Ep 56 Emilia Diaz: Learning from Kaitek Labs’ Post Mortem

This podcast with Emilia Diaz, a Chilean entrepreneur who dropped out of university at age 22 to run the biotech startup Kaitek Labs, is one of my favorite podcasts so far. And it’s one of the most necessary.

In the US, we celebrate entrepreneurs who learn lessons from failure. I always knew that I’d be able to get a job if my startups didn’t work. I still know it today.

But in Latin America, people shun failure. And a large company might not see a failed startup on a resume as a plus. Not to mention the social costs of a failed startup in a region where personal pride influences many day to day decisions.

So when Emilia Diaz’s startup, Kaitek Labs, a one time high flying Chilean biotech startup failed, she was not only facing having to grieve for herself, her team and her investors, but also publicly.

She could have stayed out of the spotlight, but she made the courageous decision that pushes ecosystems forward: writing a post-mortem on her personal blog. It’s an inside look on what went wrong. what she learned and what she would have done differently. I think Emilia is too hard on herself, but listen to our conversation and you be the judge.

Emilia continues to play an active role in Chile’s startup ecosystem, consulting and mentoring the newest generation of entrepreneurs. In this episode of Crossing Borders, we discuss Emilia’s decision to start a business, how she won a CORFO grant to grow Kaitek, some of her mistakes, and the famous post-mortem for her startup.

We also discuss what it is like to be a female founder in Latin America vs. other parts of the world and why Emilia thinks every entrepreneur should write post-mortems for their failed startups. Check out this episode of Crossing Borders to hear the rest of Emilia’s story.

“You know what? I can solve that.”

Red tide is an an invisible, tasteless, odorless toxin that infects shellfish worldwide and can kill people if not detected. This phenomenon affects millions of tons of seafood every year, which causes widespread economic losses in Chile. When Emilia Diaz, an industrial engineer, heard about the issue of detecting red tide, she was confident she could make it work.

There are very few 21-year-olds who would drop out of school to try to build a biotech startup anywhere in the world, but especially in Chile in 2012. However, Emilia was confident in her solution and was able to secure funding from Chile’s government funded development agency, CORFO, and soon she was on her way. Find out how Emilia built a biotech startup when she didn’t even have a lab when she first started creating Kaitek Labs.

Be the first person to admit your own failure

Emilia’s startup post-mortem became big news when a Chilean newspaper translated the most sensational parts of her post mortem into Spanish and wrote what I would describe as an unfair article. However, Emilia kept her dignity by owning her startup’s failure in the first place. Too often in Latin America, founders are embarrassed about a failed startup and try to fade in the woodwork, but Emilia says being up front is better. It is better to announce your own mistake than to let someone else write about it so that you are in control of the situation and can learn from what went wrong.

The response to Emilia’s honesty was overwhelmingly positive. However, most of her supporters were English-speaking entrepreneurs and investors in the US; in Latin America, the reaction was more tepid. Find out how Emilia is combating the fear of failure in Latin America on this episode of Crossing Borders.

The challenges of being a female founder

When Emilia went to meetings with her male minority partners, the two men would get asked all the questions. She has been called a kid more times than you could guess, and was even asked to cook at a startup event, rather than participating as a founder! Every cliche you can think of for a female founder in tech, Emilia’s probably heard it.

The situation is starting to change as women founded companies become more common in Latin America, but female founders still get taken with less credibility than males. Check out the rest of the episode to hear how Emilia became a pioneer in the Chilean biotech industry as a young, female founder.

Emilia Diaz’s raw and brutally honest post mortem about her failed startup makes her stand out among thousands of founders whose startup did not succeed. Ironically, the more learning from failure becomes acceptable in Latin America, the more the ecosystem will grow and become successful. Listen to this episode of Crossing Borders to hear from a dynamic, young entrepreneur who is not afraid to face the truth and challenges of being an entrepreneur.

Show Notes

[1:39] – Nathan introduces Emilia

[2:45] – Could you tell me the story of your startup and what happened.

[3:42] – Why did you decide not to finish school?

[5:15] Why do you think your family supported you in that decision?

[5:50] Did you always want to be an entrepreneur?

[8:38] How did you settle on this idea?

[11:20] Running a biotech company without a lab

[13:01] How did you find a lab?

[14:36] – How and why to hire people with more experience

[18:30] What was the next step after building your team?

[22:10] Why Emilia thinks they took too long to develop Kaitek

[24:50] How did you make the decision to close Kaitek?

[29:03] Why did you write a post mortem?

[34:11] What is it like to be a female founder in tech?

[37:06] Has the sexism changed since 2012?

[37:56] How has synthetic biology grown since you studied it?

[39:47] How to write a successful post-mortem

[42:31] Emilia’s advice to her younger self

Resources Mentioned: