Barbara Paldus of Codex Beauty: “Hire the best possible people and challenge them”

Hire the best possible people and challenge them: you cannot over-hire but you need to also challenge the best performers or they will get bored and leave. Many of my reports were afraid to hire people smarter or more capable under them but that is the only way to get the best team. I’d rather […]

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Hire the best possible people and challenge them: you cannot over-hire but you need to also challenge the best performers or they will get bored and leave. Many of my reports were afraid to hire people smarter or more capable under them but that is the only way to get the best team. I’d rather be the most stupid person in the meeting — you learn something each day that way.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Barbara Paldus (“Barb”), a scientist, entrepreneur, and investor. Prior to launching Codex Beauty and Sekhmet Ventures, she spent two decades leading innovation in spectroscopy, telecommunications, and biotechnology. By 34, she had founded two Silicon Valley companies that, among many breakthroughs, paved the way for carbon cycle/natural gas pipeline monitoring, and accessible vaccine/cancer therapeutic manufacturing. Barb, who earned her Ph.D. in electrical engineering at Stanford, has been awarded 40 U.S. patents and numerous prizes in science.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?

I grew up in between Canada and Europe (France, Germany, Netherlands). My father was a professor of applied math and quantum chemistry, so while we mostly lived in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, we often spent years abroad. I was your typical nerd. Glasses by sixth grade and awkward at sports (I was probably the sprinter with the highest record of tripping on my cleats), I was your prototypical nerd. I loved books and my cat more than anything else, and often day-dreamed about doing something meaningful like Florence Nightingale, Mother Teresa, or Eva Perón. On bad days I pretended to be a dictator of my own private island. I loved to concoct chemistry experiments, build gadgets, and take anything apart that I could get my hands on. Often, I couldn’t put them back together again (like the family TV which didn’t win me any points).

When we were in Berlin during 10th grade, I truly fell in love with science and math. Upon returning to Canada, I skipped grades 11 and 12 (we had 13th grade in Ontario back then) and ended up going to talk to a college admissions officer during the summer. When he saw my transcript, he asked which type of engineering I would like to study. I glibly answered, “the toughest to get into”, and ended up in electrical engineering. To my parents’ surprise, I came back with admission to the University of Waterloo and started that fall. Being two years younger in freshman year was not easy. So, to make up for my age and gender (there were 3 women in my class of 80), I decided to be tougher and work harder than anyone else. I ended up also doing a parallel degree in applied math as well. The discipline to survive that double degree served me well ever since. After Waterloo went to Stanford for graduate school. It felt like the world had opened to me — I had arrived in Silicon Valley!

Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?

As a little girl, I was a huge fan of Marie Curie. To me, she was a symbol of brilliance, passion, science, and self-sacrifice (driving mobile x-ray machines around the battlefield hospitals of WW1 knowing the consequences of radiation exposure). On top of that, she was a woman who had broken the Nobel Prize glass ceiling.

I also liked to make things and ended up becoming an engineer. I have a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering from Stanford, and I have been a serial entrepreneur for over 20 years. To me — nothing is more rewarding than innovation and seeing it work, especially when it can improve the human condition.

Prior to Codex Beauty, I spent two decades leading innovation in spectroscopy, telecommunications, and biotechnology. By 34, I had founded two Silicon Valley companies that, among many breakthroughs, helped pave the way for carbon cycle (climate change) measurements, food integrity testing, accessible vaccines, personalized medicine, and cell therapy.

Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

When I was in biotech, and we were still a new company, we decided to go against GE and other large competitors for the largest project of its time in 2009. One of the largest pharmaceutical companies had acquired the largest biotech company and wanted to bring in new manufacturing technologies. There was an evaluation of all technologies in the marketplace for almost six months. We put heart and soul into the evaluation and ended up winning the project. After months of negotiating the contract, my team and I were finally in Europe to sign the contract. We ended up having to initial every single page of the many pages of technical specifications and were told to think of this as “signing in our blood”. The project manager told us: we are taking a huge chance on such a young company — if you succeed, we will make you in the industry but if you fail to deliver, we will break you. That was an incredible motivation and for the next year, we lived and breathed that project. It led to several innovations in different areas, and when the project was finally delivered, our team beyond relief. But everything worked and the company had a system that no one else in the world could build at the time. And that’s how they became an incredible reference for us for the next 7 years, and that was truly the beginning of unprecedented growth. Now when I sign contracts, I always imagine that the ink is my blood — and we do whatever we can to make good on technical specifications.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

During my first company, Picarro, I was invited to visit a company in Japan. My VP of Marketing came with me. I knew nothing about Japanese culture other than I liked sushi, and it was very expensive. My counsel had given me a book about Japan to read on the airplane, but I didn’t realize that it was written in the ’60s. When we went for our first meeting, I diligently walked a few feet behind my VP, and let him do the talking.

About 15 minutes into the meeting, young assistants started bringing tea and snacks. They giggled when they saw a woman in a meeting with men at the executive level. I had read about that part. However, it turned out that the meeting was to present our technology, and very soon my VP started looking at me, so I took over the slide deck. As I was presenting, I saw looks of consternation and private conversations in Japanese. One of the executives asked my VP why his secretary was presenting. When he answered that I was the founder and CTO of the company, the expressions were priceless. When they found out that I had studied under a famous chemistry professor at Stanford who was a good friend of the company founder, total pandemonium ensued. Several executives left the room in a hurry. Both my VP and I were completely confused. Were we getting thrown out?

They came back with little presents and a lot of food. Apologizing profusely. Everyone laughed. And we ended up with a relationship that lasted until I left Picarro 6 years later.

What learned from this was that one should study the CURRENT culture and in any introductory meeting, immediately introduce everyone and their proper position. I also learned that what I took for granted was definitely not common in other parts of the world. And how to put others at ease despite culture differences. Respect, smiles, and laughter are the best tools possible. And this has served me well ever since!

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

We are working on a line to bring our high-tech skincare platforms to the masstige market for acne. To do this with state-of-the-art ingredients that shine in clinical trials, with carbon-negative packaging based on renewables (no fossil fuels here!) and a sale price under 20 dollars is not trivial.

But people need solutions, and they need to be affordable, so it’s a great challenge.

We are very interested in diversity in the entertainment industry. Can you share three reasons with our readers about why you think it’s important to have diversity represented in film and television? How can that potentially affect our culture?

I think it is important that people understand that race and gender or orientation have absolutely nothing to do with people’s abilities. My father had an extensive network of scientists whom I saw at dinner parties at our house — it was the most diverse group of people imaginable, and that is how I see the world. Each according to their abilities and personality. The other factors have nothing to do with it. Each person is a unique individual, and if you look closely, you will find their value.

I think that it is therefore very important to show diversity in film and television, in as many different roles and professions as possible — especially those that require advanced degrees. People need to have this kind of exposure to realize that everyone should have a chance, and anyone who works hard and excels should be equally compensated. This mindset would allow our culture to evolve, and benefit from the many talented individuals who today are sidelined yet have so much to contribute.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. New products will always take longer to develop than you think: when developing products based on new technologies, many factors are poorly understood, and many designs can go wrong. Today, I take the estimate from R&D and double to triple the amount of time scheduled.
  2. Market adoption will either be too fast or too slow: some technologies are so novel that they are too far ahead of their and especially in regulated markets, it can take a decade for adoption to really ramp. In other industries, a solution to a critical need can have very rapid adoption, and then scale-up of manufacturing becomes the gating item. Either way — your business plans are wrong, and you just have to roll with the punch every time.
  3. Hire the best possible people and challenge them: you cannot over-hire but you need to also challenge the best performers or they will get bored and leave. Many of my reports were afraid to hire people smarter or more capable under them but that is the only way to get the best team. I’d rather be the most stupid person in the meeting — you learn something each day that way.
  4. Your customer is King: many service organizations and companies don’t listen enough to their customers. I occasionally had to fight my development teams about new features requested by customers that they thought were strange or stupid. In the end, those features differentiated our products as our competition didn’t listen to the customers and so they lost projects.
  5. Always make sure you have enough cash: even if you are profitable, a big project or opportunity can come along and if you don’t have the cash, you can’t take the opportunity. Also, money is always the most expensive to raise when you need it — investors can smell that weakness in a heartbeat and will punish you for it in valuation.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

I am really not a good example of this as I tend to push work to extremes and find myself on the other side of burnout. Definitely having a good diet, regular exercise and enough sleep are a must. That is simply common sense for staying healthy. Time with friends and family — parents, spouse, children, cousins, grandparents — is a very grounding activity as well, especially during the holidays. And taking at least 30 minutes of each day to imagine the future or daydream helps both relax and refresh the mind and soul.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I am deeply concerned about climate change and biodiversity, which include indigenous peoples. I would love to inspire a movement of reduced consumption. This goes counter to being an entrepreneur where growth is everything but is necessary to save our planet. We consume too much junk, and we produce too much garbage. We are not meeting our carbon emissions goals and we are killing plant and animal species at a ferocious rate. I would like for people to become more mindful consumers: do you really need that pair of shoes, that new car, that newer cellphone, more toys and gadgets, extra food? Will you really wear it, use it, eat it, play a lot with it? I would like to see how people can renew the use of old things and recycle.

Being in skincare, I would like to see minimalist routines — you only use what you need to keep your skin healthy and no more. And you recycle your packaging.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I will be forever grateful to Robert Halperin (“Bob”), who was the President of Raychem Corporation. I met Bob when I was a young and naive entrepreneur and was raising funding for my first start-up (then called Informed Diagnostics, today called Picarro). Bob not only funded my company, but he helped secure additional venture capital. He then became a mentor to me until he fell ill and permanently retired. He taught me the fundamentals of business, taught me how to become a leader, and allowed me to take risks with the technology to push it further. His expectations were sky-high, but with his unflagging support, we managed to create possibilities we didn’t think were possible. He also made me swear (not promise) that one day when I was successful, I would in turn help and mentor others. And that is what I live by today.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“I was taught that the way of progress was neither swift nor easy.” Marie Curie

Many people imagine breakthroughs as moments of genius or inspiration. The reality is that breakthroughs take incredibly hard work, tenacity, and many failures along the way. Marie made it very clear to me about setting the right expectations: be patient and persevere. This perspective allowed me to keep focusing on ideas and new technologies for long enough to see them become accepted and to finally breakthrough. First with cavity ring-down spectroscopy, and then with the flexible automation of biotech manufacturing. Today — I have only begun the journey into skincare, and there is so much to learn and try, in order to make fundamental and meaningful changes.

One step at a time.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I would love to meet Bill Gates. I’m not finished with my biotech past, and I still think that we need to have distributed vaccine production at hospitals — just like up-and-coming cell therapies. I would love to hear his perspective.

How can our readers follow you online? or on LinkedIn.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!

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