Founder of Shinkei Systems (YC W22)

Saif Khawaja

Saif Khawaja pioneers humane fish harvesting with AI at Shinkei Systems, focusing on personal growth and overcoming industry barriers.

Saif Khawaja is the 23-year-old solo founder and CEO of Shinkei Systems (YC W22), an AI-powered robotics company for fish harvesting that’s raised $1.3m in pre-seed funding. Raised in Dubai, Saif graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, where he received a B.S in Economics in 2021. There, he won Penn’s President’s Sustainability Engagement Prize, granting recipients $100k to work on their startups full-time. Saif was pursuing a Master’s in Physics before dropping out to work on Shinkei.

In today’s issue, Saif shares his experiences breaking into the fishing industry, life philosophies, and pursuit of personal growth:

🐟 What is Shinkei Systems? Shinkei Systems produces machines that kill fish right on the boat using ike-jime, a process that cuts the fish’s hindbrain with a knife and must be performed immediately. This process preserves the fish for longer, reducing waste, and improving flavor. Although 1.2 billion pounds of fish are caught each day, as little as a third make it onto the dinner table. Shinkei Systems is the first to offer an AI-powered, automated solution for ike-jime, which has always been done by hand and hasn’t been scalable until now. The company rents equipment in a profit-sharing agreement with fisheries and boats, which sell to farmers markets and gourmet chefs.

🔪 Starting Shinkei: I read this newspaper article discussing how the fishing industry has become a tragedy of the commons. There's all this fish in the ocean, so anytime you’re not catching fish, you’re losing out on money. The fish are treated terribly – they’re caught, flop around for 30 minutes, and suffocate. This results in the fish’s body degrading faster, and lots of fish end up going to waste. I did some research and learned that ike-jime techniques are basically the golden standard for humane purchasing for fish.

🛠️ Prototyping process: Unlike cattle, wild fish have so much variation – even within the same species. Different sizes, shapes, colors, and contours make cutting fish very difficult to automate. The first prototype was a little 3D printer with a nail stuck at the end of it in my room. Then, I self taught computer vision to recognize different species and brought on a mechanical engineer and computer vision engineer. I basically ran the company out of my savings. One time, I took someone out for Pinkberry and didn’t even have enough money in my bank account to pay for it.

🚧 Barriers to the fishing industry: A lot of them didn't want to talk to me at first. Many are closed off and have been burned a lot. They’re not used to seeing young people as the face of cutting edge technology; they’re used to seeing gray hair. You encounter a lot of that in traditional legacy industries. It took time to figure out how they work and how to work with them.

🐟 Breaking into fishing: You need one or two key entry points, then all of a sudden, you're exposed to the entire ecosystem. We had a great entry point through a residential program, introduced by one of our first investors, whom I cold emailed. There was also a Michelin star chef who did a taste test between the handcut fish and our robot-cut fish (verdict: he couldn’t tell the difference) – I just cold DM’d him on Instagram.

🙏 On believing in yourself: I heard that people I had considered friends were talking behind my back, saying I had no direction and didn’t know what I was doing. That really hurt. I'm a very prideful person, and the fact that my friends didn't believe in me made me want to prove them wrong and believe in myself more.I deleted all my social media, most of which I still don’t use today. I just decided to focus and give the business a proper shot, and fortunately, it’s been working out.

☀️ Day/week in the life: A good day starts with a really good night routine. At 8:30PM, I'll start winding down – read, do some stretches, and knock out. I’ll sleep from 9:30PM to 6:30AM. In the morning, I’ll swim or hit the weight room. Before I invite the digital world in, I like to write down on paper three things I need to accomplish that day, then three things I'm grateful for. It's really simple and will make the day a win.Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, I don't take external meetings. Thursday and Friday are for internal meetings and external calls. I don't work Saturdays, so I’ll take a pottery class or go sailing in the Hudson. Sunday, I do a lot of paperwork, figuring out the larger issues in the company that I need to go firefight.

💭 Life philosophy: Fun fact, I have two bookshelves. One is for all my books. The other is just for philosophy and spiritual reads. My favorite quote is by Dostoevsky: “Above all, do not lie to yourself. A man who listens to his own lie [...] falls into disrespect towards himself and others. Not respecting anyone, he ceases to love and gives himself up to coarse pleasures to amuse himself, and in his vices, reaches complete beastiality.” Most days, I will wake up and just say the quote aloud.I interpret that quote in the context of independent thinking. Philanthropy and niceties between people are just social norms and herd mentality. For example, if someone trips over, I should think, “This poor person is falling over, and it’s not hard for me to go and help them.” That's thinking independently, as opposed to helping because people are around and you don't want to look bad. I think selfishness is one of the highest virtues, because fundamentally, it’s about thinking independently.

🌱 How do you actively grow? I have a really good support system that is constantly giving me feedback. My team feels comfortable because I take negative feedback very well, and I’m quick to make the changes. In our investor updates, I’m so transparent that it’s almost doing me a disservice.I live my life with three core facets: authenticity, vulnerability and justice. You have to be vulnerable about receiving negative feedback, look at yourself with authenticity, and do the feedback justice. Have people whose opinions you really respect or are very different from you, give those people as much information as you can, and invite them in a safe manner to deliver that feedback.

💫 Best advice: You can’t lead other people before you lead yourself. To grow a startup, you have to first grow personally. You are responsible for every issue. If a team is not going to hit a deadline, either you haven't created the right support for them, or you haven't been leading them effectively. Starting a founder’s journey is about having a certain level of self awareness and a commitment to growing quickly.

tl;dr 1) Every morning, write down three things you need to accomplish then three things you’re grateful for. It will make the day a win. 2) Think and act independently. Your actions should not be the subconscious result of societal norms and herd mentality. Have your own reasoning. 3) To grow, you must actively seek out feedback. That’s done by being vulnerable, transparent, and creating a safe space for people to give feedback.

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