Sandrine Miller-Montgomery

Co-Founder of Micronoma

Sandrine brings a wealth of experience to Micronoma, having worked at large biotech and multinational companies in the life science industry, as well as start-ups. She has assumed different responsibilities from R&D director to leading sales and marketing organizations and excels at preparing companies for successful exits.

Before co-founding Micronoma, she was executive director of UC San Diego’s Center for Microbiome Innovation (CMI), which she co-led with renowned microbiome researcher, Dr. Rob Knight. Sandrine established a world-class team focused on expanding industry and academic collaborations in the field of microbiome research that resulted in raising more than tens of millions of dollars of financial support through key partnerships toward application of this science to AI, diet and nutrition, aging, environment, human disease understanding and more.

Sandrine has a talent for assembling efficient and successful teams around innovative products as shown by her work at Helixis, acquired by Illumina, and Mo Bio Labs acquired by QIAGEN.

Where did the idea for Micronoma come from?

One of our co-founders, Greg Sepich-Poore started his quest when his grandmother died within 33 days of a late-stage pancreatic cancer diagnosis. He decided to do an MD/PhD program under Rob Knight at UC San Diego to gain expertise in the microbiome and computer science applied to the field of oncology. I was directing the Center for Microbiome Innovation (CMI) at UC San Diego at the time and met Greg in this context. Rob realized that he was on to something and asked him to reach out to me to see how this could be translated efficiently to a tool for clinicians. I couldn’t resist the opportunity to co-found a company with these two brilliant innovators and to dive back into my industry pond, where I had been thriving before joining Rob to grow CMI.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

I drink the proper amount of coffee to get ready for what a start up provides every day: variety! Then I drink more coffee… I can be giving input into our next scientific direction, making an inroad with a new investor or collaborator, preparing our team for a major announcement, presenting at a conference, monitoring the market trends, collecting clinicians’ needs or serving as a replacement janitor or plumber… I am terrible at monotasking so I am always sure to have many projects I can work in parallel or else I get bored (aka non-productive).

How do you bring ideas to life?

When a new idea needs to turn into something actionable or concrete, I first think about all the reasons that this is not going to be possible. Identifying the challenges helps me strategize on how to best get at it. First key thing is to assemble the right people who have experience in what needs to be done, then I asked them to assess all the gaps that I had missed so we ensure that we have a clear idea of what we are tackling. Then we divide the tasks and get busy. I make sure we debrief and take a pulse on progress. For whatever reasons, (likely linked to the fact that I am interested only by the difficult problems to solve) projects that I had to bring to fruition have been typically on a challenging timeline, so time management is key and still something that can be tricky to ensure that the team doesn’t burn out. Sorry to report that I have not yet found the magic solution to adequately control time management in these intense situations, so I’m grateful for the ‘can do’ attitude of the team.

What’s one trend that excites you?

The depth of discovery, and acceleration of speed of processing big data (due to computer science) that enables us to shake up old dogma (in our field, tissue and blood are NOT sterile) and open minds to previously ignored biology (microbiome) to bring patients new solutions faster than ever.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

Multitasking – if this is not challenging, for me it is not worth doing. Good thing that I am in a field (life sciences) where challenges are prevalent so that I can tackle multiple projects at once and use one to “relax” away from the other one.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Don’t worry about what everyone says, keep trusting your gut and do what you feel is right.

Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.

That life should be lived with two speeds when it comes to accomplish anything: fast and faster. Truthfully, I am not sure people would be wrong to disagree with me. But these are the two only speeds I was born with… so agree to disagree…

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

-Don’t sugar coat the truth. Trust your team to be able to handle the pressure, the bad news, the disturbing forecast, and ask them to help and pitch in. You never know when a creative idea will arise from the feeling that we are all in this together.
-Be true to yourself and your gut and always check that you are on the right path – it can be easy to succumb and take a shortcut or forget about ethics, but it NEVER ends up working in the long run. So never ignore that feeling you get when you are not sure you are doing the right thing – you are likely correct, and it will show itself sooner than later… We have so much intuitive acumen; we should make sure we listen to ourselves.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?

-Finding investors and teammates that believed in our innovation so much that we didn’t have to grovel to find support, nor give away everything for an investment.
-We need to be surrounded by people who know more than we do in specific domains, but still have the same general vision on what and how to accomplish a project.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

Finding the right work/life balance. Someone asked me, “how do you manage to do all you are doing in your career and still be able to be a good mum, and a supportive spouse?” Well, the answer is sadly, I am not great at it… Not a total disaster, but I wish I could be better at this balancing act. I just happen to have had very supportive spouses along the way and kids that are quite strong and smart. They understand that there are times when I am all consumed by work but it is “for the greater good,” and that there are times when it can’t be about them. I am truly doing this to make a difference that will end up helping many including them. But this could also be a very good excuse to mask the fact that I am failing at finding the on/off switch for work!

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

I am going to share what would be a great business for me when I retire and anyone can feel free to steal it: “a shot with a shot”… I love making coffee, talking with people and it happens that I trained as a phlebotomist in my young days and I love sticking a needle in a vein (specifically when it is a hard one to find!) So, the business is that instead of going to a boring lab, you can come to “a shot with a shot,” get chatted an earful about anything you want while I do a blood draw and then you get a shot of coffee… Decaf would be available after 10am… A mobile version of the business is to do this from an RV so that you have “a shot with a shot at your door.”

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

I found a brass pepper mill in a consignment store (reduce, reuse, recycle!) for $7. I didn’t even know what it was, it was just beautiful and had a great patina… It can resale for above $100, in fact. So, this could have been the best $100 I recently spent, but it was just $7… still worth every dollar not spent!

What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?

My calendar (powered by my executive assistant, Gabriella). Without this, I would never be on time anywhere, would triple book myself and be an overall disaster of organization. With it, I know where to be and when at all times. The “Gaby option” calendar is great because it comes with time to travel and clear direction on where to go. Otherwise, I would be in the wrong city or building quite often. She also puts in reminders to bring my lunch and very important blocks of time exclusively reserved to do work. It is so easy to just have full days of meetings and not have time inserted to do the actual work. Activating the Gaby option in my calendar two jobs ago was the best decision I had made in a while!

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

1984” by George Orwell. It highlights how easily we can succumb to not thinking for ourselves when put in stressful situations. It may be a bit dark, but my other recommendations would be “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez or “The World According to Garp,” by John Irving. And while amazing, they are not much lighter. I guess I am attracted to cautionary tales and books about the beauty yet humongous complexities of life… so I may as well stick with 1984 as it is useful for entrepreneurs… do not succumb to the easy path!

What is your favorite quote?

“Apprendre, decouvrir, etre libre” from Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach. “Learn, discover and be free”– such a beautiful way to live!

Key Learnings:

  • Create an environment where the best idea always wins. Build a team who can take the company vision to the next level, and can handle hard work, and tough deadlines. The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are usually the ones who do.
  • Be true to yourself and trust yourself above all in your field of expertise. Don’t shortcut your intuition, it will always win out in the end.
  • Always be aware of your blind spots and fill the gaps with teammates or collaborators who have your back (and your company’s back).
  • Try to break a great idea first, it will help you strategize a strong path forward around potential objections and challenges.
  • Life is hard, but it is much harder if you don’t laugh about it!