June 17, 2021
healthcare KauffmanWomen life science

KauffmanWomen: Q&A with Jessica Owens


This month, we interviewed Jessica Owens (Class 12). As co-founder of Initiate Studio, she has been guiding entrepreneurs in building pharmaceutical services, tools and digital health. She is bringing the venture studio model to life sciences and healthcare. 

Prior to founding Initiate Studio, Jessica incubated and founded two healthcare companies: GRAIL and Autism Acumen. GRAIL started after Jessica led its incubation and spin-out from the public life sciences company Illumina. At GRAIL, she led commercial strategy and marketing for new technologies targeted at early cancer detection. Autism Acumen started after Jessica incubated it during her role as an entrepreneur in residence at Versant Ventures. She became CEO of Autism Acumen and focused on combining patient video with machine learning to improve the management of chronic neurological disorders. 

Jessica has been an investor and partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers, focused on investing in life sciences companies. She has also worked in corporate strategy and business development at Genomic Health. She received her MBA from Harvard Business School, MS in cancer biology from Stanford University and bachelor’s degree from Agnes Scott College.

In this interview, Jessica shares her inspirations, from her career as a scientist at the CDC to the work of women’s rights activist Pauli Murray.


What sparked your interest in cancer biology?  

I started my career as a scientist in the Special Pathogens Branch at the CDC where I worked on Ebola and Hantavirus. Viruses have always fascinated me. One of the simplest of life’s building blocks, simpler than a human cell, yet one of the most successful life forms on our planet. When a friend’s mother was diagnosed with cancer, I turned my focus to the interplay between viruses and cancer. I went to Stanford’s Cancer Biology Department because I was interested in new approaches to treat and prevent cancer. Many years later, that work led to me co-found GRAIL, a company pioneering early cancer detection using blood-based genomic sequencing. 


What business idea do you think would be highly profitable but that you would never want to pursue?

Treehouse design and construction. Consumer demand for outdoor play space is astronomical these days. Check out the price of treehouse hardware kits online. And I confess, the show Treehouse Masters is a family favorite at our house.


For the rest of your life, you could choose one team member to work with. Who would it be and why?

My husband – Garrett Vygantas, Kauffman Class 13. Investor, entrepreneur, physician, musician, and awesome dad. If it’s the rest of my life, he’s my pick for someone who would put up with me for that long and keep smiling.


What woman leader inspires you the most?

I am humbled and inspired by Pauli Murray. An American civil rights and women’s rights activist, a lawyer, an author, poet, she was also the first African American woman to be ordained as an Episcopal priest. The clarity of her vision, her bravery, resilience, and effectiveness, made a lasting impact on our nation. She overcame challenges again and again that I have never had to face. Murray’s work influenced Thurgood Marshall, Ruth Bader Ginsberg and countless others. I learned about Murray because of a new documentary about her life that debuted at Sundance this year. There is so much more to Murray than I can share here, but I encourage you to read about her.



KauffmanWomen features insights from women investors, entrepreneurs, and executives within the Kauffman Fellows network. The series is edited by Ernestine Fu (Class 17) and Jessica Straus (Class 22), co-chairs of the Kauffman Women’s Group. Have ideas for future articles? Submit your ideas here

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