December 5, 2017

How we partnered with the Thiel Foundation

California is a state within the US. Six thousand miles away is Tatarstan — also a state within Russia and my Motherland. In the Fall of 2010 ...

And what it really means

And what it really means

FROM THE AUTHOR. I am often asked about how came to existence. We are thankful to the wonderful people that helped us on the path and attempt to tell “the story” below.

“Google Was Born Here”

California is a state within the US. Six thousand miles away is Tatarstan — also a state within Russia and my Motherland. In the Fall of 2010, the President of Tatarstan was about to visit Silicon Valley for the first time. Back then I was the only graduate student of Tatar origin at UC Berkeley/Stanford, so I was invited to participate and spent a week with the President’s delegation.

We met with Berkeley and Stanford Chancellors, Business School officials, Plug and Play Tech Center, Sandhill Road venture firms and visited Solyndra factory in Fremont. But the one that really stood out for me was Stanford Office of Technology Licensing. I was 24 at the time and knew a good amount about quantum physics, but close to nothing about entrepreneurship. “We take patents seriously after all Google was born here” were the words that changed it for me.

At Cal, I realized that Nobel laureates are not some ephemeral creatures from textbooks, but humans made of flesh and blood that often wander around our building. That day at Stanford I realized that companies are not some immaterial entities from newspapers, they are built by people right next to me —here in Silicon Valley.

With Rustam Minnikhanov in 2010.

The Alchemist

It took four long years and much learning, but in the Fall of 2014 on Saturday I was standing at the entrance to DFJ on Sandhill Road ready to open the day of screening for the folks at the Alchemist Accelerator. It had to be a 6-minute presentation with 4 minutes for questions and a dozen other companies were coming to pitch next.

In 2014 we already had Google Docs, and Cloud, and iPads, but something told me that having printouts could be handy. It was indeed. The room we were in had a video projector broken, so I had to go “old school” and use paper.

Shortly after I got an email from Ravi @ Alchemist. It had the details about a funding offer and gave one week to reply. I went to YCombinator interviews before and knew that emails usually come with a “No”. But this was the first “yes” I ever heard as an entrepreneur.

A “typical” session at the Alchemist Accelerator: Aaron Levie presenting.


In May of 2015, I presented at the Alchemist Demo Day. The program was very helpful to understand the basics of Enterprise Sales, but even more so — for its connections. The day after Demo Day I connected with Tim Draper and Vinod Khosla, among other people. As you may understand, it was “too early” for most of them to engage.

One month after, however, our first sizeable investment came in through the efforts of Kirill @ ImpulseVC. Kirill is a materials scientist by education and found Exabyte interesting even before the Alchemist, so closely followed our progress. Back then we only had 2 months of runway in the bank.

Impulse investment gave just that — an impulse. Together with the new logo, first hires and the first version of the product also came first customers and first public case studies.

Hallway at the Impulse VC office in Moscow, Russia.

Breakout Labs

During the Alchemist program, I got to learn about Breakout Labs, the initiative from the Thiel Foundation aimed at deeply technological companies. Soon after graduation we got in touch with Hemai and Lindy and applied to the program. We passed all the review steps and were invited to an in-person interview in late 2015.

At the time I was still the only person here in San Francisco. We already hired three other people, but all of them were abroad. We had a fruitful conversation with multiple followups but in the end, the distributed nature of our team made it difficult to proceed further at the time.

Fast forward to 2017 I reached back to Hemai with an update about interest from Fortune 500, additions to our product and team, and we got invited to another meeting. Apparently, not many companies who previously heard “no” did followup, so it was a novel experience for both parties. The Breakout team liked the progress we made and in mid-2017 we joined their portfolio.

As part of the process, we identified a set of milestones and set up bi-monthly meetings to track them. Next up was the official presentation at the 2017 Unboxing event — the annual “Demo Day” where investors and other friends of Thiel Foundation get to hear about portfolio companies.

Here’s what I said: presentation at the Breakout Labs Unboxing, Fall 2017.

Concluding remarks

Richard Feynman’s quote about quantum mechanics “I think I can safely say that nobody understands it” can be repeated for innovation. No one understands it, but some believe in it. And they make it a reality. One thing is clear, however: in the 21st century startups are the engine of innovation.

Innovation is done through an iterative process that involves failure. As a student, I always had perfect grades, from high school to Ph.D. As an entrepreneur, I failed so many times: during fundraising, while hiring people, in making sales. With each failure, however, came invaluable experience.

Breakout Labs supported us because we have similar beliefs and want to enable materials and chemical sectors to innovate faster. And because we know how to fail and carry on. There is a limited number of parties that invest in deep tech and we are pleased to team up with the best.

But what it really means is that the problem we are facing is important and is starting to amass enough momentum to attract the attention of the brightest minds in venture capital. There are multiple examples now and more to come soon. The question is: are you ready to join the party?

PS. For the readers working to start a technology company, or thinking about applying to one of the programs mentioned above — reach out to with questions or comments.