Here is our second article in line as part of our two article series on Villgro, a social enterprise incubator. The article is based on a discussion between Dr. Reetu Mehta, Vignesh Narayan, Club SciWri (CSW) and Dr. Arun Venkatesan (AV), Chief Technology Officer, Villgro. We discuss here Dr. Arun Venkatesan’s successful and trendsetting journey from being an academic researcher to working in Villgro.
CSW: What is your story- how did you arrive at Villgro?
AV: My training has been in Chemical engineering. I was an undergraduate at RAC, Trichy that is now NIT, Trichy. I completed my masters & PhD at the University of Akron and a post doctorate at Case Western University in fuel cells & materials. While working at Mitsubishi housed in UC Santa Barbara, CA, I was engaged in developing a fuel-cell material. Then I worked with a small company on an electrochemical oxygen generator, reverse of the fuel cell and later contributed in a startup working on device development. I moved back to Chennai looking for projects and started working as head of R&D at Phoenix Medical Systems. One of the projects that came out during that period was Brilliance, a low-cost phototherapy product – arguably the first openly priced product at 400$ for India, Nepal, Pakistan and 500$ worldwide. Other projects Phoenix has been involved with are, one from IIT Delhi, a Wellcome Trust funded project called SmartCane – an ultrasound based navigation device for the visually impaired costing Rs 3000. Another one was a standup wheelchair called R2D2 that was funded by Wellcome Trust at IIT Madras, designed by Prof. Sujatha Srinivasan’s group. I consulted quite a bit afterwards and one of my consulting clients was Villgro.
As you can see, I already had a bent of mind for product development in the social space. Eventually whatever worked out was where my heart was – they all had a social angle. So when the Villgro role came it was a natural fit.
CSW: What goes into making a social entrepreneur?
AV:. Social enterprise is a difficult field. We, at Villgro, really empathize with the entrepreneurs because they have chosen to solve a difficult problem and dedicate a huge chunk of their lives to it. Openness to ideas, and commitment is what we look for at Villgro. The social entrepreneur is the one who owns the problem no matter what and wants to solve it. It takes time, a good amount of their life – about 5 to 7 years before any sizable revenue is generated.
CSW: What are the skills a life science PhD requires to work at places like Villgro or an investment firm?
AV: Flexibility or versatility – You can be a subject expert but you should be able to very quickly probe into and assess knowledge regarding the field in question. Identifying the problem and relating it to the business side of things is very important. Multifaceted assessment of an idea is also very important.
2. Openness – You cannot be very dogmatic about anything.
3. Networking and having soft skills – Regarding soft skills I think it is very important understanding how to practically apply the knowledge you have.
I believe PhD is only a proof that the person is capable of defining, analyzing and solving a problem. Problems will almost always be outside your core training. You will have to use the general skills that you have learned to get there. Scientific and technology development principles still apply. But an intuitive jump (to understand the problem) is required.
CSW: One of the things we notice in India is your educational qualifications are not given their due credit when you enter the job market, especially for PhDs. What is your opinion on that?
AV: The entire industry working space is moving towards a more efficient lean model. There are research institutes where the degree and sector expertise are valued. In the entrepreneurial sector, especially in social entrepreneurship, knowledge is definitely valued but you have to be very productive and very efficient. The approach we take is that you have to be relevant to your customer, which in this case is the entrepreneur. So anyone who can share knowledge in a way that is relevant and creates an impact is always respected, especially in India where a lot of things are relationship driven. I find that it is not the degree but the deployable knowledge that is valued. If you can translate your knowledge to something that is relevant to the customer, then your knowledge is valuable. There are western systems where there are very set roles – if the role is not effective anymore then you may also lose value. However, in the Indian context, I wouldn’t say that your degree is not valued. If you value your degree then you value the knowledge your degree has given you. There has to be balance of respect and relevance.
CSW: What are the career options that a life science specialist can explore at investment firms or organizations like Villgro?
AV: If you are flexible enough, technical mentors are always needed. Sector knowledge is respected because that leads to quick solutions. We call them senior advisors but you can call them technical advisors. These are very knowledge driven roles.
CSW: What sort of options exist for those who are fresh out of their PhDs?
AV: There are a lot of analyses that investors rely on, for instance, landscape analyses. In those sectors they can add value. But one should remember that the value of the person and their degree would be subsequently determined by the impact they generate.
Illustration: The inset image was made by Dr. Somdatta Karak. The cover picture is from Pixabay.
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