Lessons from My First Start-up: How They Led Me to Found My Second Venture

In my first start-up, differences in opinion led to us parting ways. Here’s what I learnt and how I used this experience to build my second start-up.

By Florence Leong | 20 Mar 2023

Florence Leong, the cofounder of deeptech start-up KosmodeHealth, speaking at a conference.

How I entered the start-up world

After becoming the General Manager of a global pharmaceutical company, I sought new challenges. It was at such career crossroads that an ex-boss introduced me to the world of venture capital.

I quickly met my first team of founders and founded my first startup, developing a product to diagnose cancer. We received a $2 million commitment in our pre-seed round, which was hugely encouraging to a new start-up.

However, at a later stage, I decided against seeking the funds as we had unfulfilled engineering milstones. My fellow founders disagreed with my decision, leading to our eventual parting of ways.

This experience taught me three lessons that I have since carried with me in every venture I pursue.


People are everything

When starting a company, it’s critical to find partners who share similar values. Without a strong foundation of trust and shared vision, it is difficult to sustain a long-term partnership.

As the saying goes, once bitten, twice shy. I was careful in choosing my colleagues for my second startup, KosmodeHealth. Professor Huang, my cofounder, was one of my mentees during my time as a mentor at NUS Enterprise. We had mutual respect for each other’s expertise, which is crucial in any successful partnership and forms the cornerstone of our continued success.


Stay true to yourself

As a female founder, it’s essential to have the courage to stick to one’s values, even if others disagree.

Sometimes, your voice may be overpowered by others in the room. There may be self-doubt creeping into your thoughts, as you wonder if what you say and do is right, especially when it seems like few agree with you.

There’s no easy solution for this, but I found adopting Brené Brown’s “permission slips” method helpful.

Remember how as a child, you had to ask your parents for permission to go on a school outing? It’s the same. Give yourself permission to make mistakes by writing at the side of your meeting notes, “Permission to share ideas, and see mistakes as learning opportunities.”

This helps you to be more willing to share your thoughts and ideas in meetings, by giving yourself implicit, and explicit permission.

For me, integrity will always be a core value wherever I work, even if it costs me fame and fortune. That’s why I decided to exit my first startup, even though it came at great personal cost.


Focus on what’s within control

This concept of the three concentric circles of awareness, influence, and control from author Stephen Covey guides me. Covey encourages people to focus on what they can control, rather than on things they cannot control. This seems like a simple concept, but it’s not easy to implement.

One thing that has helped me in moving on is to ask myself:

  • Is this something I can control?
  • If not, what is within my circle of control that I can do something about?

I’m always a big believer in this adage, ‘When one door is closed, another opens.’ Rather than sinking in self-pity, it’s much better to take this can-do concept, to keep one’s chin up, and to keep moving onward.  

Second time’s the charm

I’m now in my second startup, KosmodeHealth. As the cofounder, together with Associate Professor Huang DeJian, this may not have been the easiest journey. But it’s been a satisfying one.

Associate Professor Huang first met Florence, at NUS Enterprise, the entrepreneurial arm of the National University of Singapore.

Because it gives us the chance to reimagine the future of food, simply by repurposing food processing waste.

Often, manufacturers would just toss away their food waste. But what if this food waste could be used to create something even better?

One of our products is W0W® Noodles, made from spent barley grains, a by-product of beer and Milo production. W0W® Noodles has just 0.8g of carbs. It barely causes any blood sugar increase, meaning it’s even suitable for diabetics! It’s further evidence of how what we throw away may be used to create something better.

Our approach to achieve sustainability recently received a boost in the arm, as KosmodeHealth is now included in the APEC Food Security workplan, after the February 2023 APEC Senior Officials Meeting in Palm Spring, USA.

The prize of persistence

Perhaps the most important lesson I’ve learnt is persistence. It’s about recognising that blazing a new trail is challenging, but eventually, persistence will pay off.

It’s recognising my limitations, and seeing the need for collective effort harnessing the strength of the team when moving the needle of change.

It’s not me, myself, and I that accomplished this. But my team, my family, and my friends have all supported me on this journey.

Parting words

As Nobel Prize winner Danny Kahneman once said,

“When someone says something, don’t ask yourself if it is true. Ask what it might be true of.”

Trying to see how someone might make sense, rather than trying to prove someone wrong, has helped me in building KosmodeHealth.

This International Women’s Day, perhaps it might help to stop seeing the faults in what you do, but start, and persist in seeing the good, in yourself.

Interested in working in Singapore or starting a business here?

Find out more about the new Overseas Networks & Expertise (ONE) Pass as well as other work passes that may suit you.

About Florence

Florence Leong is an ex-pharmaceutical executive turned startup enthusiast. Building on her decades of organizational and market development experience in top pharmaceutical multinationals, venture capital investment and management practice, she contributes to the Singapore startup ecosystem as an Advisor, Mentor, Instructor, Founder & Angel Investor. Florence is currently an Industry Advisor in the Singapore Biodesign Program, a mentor in NUS Enterprise and Medtech Track Instructor in the LeanLaunchPad Program.

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