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Crossing Borders with Nathan Lustig

Hello and welcome to Crossing Borders with Nathan Lustig, where I interview entrepreneurs doing startups across borders and the investors who support them, with a focus on companies that have some relationship to Latin America.

Jun 30, 2020

Laura Mendoza, Unima: Developing Low-Cost Diagnostics for 3 Billion People, Ep 108

Laura Mendoza was already working on solutions for tuberculosis, the
leading infectious killer worldwide, before COVID-19 came along. As founder and CPO of biotech Unima, Laura develops fast and low-cost diagnostics for infectious diseases. Her solutions help decision-makers create better programs for the treatment and control of these diseases.


From the first mentions of coronavirus early in 2020, Laura and her team immediately understood the magnitude of the problem. Quickly shifting gears, Unima started to focus on solutions for COVID-19, such as molecular tests for antibody detection.


I sit down with Laura to talk about why she decided to tackle human health and how she became an entrepreneur while completing several Masters along the way. We also discuss the work Unima was doing before COVID-19 and what it’s like to raise money as a biotech company in Latin America.

Tackling global health

It had never crossed Laura’s mind to become an entrepreneur until she entered the workforce. After a couple of years, she realized that there were so many unaddressed problems in the world that needed to be addressed. It was while working for Boehringer Ingelheim, one of the biggest pharmaceutical companies in the world, that Laura saw an opportunity in biotech, specifically in animal health. 


Listen to this episode of Crossing Borders to learn more about how Laura pivoted her company from animal health and focused on human health.

From TB to COVID-19

Although the current focus is on solutions for COVID-19 due to the global context, Laura explains that Unima was developing solutions for one of the world’s biggest killers: tuberculosis. She states that if the world population were to be mixed together, 1 in 3 people would have latent TB. And 1 in 10 people with latent TB, would later develop TB itself. Therefore, TB incidence in the world is very high and has major consequences in people’s lives including loss of jobs, discrimination, and, of course, death. 


Find out how Laura developed a solution for TB diagnostics through her research on bovines in this episode of Crossing Borders.

Raising capital as a biotech in Latin America

Laura explains that most Latin American investors and mentors treated Unima as they would any other traditional tech company. However, while software can be tested in real-time, biotech products are more time-intensive. Not to mention, it’s a heavily regulated industry, and the way in which traction is demonstrated can vary greatly from the standard tech company. Finding an investor that understood how the biotech industry worked was crucial for Unima’s development.


In this episode of Crossing Borders Laura explains how Unima found the right investors in Latin America for its specific industry. 


Laura Mendoza is tackling some of the world’s most urgent problems with Unima’s solutions. Unima has the potential to help over 3 billion people gain access to timely diagnostics, and provide governments with the right information for better policies.


Outline of this episode:

  • [1:21] - About Laura and Unima
  • [3:03] - Benefits of diagnostics
  • [5:30] - Becoming an entrepreneur
  • [8:30] - Founding her first company
  • [11:44] - On tech transfers
  • [14:36] - Reaction of family and friends
  • [16:26] - Pivoting at Mass Challenge
  • [20:10] - Human health as a business
  • [22:48] - Raising money in LatAm 
  • [25:31] - Building a COVID-19 test
  • [29:11] - Recommended books, blogs, & podcasts
  • [31:44] - Advice to Laura’s younger self
  • [33:18] - What’s next for Unima?


Resources & people mentioned: