In our podcast discussion this week, we are chatting with Nina Dudnik, founder and CEO of Seeding Labs. We discuss topics relating to taking a nonprofit from an idea run by a group of volunteers to a productive organization, Nina’s challenges of shifting from the scientist mode to the nonprofit leader mode, and the steps they took to professionalize and fund their growing idea.
Nina Dudnik is the founder and CEO of Seeding Labs. Nina decided at a very early age to become a scientist but her interest in science always had a humanitarian angle. Nina has a PhD in molecular biology from Harvard University and has worked for the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research in Italy and in Cote d’Ivoire, where she was a Fulbright Scholar.
Upon completing her Fulbright and returning to the US, Nina founded Seeding Labs in 2003 to ensure that scientists in the developing world have the tools, training and network to pursue world-class research. Since 2003, Seeding Labs has provided resources for teaching and research to scientists in 26 countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa and India.
Nina has been named a TEDGlobal Fellow and one of the 100 most influential people in biotechnology by Scientific American’s Worldview magazine. She was recognized with a New England Biolabs 2016 Passion in Science Humanitarian Duty award and the 2014 John F. Kennedy New Frontier award. Seeding Labs was among Fast Company magazine’s top 10 most innovative not-for-profit companies in 2015 and has been featured in the Boston Globe and Wall Street Journal.
Seeding Labs’ mission is to help scientists in developing countries conduct life-changing research by ensuring their access to resources including laboratory equipment, training and professional connections with the global scientific research community. Since 2003, Seeding Labs has assisted scientists in 25 countries in Latin America and Africa, making over $3.2M worth of equipment available to scientists working on issues ranging from dengue fever to HIV to tuberculosis. We conduct training courses on grant writing, conduct exchange programs for scientists in the U.S. and Africa, and build connections between colleagues worldwide.
You can listen and enjoy the full discussion with “Guest” in our podcast, but here are some of the highlights.
*Recognizing When It’s Time to Professionalize a Nonprofit
When Nina Dudnik first started Seeding Labs, it was run by a group of volunteers who were fellow students and mostly scientist types. They soon got to the point where they realized there were aspects of the nonprofit effort that really needed people with the background and expertise to better handle the tasks at hand – a professional staff. It needed the professionalization of a real staff to drive it.
Part of their work included massive logistical operations to handle the international supply chain. They realized they were trying to reinvent the wheel in many aspects of the organization because of their lack of the appropriate background experience. The first person that Seeding Labs hired came from a warehousing and logistics and shipping background.
“We were trying to reinvent the wheel in a lot of sectors that we didn’t have to. By hiring people from those kinds of backgrounds, professional full-time staff, that was going to make us able to do the kind of work we wanted to do at the scale we wanted to do, far more than we had originally envisioned.”
*Recognizing the Right Next Step as a Non-Profit Evolves
Seeding Labs’ mission is to help scientists in developing countries conduct life-changing research by ensuring they have access to resources including laboratory equipment, training and professional connections with the global scientific research community. Their approach has been to succeed in setting up one phase, then looking at what would be the next beneficial step.
Once they figured out the processes around helping scientists get laboratory equipment, they started asking the questions: What is the next stage? What do you build on top of that? What does having the equipment and other resources enable those scientists to do and how can Seeding Labs facilitate that?
One of the answers was building connections between scientists to foster collaborations. They developed a large database identifying great scientists around the world. Then the question was related to funding? Once they have collaboration and funding, how do we help them take their discoveries out of the lab? They are working on things that really could help people’s lives in significant ways, but not if they’re trapped in the lab.
*Running a Non-Profit is Often Living in the Midst of Unknowns
One of the big adjustments for Nina was the transition from scientist to entrepreneur. It was a very big leap from scientist to entrepreneurship – mostly in how one thinks about what they’re doing.
“You’re trained as a scientist to narrow things down to really elementary, solvable problems. Sometimes that can take years, or even decades of work to solve those problems. Turning something into an actual functioning business involves a very different sort of approach to why and how you’re doing things on a day-to-day basis – certainly a difference in the level of data you have at your disposal to feel comfortable to make the next decision. Sometimes you just have to go on gut instinct when running a business, and that’s really different from the burden of proof you have to have before you make big steps in science.”
*Larger Grants Often Mean More Data Tracking
The funding for Seeding Labs began with a fellowship from Echoing Green. Their next step was corporate funding, but their biggest transition and growth came from the support of USAID (United States Agency for International Development) which was transformational and allowed them to triple their staff size. But with the USAID funding came increased data tracking and reporting responsibilities.
Fortunately for Nina, as a trained scientist, data tracking and reporting was an engrained way of life. And since a large portion of her staff are scientists, the added data tracking and reporting has not seemed too burdensome.
“…I know that this issue of data and tracking reporting is a real hot topic. It’s always a little bit amusing to me because it’s just so second nature to me to collect data on everything we do. That’s how I was trained. It would be unthinkable to me not to do it.”
*Listen to Your Gut Instinct and Don’t Over-Analyze
One of the most difficult areas for Nina was hiring.
“It seems to be a universal case. It is a hard thing to do to meet a stranger and decide with very few interactions that this person is somebody you want to work with day in and day out. I think with entrepreneurs in particular, the organization, or the company you build, is your baby to a certain extent. Sharing your baby with others can be difficult.”
Switching from the analytical self to using gut instinct has been a real lesson for Nina. She now recommends listening to your gut instinct and not over-analyzing. Being analytical may be perfect for scientific study, but not so for the day-to-day business of running a nonprofit.