Hashim Al-Hashimi, a biophysicist at Columbia University and cofounder and advisor to the science startup Base4, was interested in how RNA molecules move during folding, ligand binding, and interacting with DNA. To study these events, Al-Hashimi developed a method of recording the 3D motion of RNA in vitro with nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy and computational modeling, making movies of RNA motions. This technology formed the foundation for his startup company.

     A headshot of Hashim Al-Hashimi
Hashim Al-Hashimi is a biophysicist at Columbia University and cofounder of Base4.
Hashim Al-Hashimi

How did you begin your startup?

I kind of fell into it. My team showed that our RNA motion movies improved computational drug models that target RNA, and I was encouraged to patent the method. At the time, a member of the technology transfer committee, Michael Pape, approached me about starting a company with his colleague, Joshua Fairbank, based on my RNA movies. 

How do you balance your responsibilities as both an academic scientist and startup cofounder?

I typically spend a couple of hours a week attending company meetings with the team and assisting with pitches to potential pharmaceutical partners or consulting on collaborations. To manage my conflicts of interest, I have to report every year what efforts I’m putting toward Base4, any financial interests that I have in the company, and how I’m keeping the work in my lab separate from the work in my company. I also disclose my involvement with Base4 to new students and before conference talks or lectures involving my own work. It’s a bit of pain, especially the yearly form, but it’s manageable.  

What advice do you have for other academics interested in science startups?

A successful startup isn’t something you manufacture; there must be an authentic idea. You need to have the right partners, not just those who have the expertise, but who you get along with as people and can be transparent with because there will be stressful times and difficult decisions to make. Most importantly, make sure to be truly passionate about this project, because it needs continuous attention. Be prepared to put a lot of time and effort into this startup.