Mar Vista entrepreneur Nanxi Liu has worked her way up from a village in rural China with no indoor plumbing and spotty electricity to the boardrooms of two successful startups and a spot on Forbes’ annual 30 Under 30 list in enterprise tech. She produced the Emmy-winning web series “The Bay,” co-wrote a song with a Grammy-winning musician Pascal Guyon, and at 28 years old she’s only getting started.

Liu (who pronounces her name “Nancy”) was raised by extended family members
in China from age two to five, until her international student parents brought her to Colorado. She describes her teen years in Boulder as “rebellious” — mostly because she began taking classes at the University of Colorado while in high school and would hang out with the friends she made there.

Nanxi Liu

“My parents wouldn’t let me go to parties with college students, so I had to sneak out. They’d be waiting for me after I got home at 2 or 3 a.m.,” she recalls with a laugh.

Liu, who also plays violin and cello, won a national piano scholarship to put herself through UC Berkeley, where she felt the magnetic pull of Silicon Valley’s startup culture.

“You’re not an entrepreneur until you’ve started a failed dating app,” she jokes, though serious about the lessons such early experiences taught her. “I learned how to think strategically and where the milestones need to be. And I also learned to never take any relationship for granted.”

While on vacation back in Colorado, Liu met biochemist Balaji Sridhar in a dive bar and they went on to found Nanoly Bioscience. The company invented a polymer that functions as a chemical shield allowing temperature-sensitive molecules to survive without refrigeration, making it possible to transport lifesaving vaccines and medical test kits anywhere in the world. Co-founding Nanoly won Liu a Microsoft- and Nokia-sponsored Young Innovator Award in 2014.

Liu’s second startup (whose initial backers included a high school friend) is Enplug, a software company that transforms static digital signs in stadiums and other public places into app-controlled interactive displays. The company picked up $2.5 million in seed funding four years ago, and its client list now includes hospitality groups, universities, car dealerships, breweries and other tech companies.

Now Liu is branching out to community affairs. She’s on the board of the National Foster Youth Institute with her local congresswoman, Rep. Karen Bass, and in May she was appointed to the Mar Vista Community Council.

“Part of what makes the Westside great is people really love that work-life balance, and so do I. … People’s connection to the outdoors grounds everyone a little,” she says. “I try to be reflective, because I think that’s where a lot of growing happens. It reminds me how much help I had as a female entrepreneur and one of the few women CEOs in tech. I look at it now as my responsibility to help others be successful.”

— Gary Walker