From genetics to cyber security… and where ESTEEM fell in between

Author: Derek Athy

In a short two-year span, I went from being a developmental geneticist creating mutant double headed mosquito embryos at the University of Chicago, to marketing innovative cyber security solutions out here in Silicon Valley. Not your typical transition, and not one I would have ever really envisioned myself before enrolling in the ESTEEM Program at the University of Notre Dame.

Photo of student Derek Athy

I received my B.S. in Molecular & Cellular Biology from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) in May of 2012, where I split time between bartending and working at the Energy Biosciences Institute, conducting research in biofuel production. 

From there, I moved back to the University of Chicago for a position in the Dept. of Evolutionary/Developmental Biology under Urs Schmidt-Ott, PhD. This is where I began my two-year stint creating embryo microinjection and RNA interference protocols, creating fly mutants that earned me the (unofficial) title amongst friends and peers as the “Lord of the Flies”…

Dr. Schmidt-Ott encouraged innovation, creativity, and has a divine enthusiasm for scientific discovery and learning, creating an environment where my passion for invention and problem-solving flourished, as we developed breakthrough protocols.

Once we had reached a pivotal point in our research, completing our manuscripts for submission to Science, I thought it might be time to move on, as I was committed to not enrolling in a PhD program (and couldn’t devote my life’s work to a 200 Mb genome). I switched over to a role as Clinical Research Coordinator in the Dept. of Surgery at the University of Chicago Medical Center, but a few weeks in, I knew I wanted to move on.  I saw a flyer for the ESTEEM Program in the main lobby of the Cummings Life Sciences Center at the University of Chicago. That day I spoke with both Rebekah DeLine and David Murphy, and met with David in person in Chicago that next week. There starts my ESTEEM journey.

ESTEEM student Derek Athy stands in front of the Golden Dome

In my first few weeks of the ESTEEM Program in the fall of 2014, I met Gaylene Anderson, Senior Innovations Officer at the Cleveland Clinic, as well as at the University of Notre Dame. She introduced me to the founders of SYSGenomics, a company developing prognostic tests for breast and colon cancer, determining which patients actually need to undergo chemotherapy, and saving those who will be safe without it from undergoing unnecessary, toxic treatments. I decided to pursue my thesis under Steven Buechler, PhD, who established SYSGenomics with two cofounders, Sunil Badve, MD, and Yesim Gokmen-Polar, PhD, both from the IU-School of Medicine.

I gained invaluable mentorship from the SYSGenomics team, and access/exposure to leading thought leaders in healthcare/biotech innovation. I sat in on weekly seminars at Memorial Hospital and St. Joseph’s Hospital back in South Bend, and attended national events such as the Medical Innovation Summit at the Global Center for Health Innovation (Cleveland Clinic), sitting in on talks from the leading physicians, technologists, and innovators in the field. Even the creators of IBM Watson were there! I met and spoke with the president of the American Society for Clinical Oncology (ASCO), executives from Roche, Bristol Myers-Squibb, etc. many of whom had customer validation calls with the following week discussing the SYSGenomics business model. Just ask Sunny Shah about those BMC/Lean Start-up interviews!  

SYSGenomics made it to the semifinals of the McCloskey Competition, an instrumental experience for my career development, leading the team through the highly competitive business plan competition held at Notre Dame each year (I also supported two friends/classmates, Nick Kyratzis and Nick Machesney, on a vodka production business model). The mentoring I received from my team, the ESTEEM program team and staff, the Gigot Center for Entrepreneurship within the Mendoza Business School, countless mentors such as Mike Vogel, Chris Stevens, Mike Kitz, Kevin Connors (NanDio), and Ben Miller (NanDio), amongst many others, was unprecedented, especially for a guy who just 6 months prior was creating Frankenstein-esque fly mutants.

After ESTEEM, I moved out to San Francisco to begin what turned out to be a “brief” stint in technology consulting in Healthcare. A few months passed, and I ran into Aisling MacRunnels, the Chief Marketing Officer of my current company, at a Notre Dame football game, eventually interviewing for my current position as Product Marketing Manager at Synack, Inc. in Redwood City, CA… I love it!

Synack is an innovative, disruptive start-up in the cyber security space funded by leading VC firms, helping world-class organizations to proactively secure their digital assets.