People of Synthace: Vishal Sanchania, PhD – Head of Biology
Our Head of Biology, Vishal (Vish), joined Synthace in 2013 and has immensely contributed to growing the company and shaping its vision. Vish manages and oversees our in-house lab in London, UK, leading a team of experienced scientists who test, build, and improve our Antha platform.
The way we do science needs to change. The way in which we educate the next cohort of scientists needs to change. There needs to be a real embrace of digital tools, and I'm convinced that this will take years to do - but frankly, I'm glad to be part of the revolution.”Vishal Sanchania, PhD Head of Biology
What is your role at Synthace?
I lead the lab team and spend most of my time problem solving. The lab is a crucial node within Synthace: we test our software platform Antha and provide feedback for Antha developers, demonstrate scientific exemplifications of Antha, help steer key product features with our scientific knowhow and do some really cool science whilst trying to maintain a lab. I oversee these interconnected functions.
Where were you before joining Synthace?
I joined Synthace fresh out of my PhD, where I spent 50% of my time leveraging a technique called electron spin resonance and the other 50% manipulating biology within the same lab that our CSO, Markus Gershater, was launching Synthace.
Why did you want to join Synthace?
I initially joined Synthace because of two reasons: i) the people and ii) the mission.
Markus Gershater taught me all about best practice in molecular biology to get me started at the very beginning of my PhD, where he was a post-doc in Prof. John Ward's Lab at UCL. Over time, I became inspired by his vision to do things differently to optimize biological processes, from start to end, using better experimental tools, such as DOE.
As Synthace gained traction, a research position opened up, I got to meet early team members and there was clearly something exciting here. I believe that if you have great people coming together to deliver on a shared vision, some pretty awesome stuff is going to happen - Synthace has not disappointed.
For me, as I've been at Synthace for over 7 years, it's important to ask the question of why am I still here? We're not doing the same things that we set out to do initially, the vision has evolved.
The answer remains the same for me: i) the people and ii) the mission. The team is now ~ 15-20x the size of what it was when I joined but we've managed to maintain and grow a fantastic culture, everyone within the team has your back. The mission has had some refinements but frankly, it has potential to change the way in which the world does science using software, so it’s even more exciting and relevant.
Think about the expectations you had before you joined. Is life and work at Synthace in line with how you thought it would be?
Synthace is very different from what it was like when I joined, so my expectations before joining are a lot further off. In my opinion, this will always be the case at an exciting, innovative and high growth organization. We're going through the natural phases of growth that any fast-paced organization will go through, every phase is different from the one before, with new challenges. What I can say for sure is that this has been one heck of a journey and an experience that I continue to relish.
Were there any concerns you had before joining that were either realized, or that turned out to be unwarranted?
I joined Synthace eyes wide open. I knew that there was a risk in joining a start-up. In a startup you are doing a lot of strategic innovation, which may fail as you’re solving big courageous problems. Having fear that you may not succeed is natural, there are so many external factors that you cannot control. However, Synthace has done a fantastic job of controlling what it can, and it's impressive to see how far we have come and were able to navigate this complex space.
Have you held other roles during your time with the company?
Yes, three others. I've grown with Synthace, and it's not been easy. I started as a Research Scientist, moving to Senior Scientist and Principal Scientist and Forward Deployed Engineer. I am now Head of Biology.
Would you say it is possible to move around within the company and progress your career?
Yes, it is. We actively look out for people at Synthace and spend a lot of time talking to team members about what their career goals are and do our best to help them achieve these. When the timing is right, and there is a good fit, team members can find themselves working in areas they wanted to develop in and grow.
I've actively transitioned an entire team out of my management at Synthace to help with their growth, development and contributions to the organization. I have encouraged others to take other roles, and I am having the same conversations today. As I mentioned, if the timing is right for the organization and the individual, we make it happen.
Would you say that you can clearly see how your work has an impact?
Yes, without a doubt. I can pinpoint to exact actions that have resulted in both positive and negative impacts on the organization. We're part of a fine-tuned ecosystem at Synthace, luckily, I've had more of a positive rather than a negative impact - I think! Synthace gives those who are brave the opportunities they deserve, it pushes people out of their comfort zone and is a great place to grow and shine.
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
Other people's success. I have a fantastic team and colleagues. I like to think that I enable their success in some way. For me, this is the single best feeling: to see someone succeed and to have been part of their success story.
What do you enjoy most about life at Synthace (outside of your job)?
Three and a half years ago, I would have answered this completely differently, maybe one of our social events for example. However, now it is the flexibility I need for spending time with my four-year-old son. Time spent with him and my wife are the things I enjoy the most, even better if it’s on holiday somewhere warm.
Which activities/events have you enjoyed or found useful (including the remote versions)?
I have to be honest, the very nature of what I do keeps me extremely busy. I do love to socialize when I can but it's usually when I’m taking my team out for a celebratory drink and dinner. Also, "there’s no party like a Synthace Christmas party": these are absolutely legendary and our CEO, Tim Fell, is an absolute master at organizing these along with our Operations team.
What do you get up to outside of work? Do you have any hobbies or passions?
There are several things I enjoy doing: spending time with my family, keeping fit when I can… I bought a house three years ago so I've been busy slowly making the place more usable (plenty of DIY).
I like to think of creative new solutions to problems by listening to or reading and assimilating wisdom from others. I do like to keep in touch with tech and science where possible.
Would you say that you're encouraged and able to be your true authentic self at all times?
Yes. I have come a long way too. I used to be more reserved which, to be fair, is who I still am. However, I feel that I can say how I feel and ask questions, however foolish they may seem at the time. It’s usually a mixture of the right time and place to get the best responses to my questions.
Also, by being authentic, I've been able to have frank conversations with colleagues. Internal or external, you will find that I prefer to go straight to the hard truths, and I find that almost everyone prefer this. Although you won’t be surprised to find that I spend most of my time listening rather than talking when in deep discussion...
What do you think are the biggest challenges we're facing at the moment (personally, in your team, and/or company-wide)? And, how do you feel we are addressing these?
There are two in my opinion, an internal and external one.
The internal one is to do with our ongoing transition into becoming a more product focused company. We continue to finesse how we build and deliver exciting new features in Antha, and it has taken a lot of reshaping of the internal working of Synthace’s teams, including my own. However, progress has been great, people are listening and learning, it's really happening - kudos to all team members here, and I know we’ve still got a lot of work to do!
The external challenge is the scientific community and will be the case until we gain critical mass. The challenge is that scientists across the world continue to do science in a semi-optimal way. "If it's not broken, don't fix it" mentalities exist without realizing that it is broken. This speaks to a major change management problem the community is facing regarding digital tools.
The way we do science needs to change. It's not easy to change, and more people need to embrace the digital wave. The way in which we educate the next cohort of scientists still remains the same, and needs to change, there needs to be a real embrace of digital tools like Antha, and I'm convinced that this will take years to do - but frankly, I'm glad to be part of the revolution.
On the other side of this, what do you think are the biggest opportunities at the moment (personally, in your team, and/or company-wide)? And, how do you feel we are addressing these?
The opportunities for me and my team are to impact and shape the way we develop product. Everything from the project management considerations, the quality processes and the science that we should be doing to demonstrate the product. There's a lot here, and we're already starting to help shape this company-wide with other parts of the organization.
We're addressing these by speaking up and saying what's wrong and co-building out solutions to solve the challenges. As I mentioned, we're in a new phase at Synthace, and with every phase there is another opportunity for all members of the team to shape how we grow and execute.
How do you think working here is different to other companies?
A lot, frankly. Synthace is defined by its people. All you have to do is come to a few of our more passionate company-wide discussions and you will see how open, transparent and responsive we are as an organization to the needs of our team members and customers. We're a people company.
Now, things aren’t all sunshine and rainbows, there's always plenty of work to be done, and there are stressful times and things do go wrong! However, we get through them together: every time something falls, we pick it up, usually catch it, and then deal with it in such a way that it will never fall again – this is a testament to the great team we have.
How would you describe the people and culture at Synthace?
People are open, friendly and accepting. We're all different and we embrace these differences.
I can walk into the office, and some people smile, and some don't. Largely people don't when it's early morning, they're busy thinking, or they just don’t smile – it’s who they are. The point is, you can be yourself, and people are themselves at Synthace.
When it comes to working together, we're all there to support one another; there's no two ways about it, we're a great team.
Synthace’s culture is centered around the people, and they are excellent - so I guess we have a high bar of excellence as part of our culture. To be frank, it's not easy to get a job at Synthace because it's not just about being good at what you do or having potential to excel, it's also about being an awesome human being, and that combination is key to our culture. We're all nice people - I like that.
We're transformative, we're not afraid to rip things up and throw them away because they don't work.
What are the 3-5 best things about working at Synthace?
- The mission
- The challenges that come with company’s growth
- The nuanced humour during discussions
- Openness and willingness to speak your mind regardless of your position
What are you most proud of when thinking about Synthace as a company and/or group of colleagues?
That we're able to accept one another's difference and work effectively on some really hard and knotty problems whilst trying to figure out a whole bunch of things. We're good at solving complex problems as a team - I feel like this is what the best companies in the world do.
What advice would you give to someone if they were looking to apply to your team? What traits and/or skills are important?
One bit of advice I would give them is to be yourself because if you're not, you're going to get found out. As exciting as it is to work here, it's not easy (which is what makes it so rewarding).
Here are some skills I would encourage those thinking about joining to reflect upon:
- Adaptability: We're a uniquely positioned high growth company, and our requirements are always changing. If you can't change with us, you'll struggle to keep up or feel overwhelmed.
- Trust: You need to trust your colleagues. You must be willing to trust your team members. This is a team game, and giving colleagues the opportunity to try and fail is more important than being right. You have to trust that they will tell you if they really struggle – watch them shine!
- Intellectual agility: The problems we encounter are very varied in nature and no blueprint exists to solve them. Hence, being able to deal with complex problems and solve your way through them is important, regardless of the level of ambiguity.
- Empathy: You must have a high level of emotional intelligence, else you won't be an effective team member. A company and team are about the people, without the people, we fail.
- Resilience: I personally feel as though this is an area that is overlooked. Those that do well are able to identify challenges, understand why they exist, get frustrated but get over them and succeed. It’s about getting knocked down and picking yourself and others up with you rather than remaining stationary.
If you're good at what you do technically and you have some real overlap with some of the above, you will succeed here. You don't need all of these things, a lot is learnt on the job - heck, I'm still learning myself.
To improve chances of success within the Lab team specifically, a good academic background and industrial experience are a good foundation to have. Our role descriptions are truthful in what is required and should put you in good stead.
Showing an interest in who we are, what we do, and having real reasons to join us is always good, especially because it will become difficult at times, and this passion and purpose you bring will be the fuel you will need to persevere through hard times.
Finally, just being a genuinely nice person. This doesn't mean you can't be honest: you can be honest and be a good person at the same time. A lot of the time it’s about how you say it and not what you say that matters more. We have a great team here so team fit will be as essential as the technical skillset.
What would you say to anyone considering joining Synthace?
Make sure you know this is what you want and think about what you want to learn from your time here. Be honest in your reasons for wanting to join, we really pay attention to your responses and interpret them in a considered way – good luck!
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