The Art of Science: How Ashley Farnkopf builds a culture of scientific innovation and creativity at Nutromics

Royina Bakshi Lock

If Ashley Farnkopf, Manager of Science Development at Nutromics, ever met Brad Bird, Oscar-winning director of iconic movies such as The Incredibles, they might become friends instantly.  

When Brad joined Pixar to work on The Incredibles, he had come off a film called The Iron Giant that was a commercial failure. The task that lay ahead of him was to inspire his team to undertake some of the most challenging and expensive tasks in the world of animation while pushing them to innovate the art form. In an interview with McKinsey he gives insights into the culture he created that made this possible: one of open communication, collaboration, and passion.

When Ashley joined Nutromics, it was a few years after a stint with another start-up in the US that had tried to use a DNA-based technology to develop sensors that worked in sweat. While the technology had been promising, the start-up went under in 2020. Coming off that experience, Ashley faced a daunting task at Nutromics: to inspire a team of electrochemists to undertake challenging, world-first projects to commercialize DNA-based sensors that would revolutionize diagnostics. Co-leading one of the Sensors team (hereafter referred to by its internal name ‘Sensors!’) at Nutromics, her leadership style and team culture looks a lot like Brad’s. She isn’t directing scientists to get tasks done, she’s leading artists to innovate.

Fuelling Innovation with Passion and Purpose

Ashley is incredibly passionate about her work. Often on her way in to work, you can see her furiously scribbling calculations into a notebook as she contemplates the latest challenge in the lab. It was this raw passion that she brought to Nutromics when she joined the company in 2022.

“Coming from my last start-up experience, this was another chance to work on a technology that will create big value. Not just minor improvements in healthcare but really make huge strides. That was what really pushed it over the line for me”, Ashley said reflecting on why she chose to join Nutromics.

During the interview process, Ashley also had the opportunity to talk to Vinicius Goncales, co-leader of the Sensors! team and one of the first electrochemists hired at Nutromics. This interaction was one of the factors that influenced her decision to join the company, “When I spoke to Vinicius it was clear that he was one of the most competent electrochemists I had been exposed to in my career. At a lot of companies, you may struggle to find people who have deep competency in this area. Learning about his experiences and seeing his passion helped me make the decision about joining Nutromics.”

Once she joined, Ashley was motivated to set her team up for success. She quickly realised that there was a lot of different expertise in the team but no standardised protocols or trainings. Reflecting on the early team strategy, she shared “We focused on hiring the right people and ensuring diversity. We didn’t want people to have duplicate skills. Instead, we brought in people who had different expertise and then focused on building trust through technical reviews and team bonding activities. This allowed them to collaborate better in the lab. They went beyond doing research and development within their teams to doing it together with other teams like engineering.”

Science is inherently a curiosity-driven and artistic field. Scientists try to answer questions about the world while simultaneously experimenting with the way they find these answers. In academia, this manifests as research papers and novel discoveries made over years, sometimes entire careers. In start-ups however, there is a delicate balance to be struck. While innovation and experimentation are key, they need to be goal-oriented to maximize limited resources and time. Ashley’s job is to strike that balance.

“In science it is hard to predict the future. So, what we do instead is align with the team on key milestones and then give them the freedom to experiment and be iterative. If something doesn’t go in the direction we think it should, we quickly pivot. There are a lot of unknowns but giving the team the freedom to try while using data to drive our decisions helps achieve our goals”, she commented.

Ashley is also a big advocate for inter-team collaboration, crediting it as one of the biggest drivers of breakthroughs at Nutromics. “It is important for us to work closely with our key stakeholders – Mechanical Engineering, Embedded Engineering, Software, and APTOS. Having them involved in discussions early on can help us address issues more proactively while pulling solutions from related but parallel fields. This helps us scale quickly and squeeze every bit of margin that we can”, she said.

Prioritizing People to Prioritize Breakthroughs

Like Brad Bird, Ashley understands the inherent importance of team morale. Open communication, positive feedback, and demonstrating trust are key to keeping morale up, and Ashley ensures both using admittedly unconventional management techniques.

Commenting on how she helped increase communication and broke through formal structures, she said “We got recommendations from the team for different kinds of team bonding events and have used those to get them to open up more. Since we started doing these regularly, we’ve seen a shift in how people collaborate. Instead of Scientist 1 going up to Scientist 2 in the lab and asking a question, we see them playing ping pong while brainstorming solutions and then coming back to the lab to troubleshoot issues. We started off as more individual scientists but now are more collaborative scientists, and this has helped us grow exponentially.”

Ashley is also a big believer in positive feedback and encouragement. However, instead of focusing on heaping on praise as a manager, she urges her team to recognize and shout-out their peers. This subtle technique again encourages her team to break out of individual silos to collaborate. It also builds team motivation. After all, who can appreciate an artist’s work and contribution better than another artist?

Ashley’s ultimate goal for her team is to help them grow professionally and personally. She believes in putting her ego aside and giving people advice and opportunities that will help them go further than she has. A way she does this in her day-to-day role is by simply trusting her team. “To me it’s not about saying ‘I need you to do to X, Y, Z twelve hours a week till we hit this goal’. I prefer to align people on the goal and then give them the trust, comfort, and empowerment they need to make their decisions. I find then that the work speaks for itself, and the science sees dividends”, she shared.

As Ashley leads critical work on Nutromics’ magnum opus, its DNA-based biosensor, the main thing that drives her is a growth mindset. “In science you’re always going to have experiments that fail or projects that get shut down but it’s never a failure if you keep learning from them. You have to be adaptable and keep going, and it can be tough, but you have to stay focused on the end goal. Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.” she said.