Tenacity, creativity and adaptability – these are the qualities that a CEO should embody to become a titan in their industry. Bringing in these qualities to the emerging microbiome industry, Martha Carlin leads The BioCollective, a unique business that invests in both consumer products and microbiological research. Driven by a passion to give people the tools to take control of their health, the BioCollective team leverages some of the most advanced expertise in microbial ecology to tap the massive potential of microbiota in promoting human health. Because of her inspiring leadership, she has won her rightful place among the 2020 Titan 100. She graces the podcast on this co-hosted episode with Bob Roark and his co-host, Jaime Zawmon, President of TITAN CEO.
We have quite the treat. We have a Jaime Zawmon. She is the Founder and President of Titan CEO. We have Martha Carlin. She is the CEO and Cofounder of The BioCollective. We're having a co-hosted episode. Martha, Jaime, thank you so much for being on the show.
Thank you for having me.
Martha, thank you and congrats on being selected to the Titan 100, a big honor.
I’m very excited about it.
Martha, tell us about your business and who you serve.
My business is unique. It's in the field of the microbiome. For people who may not know what the microbiome is, it's the trillions of bacteria, fungi and viruses that live in and on our body. Over the last years, it's become increasingly apparent that the bacteria that live in and on our body are a critical component to our health. I recognize this after reading a book called Missing Microbes back in 2014, founded The BioCollective in 2015 to try to accelerate the path to discovery and helping people get healthier. By doing that, we went into an industry that most people had never heard of. It was rapidly growing and expanding. When I started the company, there were about twenty microbiome companies worldwide, and now there are thousands and thousands, but it's still pretty early days.
Our company has evolved in the ways that we are serving two different customer bases. We serve the scientific research community through tools that we developed for our own work to build out a bio-bank of fecal samples and genomic data so that we could start to use artificial intelligence and machine learning to identify patterns in healthy people and diseased people. Through the tools that we developed, we received an NIH grant for $1.2 million to develop one of those quality control and research tools. The division of the BioCollective that has all these research tools is serving the scientific community, the nutrition community, pharmaceutical companies, and big food and big ag to some extent. Along the way, we developed our expertise and brought in a chief scientific officer with over 30 years of microbial ecology and developed a line and a brand of consumer products that replace lost function in the microbiome that we were able to identify through our data analytics.
We have a consumer products platform called BiotiQuest that has six products, three are currently on the market. One is for changing sugar metabolism in the body, it's called Sugar Shift. Another is for the immune system specifically protecting us and helping us ward off viral infection. That's called the Ideal Immunity. Another called Heart Centered, which is focused on cardiovascular health and the production of nitric oxide in the body, which helps vasodilation and three products that will be coming out next year. We invested by using our scientific research team, our chief scientific officer in his ancient microbial collection. We have a company we own a 20% interest in called PaleoBiotica, because we found in looking at the data that we had that you can't help people be healthy if you don't help the planet and the soil and our food be healthy. PaleoBiotica is focused on doing the same thing we're doing with BiotiQuest in soils, plants. Essentially probiotic systems that can bio-remediate things like roundup and glyphosate from the soil, help seeds germinate faster, and plants grow larger and healthier and take up more nutrients from the soil.
If some of the folks are going, “I think I've heard about this before,” you are one of the early guests on the show way back when. Thank you so much for being an early guest as well.
Thanks, Bob. We have definitely changed and grown a lot over the years in learning to be in a rapidly evolving industry.
Martha, I have to ask you, as a 2020 Titan 100, and we're excited to recognize you in the Titan 100 book for 2020, clearly listening to all the things that you've been talking about, the way that you and your team are paving the way, what do you think are the characteristics that it takes to be considered a titan of industry like yourself?
The key characteristics are tenacity, creativity and adaptability. When you're going into a new industry, it's very important that while you keep focused on your goals, that you have a wide vision of what's going on in the industry, and you're not singularly focused that you can't make a pivot or a turn when you see something critical. I think tenacity for any entrepreneur, when you start a business, most businesses fail within the first 2 to 3 years. It's very important to keep a tenacious attitude that you can do this. Creativity, because we're trying to solve problems for people. That requires a level of creativity. You have to foster that in your people as well. Too much of a corporate culture can dampen down creativity. It's that balancing a process with creativity.
In the last years that you've been running BioCollective, you've certainly proven your ability to be adaptive, creative and have a certainty, the tenacity that exists. Congratulations.
Martha, as I think about it, and of course the benefit of our previous discussions and your journey to the starting of the BioCollective, let's say that there's another entrepreneur or CEO out there that's aspiring to be a titan of industry like you. What advice might you share to them that they could incorporate in their day-to-day life that might help them progress to where they qualify to be a titan of industry?
Focus. Keeping your focus is very important and keeping your focus on what matters and not getting distracted by things that aren't contributing to driving your top line. There are many things that compete for an entrepreneur's attention because in a lot of ways, a new entrepreneur is a market. There's a big market for new entrepreneurs that drives your attention away from running your business and has you off at these meetings and networking and talking to these people. While those things are important or can be important for driving relationships for your business, they can also be a huge distraction. The advice I would give is keep your focus on what's going to drive you in the direction of the most predictable revenue stream you can get at the fastest.
For the person reading, is there a ritual, a protocol, a habit that you do on a periodic basis that allows you to maintain that focus?
The main habit that I have, it's a bit outside the norm I would say for business. I wake up every morning and spend quiet time meditating. I do a Qigong practice. If you're not familiar with Qigong, it's an ancient Chinese energy practice where you're centering and grounding yourself and connecting with the chi of the universe. That’s maybe a bit unconventional for a business person but for me, that sets my day off and my intention for the day to bring good into the world through my business and the way I live my life.
I have a Tai Chi instructor that lives in my house and we talk Qigong fairly frequently, so I’m aware. Thank you for that.
I think that that's a pretty common characteristic and a trait of a lot of entrepreneurs that are successful. They find the time for themselves to connect with the universe, visualization, similar to the focus, putting it out there to the universe. I know I'm a huge proponent of that. I think that's excellent that you practice the meditation. I have to ask another question. BioCollective was founded in 2015, now it’s 2020. If you were to go back and offer the less experienced your advice about leading BioCollective and building it to the company that it is now, what advice would you offer yourself and why?
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If I went back in time and were to give myself some advice, and this is a bit funny because my background is in accounting and most of my career, I spent a very tight focus on where things were spent. I think I would advise myself to keep a much tighter control on those early funds and where I spent them. I did spend money in some of those things I talked about a bit ago that are the entrepreneur as the market paying to attend a conference or different things that didn't translate into financial success or the top line for the company. That's probably one of the biggest things. It's interesting because I watched a Star Trek episode from the 1990s. Jean-Luc went back in time and was given the opportunity to change the things that he did. He changed some of those things. It showed him at the point in time in the future, and it had changed his life in such a dramatic way. He was no longer the captain of the ship. The choices that we make in the beginning and the adversity that we go through is part of what we need to learn to make us who we are today. Maybe I wouldn't change anything at all.
They say sometimes that everything happens for a reason.
I think the corollary to that is no matter how obscure it might be, you're busy paying tuition to get from A to B. I have an admitted shiny object problem. “That looks interesting. That's a good book.” I have that problem. For you, Martha, as you're operating the company on the day-to-day basis, there are highs and lows throughout the course of the weeks and so on. As you go through your Qigong meditations and so on, what's the self-talk and the mental third-party coaching that you do for yourself to keep you focused and going?
My daughter gave me this bracelet about a year after I started the company. It says, “She believes she could, so she did.” That's something that I keep top of mind. I look not just in this company, but back over my life, anything I've set my mind to I've been able to accomplish. I carry that with me every day. That's the self-talk that I tell myself is, “You can do this.” I do the same for my team and trying to inspire them to know that they can do anything. They set their mind to.
When I first started my business, someone sent this to me. It's a card and I framed it. It’s for motivation and inspiration. Like they say, “Think you can, think you can’t. Either way, you're right and belief will get you more than halfway there.” I'm a huge proponent of that. I feel like we're getting many great tidbits. I love the stories. I love the examples. We talked a little bit about characteristics that you think it takes to be considered a titan, but I'd also be curious to know what advice you might offer with respect to entrepreneurship, to a new CEO that's assuming the role of CEO for the very first time.
There are many lessons and many things that you don't know. A lot of that will depend on what kind of a background you came from. One big piece of advice I would give you is find some mentors who have the skillsets in the areas that you are weak in, or you don't know something about. Marketing and sales were not my strength. When I finally found the right mentors and people who could help me with that, that turned things around for me. Some other advice I would say is in the beginning, your company is not worth as much as you think it is. You have to decide what you're willing to give up to bring in capital or what you're willing to do through true grit to get to the revenue numbers that are going to make it closer to being worth what you think it's for.
I say that because you'll talk to lots of people about investing in you, but all of that takes time. It's relationship development. It's people coming to trust that you can do what you say you're going to do, people coming to trust the numbers that you're showing them. One piece of advice is don't start raising money when you desperately need it. Start those conversations well ahead of when you need the money so that you have developed those strong relationships and demonstration that you can do what you say so that when you need the money, you can close the gap.
It's some sage advice. I believe that every CEO should try to strive to find people to surround themselves with that are smarter than they are. You had mentioned too finding those mentors. Did you have a specific mentor that was crucial for you when you started BioCollective?
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I didn't have an outside mentor that was crucial for me. I was very fortunate that my one primary investor was the chairman of the board of a public company I used to run. He also was an entrepreneur his whole life, was the head of YPO in California and the whole United States. He had a lot of advice and experience from that perspective and was always able to level things out for me. If I was feeling low, he had great stories and experiences that he could share with me that translated about how to get through it. That helped. I went on later to find an entrepreneurial executive coach. I had a lot of coaching and different advisors and mentors when I was in the big corporate world, but that's a very different world than being an entrepreneur. I think it's very important if you're going to hire a coach or find a coach or mentor to have somebody who works with entrepreneurs and small business owners rather than big corporate strategy, because the problems and challenges are quite different.
We heard a bit about your journey and your company. We know what you do for work. What do you do when you're not at work? What are your passions outside of the workspace?
My biggest passion outside the workspace is trying to cure Parkinson's, which is the reason behind my company in the first place. My husband has Parkinson’s, and he was diagnosed when he was 44. My largest passion over the last years has been teaching myself science across the spectrum and developing relationships with global leaders in many different fields of science. I network and collaborate with scientists all across the world, trying to find a cure for Parkinson's disease.
That sounds like that could pretty well consume any other bandwidth of time.
Living here in Colorado, in such a beautiful place, I also do a lot of hiking and outdoor activities. In 2011, my husband and I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro with a group of people with Parkinson's and MS. We had 28 people, 10 people with multiple sclerosis or with Parkinson's, and each person was paired with a healthy partner. That goal is what got me back into hiking and exercising and getting in shape so that I can reach the peaks of the mountains of Colorado or the globe.
That supports the entrepreneurial foundation, because if you're not healthy and in shape, it's hard to be tenacious and put one foot in front of the other if you're worn out all the time.
Martha, as we wrap up things, I'd be curious to know from you, as you think about the BioCollective, what's the most important thing that people should know about the work that you're doing and how they can support you?
That's a big question for a small company because our goal from the very beginning has been saving the world. Through that, it's about helping individuals take control of their health. It's about helping the scientific community do more robust and better science. Through our subsidiary, it's about helping the globe be healthier, but I also have a nonprofit for anyone who's interested in supporting microbiome research. We have a 501(c)(3) called BioCollective Research and people can donate to the cause of trying to save the world and help people be healthier through funding microbiome research.
The website again one more time for everybody?
You're found on LinkedIn as well.
Martha, you are an incredible titan of industry and it has been fun connecting and hearing your story and listening to