Immigrants of Tech - Eran Ben-Ari
Meet Eran Ben-Ari! Eran is the Chief Platform Officer at BenchSci - a series D life science company at the intersection of molecular biology and ML. Here, Eran shares how he made the move to Canada from Israel, what drives him to solve big problems, and advice for newcomers looking to break into the local tech ecosystem.
Can you tell us about your current role?
For the last 2.5 years, I've been building at BenchSci. I'm the Chief Platform Officer. I lead all of the teams involved in building up the offering - Engineering, Science, Product, Design, Bioinformatics, and Machine Learning. We're at the fascinating intersection of Molecular Biology and ML and building the world's largest knowledge base of biomedical experimental evidence. The insights we derive from this vast knowledge base are used by large pharma in their preclinical development of new drugs.
I joined BenchSci for three reasons. I was brought in as a consultant at first, and very quickly I was astonished that this relatively small company (just over 100 people) is solving such a big problem, truly disrupting something big in the world, which is - how do you accelerate developing new medicine with a data driven approach? And how do you do that at scale? And how do you significantly reduce the time it takes to develop new drugs based on underlying insights from previous experimentation in Biology? I was very much aligned with the mission. I've always been drawn to mission-based companies which strive to create a better world for all of us, while also creating a nice return to investors, doing well while doing good.
The second reason was the company was growing very quickly. I’ve been involved in scaling and helping startups become scale-ups since I moved to Canada, especially as companies move from single product to multi-product platforms. So I was able to share some of my experiences and help the company shortcut, or overcome some of these challenges. Some of these challenges of almost tripling in size over the course of 12-18 months, and the need to onboard and ramp up new team members very quickly and effectively and at the same time ensure that systems and processes scale as the team grows.
The third reason is the people aspect. From my experience, a mission-driven company like BenchSci, attracts great people who deeply care about what we do, and the disruption we want to bring to the world. Also, many of them have PhDs or more. They're very, very smart so I get to learn from them as much as I try to share some of my past experiences. Also, I enjoy thinking about how we bring different functional areas together to work well with each other. So there's the engineering piece, there's a science piece to it, there’s product and design. Within engineering, there are more complex specializations such as bioinformatics, or machine learning, and they all somehow have to work harmoniously together. It’s a very exciting challenge to tackle that I'm focused on.
Lastly, BenchSci is Remote first, and we are geographically distributed across North America and the UK - so how do you bring people into a remote-first environment, get them aligned, build trust and relationships between people, and what are the programs and initiatives that we can build to drive effective execution?
What’s your story? It’s rare for us to see an Anthropology/academic background turned technologist, tell us more about that path!
I actually pursued an academic career for almost a decade. I have an unfinished PhD in Anthropology. Why would anthropology and technology even connect to each other? The topic of my PhD dissertation was actually focused on how new technologies diffuse and are spread around the world and adopted by people. And what are the cultural aspects of adopting a new technology? I researched one of Google's products, Google Analytics, that spread like fire around the world. Then I looked at different markets. I looked at Europe, Israel, and North America. The key interesting learning is that data driven products such as Google Analytics, are used to create meaning in reality. Google Analytics helps you ‘understand’ what is going on when people search the web and land on your website. In this sense, this product is meaning-making, and as such, there are meanings that are broad and shared across countries or cultures, and there are meanings that are very local to a particular market or language.
Anthropology has been very helpful to deeply understand the problem we're trying to solve for our end users. If you deeply understand the set of problems that users face in their day to day, and also the universe of other technologies, workarounds, or products they employ to help them navigate through these challenges, then it also becomes easier to imagine the right product, offering, service or a combination of these for your users, as well as how you position yourself in contra to what is already out there. This is what Anthropology can bring to the table when you build new products.
After realizing that it is very very difficult to make a living in academia, I started transitioning into policy making. I took part in a couple of large scale projects, one focused on Education and the second researching national communication strategy. After presenting to very senior officials on both accounts, these policies were not adopted. So I said to myself, okay, I'm not going to spend my life building policies that are not going to be used to make our society better. I want to take part in something that makes a positive difference on many lives.
That is when I made my way to tech. It was a difficult transition because no one wanted to hire an Anthropologist so I had to prove myself and differentiate myself. I started off as a web analyst. Then I made my way into a small analytics startup merging qualitative and quantitative data to produce business insights. There I had the opportunity to merge Google Analytics data with qualitative insights of real users on why they decided to abandon a shopping cart. This allowed me to infuse the two together to answer with GA data the ‘What’ and then with qualitative insights the ‘Why’. The product was successful and I became a product leader - first a Director, and then VP. Since then I've held senior leadership roles in Product and in recent years more broadly as a technology leader.
What led you to choose Canada as the place that you wanted to build in?
Three of the startups I’ve been part of were acquired. I was very fortunate to work for successful founders and great teams. One of those acquisitions brought me to Canada - the company Rounds Entertainment which was acquired by Kik Interactive in Waterloo. Then I basically spent seven months on an airplane, weekdays in Canada and weekends in Israel with two kids under the age of three. That took a toll on me and my family so I was about to quit. They said don't quit, just relocate. So we relocated to Canada. We fell in love with this amazing country and we’ve been very grateful for the opportunity to immerse ourselves in Canadian culture. In the years since, I've worked at different tech companies - Kik, TopHat, Koru, and now BenchSci - it’s been an amazing, challenging eye-opening journey in Canada.
During my childhood, I had the privilege of growing up in several diverse and vibrant countries, including England, Japan, Singapore, and Israel. This experience instilled in me a deep appreciation for the value of international exposure, and it became a personal aspiration to provide my own children with the opportunity to grow up abroad as well.
However, when considering potential destinations, I've always harbored some hesitation about moving to the United States. My hesitation is rooted in my strong connection to Canada's unique value system, characterized by its multiculturalism and its status as one of the few remaining welfare states. I find myself resonating with the values that this country continues to uphold. Canada's appeal lies in the multitude of options it offers for a brighter future, not only for my children but for all its residents.
While the tech scene in Canada may not always receive the recognition it deserves on the global stage, it's important to note that this country boasts a highly developed tech ecosystem. Many might not realize that the birthplace of AI and machine learning is right here, at the University of Toronto. Additionally, Waterloo has earned its reputation as one of the world's premier talent hubs in the tech industry. Although our tech ecosystem can certainly evolve and expand further, especially in terms of more support for early stage companies, Canadians should take immense pride in the wealth of raw talent and innovation that exists within our borders.
What advice do you have for newcomers who are looking to break into the Canadian tech ecosystem?
I think highly of the leadership in tech in Canada, many of the entrepreneurs are actually immigrants themselves. They can definitely empathize with what it means to come from the outside. I know what it feels to start over in a new country, to build yourself up while learning the nuances of the culture, the organizational cues, and dominant mental models that may not be the same as the country you’ve come from. That said, Canada is diverse, and that is also true in tech.
What’s tricky is that everybody wants Canadian experience, but how can you get experience if no one gives you a job, right? So what are those opportunities? Depends on the age sometimes. If you're in your 20s and you're a student, it's very different, there are co-op terms, exchange programs, etc. Going to smaller startups that don't have the resources to hire super-experienced people is a good opportunity to enter the Canadian workforce and gain the necessary experience. If you’re more seasoned and looking for leadership roles, there's a lot that you can do from the outside before you join. There’s a CTO community, a CPO community, etc. The moment you start building that network by providing value to others, many will open the door for you. I met some awesome people in local tech meetups. Find ways to give to the community, such as giving a talk, sharing a framework that was helpful to you, or perhaps mentor someone. You can do all of that remotely, before you move. This will help you build up those connections and start the ball rolling.