The many hats of Yusuf Henriques, serial social impact entrepreneur & US Army veteran
No one epitomizes the go-go-go mentality of startup culture better than serial entrepreneurs, and Yusuf Henriques may be their poster child. A US Army veteran, the Jamaican-born immigrant has found his niche in the startup landscape, at the intersection of technology and the financial and health sectors. To that end, he has launched (or been involved in the founding of) no less than 5 companies: Polaris Genomics (formerly TruGenomix Health), wePool AI, CreditRich, CodeClear, and, the newest in the portfolio, IndyGeneUS AI (pronounced “indigenous AI”), which recently announced a $1.5M seed raise.
His breakout venture — Polaris Genomics, which offers a genomic test that helps identify those at high risk for PTSD, anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder — was in the 2020 cohort of Apex, the 9-month incubator at NYU Tandon Veterans Future Lab (VFL). Henriques had founded the company four years earlier, in 2015, after his daughters’ summer camp teacher, a US Marine, took his own life. According to a 2016 report from the VA’s Office of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention, roughly 20 veterans and active duty personnel commit suicide each day. “That number haunted me every day,” says Henriques.
In 2017, his team expanded to include co-founders US Air Force veteran and engineer Charles Cathlin and Dr. Tshaka Cunningham, and by 2018 they had raised $100,000 from Wing Venture Capital. Polaris went on to graduate from Illumina for Startups, a Bay Area accelerator for genomics companies, but needed continued support. By early 2020, Polaris had raised $2 million in seed funding from Sanford Health and Viking Global Investors and found additional in-kind support from the VFL and Illumina Accelerators. Shortly after, Henriques stepped down from his role as CEO to focus on his other ventures, the fintech app CreditRich and IndyGeneUS AI.
We spoke to Henriques recently to learn about his progress from a first-time, non-MBA business owner to serial entrepreneur, and any wisdom for others considering a similar path. The Washington DC-based founder and public health subject matter expert with a biochemistry degree from Howard University has no shortage of advice and infectious enthusiasm for his most recent genomics startup IndyGeneUs AI, now in Apex2022. The healthcare startup is focused on developing the world’s largest blockchain-encrypted repository of indigenous and diasporic African clinical and multi-omics data for disease prevention and detection, drug discovery and development, clinical disease management, and precision health equity.
VFL: What compelled you to start a business after leaving the military?
YH: In 2012, I was at the FDA, making progress in my career as an interdisciplinary scientist, when Mike, a veteran at my daughters’ summer camp, took his own life. This ignited a fire in me to start looking at what causes PTSD and how genes are dysregulated in the body due to traumatic episodes. That led to a position at the James J. Peters Veteran Affairs Medical Center in the Bronx, NY. I was recruited to manage grant funds allocated for PTSD and mild traumatic brain injury (mTBI) biomarker research with Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai (ISMMS), NYU, and Columbia. In 2016, a patent was approved for 3 genes that gave us a 76–78% predictive value of predisposition for PTSD. I felt compelled to commercialize it, so I quit my government job after 20 years of federal service, started Polaris Genomics, and developed a gene expression blood test for PTSD, anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder using Illumina’s proprietary technology.
Whether it’s going into combat or starting a business, you’ve got to have a strategy, and you have to have individuals buy into that strategy. It’s for the collective team. — Yusuf Henriques, IndyGeneUS AI
VFL: You led Polaris Genomics initially as the CEO. Which resources were most instrumental to its growth?
YH: The support that I received from the psychiatry department at ISMMS was paramount. They held the patent and could have given it to a large pharma company, but because I had worked on the study, my mentor and supervisor, Dr Rachel Yehuda, advocated for me with the tech transfer office to negotiate an exclusive license to the patent. She believed in me.
Second was Illumina. We were able to get over $800,000 of in-kind service to develop our blood test using their scientific staff, subject matter experts, and capital equipment. Unfortunately, we only raised a small amount of funding due to the lack of investments being made in minority- and women-owned businesses in Silicon Valley at that time. However, we were still grateful for the experience.
We moved [back East] where I saw New York as a large market because the original patent came out of ISMMS. I made it a point to apply to the second VFL cohort and moved from DC to NYC. The VFL provided me with office space and housing. These two ingredients were essential during the development phase, as they allowed me to stay in one central location and maintain my focus. Plus, the VFL had Orrick, the law firm, which helped cut down on legal bills. We were able to utilize VFL connections to orchestrate meetings with investors and large health systems in order to pitch our idea.
VFL: You said that women and minorities are underrepresented in Silicon Valley’s funding ecosystem. Can you talk more about that?
YH: Oh, man. It would take 2 days to answer that question [laughs]. You know, it was tough. It took 3 or 4 months to start realizing that we were just not being looked at as serious candidates for funding, even though we had the most promising technology that was actually going to save lives. That bothered me significantly because it was, like, patent? Solid. Business model validation? Solid. Veteran/military background? Solid. We had raised $100,000, which took us through 6 months in California, but that’s not enough to take care of 5 founding team members. We lived in a 2-bedroom apartment in Foster City, and were going back and forth [from the West to the East Coast]. That money was starting to dwindle, and it just got discouraging. We started realizing that the technology didn’t matter. We just didn’t have the diversity of fund managers willing to say, ‘Hey, you know what? We’re gonna take a chance on you.’ Our first large check came from a hospital, whom we were introduced to by former VA Secretary David Shulkin. We raised capital from Sanford Health System in the Midwest because they had a large population of veterans in their system who were taking their lives. They saw our value.
Ultimately, we returned to the DMV because we didn’t have any more money once the accelerator ended.
We were able to utilize VFL connections to orchestrate meetings with investors and large health systems in order to pitch our idea. — Yusuf Henriques, IndyGeneUS AI
VFL: What lessons did you take from that, and what have you carried over from that experience to your other ventures?
YH: As I mentioned, 20 suicides a day — that haunted me every night. That gave me the energy to get up every day, and I’ve been nonstop since. There are so many opportunities available to us if we only commit our time and energy towards them. My military background and experience gave me the intestinal fortitude, but it was very rough, especially when it took us so long to raise money.
But, I believed in the technology. When you have great ideas, you need great individuals who understand your vision to help support and get you through the tough days.
VFL: But now you have a number of ventures going simultaneously. How do you balance your work on them?
YH: Strong partnerships. Being able to orchestrate strong teams is essential to the successful execution of your vision. I’ve been privileged to work with some of the best and brightest in their respective industries. When you have the right people in your corner, it alleviates some of the heavy lifting because you can trust that they care just as much about the product as you do. And honestly, there’s no greater peace of mind than working with individuals that you can trust.
VFL: So, what should someone keep in mind when they’re entering into a partnership and starting a business?
YH: Make sure that your team members have different qualifications and skillsets. There are multiple parts of the business; you’re going to have to wear many hats. Diversifying your team ensures that you’re not left to execute all of the tasks… At least, not alone.
Also, don’t be afraid of respectful opposition. I’m never one to avert from a great debate or a challenging discussion, because I think that’s where innovation happens. We may not agree on everything, but we can come to a consensus and move on. Whether it’s going into combat or starting a business, you need to have a strategy, and you have to have individuals buy into that strategy. It’s for the collective team.
VFL: In thinking about Polaris Genomics and your other ventures, like Black Tech Matters and IndyGeneUs AI, there seems to be a civil rights thread running through them. How did 2020, with its political strife, civil unrest, and unprecedented global health crisis, inform your approach as an entrepreneur?
YH: It woke me up. We felt like we had made progress before COVID and before George Floyd, and it all came crashing down, right? For the first time in my life, I watched political unrest on one end, where African-American males were being targeted and killed, and then on the other side, I watched the health disparity gap towards minorities increase. It was a no-win situation. What that did was galvanize me. The work I had done with Polaris Genomics and the FDA gave me this global perspective on how lopsided clinical trials are. Going into COVID, when they started developing the vaccine, as a true combat medic, I couldn’t sit on the sidelines and wait for someone else to do something. It might sound crazy, but I saw my purpose reflected in this problem, and IndyGeneUS AI was going to create the solution.
VFL: Any words for the founders coming up after you?
YH: Man, I’m looking like the OG of the space, huh? Well, what I would tell my younger self or young aspiring entrepreneurs is to go for it and to think globally. It took the pandemic to hit before I allowed myself to think globally. Going forward, that will never be the case. Trust me. You need to think, ‘How can I solve global problems?’ Don’t limit yourself by limiting your lens… Broaden your scope to see things from a perspective that can change circumstances today and in the future.