In that post, I explicitly pointed my finger at the deceptive tactics used by Kieretsu Forum and Collision Conference to make money on startups. The people behind both of the organizations have contacted me to apologize and to defend their fees and legitimacy. Paddy G wrote lengthy replies here and here.

So to both, I want to be very clear - the big problem I have is not that you charge, but the way you mislead startups in the way you approach us, waste our time, create a false sense of exclusivity and conceal the fee in the initial conversations. If you were to make the fees you charge clear and explicit from the first contact, I wouldn't be blogging about either of you.

1. Keiretsu

You have told me today that the month of conversations I had, with not a single mention of the fact that you charge $4,500 for the right to pitch your angel investors, was just an honest mistake. You said that it never happens and I am just unlucky. You argue that the $4,500 fees that you charge are legitimate and provide value to the startup.

If that is the case, why not be upfront about these fees? There isn't a single mention of the exorbitant fee on your main Entrepreneur Page. Nor do you mention it on the application page. Another simple mistake? Or do you think it is not important? Or perhaps you realize how totally insane this fee is and how much of an outlier you are with this charge? Just glance at this nascent information sheet that I started; you are in the first place and that's not a good place on this sheet.

Considering the scathing coverage you got in Business Insider in 2009, claiming that you forgot to mention the fees on your website is stretching my very flexible imagination beyond its limits.

2. Collision Conference

You say that your website is very clear on the fees with:

“Each week we selected 25 early stage startups from around the world to exhibit for free as part of our Collide Program. The bigger tech companies pay $9,950 to exhibit, meaning exciting, disruptive, early-stage startups can afford to attend no matter what. All they will pay is a discounted price for tickets and Collide registration, and we’ll give them a free exhibition stand.”
No, that isn't clear at all. Let me highlight the clear parts to you "Each week we selected 25 early stage startups from around the world to exhibit for free as part of our Collide Program." To me, that says "free." Then you say "The bigger tech companies pay $9,950 to exhibit, meaning exciting, disruptive, early-stage startups can afford to attend no matter what." To me, that again says "free." Then you say "All they will pay is a discounted price for tickets and Collide registration, and we’ll give them a free exhibition stand" and this part is San Francisco fog. I see the "free" in there again. I don't see any clear fees you will charge. How am I supposed to know that this is you saying, "Friend, we have a bargain here - buy this shirt and the sleeves are FREE!"

Your other conference in Asia, Rise has this beautiful image:

And in the fine print underneath, the same text you quote above. No, this isn't how clarity is defined.
I am not a communications major, but you can simplify your messaging and get the pricing across more effectively if you get rid of the misleading "FREE" and instead say, "$1,450 if we invite you and you are selected."

And I need to remind you - I didn't come to you via the website. You reached out and said that you are interested in You had me present, asked questions, and told me that we have a chance to be selected to present because what we are doing is important and unusual. When I asksed how you heard of us, you said, "You were referred. We reach out to companies based on the high quality referrals from our trusted network of advisors." The gullible schmuck in me thought that it may be on the heels of our FREE appearance at LeWeb. Of course, once you "selected" us in your rigorous judging, we got the e-mail letting us know about the great honor of being selected, invited, and having the right to get the free exhibit table if we pay you a mere $1,450 instead of $10K.
In summary, you both practice deceiving and misleading tactics. I have wasted enough time on your organizations, and I have no further plans to engage in a discussion. It is entirely possible that I am an idiot and simply didn't understand your words or didn't look in the right places. Instead of playing "he said, she said," I will just point people to the countless comments about Kieretsu (here, here and here) and Collision Conference (here and here). There are certainly lots of folks out there feeling the exact same way as me.
[UPDATE 4/20/15. There are 34 chapters of Keiretsu. If each one screens 5 companies per month, as does the South California Chapter. That's 5*34*12 = 2,040 companies per year. Let's be conservative and say 1K screened companies. Yet, only 34 companies are listed in the 2014 portfolio. So the startups might have paid 1,000 * $4,500 = $4.5m to Keiretsu with over 90% of them losing time and getting nothing in return.]

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Hey startup parasites! We don't have time for you.

I am a good bullshit detector. Apparently, not good enough to have sensed that Keiretsu Forum and Collision Conference are parasites. Congratulations to both of you for wasting my time! Well done! You both reached out, pretended to screen our startup, asked good questions, made me present, and then kindly gave me the honor and opportunity to spend thousands of dollars for no good reason.

About once every day or two, I get a spam from some pay-to-pitch event. They are usually easy to spot and trash. But the two above were special. The woman from Collision Conference interviewed me, asked about our business model and strategy, then told me she would encourage their screening committee to invite because what we are doing is unusual and has huge social impact. A week passed, and we got the great news that we are indeed getting invited! Not only were we selected after their rigorous application round, but because we are invited, the cost of attending this conference would be reduced  from $9,950 to a mere $1,450.

I curtly replied that when we were invited to present at LeWeb, our $1,400 entrance fee was waived entirely. And the many other conferences that I attend when invited as a speaker, not only waive registration but also typically pay for the lodging and travel. I was going to let it go at that, but today's Keiretsu experience made me write this blog because these folks waste time that startups do not have.

The Keiretsu Forum contacted us a month ago to learn more about Then a phone call for a quick interview. A request to enter our information into their platform. Then a screening conference call were I presented our deck to two people. A week later, the next round where I presented to a bigger screening committee with 4-5 people on the call. Then a request to address some of their concerns before we move to the actual pitch to their investors. And finally, a "by the way" note that they charge $4,500 to pitch their angels. The full egregious exchange is below. 

Of course, as soon as I got this, I searched for "Keiretsu scam" on google and found two excellent articles on BusinessInsider: My Latest War: Angels Who Charge Startups To PitchRead and The Amazing Response To My War Against Sleazebags Who Charge Startups To Pitch. Yes, I should have done this search before taking the call, but I don't have the time. 

The irony is that my lack of time as a startup co-founder is what allows these parasites to waste more of my time. I am not going to get into a discussion of whether it makes sense to pay $500 to attend  an event where some VCs will speak for 20 minutes and then quickly escape, or pay to pitch angels who will most likely not invest in your startup, or pay an unknown conference to present your startup. Instead, I just made a very simple Google Spreadsheet to crowdsource information on which events charge and how much. I hope this will help us and others to avoid wasting time on the parasites.

[UPDATE 1: The comments on Hacker News in response to this post are very revealing.]
[UPDATE 2: Several people from Keiretsu Forum have contacted me apologizing and saying this was a mistake. Apparently they always warn about the fee from the first phone call. Except, they don't mention any fees on their main Entrepreneurs page or the Application page. If you think this is a legitimate reasonable charge, why not be upfront about it?]
[UPDATE 3: Keiretsu and Collision have contacted me to apologize and defend their organizations. My last post in response.]

[Update April 16, 2015]
Collision Conference claims that they are very transparent that they charge startups $1450-$1950 after inviting and screening/selecting. Here is how their clear pricing page looks:

The only clear thing about it is "FREE."

[UPDATE 4/20/15. There are 34 chapters of Keiretsu. If each one screens 5 companies per month, as does the South California Chapter. That's 5*34*12 = 2,040 companies per year. Let's be conservative and say 1K screened companies. Yet, only 34 companies are listed in the 2014 portfolio. So the startups might have paid 1,000 * $4,500 = $4.5m to Keiretsu with over 90% of them losing time and getting nothing in return.]]

Forwarded conversation
Subject: Keiretsu Forum - ZappyLab
From: <zzz>

Date: Tue, Apr 14, 2015 at 10:52 AM
To: Lenny Teytelman <>

Hello Lenny,

Hope you had a great weekend. After reviewing the presentation I had the following comments.

- "Both have high valuations, especially Zappy. Hard to determine market size for Zappy but I think if they get those niche eyeballs they are valuable to companies that sell them"

- "There was no talk about how much they expect to be able to charge. What they expect as far as timing of revenues, break even plan, revenues at exit, etc. they really need to explain and show proforma expectations."
If we can work on this, you are ready to present on our April forums.


Keiretsu Forum Southern California
270 Bristol, Suite 200
Costa Mesa, CA 92626

A region within the worlds largest network of Angel Investors.  Keiretsu Forum Global has 34 chapters on 3 continents with 1400 accredited investor members. Our founding team of angel investor members, along with our partners and sponsors, are committed to growing the community of investors who are interested in funding entrepreneurial opportunities and providing valuable resources for their growth. Our goal is to grow our community of investors by providing an international platform to showcase the most promising opportunities, ultimately creating the right environment, a Keiretsu, for everyone's potential success with ROI.
Since Keiretsu Forum's founding in 2000, its members have invested over $460m in companies in technology, consumer products, healthcare/life sciences, real estate and other segments with high growth potential. Forum members collaborate in the due diligence, but make individual investment decisions, with rounds in the range of $250k-$2m. Keiretsu Forum's community is strengthened through education on angel investing, as well as charitable giving.   

From: Lenny Teytelman <>
Date: Tue, Apr 14, 2015 at 4:30 PM

Thank you ZZZ.

Had a full day of meetings and will respond tonight/tomorrow.
To clarify, the first question is about the market size?


From: <zzz>
Date: Tue, Apr 14, 2015 at 4:34 PM

The first statement is from the valuation aspect and the second is the addressable market size.

Just to clarify, because I think I didn't write it down on any email, we do charge a $4,500 fee for the whole process of presenting and joining the network.


From: Lenny Teytelman <>
Date: Tue, Apr 14, 2015 at 5:08 PM


Could you kindly clarify? It is $4,500 to be paid by the startup?


From: <zzz>
Date: Tue, Apr 14, 2015 at 5:13 PM

Yes Lenny.

From: Lenny Teytelman <>
Date: Tue, Apr 14, 2015 at 5:20 PM

I am baffled. How could you not mention it on the first phone call? How could you not mention it in the past month? That is highly inappropriate.

From: ZZZ
Date: Tue, Apr 14, 2015 at 5:27 PM
To: Lenny Teytelman <>


It was my bad, thought I've sent, but I've rechecked the emails and I didn't.

We are not charging you any fee right now, this is only if you want to move forward to the forums.


From: Lenny Teytelman <>
Date: Tue, Apr 14, 2015 at 5:29 PM

I am glad you are not charging us now. Thank you for that.

And I don't think you will be charging us in the future. We are not going to proceed.


From: ZZZ
Date: Tue, Apr 14, 2015 at 5:33 PM
To: Lenny Teytelman <>

Wish you the best luck.


Monday, March 30, 2015

Biomedical funding is broken; crowdfunding is not the fix.

Last week, I wrote Calibrating crowdfunding expectations – a post based on our experience running the Kickstarter campaign. I shared that pre-launch, we had wildly incorrect expectations about the average backing amount. We expected $70-$100, but the real mean turned out to be $39. So we had to lean on our close relatives for help, and of the $54K that we raised, $28K came from just four relatives. In this post, I want to focus on the implications of our experience for research crowdfunding.

Crowdfunding platforms can work very well for pre-sales of popular items. Even in the case of our, while not great for funding, it was very useful to give visibility to our effort. However, while projects on Kickstarter need marketing, science projects need funding rather than advertising. Moreover, unlike ZappyLab with thousands of existing users that we asked to back our Kickstarter campaign, most scientists do not have an easy network to appeal to for crowdfunding.

Based on our experience, I was concerned that researchers turning to crowdfunding were setting themselves up for a harsh month of crowdfunding education, with very little chance of successfully raising the research dollars that they so desperately need. I know that biomedical science funding is broken, but I don’t see how crowdfunding is fixing it.

Of course, our crowdfunding was aimed at scientists to support (a communication platform), which is very different from the research projects posted on (the leading site for research crowdfunding) and aimed at a general audience. Therefore, to check if our experience is consistent with that of the scientists running projects on, I took a quick look at all biology projects on the site (84 projects funded at $3K or above; spreadsheet here). The average contribution for all of them was $94, very close to our average of $107.

The problem is that most of the 50 projects had very few backers, and that means mostly funded by close friends and relatives, which strongly skews the average towards higher numbers. I plotted the average contribution as a function of the number of backers. Figure 1 below shows that the more backers a project has, the lower the average. For the most popular projects with more than 100 backers, the averages hover around $50 – much closer to the $39 that we saw when excluding the relatives.

Figure 1. Average contribution as a function of the number of backers of the project. Numbers are from all 84  biology projects successfully funded on at $3,000 or above.

The projects on, just as on Kickstarter, are all-or-nothing. That is, if a project does not reach its funding goal, it gets none of the contributions. As I wrote in my previous post, there are good reasons to structure funding campaigns this way, but it also creates an extraordinary pressure on the scientist running the campaign to somehow get it to 100%. I have spoken to a number of people who ran campaigns on, and several indicated that they had to use their own credit cards at the end to make the campaign successful. Based on this, I hypothesized that projects raising close to 100% of their total will often be rescued by relatives as was our or will be partially self-funded by the scientist. Consistent with this prediction, graphing the average contribution as a function of the percent of the raised funding target shows a strong bias towards inflated averages around 100%-105%.

Figure 2. Average contribution as a function of the percent of funding targetNumbers are from all 84  biology projects successfully funded on at $3,000 or above.

I know personally Cindy Wu and Denny Luan, the co-founders of I like and respect both of them and know that they truly have noble goals and intentions. I am publishing this post because I think transparency and correct expectations are important.

Note 1. There are also philosophical reasons to question crowdfunding for research. The whole point of NIH grant committees reviewing and scoring the proposals, the point of HHMI funding innovators -- is to support good research and researchers. There are many problems with NIH funding and the selections, but as imperfect as these processes are, they aim to select good science. But crowdfunding cannot judge the merit of the proposal or the proposing scientist. Crowdfunding selects for scientists who are good at convincing the public to support them. Crowdfunding selects for projects that resonate with the public. As such, crowdfunding isn't well suited for supporting high quality research.

Note 2. If you are planning to launch a crowdfunding campaign, take a look at the experience of Jacquelyn Gill, which is remarkably similar to our experience.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Calibrating crowdfunding expectations

[TL;DR summary – we raised $54,600 from 506 backers in our Kickstarter campaign. It literally saved our startup and was amazing for visibility and marketing. However, our expectations of how much we could raise were wildly off. Of the total, $28,300 came from just four relatives. The all-or-nothing model at Kickstarter misleadingly skews the “average backing” to high amounts.]

A year ago, our startup ZappyLab ran a Kickstarter campaign for the creation of – a platform for sharing and discovering up-to-date science methods. This was the first successful crowdfunding project aimed at researchers. This Kickstarter also saved our startup. We were bankrupt, deep in the “death valley” of startup funding, with no one willing to back us. The response to our project was overwhelming; that gave us the much-needed visibility, led to our first major contract with a reagent vendor and helped to convince investors to support us.

I want to emphasize the above again – the Kickstarter saved us. I am deeply grateful to the hundreds of people who contributed, to the bloggers who wrote about it, to the countless people who spread the word. I think Kickstarter is an amazing platform and am writing this post simply to help those who plan crowdfunding campaigns. My goal is to share so that others can better calibrate their expectations and run more successful campaigns.

Before launching our project, I did a lot of research to determine the feasible funding goal. Kickstarter stats show an average pledge is $70. There is variation by category, with technology projects at an average backing of $107. Several crowdfunding gurus told us to expect a mean at or above $100 because a lot of our support would be coming from our existing users who already love and value our company and tools. We thought we could get 400-500 backers, and so we set the funding total at $50,000. We ended up raising $54.6K from 506 backers; an average of $108 per person, right around the expected range. But averages are wildly misleading. The median contribution to the Kickstarter was $20, and the true average closer to the median than it may seem.

Within two weeks of launching our campaign, it became painfully clear that even with 500 backers, we would be nowhere near the $50K mark. Plotting our curve, we were on the path to $20,000 total. Our estimate that we could get about 500 backers was on target, but the average pledge amount was less than half of what we expected.

The tricky part is that if didn’t get to $50,000, we would get nothing and everyone watching would see a failed campaign on Kickstarter. We panicked. That didn’t help. We went to our closest relatives and begged for help. By begging for help, I don’t mean the expected leaning on friends and family to back the crowdfunded campaign. I mean an “SOS”. In the end, four relatives contributed $28,300 of the total that we raised.

Of course, our campaign is unusual for Kickstarter. The true reward we promised was better and faster science; we did not have a physical product to ship in the end. It is possible that our experience is an outlier. On the other hand, 4/6 people who ran crowdfunding campaigns told me privately that they also had the exact same experience and were forced to beg parents and other relatives to get them to the target in the end. Given our experience, I expect that this is rather common.

Kickstarter’s all-or-nothing model means that a campaign that raises $48,000 out of the target $50,000 will get zero. I understand why Kickstarter does this. This protects the backer against a campaign that raises 10% of the required total, with no product ever delivered, but the money gone. I personally would not have backed the crowdfunded projects that I did without this safety. On the other hand, this also creates an extraordinary pressure on the people running the campaign to come up with the funds by whatever means are possible. Especially for startups like ours, when investors warn that not reaching your goal is a red flag, failure is not an option.

I doubt that we are the only ones to naively launch a Kickstarter with wrong expectations. I hope this post doesn’t hurt Kickstarter, and if it helps the people running the campaigns to set better targets, this may actually result in more of the projects succeeding. To that end, more details are below.

[UPDATE March 31, 2015]

To determine if our experience is common, I looked at 30 projects in the Food section on Kickstarter, funded at $10K or above (data here). The hypothesis is that projects raising close to 100% of their funding target will frequently be in the save-our-souls mode as we were, begging friends and relatives to close the gap with enormous contributions. Indeed, projects funded 100%-110% had an average backing of $112 while projects raising 150% or above averaged only $65.
Average contribution as a function of the percent of funding targetNumbers are from 30 projects successfully funded in Kickstarter's food section at $10,000 or above.

1. Distribution of all 506 contributions to Kickstarter.

2. Distribution of the 502 contributions to Kickstarter, excluding the four relatives who saved the campaign.

3. Distribution of the 486 contributions to Kickstarter at or below $200.

4. The average was ($54,600-28,300)/502 = $52 (compared to $108 from all).

5. Of the 502 backers, 138 were friends and relatives. They contributed $12,121. That’s an average of $88. The median contribution from friends and family was $50 (compared to $20 from everyone).

6. Excluding the friends/family contributions, we got $14,014 from 361 backers, for an average of $39 – much closer to the $20 median.

7. Naturally, considering that this Kickstarter helped us survive, we are glad we did it. But if you are planning to run a crowdfunding campaign for marketing and outreach, keep in mind that it is far from trivial to pull this off. See my guide to crowdfunding here for a description of the required effort.

8. This is part 1 of a 2-part post. Next week, I will be sharing thoughts about crowdfunding for research (now published).