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Perfect Pitch: Sophie Zaaijer PhD

Founder, CEO, Violist

Current City: Riverside, CA.

Current Job and Entrepreneurial Focus: Founder, CEO and CSO of FIND Genomics, a (bio)tech software startup that aims to accelerate biomedicine by enabling cell based innovation to thrive.

Notable Prior Jobs: Postdoctoral research scientist in genome science at the New York Genome Center and Columbia University. PhD student in genetics and molecular biology at UCL (London) and NIH.

When I Started Performing: I started playing violin when I was 5, but switched to my true love -- the viola -- when I was 14.

Performing Arts Background: As a teenager violin was not the coolest instrument (the flute was, can you believe it?!) and my interest lowered dramatically to the point I announced to my teacher I wanted to quit. She proposed I try the viola, just to try. I remember the first time I held the instrument and positioning my bow on the strings. It was not until I played the deep sounding C string that I fell in love. With renewed motivation I started practicing and got accepted in the Youth Orchestra of the Netherlands, a national orchestra that rehearsed during the school holidays and in the summer we went on tour for a few weeks. We went over the years to Italy, Japan, Spain and Germany. We played Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an exhibition” in an ancient outdoor arena in Spain (with natural acoustics), Rachmaninoff’s Symphony Number 2 in Kyoto and Osaka in Japan; we gathered as an orchestra with so many magical memories. We practiced long hours, from the morning to the evening, we grew up together and learned to work hard together. Creating a high quality product on stage with a group of 80+ hormonal teenagers is still mind boggling to me. For my undergrad I studied music, but shifted gears to molecular biology and genetics driven by the philosophy that music can be continued as a good amateur, but molecular biology cannot. In the years that followed I kept playing and performing in numerous settings: as a primacz in a klezmer gypsy ensemble (with a cimbalom, accordion, double-bass, Bratsch, and clarinet), in symphony orchestras and in many chamber music settings. The performance photo is in the Carnegie Hall, performing Beethoven’s Symphony Number 9, with the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony and a number of participating choirs in the background (including the United States Military Academy, West Point, choir).

How did your performing arts background supercharge your entrepreneurship? Question: How is a viola solo like wetting your pants? Answer: Both publicly humiliating, neither fortunately make much noise, but briefly do give one a nice warm feeling. There is a long tradition of viola jokes. I am not sure as a result, or because of it – but the violists are often strong, original characters in an orchestra; they are not the delicate divas like the violins or cellos, or the cool dudes like the brass. The violists need their grounded characters because they form the pillar of the symphonic harmony. Without the pillar the house will not stand – and an orchestra or chamber music ensemble is only as good as their viola players. The viola supports and magnifies the melodies the high pitched violin or the low cello bring to the audience – she enables central melodies to flourish. The violist is attuned to who she needs to support at a given phrase in the music, she knows the importance of her contribution in the harmony. In a similar fashion; as an entrepreneur you can’t just play a single melody -- you have to be highly attuned to who to play with and how to maneuver. You play in product development, raising funds, building a sales pipeline, building a team, developing distribution partnerships – and all these tunes are sung a little differently and require their own consideration and care. All these tunes together make up the foundation of a tech startup company that can create something new, bring a new technology to market, and revolutionize a field. Of course, also in startups, you may hear the occasional dissonant but as the violist/entrepreneur, your job is to find the best solution to get back to harmony. There are so many parallels between music and entrepreneurship; discipline, grit, and persistence. But also daring to put yourself “out there” and make yourself vulnerable and a target for judgement because you do something new. Each member in the team has to be excellent at what they do, and has to be proactive and accountable for the quality of their work -- however, only by working in harmony with your team you create a product: whether it is a symphonic concert, or a software platform. When it works, it is not 1 + 1 = 2 -- it is magic.

Favorite Performer: I love the concert by violist Maxim Rysanov at the Night of the Proms: And my last revelation is my love for the bassoon, the warm, loyal, friendly tone that pleases everyone’s ears. My favorite players are Joost Bosdijk and Bram van Sambeek playing Rossini - Il barbiere di Sevilla:

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