THE BLOG

Women in Business Q&A: Vivian Chan, CEO and Co-Founder, Sparrho

02/24/2015 09:32 am ET | Updated Apr 26, 2015

Vivian is the CEO and co-founder of Sparrho, a personalised recommendation platform for all things scientific. After spending a year working in a venture fund in Australia, she decided to pursue a PhD in Biochemistry at the University of Cambridge. Her continued interest in the business of science and technology led her to join the Cambridge University Technology Enterprise Club (CUTEC), later becoming the President and Chairman. After achieving her PhD, she was selected to take part in the inaugural cohort of Entrepreneur First, where she met her python teacher and Sparrho co-founder Niluka Satharasinghe. Since incorporating in July 2013 and closing a six figure seed round, she has overseen Sparrho's rapid growth and now leads a team of six.

A strong advocate for women in STEM, Chan was invited as one of 15 female CEOs to be take part in a ground breaking trip to the San Francisco and Palo Alto with UKTI and Silicon Valley comes to the UK. She was also selected as a semifinalist for The Duke of York (UK) New Entrepreneur of the Year 2014.

How has your life experience and career made you the leader you are today?
I've always been an avid learner and keen to expose myself to new experiences which has definitely been reflected in my career to date. After graduating with an undergraduate degree in Drug Design & Discovery in Australia, I worked in a pre-seed venture capital firm in Brisbane. I learnt about the many facets in commercialising science and research and was able to get hands on experience in the process of fundraising and bringing science and business together. I then went to the University of Cambridge to pursue a PhD in Biochemistry and during my time there I became the President (and later Chairman) of the Cambridge University Technology & Enterprise Club (CUTEC). Leading a team of 50 and getting experience in project-, time-, and people-management were great skills to gain beyond the training of my PhD. It is here that I realised how important it is to help your team grow in aspects beyond their roles. I know that if each of my employees grows individually, the company grows exponentially and this is embedded deeply in Sparrho's culture. I think running a startup is very similar to the day to day problem-solving work of a PhD - being prepared for failure, persistence, iterating quickly and testing hypotheses often to find that thing that works.

How has your previous employment experience aided your position at Sparrho?
I first experienced the problem of staying up to date while working on my PhD. There was a researcher in my lab, Steve, who read several key journals each morning. Because he knew what everyone was working on, he was able to recommend papers outside the scope of linear keyword search. Search engines can only help you stay up to date if you know exactly what you're looking for and the right keywords to use. I realised that not everyone is lucky enough to have a real life Steve, so started building Sparrho, a digital version, for everyone.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Sparrho?
Running a startup is very much like riding a rollercoaster. There are highs and lows, but the highs are incredibly rewarding. To begin with, I'm surrounded by a great team with exceptional talents. In addition to being able to get the freedom to build a solution to a massive problem, I've also been exposed to the opportunities of passing on my knowledge - speaking on various panels ranging from topics about women in tech and alternative careers for a PhD. Another definite highlight was being selected as one of 15 female CEOs to be taken on a historic trip to San Francisco and Silicon Valley in September 2014 with Silicon Valley Comes to the UK.

I've experienced a few challenges, especially as a scientist-turned-entrepreneur. Learning how to run a tech (software) company meant I need to have some understanding of coding to be able to communicate and work effectively with the team. Understanding what technical and operational processes are required to run a scalable startup is one I definitely had to learn on the spot. I'm aware that the role of a CEO evolves as the startup evolves so to ensure that I don't get blindsided by new responsibilities, I've started CEO shadowing. I spend a day with different CEOs (one with a team of 10 and another with team of 30+) and see what their day is like, including looking at their diaries and seeing how they interact and run their business.

What advice can you offer women who are seeking to start their own business?
Networking is key to any entrepreneur - not only do you build up your own network for of support but there are also great opportunities to ask questions or even validate our business ideas and get potential clients. Another crucial advice I'll give is to find a mentor(s), you will grow as a person while you're starting your own business and it's always great to have someone who can give you guidance and support, as entrepreneurship isn't for the faint hearted.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
Being a CEO of a small but fast-moving startup means there are no set 'normal' hours but I pencil time in for hobbies and friends. I also ensure that I get one day a week (weekend) to myself especially if I haven't been on holiday all year (2014) so that I don't burn out. It's crucial for me to maintain a balanced work/life ratio so that I can maintain some creativity but more importantly be a better CEO to lead the company. Running a startup is running a marathon, not a sprint.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
There are inherently differences between genders, however I think as a woman, being made aware of what these are is definitely a great opportunity for women to excel in the workplace.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I first learnt the value of mentorship during CUTEC, where there was a great network of mentors and advisors at hand. As mentioned earlier, I think having someone experienced to bounce ideas with is important, but it's also always a great sanity check to see if you're on the right path or generally give you perspective to how you're doing outside of your team's perspective. I personally found my mentors through networks like CUTEC but also during my time at Entrepreneur First, where I met my great co-founder Nilu Satharasinghe.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
Sherry Coutu - first female to tell me that if you don't know how to do something - just go and learn it (coding). She's been a strong advocator and inspiration for both the entrepreneurship scene (mentor, investor, do-er) as well as bringing this to education via Founders4School).

Professor Elizabeth Blackburn - had the fantastic opportunity to meet her during my San Francisco trip. What's not to love about this Australian Nobel Prize laureate with her work on telomerase?

What do you want Sparrho to accomplish in the next year?
What has started off as a personal predicament has blossomed into a small but mighty company in just 1.5 years so I'm extremely excited about what 2015 will bring. We want to grow our content and user base globally to ensure that we can help anyone and everyone find relevant scientific content. We already have users who are beyond scientific researchers (including patent attorneys, conference organisers, investors, ordinary citizens, etc) - being able to allow the general public to access and discover relevant content in the most user intuitive way is definitely a goal we want to achieve.