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William Canestaro. (Photo courtesy of William Canestaro)

William Canestaro is keenly aware of the risk startup founders take when they go all in to start a company. But as a father of four, he’s more interested in work these days that comes with a bit of stability.

A venture capitalist, health economist and meta-epidemiologist, Canestaro is the managing director of the Seattle-based Washington Research Foundation — and he still has a hand in startups. He gets to work with scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs who are looking to take their innovations to the public.

“It’s a great privilege to work with these folks and participate in our startup community,” said Canestaro, our latest Geek of the Week. “I find that drive to further the industry and bring science innovation to the market, despite the high personal risk, endlessly inspiring.”

Prior to moving to Seattle, Canestaro and his wife — parents to kids ages 2, 4, 6 and 8 — lived in Boston where he worked for two startups, both of which were acquired.

“I’m originally from Tennessee, but it might be hard to tell unless you try to debate me on the merits of different styles of barbecue,” he said.

Canestaro had been interested in the intersection of medicine and policy for a while, and for much of his youth he had a dream of being a physician in an underserved area. At Dartmouth College, he took a medical anthropology class that challenged how he thought about medicine.

“There were so many well intentioned medical or public health interventions that completely fell flat because they didn’t take the culture of the community they were serving into account,” he said. “That led me to study medical anthropology at Oxford for my master’s degree.” He went on to get his PhD at the University of Washington.

An accomplished rower, Canestaro competed at an elite level Dartmouth and Oxford, and his office today affords him a view of crews skimming across Lake Union.

“I rowed with some really great crews,” Canestaro said. “But life is about choices, and ultimately I don’t have the six hours a day to commit to rowing anymore. My time at the top of the sport is over but I still really love it.”

Learn more about this week’s Geek of the Week, William Canestaro:

What do you do, and why do you do it? I meet smart and energetic scientists and engineers working on solutions to really important problems, bringing technology to the market to address previously unmet medical needs, and incorporating technology in new ways to make current treatments or diagnostics more efficient and more widely available. I do this work because I ultimately believe that scientific and technological innovation is the driving force behind so much of the improvements in quality and quantity of life that we’ve seen over the past several generations.

What’s the single most important thing people should know about your field? When I was working in startups, I had a view of VCs as a gatekeeper, kind of like the sharks on “Shark Tank,” but less informed. They would write checks, and in the best case scenario be a silent investor and not meddle too much.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. VCs do well when their companies do well and VCs have a huge incentive to make sure their company is on the right track. Additionally, while a CEO has really deep knowledge about their particular business, a VC will see hundreds of different types of businesses every year. VCs gain a kind of pattern recognition that puts each company in context. When the relationship is good between the company and VC you see that both sides benefit from the other’s perspective, deep vs. broad. A good investor is looking for fit, places where they can understand the market and provide helpful guidance and coaching to their companies. Every CEO should be primarily driven by finding a match with a VC when they are looking for funding, not just a check. The question is what the VC brings to this project beyond financing: industry knowledge, networks, experience, etc. The more the relationship is purely transactional the worse it is for both sides.

Where do you find your inspiration? I have four kids and it honestly has been really tough staying positive about their future given some of the things that you read in the news. Despite the way things feel currently, we have made substantial progress in improving the quality and quantity of life over the past several decades. This is driven not by some improvement in our innate level of altruism but instead by scientific and technological improvements.

I believe that if our kids are going to live longer and higher quality lives, it will be driven by improvements in science and technology. While I think that effective legislation can sometimes change human behavior, I believe that ultimately it will be future generations that are trained to innovate and create different eco-friendly and cost-effective solutions that will actually effect change in the most positive and long-lasting ways.

What’s the one piece of technology you couldn’t live without, and why? It is astounding how quickly my family has become addicted to Amazon’s Alexa. We have one in the kitchen and use it play music and the news when cooking, and we cook a lot of food with four children! My wife and I are constantly setting reminders and alarms and we rarely burn food or forget library day with Alexa’s help. I also love not having to look at a screen for information like the weather for the day. My two year old has even figured out how to get Alexa to play the “Moana” soundtrack, which as you can imagine, he finds endlessly amusing. It sounds silly but one day Alexa was experiencing connection issues and not working, it really felt eerily quiet and empty.

The view from Washington Research Foundation toward Lake Union in Seattle. (William Canestaro Photo)

What’s your workspace like, and why does it work for you? WRF is based in a building in Eastlake and my office looks out onto Gas Works Park. I love watching the seaplanes land and the crews go past. In the summer it is endlessly amusing to watch tourists attempt to paddleboard with their rental equipment. We on occasion have an eagle (I assume since I’m not a card-carrying ornithologist) who takes his lunch on top of a telephone pole in front of our office.

Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life. (Help us out, we need it.) The only way that I’ve been able to keep things straight is just making lists in my old school notebook. I think there’s something to be said about the processing step of actually writing something down on paper rather than using an app.

Mac, Windows or Linux? Windows. I did most of PhD work in Excel and actually really like it. It can be really flexible and used by virtually anybody. For my work, I don’t need super fast processing but just prefer something that is transparent and speaks to a broader audience.

Kirk, Picard, or Janeway? So this is a complicated one. I think that I actually like Picard (the philosopher king!) the most as an independent character but I like Janeway in the the context of “Voyager.” Think about it: she’s a scientist by training who finds herself and her crew cast unexpectedly into uncharted territory, decades away from home. She’s in an Intrepid class starship so she’s constantly outgunned by bigger ships and all she has is her ragtag crew of misfits. Because they lost key members of their crew in the initial episode, everyone has to fill multiple roles they aren’t necessarily trained to do and they have to make do with what they have. I mean, all they have for a doctor is a hologram. They have to get through each challenge with logic and persistence; it’s a perfect analogy for startups.

Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? Does anyone ever not answer time machine? Assuming you can avoid any “Back to the Future” time paradoxes it allows you to predict the future, correct previous mistakes, and duplicate yourself thereby creating an unstoppable clone army.

If someone gave me $1 million to launch a startup, I would … It’s not a sensational idea, but I would work on a data-based solution for drug shortages. In the second quarter on 2018, there were nearly 240 active drug shortages on life saving and necessary medications. A study in 2011 concluded that 11 percent of all FDA-approved and marketed drugs, vaccines, and biologics were in short supply. This has huge consequences for patient safety. Delays to treatment and medication errors increase dramatically when clinicians are forced to use drugs with which they aren’t familiar. All of this translates to increased costs and inefficiency in the healthcare system.

I once waited in line for … Brunch. My beautiful and very pregnant wife very much wanted to have brunch at a particularly popular restaurant in Boston just days before our first child would be born. So despite my lack of enthusiasm generally for waiting in lines for much of anything, I *of course* smiled and we waited in line for almost an hour for bacon and pancakes.

Your role models: My entrepreneurs. In a lot of ways it’s a totally irrational thing to want to start a company. Startup CEOs are often leaving stable jobs with clear trajectories just because they have an idea that they want to bring to life. That’s always been really inspiring to me and I get really excited working with the CEOs from our companies.

Greatest game in history: If we’re talking board games I really like “Ticket to Ride” and some of the expansion packs. If we’re talking sports I would say the best game ever was actually a race. I am former rower (hard to get on the water a lot now with young kids) and still really enjoy the sport. Stop what you’re doing and google “French Men’s Pair 2000 Olympics.” The French boat has the best come from behind victory I have ever seen and I still get really worked up whenever I watch it.

Best gadget ever: I don’t actually own this gadget (yet!) nor am I certain it would even qualify as a gadget but I’m fascinated by the closed loop systems of aquaponics. There are people who have built setups in their backyard that are producing enough fish and produce to feed a family year round. It’s such an elegant solution using what we know about biology and some helpful microbes. Also it’s super easy to go down the rabbit hole watching aquaponics videos on YouTube.

First computer: I was a late bloomer for computing. My family had a Power Mac growing up and I got a Dell computer when I went to college. Once I started doing economic simulations, I’ve stuck with Lenovos with the best processor I can afford.

Current phone: An iPhone inside a Lifeproof case so it can survive life at my house with my kids.

Favorite app: After I finished my PhD I had an existential crisis and decided that I would channel some of my anxiety into learning French. I’ve gotten really into Busuu, the best language learning platform in terms of results that I’ve used. Instead of zoning out on social media when I want to take a break from work, I study French for a few minutes.

Favorite cause: After the 2016 election my wife and I became monthly donors to a number of causes to fight the feeling of helplessness. One cause we’ve consistently worked and donated for is youth and family homelessness. We donate to New Horizons and Mary’s Place. I even did a stint driving a shuttle bus for women’s shelter that was run out of our old church.

Most important technology of 2018: I think the advances that are being made in cellular therapy are really impressive. Companies like Juno and NOHLA have tackled some really big problems in a bold way. Moving towards off-the-shelf cell therapies that don’t require the same logistical infrastructure aren’t too far away.

Most important technology of 2020: I have been lucky enough to work with the Institute for Protein Design at UW. They use methods for in silico prediction of protein folding to design complex proteins for specific purposes.

Final words of advice for your fellow geeks: For a lot of the most successful teams that I have seen, the founders complement each other in really important ways. Either this means you have a scientist and business person or a biologist and a coder. My advice would be to do an inventory and figure out what you’re good at and what you’re not. Find someone you can work well with who has those skills that you need but aren’t your strengths. The faster folks figure out that they can’t build something great alone the better.

LinkedIn: William Canestaro

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