Alan Ma, Co-Founder & VP of Business Operations, CasTag Biosciences
Growing up the son of two engineers in the Bay Area, Alan Ma recently realized he had always wanted to be a CEO. Not for the money or power, but because after seeing the impacts of the dotcom bust at a young age, Alan realized that by being a CEO he could ensure his employees had the benefits and job security they deserved.
- BS, BioEngineering: Biotechnology, University of California – San Diego, 2012
- Master of Business Administration, Duke University – The Fuqua School of Business, 2020
Despite going to school for a degree in bioengineering, Alan’s first internship was in international sales and marketing at a biotech company in San Diego. Alan said that in his junior year he realized he “had much more passion for business” and went on to work in roles that allowed him to combine his extroverted personality, love of business, and continue building technical experience in the healthcare field. “With the mindset of ‘I still want to be an entrepreneur and in healthcare, I’m just going to do it via the commercial side of the business rather than the Research & Development side” said Alan.
When looking for business schools, Alan looked for world-class universities in healthcare and biotechnology that had exceptional business schools. What really convinced him to join Team Fuqua was the cold outreach he did to Fuqua’s students. “When I applied to business school, I did cold outreach to thirty students at each business school. No school, except Fuqua, broke 50% and at Fuqua I received thirty responses and even more referrals from students that were willing to commit their time to sit down and meet with a prospective student,” said Alan.
Beyond the New Venture program at Fuqua, Alan’s gained exposure to nearly every side of entrepreneurship, in part through Fuqua’s New Venture Fellow programs work with Duke’s Office of Licensing & Ventures and his experience at a local venture capital (VC) firm. Alan’s exposure and time working in a venture capital firm was pivotal in helping to conceptualize the timeline and funding landscapes for startups in the future. “During my time at the VC firm, I struggled in the first weeks of that internship looking at startups that had made more progress and had a more polished team than I had at the time and not having the technical depth to determine which of these one hundred companies were better.”
Alan learned three things during his experience in VC. First, as an entrepreneur you have to understand why companies that had your exact same value proposition failed and how you are differentiated, because if you cannot explain that in the first thirty minutes of your meeting, you won’t get the VC team’s interest. Secondly, entrepreneurs need to take smart money, not just who comes in with the highest offer. Very successful companies are willing to take lower valuations to access key partnerships at firms that will be able to add value through their expertise and networks. Finally, Alan learned that “finding good partners is absolutely key and how you communicate with investors requires nuance.”
Beyond his experience at Hatteras Venture Partners, Alan’s Fuqua experience connected him to his Co-Founders at CasTag Biosciences, which impacted the future of his company in more ways than one. Following the advice of Fuqua alum, Matt Kane, Founder and CEO of Precision Biosciences, Alan spent his time at Fuqua trying to maximize his learning and entrepreneurial experiences, so the hours spent “working on business plans and market research with successful entrepreneurs before school even started” gave him the solid exposure to learn the process and benefit from it every single day.
CasTag Biosciences, Alan’s biotech startup launched through the New Ventures program at Duke’s Office of Licensing and Ventures, is aimed at people who are trying to cure the complex neurological disorders that require high-tech solutions. Alan’s team understood that researchers were “finding all sorts of genes implicated in these diseases but had no tools to study the genes and treat them in a timely fashion.” In order to address this problem and leave scientists more time to focus on their research, CasTag creates and ships research kits for immediate usage. These kits allow scientists to use CRISPR gene-editing technology to target specific genes and study their location and function within the brain.
Alan’s advice for young entrepreneurs or future MBAs is to understand where you want to go and what you’re interested in. When reaching out to people, “have a tailored ask and be able to garner tailored referrals to help you build your network quickly. Beyond that, be unapologetically authentic in who you are, what you’re interested in, and where you want to go,” Alan said. Alan’s experiences in sales taught him the importance of putting himself out there and that’s something every young entrepreneur should learn to do.