Interviewed for the Fall 2016 ECE Current newsletter
Diego Rey received his BS in ECE from UCSB in 2008. He is the founder of GeneWEAVE, a company that is taking on drug-resistant bacteria – modern medicine’s biggest challenge. They use novel Smarticles™ technology to build solutions that give healthcare providers around the world the tools they need to guide treatment and keep patients safe from the threat of bacterial infections.
I was born in Argentina and my family moved here in 1989 from Bariloche, in Patagonia. I went to high school in Palo Alto. From there I went to UCSB to major in electrical engineering and later I joined the biomedical engineering program at Cornell University.
I wanted to stay in California, but what made UCSB special was the unique experience I had when I came to visit. A family friend whose son was at UCSB and a member of the engineering student group Los Ingenieros personally showed me around. I felt like I could come into a community of friends if I chose UCSB, and that’s exactly what happened.
I knew I wanted to do engineering, but I wasn’t quite sure what discipline. I decided on electrical engineering. It seemed like the most versatile to me and UCSB has a great Electrical Engineering program just by reputation.
After graduation from UCSB, I entered the biomedical engineering program at Cornell as an electrical engineer with no coursework in biology. My first two years of grad school were basically a self-imposed boot camp just to catch up on the biology that I really should have known going into the program. Starting from scratch was a great achievement. Since graduate school my life has been defined by starting a company – GeneWEAVE. We had our ups and downs – growing from 2 to 50 people from the time the company was acquired. Building those teams, building the product, getting investment into the company. If you’re going to start a company, you have to make it your entire life.
You never really know what will happen as an entrepreneur. It involves lots of risk. That can be a good thing because you don’t see all the daunting hurdles in front of you and can blindly push forward. You have to balance that with learning along the way, bringing in the right people, mentors, employees, and everything else too. I think the most important thing that helped us along the way, which is essential in most startups, is the company culture. GeneWEAVE and the acquiring company Roche had similar cultures; that was actually a big part of the decision to move forward.
GeneWEAVE develops tests for detecting and identifying bacteria and then determining which drugs will kill those bacteria. There is a big problem with MDROs, multi-drug resistant organisms. We are running out of options for antibiotics, which is very dangerous because without them we can’t do things like surgery. Our goal is to make a more simple, very cost effective tool for hospitals to detect and identify bacteria and figure out which drugs will work in a much shorter time frame – a matter of hours, instead of days.
Work hard. It’s easy to do in Santa Barbara because you can celebrate your hard work and enjoy a great campus like this. The UCSB Engineering program is really tough, very rigorous. But it really all begins when you leave UCSB. When I was a UCSB student, what helped me get into Cornell was their summer research program for undergrads. I did that for two summers. If you’d like to go to grad school, getting research experience as an undergrad is absolutely critical.
Roche is sponsoring a team that is working on GeneWEAVE technology – actually making a cheaper, smaller version of the light detector we currently use. A part of doing the capstone project, as a company, was trying to build something that will be of value. For me personally, mentorship has been especially important in the entrepreneurial community. The only way to learn is to hear from someone that has been there before – this is an important component to the entrepreneurial eco-system.
I had the best experience here at UCSB. The memories here are amazing – full of hard work and a ton of great friends. In particular, giving back to the group Los Ingenieros. What they do for members and for the community as a whole is phenomenal. A lot of them are engineers working hard, doing everything they can to graduate, and on top of that they’re doing tons of outreach activities.
The way Los Ingenieros works is, if you join before freshman year they allow you to do some coursework before you actually start the engineering program. It’s kind of like a boot camp and a lot of the existing members act as mentors to the incoming freshman. Students hit the ground running. It’s enough that you’re joining this rigorous academic program, leaving home, going from high school to college – it’s a lot of change. By doing coursework up front, you can focus on integrating into the community, making friends, and staying on top of school. I’ve formed great connections and friendships and I’ve got Los Ingenieros friends all over the world.
Everyone skateboards in Santa Barbara! So I would say, anyone that does anything science related and goes to UCSB is a skateboarding scientist. Once you’re outside of Santa Barbara, it’s different. Like at Cornell, you’re on a hill – you can skateboard one way, but not the other.