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Envisagenics: Splicing with a twist! continued..

in Face à Face/Medness by

Computational biologist turned entrepreneur, Dr. Martin Akerman takes ‘learning on the job’ to the next level by successfully managing his company, Envisagenics, without a business background. Of course, getting to share the responsibilities and having a constant support from his co-founder and CEO, Dr. Maria Luisa Pineda is an added bonus.
In the last part of this series we discussed some of the challenges faced by Dr. Akerman and got insights on his leadership approach. Here, I continue my conversation with Dr. Martin Akerman, CTO and co-founder of Envisagenics, a bioinformatics company, that uses RNA splicing analytics and Artificial Intelligence for in silico drug-discovery.

What challenges did you face after you decided to start Envisagenics?
Most of us who want to start a company don’t know how to do it, especially if it’s the first time. You have an idea, and want to spread it to the world, but you don’t know how to do that. A few challenges that I faced were –

a) Changing the way, I think.

In addition to being a scientist, one has to start thinking as an entrepreneur. They are both very different. For example, as an entrepreneur, you need to be solution-oriented, assertive, and talk in a less open-ended way. When you pitch your idea to an investor, you not only need to have a clear plan, but also need to look the investor in the eye and say this is going to work. A typical academic answer, such as ‘it depends’, doesn’t get you the funds.

b) Learning to communicate my idea to all kinds of people.

As an entrepreneur, you will be talking to people who know science, who understand some of it, and also the ones who don’t know much at all. I discovered that there are a lot of very smart non-scientists out there. You have to find out the most effective way to communicate with all of them.

c) Getting funded.

Pitching a product to the right investors in the right way is crucial. We met with 50 different investors before we came across the right ones. It is different from academic grants. For example, my friends who became professors applied for NIH grants. But they knew how the NIH works. What they did not know was, whether they will be funded. Regardless, they would know the answer by a definite amount of time. When you start a company, it is far more chaotic; you don’t know if and when you will be funded.

d) Getting the attention of pharmaceutical companies.

Partnering with pharmaceuticals and getting them to appreciate our product was a hurdle. We have some partners working in pharma currently and we benefit from these collaborations greatly.

 I have three offshoot questions from the above.

A) How do you explain splicing to people who don’t know the science behind it?

I use metaphors. One has to be comfortable using them, as metaphors don’t exactly explain something, but draw comparisons and are a wonderful way to communicate your work.

B) How do/did you know who to go to for funding? Could you give us some details about your early funds?

Answering your first question is simple. Everybody. Anyone and everyone is a potential investor.

The first funding we got was from an NIH SBIR grant. It was relatively more comfortable, because it was much like academic grants. You write down your plans, then it goes for a review, and you get the money if it gets accepted. This is how our company got started, with something called the pre-seed money. The next fund we got was similar and was from Breakout labs; Peter Thiel’s foundation for life sciences. It was also similar to other grant processes. We closed our seed fund last September.

C) Did you seek advice?

Constantly. You need a lot of advice; all kinds of advice pertaining to each stage in building your company. You have to listen to people constantly and get their inputs.

What’s the most important thing you’re working on right now, and how are you making it happen?

We launched our technology platform last October in an event called Unboxing in San Francisco, hosted by the Breakout Labs. Since then, we are on the road to demonstrate this technology, give trials, and have our collaborators at Pharmaceuticals use the technology.

Secondly, since we got the funding, we have been planning the best way to allocate funds and figure out what kind of money we are going to raise next year.

What does Envisagenics currently do, and where do you see it 5 years from now?

Currently we incorporate a lot of public RNA-seq data. RNA-seq data are like pieces of a puzzle. We put these pieces together in a particular way and ask questions about splicing targets.

In 5 years we want to have a robust system that can take every available piece of RNA-seq data and incorporate it in our database, so that we can combine AI and cloud computing technology with our splicing expertise to find new drug targets. In addition, I would like to have the ability to experimentally validate our predictions even if it means starting a wet lab. Basically, we hope to become the Bioinformatics company that identifies a drug target in silico and experimentally validates it.

Gradually we are trying to become a platform that can study as many diseases depending on the data we have. There are several types of cancers, genetic diseases, and about 5 million potential splicing events. We are going to look at the intersection of both to identify drug targets. This is why our collaborations with Pharmaceuticals are crucial; they have the data-sets and the expertise that cannot be easily acquired.

What do you look for in prospective employees?

Apart from the obvious technical specifications, we look for a great team player. Since we are a small company at present, we look for the ‘right’ kind of people. We feel comfortable with people that are creative, who can work hard, are brave, can take ups and downs of the startup roller-coaster. We want people that we can learn from, and who will bring additional value to our company.

When you are not running a business, what do you do?   

I am with my family at Long Island. I have 3 children: a 9-year-old daughter and 4-year-old twin boys. We usually bike, play ball etc. I try not to work on weekends, as I have long workdays during the week.

Any advice that you would like to give budding entrepreneurs out there?

If you have an idea, talk about it; don’t be protective of it. People don’t have time to steal your ideas. Of course, you need to find a confidential way to discuss it. There are times you will need to convince yourself about it. Learn how to pitch your company to investors. Get advice. You will hear contradictory versions, but pick the best one and stick to it. Prepare yourself for a lot of mental change to happen. Be positive, humble, and stay focused, because it’s a long way from having an idea to running your company.

Once again, I am so honored that you agreed to be my first interviewee Dr. Akerman. Club SciWri and I wish you our best in your future endeavors with Envisagenics. Hope we get to read about an FDA-approved drug in the near future with Envisagenics’ name to it!

What I learned from Dr. Akerman was that starting a company isn’t an easy job—all the more so in his case, with his first pitch the day after his twins were born! However, Dr. Akerman’s commitment to his vision to build a product helped him stick to his course, and now he does something he truly enjoys every day.

Author: Dolonchapa Chakraborty

Dolon is a Molecular Biologist and currently wears many hats. She freelances as a Consultant for a Toronto-based start-up, helping them with brand management, marketing, and product development. She is also an Adjunct Professor at Mercy College in the Biology department. She blogs about various topics pertaining to Biotech and PhD in Biotech.



Editors: Paurvi Shinde, PhD and Arunima Singh, PhD.

Paurvi has a Ph.D. in Biomedical Sciences (Immunology). She currently works as a Postdoc Fellow at Bloodworks Northwest in Seattle, where she studies the mechanism of how alloantibodies are formed against non-ABO ‘Red Blood Cell’ antigens. Apart from science, she loves editing scientific articles, listening to podcasts and going for outdoor hikes in summer.

Arunima obtained her Ph.D. from the University of Georgia, and is currently a Postdoctoral researcher at the New York University. A computational structural biologist by training, she enjoys traveling, reading, and the process of mastering new cuisines in her spare time. Her motivation to move to New York was to be a part of this rich scientific, cultural, and social hub.

Blog design: Paurvi Shinde

Cover image: Kindly provided by ENVISAGENICS, used with permission from Dr. Martin Akerman.

The contents of Club SciWri are the copyright of PhD Career Support Group for STEM PhDs (A US Non-Profit 501(c)3, PhDCSG is an initiative of the alumni of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. The primary aim of this group is to build a NETWORK among scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs).

This work by Club SciWri is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.


Getting candid with Dr. Nibedita Mukherjee

in Biodiversity and Environment/Face à Face by

Editor’s note: Nibedita Mukherjee has certainly left us all a striking take-home message. Human decision-making governs everything, be it science policies, economics, and businesses or mere participation in ecological conservation on humanitarian grounds. These are in need of urgent attention. Only when they go hand-in-hand, knitted together, do we see the progression towards resilience. – Deepthi Mahishi


As the mighty oceans rise and the scorching sun gets hotter, as we surpass days counting dead sharks on seashores and visually comprehend the tips of icebergs dislodged from their molten bodies. The scientific community is struggling to gets its voice heard by the powers that be. As the situation gets increasingly onerous, I had a promising conversation with Dr. Nibedita Mukherjee.

Nibedita is currently a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Exeter, UK. She is actively working on the project “Ecosystem services and businesses” as a NERC postdoctoral fellow. We would be taking a peek into her journey, which began at the roots of mangroves and has now progressed to decision-making and policy effectiveness in biological conservation.




(illustrator: Geetha Ramaswami)

It was during my field trip to the Dandeli Wildlife Sanctuary in Karnataka, India that I had the first glimpse of nature in a protected area in India. It was a very humbling experience and subsequently, I was fortunate to have been selected for the Masters in Wildlife Biology and Conservation course run by Wildlife Conservation Society and National Centre for Biological Sciences, India.

As part of the course, we had the rare fortune of traveling from Binsar in the Himalayas (Uttarakhand) to Munnar in the south (Kerala). Everything textual learned till then about nature and culture (and all things in between) seemed tiny in comparison to the wealth of knowledge gained on the road. I was 21, naïve and very impressionable. Nature filled my heart with all its beauty, and for the last decade or so, I have been smitten.



(inset image source: Pixabay)

While large charismatic creatures are easy to fall in love with (and get funding for!). I felt it would be more rational to focus on ecosystems which are highly threatened yet often ignored. “Underdogs” as one of the class-mates (Chaitanya Krishna) used to call them. One of these ecosystems that drew my attention was mangroves.

In fact, a decade ago a paper in the journal Science mentioned that mangroves were disappearing faster than rainforests and could be gone by the end of the century. I had thereby decided to work on mangroves for my Ph.D. at the Université Libré de Bruxelles and Vrijé Universiteit Brussel, Belgium and was lucky to get the Inlaks scholarship for the same.

The Indian Ocean tsunami and a series of natural disasters thereafter have brought public attention and gradually turned the tide in favor of mangrove conservation globally.



(inset image source: Pixabay)


During my Ph.D. I realized that conservation problems are multi-faceted and the fate of a species is largely dependent on human decisions. Therefore, it became quite imperative to understand the social and psychological process underpinning human decision-making. For examples are groups better at making decisions than individuals? Soon I realized that decision making had been investigated in several other disciplines.

I looked into literature, across all disciplines in the last 20 years, that have compared human decision making as groups or as individuals. This led me to my first postdoctoral project funded by the Foundation Wiener Anspach fellowship at the University of Cambridge. It helped me think through some of the biases that affect everyday decision making.



I was unaware of the short forms of British names for a very long time (Ted for Edward, Dick for Richard, William being called as Bill etc.). Once during a conference in  London in 2013, I happened to meet a rather nice gentleman whom everyone was calling Bill. Unlike his peer group of senior male academics, who tended to stick to each other, he seemed very friendly to all early career researchers.

We talked a lot during the three days of the conference and he was very kind to give me some comments on a draft of the Delphi technique. It was a jaw-dropping moment for me when I realized that Bill was, in fact, Prof. William Sutherland when he got up to give the plenary lecture as the President of the British Ecological Society that year. Surprisingly enough, he even mentioned the Delphi technique in his plenary talk! His humble and down-to-earth nature, despite all the popularity, was a big learning experience for me.



In an arena dominated mainly by alpha white males and females, it is often a challenge being an academic as a South Asian woman. It is easy to be considered as an intern or a Masters student. In such a scenario, I think it is quite challenging to establish fruitful academic relationships and to gain the confidence of peers. There is a constant need to prove yourself, be it in Brussels, UK or in any global academic setup.



(inset image: Pixabay)

Beware of the box! People are very eager to put you quickly into a box. This makes it a challenge to reinvent yourself. For instance, if you perform well in say, Task A, there is seldom a chance to try your hand at Task B. Crossing disciplinary silos thereby becomes hard. There seems to be a lack of healthy criticism and humility when it comes to sharing ideas in science in some spheres. However, I have been fortunate to have excellent supervisors both in India and elsewhere, minimizing my exposure to such issues.


I draw my inspiration from the mangroves themselves – may it be a storm surge, a rise in sea level or high salinity, they stand rooted and take in whatever comes their way. When it comes to juggling family and academia, my partner has been very supportive. His infective optimism and encouragement has helped me greatly in sailing through all the moments of insecurity and nervousness in life.

About the author


Abhisheka Krishna Gopal is a multi-talented ecologist, artist, educator, co-founder of Artecology Initiative. She wants to spread consciousness and sensitivity towards the environment. She was earlier featured herself in Sciwri here.



Artist behind the scene


Geetha Ramaswami is an ecologist by training. She is most interested in how plants lead their fascinating and devious lives, how they interact with each other and with other creatures. She is the one behind the cover image of this article.  Follow her work and learn more about her work on ”Invasive species and dispersal networks


Editorial team

1st Editor: Deepthi Mahishi is a budding researcher, with a masters’ degree in Biochemistry, currently working in the field of immunology and inflammation. Also, worked as a Research assistant at IISc. Her love for scientific writing and editing has branched from reading habits, glazed with a rational and skeptical mindset. Being an audacious and thoughtful person, she works towards promoting evidence-based understanding and a science-friendly atmosphere in general. Outside her science bubble, she is a trained classical musician, a culinary chemist, craves adventure travel, hikes and cuddles her puppy.


2nd Editor: Rituparna Chakrabarti is the editor in chief of Club SciWri. She pursued her Ph.D. in Neuroscience from Georg-August University (Göttingen, Germany) and is currently a post-doctoral fellow at the Center for Biostructural Imaging of Neurodegeneration (BIN), Göttingen. For her, the interface of Science and art is THE PLACE to be! To unwind herself she plays mandolin and eagerly looks for a corner at a coffee house to slide herself in with a good read or company.


Blog design: Rituparna Chakrabarti

The contents of Club SciWri are the copyright of PhD Career Support Group for STEM PhDs (A US Non-Profit 501(c)3, PhDCSG is an initiative of the alumni of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. The primary aim of this group is to build a NETWORK among scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs).

This work by Club SciWri is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License




Envisagenics: Splicing with a twist!

in Entrepreneurship/Face à Face/Medness by

Innovation is a necessity for us scientists. We are encouraged to discover, invent, identify a plethora of things. Whether we hunt antibacterial compounds or work on technologies that will revolutionize gene synthesis our product is eventually innovation. We thrive on it. It is what unites us, and makes each one of us unique at the same time. Some of us take our innovation to the next level and transform it into medicine, platform, or service. Here is a two-part series discussing one scientist’s maiden venture and his journey from being a trained biologist to a bioinformatician to an entrepreneur.

In conversation with Dr. Martin Akerman

Would you like to briefly introduce yourself to our readers?

I am the co-founder and CTO of Envisagenics, originally from Argentina. During my Masters, I studied a parasitic protozoan, Leishmania, after which I got my doctorate in Bioinformatics at Technion, Israel. Then I moved to Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) to do my postdoc on splicing under the mentorship of Dr. Adrian R. Krainer and Dr. Michael Q. Zhang.

Tell us about your journey from being a graduate student in Israel to being a postdoc at CSHL.

As a Masters student, I was studying Kala Azar, a type of Leishmaniasis. Something happened, and I moved from being a bench scientist to computational biology. This was 2002, and there wasn’t a lot of Bioinformatics around. Hence, catching up was doable. There weren’t 100 different programming languages like today. It was mostly PERL, C++. I liked this work so much that I chose to do my Ph.D. in Bioinformatics.

When I chose my Ph.D. topic, I was very fascinated with the human genome because it was brand new. During my undergraduate days, I was taught that the human genome had 150,000 genes, and this justified the complexity of humans. However, it turned out that there are ‘only’ 20,000 genes. This revelation shocked the whole field and raised new questions, tickling my fascination like many others. I soon wanted to investigate how is it possible to have such a small number of genes and still be a complex and functional organism. Splicing seemed to be a probable answer. That’s when I made a software to study splicing regulation.

If you don’t know what splicing is, here is video for you


[Sorry to interrupt, but did you know programming at the time?]

No, I did not know programming; I’m self-taught. It took me a little over 2 years to learn. I mean, you never stop learning! It is impossible to score with a moving post you know. Programming is a huge part of learning bioinformatics. So I did it, and I loved it.

That is very impressive. Please continue….

So, making the SF map (Splicing Factor Motif Analysis and Prediction, published in Akerman M., 2009) software only made me more interested in splicing. I came to CSHL to continue working on splicing with two eminent scientists who were leaders in this field, Dr. Adrian R. Krainer, and Dr. Michael Q. Zhang. While the Kranier lab was primarily a biochemistry lab, the Zhang lab focused on splicing using genomic data.

What inspired you to start Envisagenics from being a postdoc?

There was something special about the Kranier lab! I was the primary bioinformatician in a lab of 20 experimental biologists. What does it imply?  Well, anything I predicted was validated experimentally. While this created a lot of pressure, it was an incredible opportunity to collaborate  and stay connected to biology.

People sought my expertise to analyze their data in various ways. I analyzed RNA-seq data, protein-protein interactions, and RNA-protein interactions in the spliceosome. I soon became addicted to the feeling of having your predictions validated in the lab. At some point, I realized that solving other’s problems was more exciting than answering questions that I came up with. I also realized that the only way to address this addiction of mine was to make a software that works and solves ‘real’ problems. The answer was in starting a company.

Did you ever want a career in academia?

Of course, I did! As a postdoc, I wanted to become a professor until I realized that I don’t. In academia I would have to move from developing one algorithm at a time, which did not allow time to focus on creating a robust piece of software available for a larger audience.

What was the turning point for your transition?

When I wanted to start a company,  I had no idea what it meant. I met some investors at the “Elevator Pitch Day” organized by the Bioenterprise Club at Cold Spring Harbor. The Bioenterprise club focuses on careers outside academia. The investors I met that day were part of the panel that listened to my first ever elevator pitch. I met my co-founder, Maria Luisa Pineda  on the same day. She was in the room working with the investors, and her job was to evaluate me. Long story short, as a result of that meeting, we started the company. She is also a trained biologist from CSHL who after graduating acquired investment experience in technology and life-sciences startup companies.

What does a typical day look like for you at work?

Well, every day is different. I coordinate with the engineering team about the technical work. We work on pilot projects and milestones with scientists in pharma company. Right now we are also spending time on how to use our latest funds; this includes planning with the Business Development team. Some grant writing is pending regarding a phase II SBIR grant. I also do coding- this is my quality time.

In short, I am involved in almost everything, which is great as I enjoy working a lot with my team.

What are the skills that help you run Envisagenics?

My knack for collaboration that I developed from my postdoc days at CSHL helps me a lot. Understanding other’s problems and using our platform in solving them is beneficial to us. Both of these support our partnerships at Pharmaceuticals.

The ability to be a team player is a considerable skill. As a leader one should also know how to distribute and delegate work, be humble, and have the ability to take and give advice from/ to your team.

Being open to taking advice from advisors and investors is a must. You are toned to listen and learn. The most essential skill is, however, to resist, be positive, and never give up.

Speaking of being a leader, do you micromanage?

No, I don’t like that. If you have to micromanage, it is not a good sign. I want people to bloom and use their creativity to see what they can do. At Envisagenics, there’s a time when we meet, and everybody brings ideas. Next, we execute the plan. You cannot deviate from the plan, because we are all connected. Everyone has ONE goal, not separate projects. So it is crucial that we plan together and stick to it. That’s what makes us a great team. However, as a leader, YOU have to make informed decisions.

Coincidence brought Martin Akerman and Maria Luisa Pineda together, and as they say, the rest is history! Keep watching this space for part 2 in this series that will discuss the challenges faced by Dr. Akerman in his transition and his visions for Envisagenics.


Author: Dolonchapa Chakraborty


Dolon is a Molecular Biologist and currently wears many hats. She freelances as a Consultant for a Toronto-based start-up, helping them with brand management, marketing, and product development. She is also an Adjunct Faculty at Mercy College in the Biology department. She blogs about various topics pertaining to Biotech and PhD in Biotech.




Editors: Rituparna Chakrabarti and Sayantan Chakraborty







Blog design: Rituparna Chakrabarti

Cover image: Kindly provided by ENVISAGENICS, used with permision from Dr. Martin Akerman

The contents of Club SciWri are the copyright of PhD Career Support Group for STEM PhDs (A US Non-Profit 501(c)3, PhDCSG is an initiative of the alumni of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. The primary aim of this group is to build a NETWORK among scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs).

This work by Club SciWri is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License

Starting up your idea – Face à Face with Kunal Kishore Dhawan, Founder of Navia Life Care

in Entrepreneurship/Face à Face/SciBiz by

‘Rome was not built in a day’ – as cliché as it sounds, it has stood the test of time even in this era of startups. Beyond the romance of building enterprises, one should take a reality check on challenges faced in building an idea from scratch and turning it into a reality. Somdatta Karak (SK) from CSG talks to Kunal Kishore Dhawan (KD), about his entrepreneurial experience while building ‘Navia Life Care’, a health tech company based in New Delhi, India. Navia Life Care builds customized mobile and software solutions for clinicians, medical providers and other players in healthcare ecosystem. Their goal is to provide easier and cheaper means of communicating, engaging and monitoring of patients.

Talking to us about his roller coaster journey from Navia’s inception to developing happy customers in market, Kunal opens up about the valuable lessons he learned while building his team, product, and skills that helped him sustain in the market.

SK: We would love to know about your journey so far – from having the first idea, to arranging funds, to developing your product and company into its current form.

KD: Healthcare is a traditionally fragmented space in India, with various stakeholders – medical practitioners, providers, pharmacists, pharma companies, insurance players and ultimately patients operating in silos. Getting them to work in tandem with each other, by exchanging information and interlinks, is any healthcare entrepreneur’s dream. I realized several critical issues plaguing the industry, ranging from the lack of essential quality health services, inaccessibility of healthcare institutions for differently abled, overall scarcity of medical professionals, to the quality of sub-standard medicines. My experience as an executive in the pharma industry made one issue particularly stand out – the patient’s adherence to drug regimens.

While we knew that technology can solve problems in this field, it was essential for us to first understand which problems we want to address, and for whom. Repeated interactions with different stakeholders prompted us, to develop a pill reminder system at Navia Life Care, that would function on a mobile device. Our first iteration of the app was based on a business-to-consumer model, i.e. by working directly with patients. The release of our app was well received, but could not open any avenues of monetization. That prompted us to further evaluate our company’s strategy.

We realized that it was imperative to consider drug adherence as a part of a holistic patient management process, so that our solution also adds value to the clinicians practice, and improves the relationship between patient and provider. Upon finalization of our product’s framework, we assembled an in-house team of developers, to improve work efficiency, reduce errors and turnaround time. Our second direct-to-consumer campaign consisted of roll-out and interaction with patients and providers, where they used our product for a certain period of time. It gave us useful information on the problems faced by both the sides, and compelled us to make the following changes:

  • Opt for a business-to-business (B2B) strategy, i.e., building the platform for healthcare institutions, ranging from individual practitioners, clinics, hospitals to health-focused social enterprises instead of working with patients directly.
  • Be flexible with the product we offer to the clients, instead of forcing one down their throat.
  • Understand first, needs of a client, and then put together a solution that best fits.
  • Be open to brand the product in name of the client, instead of pushing our brand to patients, which might give them incentive to pay for the product.

B2B strategy worked well in regards to generating a revenue and helped us get a small seed investment from Benori Ventures LLP – a private seed fund run by an industry veteran, Ashish Gupta – founder of Evalueserve, Gurgaon, India and co-founder of Ashoka University, Sonepat, India. We are now hoping to break even before the end of 2017.

The core Navia team (from left to right – Gaurav Gupta (Operations Strategy Lead), KD (CEO), Shourjo Banerjee (CTO)

SK: Tell us about the prominent challenges faced in an entrepreneurial journey. How did you work around yours?

KD: The biggest challenge was to identify the needs of customer and build our product around it, so that it gets adopted and paid for by consumers and customers. The only way, in my opinion, to achieve that was to keep the needs of customers in forefront of whatever we do. We have constantly gone back to the users to get their inputs on whatever we created. There is no point in making something, if there is no need for it. Another of our evident challenges was to identify and develop an in-house team who understands, appreciates this problem, and has the skillset to solve it.

Navia was bootstrapped from day 1 and we hired only freshers and trained them to fit the appropriate roles. Until Feb of 2017, we were not able to generate any revenue from our products. We re-designed our product and business strategy multiple times, so that users could see the real value of our product and we could monetize on it. This revenue generation has been very critical for our fundraising ability. Most investors look for a business model that works, i.e. has the ability to generate money, and not burn a hole in pocket of the company.

Meanwhile, there have been times when I felt like doing something else, although not necessarily giving up. I had decided to give myself a year to assess the business correctly, but based on advice given by several veterans, we decided to stretch it to year and a half. There were times during Jan and Feb of this year, where it seemed that we would not be able to pull our resources to last the entire time, but having a clear focus and time frame helped us tide over that period.

SK: How do you support your startup – in terms of funding, mentoring, etc.? Among the young entrepreneurs venturing into health technology in India, which ones do you recommend and why?

KD: I believe we are at a point in the Indian startup ecosystem, where a good support system exists for new entrepreneurs. Of course, it is not anywhere close to the “boom” of 2014-16, but in a way, that’s better. All business ideas are analyzed critically before they get funded. There is a continuous assessment going on from the entrepreneurs and stakeholders of products, which helps us improve the offering, and in better vetting of the business as a whole.

There are plenty of accelerators and incubators (some are associated with universities, which is good) that help the first-time innovators. But it is important to assess them for their merits, as there are always some bad apples. Some are just in business to make a quick buck from their struggling startups, and it is necessary to be wary of them. One has to also analyze the investor’s management team and success story as critically as they assess you as an entrepreneur – and remember – they need you more than you need them! The traditional VC’s are always good, but they come at a later stage. During initial stages, having a mentor from a similar field helps (and if they can fund you in a small way, all the better).

As for the list, I would suggest that every entrepreneur should do their research and identify a team that suits them. It helps not only to increase focus, but also improve one’s network, which is critical at all stages.

SK: According to you, what are some of the most important qualities an entrepreneur should have? Who would you recommend taking this path?

KD: I think an entrepreneur needs to embrace the “humanity” in them – the same qualities that make us human are amplified in entrepreneurship. Patience, diligence, grit, ability to repeatedly take a “no”, adaptability, ability to handle failures, and not being resistant to change, are just some of them. There are times when you might feel that this is the end, but you just need to dig in and get out of the rut. Customers, investors, stakeholders, even team members are often critical of the company and its products, so it is essential to listen, and imbibe what you think is beneficial for betterment of the business.

I think everyone should become an entrepreneur, and if not that at least an intrapreneur. Bring about a change in smallest of the ways, wherever you work or live – that itself is worthwhile. You don’t need to build a billion-dollar business, even the smallest gestures sometimes create a significant impact.

SK: What have been your most valuable learnings so far from entrepreneurship?

KD: This journey has been nothing, if not educational for me. From being a member of a 10,000+ employee organization, to taking the business idea to a 10-member group, it has been full of learning, both academic and intangible ones. Academics or educational apprenticeships have included developments in regulatory landscapes, company laws, human resource requirements, hospital systems, coding technologies/languages, and much more. Although, the intangibles have been more rewarding – such as handling teams and employees, ability to take rejections, adaptability, etc. Entrepreneurship is a long-term game, and one must be ready to slug it out for the long haul. Patience has been key, and not hesitating to seek feedback or help from people more experienced and connected to you, has helped. Lastly, don’t underestimate your network – collaborations, customers, even critics come from a network, and one should always be willing to expand that.

SK: How does the journey look for you in coming years? What are your next priorities? Where do you see yourself and your product in next five years?

KD: I sincerely hope that the coming years are rewarding. A saying goes “Entrepreneurship is the willingness to live for a few years like most people won’t, to enable yourself to live for rest of your life like most people can’t, and I hope it comes true for me. I will continue to build the company, add customers, improvise on products and services while focusing on innovation and differentiation. My aim is to create ten things during my lifetime – now whether it’s ten products or ten companies or a combination of the two remains to be seen. Navia Life Care is a first of these, and I hope in the next five years, I would be able to add to it.


Author: Somdatta Karak, PhD writes on science, business/ entrepreneurship and social challenges of education and global health.

Editorial team: Paurvi Shinde, PhD edited the article. Sushama Sivakumar, PhD and Akshaya Hodigere proofread the article.

Paurvi Shinde is a Post Doc Fellow at Bloodworks Northwest in Seattle, where she’s studying the mechanism of how alloantibodies are formed against the non-ABO blood group antigens. Apart from doing the actual science, she loves editing scientific articles, to help convey message behind it in a clear and concise form.

Sushama Sivakumar is currently postdoctoral scholar at UT Southwestern Medical Center, Texas, USA. She works in the lab of Hongtao Yu where she studies mechanisms that regulate proper chromosome segregation during mitosis.

Illustration: The cover picture is made by Ipsa Jain (follow her work as IpsaWonders at Facebook and Instagram) with assistance from Noun Project under CC license. The inset images are made by Somdatta Karak.


The contents of Club SciWri are the copyright of PhD Career Support Group for STEM PhDs (A US Non-Profit 501(c)3, PhDCSG is an initiative of the alumni of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. The primary aim of this group is to build a NETWORK among scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs).

This work by Club SciWri is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

From Projects to Project Management with Dr. Cecilia Sedano

in Face à Face by

Shwetha interviews, Dr Cecilia Sedano, a Project Manager at the Biomarker division of Genentech (Biotech company based in San Francisco, California). Cecilia graduated, with a PhD from Stanford University and after a brief stint as postdoc at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, she returned to Bay Area and joined Genentech in 2015. Here, she talks about her experiences in academia, her phases of career exploration and her role as a project manager at Genentech.

SS: Tell us a little about yourself, Cecilia

CS: I was born and raised in Peru. I was seventeen when I moved to Fremont, CA in U.S.A. I was already hooked on to research, at the community college in Fremont. At that time, I got an opportunity to do couple of internships in a company in Emeryville, called Chiron. They were among the first few to start working on Hepatitis C, HIV vaccines and diagnostics. I spent two summers there at their protein chemistry department, purifying massive amounts of proteins in huge protein columns, and felt that I could this for a living. One of the things I really liked about industry, was that it was diverse with scientists from all over the world. It seemed very welcoming at that time, when I was still new to U.S. Then I went to UCLA for my undergrad and came to Stanford to do a PhD with Dr. Peter Sarnow at the Department of Microbiology and Immunology.

SS: After your PhD, did you immediately start applying for jobs at the industry or were you inclined towards a career in academia?

CS: Being at Stanford, I got a lot of space and room to explore what I wanted to do while doing my research. I did a lot of science communication and science education programs. I looked at science policy. I ruled out many things early on, like consulting, marketing and business development. I knew, my personality wouldn’t fit there. I definitely didn’t have ideas to start my own company or to be an entrepreneur. That got me thinking about the set of skills that I have, not just as a scientist, but also as a human being. What is it about science that I enjoy?

I loved being at bench and getting the first look at results. But, I knew that I won’t be able to reinvent my research constantly. I thought, I would be a five-year professor, have some mediocre success and that’ll be it, I’ll be out of ideas. But I did enjoy being at bench, and wanted to take it as far as I could. I did a postdoc at Mount Sinai, but it didn’t work out very well. At some point after investing so much in my education and training, I didn’t want to waste my time anymore. So, I wrapped it up fast, came back to Bay Area and started looking for jobs.

SS: With a background in academia, how was your experience of job hunting in the industry?

CS: Applying to an industry job is so different from applying to a postdoc or a fellowship, it was a bit of a learning process for me. I put in really useless applications for a couple of months not knowing how to even apply to a job. Later on, I learned that the process tends to be through connections, networking and talking to recruiters, so that people start viewing you as an employable person. I stalked a lot of people on LinkedIn, some I knew and some I didn’t. Everything I had done aside of the lab was very interesting, but it wouldn’t vouch for my ability to fit in the industrial setup. In industry, one of the main things you have to do, is put yourself out first, show that you can deliver results, stick to timelines, are highly dependable and can think outside the box. Once that clicked, I started to get a few interviews and I reached out to more people. I found a Stanford alumnus working at Genentech, who circulated my resume around. I was called for an interview and they asked me to come and work for them the next week!

SS: What is your role as a Project Manager at Genentech?

CS: My position is called Biomarker Operations Project Manager. I work specifically in the oncology space and currently support four studies. As human specimens are used in biomarker research, the main thing we do is oversee the life cycle of every sample right from the collection phase to data delivery. We review the trial protocol, and are involved in obtaining the informed consent of patients. The samples go through a lot of processing steps in between. In the end, we make sure that the clinic ships samples to the right vendors, in a timely manner. If we have data, that we are hoping to file with the FDA, its much more interesting and stringent in terms of documentation. As we are involved in all these different steps, which are part of multiple studies, at different stages, it’s quite dynamic and that’s the reason I like it.

SS: With so many projects in hand, is it difficult to meet the demands of time?

CS: There is a lot of flexibility at work. My day starts at 7 am and is usually done by 4 pm. I can also take a couple of calls from home and go to office later on. It is nice for people, who have families and children, that are very organized and detail oriented. Unlike early phase, where I used to work, the late phase trials are global and lot of my team members are located in China and Asia pacific. Therefore, I have to adjust my schedule to do a couple of meetings after dinner. In that case, I leave at three and make up for the time later. We have to remain flexible with our work hours, which as a scientist I think is great.

SS: What are the challenges that you face at work?

CS: There are many things that we have to monitor without actually being there. There are a lot of putting out fires. When there’s a chain of report, one has to respond right away, if responsible. Generally, wherever there are human beings involved, there is miscommunication. So, there are lot of people skills and email etiquette involved, which I hadn’t faced in academia.

SS: What are the opportunities available to move up the ladder from the position you are currently in?

CS: In the biomarker group, we have the project manager, and the next level would be project lead. The project manager oversees studies, whereas project lead oversees the programs. Project lead also develops biomarker strategies and is more influential in making big decisions. The next level, at least in the biomarker area, is biomarker therapeutic area lead. There’s also a lot of cross group mobility. We recently, had someone from our group move into clinical science, where one is responsible for looking at the clinical data rather than exploratory biomarker data. One can also go into data management, it depends on one’s interest.

Author: Swetha Sivaprasad

Shwetha Shivaprasad is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at Stanford University. She is a virologist by training and loves to learn something new every day, expanding her knowledge base and skill set. She is currently in a phase of career exploration and trying her hand at science writing and reviewing.

Editors: Paurvi Shinde, PhD and Sushama Shivkumar, PhD

Paurvi Shinde is a Post Doc Fellow at Bloodworks Northwest in Seattle, where she’s studying the mechanism of how alloantibodies are formed against the non-ABO red blood cell antigens. Apart from doing bench research, she loves editing scientific articles, to help convey message behind it, in a clear and concise form.

Sushama Sivakumar is a Post Doc in the lab of Dr. Hongtao Yu at UT Southwestern Medical center, TX, USA. She is interested in studying the regulatory mechanisms that control proper chromosome segregation during mammalian cell mitosis.

Cover image: Pixabay

The contents of Club SciWri are the copyright of PhD Career Support Group for STEM PhDs (A US Non-Profit 501(c)3, PhDCSG is an initiative of the alumni of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. The primary aim of this group is to build a NETWORK among scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs).

This work by Club SciWri is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License

Career Path from academic research to supporting social enterprises – Face a Face with Dr. Arun Venkatesan, Villgro

in Entrepreneurship/Face à Face/SciBiz by

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.

About the authors: The article is based on an interview conducted by Dr. Reetu Mehta and Vignesh Narayan, and transcribed by Dr. Somdatta Karak.

Illustration: The inset image was made by Dr. Somdatta Karak. The cover picture is from Pixabay.

About the editors: Dr. Shayu Deshpande edited and Dr. Roopsha Sengupta streamlined the article. Dr. Manoja Eswara proofread the article.

The contents of Club SciWri are the copyright of PhD Career Support Group for STEM PhDs (A US Non-Profit 501(c)3, PhDCSG is an initiative of the alumni of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. The primary aim of this group is to build a NETWORK among scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs).

This work by Club SciWri is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.



Villgro – Supporting social entrepreneurs stand on their feet

in Entrepreneurship/Face à Face/SciBiz by

Gone are the days when social work was perceived by many, as mindless charity. Today many bright minds work on ideas and innovations in various fields to make lives of the marginalized better – by attempting to make quality education and healthcare accessible to all, by providing sustainable livelihoods, to name a few. We are talking about those entrepreneurs who cater to the poorest of poor. These out of the box thinkers, in helping one of the most critical customer segments are aided in their journeys by support systems such as Villgro.

We have a two article series based on discussion between Dr. Reetu Mehta and Vignesh Narayan from Club SciWri (CSW) and Dr. Arun Venkatesan (AV), Chief Technlogy Officer, Villgro, Chennai. They discussed the role of incubators and venture capitalists committed to social development in India, with a special focus on Villgro’s medtech and healthcare programs. This first in the series article briefs our readers on the functioning of Villgro and the niche that it caters to.

CSW: Please brief our readers about Villgro- who does it work with and how does it work?

AV: Villgro is a 16 years old non-profit social enterprise incubator (not an accelerator) which works like a venture capital firm. One of its core missions is to work towards poverty elimination by creating for-profit enterprises with ideas that could help the poor, mostly in rural India. We look for sustainable impact in areas where even the poorest will be willing to pay – three such areas are agriculture, education and health. The organization not only invests in but also provides mentoring support to these enterprises and sits on their board to hold the companies accountable.

CSW: How does Villgro take care of its expenses?

AV: Operational expenses are largely covered by donations from foundations that believe in our abilities and cause. We are also being entrepreneurial ourselves by performing equity investments and are slowly contributing to Villgro’s sustainability.

CSW: What is the difference between Villgro and a venture capitalist?

AV: We give grants. Venture capitalists take primary interest in equity. While Villgro also takes equity in some cases, we follow a very mentor-intensive model. A lot of times enterprises approach us not only for the seed funding but also because of our high touch mentoring model. Our portfolio managers check on enterprises every week if not more often, have monthly reviews and assign time to guide each enterprise by providing a mentor and a senior technical advisor. Villgro does virtual business incubation- when the science and technology is already developed; we help the enterprise get to a product version, post-validation of that proof of concept. The product is examined from the point of the problem(s) it addresses, the solution it is providing and the strength of the problem-solution fit, its market, scope, consumer, price, etc. ‘Fail early and fail often’ is what people say in entrepreneurship. We push the enterprises at least at the thought level to figure out which concepts are failing and move on to the next.

CSW: Tell us more about the process of selecting the enterprises that Villgro wants to incubate. Who checks with the numbers that the entrepreneurs come up with and how is it done?

AV: When there is an application made to us we have an internal process. We have an internal investment committee and an external investment committee comprising some of our board members, to eliminate all kinds of biases in the decision making process. When an entrepreneur first comes to us, we do a preliminary screen to assess if some of the following check boxes are crossed. The checkboxes include:

  • The contribution made by the organization must have a direct social impact primarily to the rural Indian poor who are at the base of the pyramid. For instance, Reliance Jio creates thousands of jobs, which indirectly impacts the rural society. However an enterprise providing content development on science education in tier 2 cities or developing very low cost machines for small, marginalized farmers who have 1 acre of land is more likely to cause direct social impact.
  • Sustainability and scalability – Sometimes they are separate and sometimes they are inter-linked.
  • Technology innovation –We mostly hear from startups developing products for agriculture or medtech due to Villgro’s product bias. Rarely have we supported startups providing services alone. We are funded by Lemelson Foundation to fund inventions that directly impact society.

We classify graduation or exit as “when the company is able to raise subsequent rounds of funding on their own and stand on their own feet”.

Once all the three criteria are satisfied, we generally get a feedback from the sector leads, portfolio managers, and the investment committee. The sector leads take the decision if we should engage in detailed diligence for ensuring a bias free decision. The process of due diligence takes about 4 to 6 weeks and is a very iterative process. We talk to subject experts such as clinicians working in medical technology, practicing teachers, content developers, agricultural entrepreneurs, ecosystem stakeholders, distributors, businessmen and scientists from research institutes to get the facts and numbers verified. We do detailed analyses so that it validates as well as exposes gaps in the entrepreneurs’ armor. The due diligence is done iteratively till a solid case is built. If it cannot be built it gets rejected. Iteration happens every week or every two weeks. When a critical amount of evaluation is done for a case, it is pre-tested in an internal committee (IC) meeting, which is held every week. In this meeting, we discuss the new things that we have learned about the enterprise and decide if we should dig deeper into issues such as – size of the problem, potential customers, market size, cost of the product, regulations around the product and so on.

We also identify where subsequent funding will be available from and how it can be leveraged. We build a solid relationship with the entrepreneur especially via portfolio managers. A lot of feedback is also given during the diligence itself, which benefits the entrepreneur.

CSW: Why do you restrict the product to only the rural setup?

AV: That is where the toughest problem lies. If that is sorted, it can thrive in a private market very easily.

Healthcare related products catering to rural market that we look at, must:

  • Improve the quality of healthcare
  • Increase access to healthcare
  • Reduce cost of quality healthcare

There is an enormous need for these in the rural context. The three themes, which we have in healthcare, are Maternal and Newborn Child Health (MNCH), Communicable diseases and Non-communicable diseases (either therapeutic or diagnostic solutions). This is also in alignment with the millennium goals or now called sustainable development goals.

Some ideas may not satisfy all of our requirements of direct impact or sustainability or innovation, but we listen. We want to make sure that no novel model is missed out.

CSW: How long is the incubation period?

AV: Since this is not a physical incubation there is no ‘get out’ date. It is company and sector dependent. Life sciences/ medtech enterprises have long incubation periods of around 3 to 5 years. Ideally 2 years is sufficient but this is difficult in the medtech sector.

CSW: How do entrepreneurs support themselves during this mentorship period?

AV: A seed capital of 20-60 lakhs is given to them. Then we prepare them to raise other funds. A lot of funding in life sciences is also available from DBT, BIRAC and DST. Typically, if an enterprise passes through the detailed diligence in Villgro they are well considered elsewhere too.

CSW: What do enterprises gain from Villgro and how do they fare once they exit Villgro?

AV: Villgro takes on very early enterprises. Today’s average profile is a tech savvy person with a technology or engineering background who has a technology solution and is trying to launch a product. Some of them are pre-proof of concept. So business-wise, a lot of learning is required. We identify the gaps and when they exit Villgro they usually have a product, which may still be pre-revenue. Although Villgro has been around for 16 years, how enterprises fare post Villgro is still experimental.

One of the enterprises mentored by Villgro, Biosense, started off with two physicians who wanted to make a difference in tackling anemia in women. They developed a low cost solution providing other parallel diagnostic tests. They have glucometers and a noninvasive anemia-screening device. What is amazing here is that for sustainability a lot of companies go through public-private pivot. All get started with the government but they move to private sector for sustainability where margins are better. In public sector the numbers are large but the turnaround times are huge. Government is a tough customer but it is a great customer. Long-term sustainability can be achieved if you can crack the market. So, a lot of the companies pivot very easily towards private sector for immediate returns. We have a mandate for them saying that they cannot completely move towards private. Biosense has kept its primary focus on penetrating government channels to deploy devices at appropriate levels and quality and they have been in business for quite some time.

We realized there is a funding gap between enterprises coming out of Villgro and a mainstream investor picking them up, so Villgro principals launched a for-profit SEBI registered fund for social impact called Menterra. Menterra also focuses on sustainability, scalability and, tech based innovations. The fund has a size of 50 crores and provides a funding between 2 to 4 crores. Menterra was launched exclusively to bridge this funding gap.

CSW: So does Villgro now have two verticals; one for not-for-profit social enterprises, and the other for profit?

AV: Actually these two are separate organizations launched by the same core group of people that share a common mission and beliefs. Both are partner organizations and each believes in the others’ due diligence and mandates.

CSW: Can somebody who has been incubated at Villgro look forward for a funding from Menterra?

AV: It is not taken for granted. Both have the mandates of serving rural India but each has its own investment committee (IC). Some of the members might be shared on both ICs, but each organization has an independent voting process to avoid any conflicts of interest.

CSW: Apart from Villgro what are the other incubators in India, which provide such mentorship?

AV: Each one is unique in their approach, mandate and the sectors that they focus on.

For life sciences – there is CIIE, Ahmedabad that is sort of our competitor (But well, we work with social enterprises, it is not called competition, however geographical locations do matter). BIRAC has Bionest program. There are 20 Bionest incubators. Different incubators focus on different kinds of enterprises. Some focus on more mature enterprises whereas others focus on nonprofits, like Aavishkar. There is Venture Centre – an off shoot of NCL in Pune with a lot of focus on polymer chemistry, C-CAMP in Bangalore, KIT in Bhubaneshwar, FITT at IITD, IKP (ICICI Knowledge Park) at Hyderabad, to name a few.

Stay tuned for part-2 in this series that will discuss the career trajectory of Dr. Arun Venkateshan from academic research to working with a social enterprise incubator.

About the authors: The interview was conducted by Dr. Reetu Mehta and Vignesh Narayan, and was transcribed by Dr. Somdatta Karak.

About the editors: Dr. Shayu Deshpande edited and Dr. Roopsha Sengupta streamlined the article. Dr. Manoja Eswara proofread the article.

Illustrations: The cover image was made by Ipsa Jain (follow her work at Ipsawonders on Facebook and Instagram). The inset image was made by Dr. Somdatta Karak.

The contents of Club SciWri are the copyright of PhD Career Support Group for STEM PhDs (A US Non-Profit 501(c)3, PhDCSG is an initiative of the alumni of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. The primary aim of this group is to build a NETWORK among scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs).

This work by Club SciWri is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.



When PhDs become leaders, future unknowns become unambiguous

in Face à Face by

It’s well established that having a PhD does not necessarily mean that a career path is well defined and laid out in front of us. As a PhD in training or a post-PhD professional, one must constantly reanalyze their passion and what would help satisfy their career needs. Additionally, it’s imperative to inculcate transferable skills in one’s arsenal for the career they so desire. Such skills are not necessarily learned ‘on the job’, whether academic or non-academic, but also from hobbies, volunteer activities or any other task the individual can be a part of.

In conversation with Club SciWri (CSW), Vania ‘Vay’ Cao (VC), founder of ‘Free the PhD’ and Manager of Scientific Content and Training at Inscopix, elaborates on how her passion evolved with time and what led her to being an entrepreneur and a successful STEM PhD professional.

CSW: Let’s go back in time. What were your career plans while you were a PhD student at Brown University and NIH?

VC: To be frank, I didn’t have any – one of the commonly shared reasons I struggled more than I should have when ready to transition out of the academic path. As a college and then graduate student, I went with the flow to see where the current would take me, and as many know, this can be quite dangerous if you’re not paying attention to where you’re going from time to time.

I enjoyed the ride because I took detours when I saw something that interested me. Those detours eventually let me take control of my career direction, paddle against the current when I wanted to change direction, and end up in a different river taking me on a new journey that I’m quite excited about – working in the business world!

Eventually I started spending more time outside the lab – working with international students on community events, interviewing people for articles, and making my own music videos.

CSW: How did your passion evolve over time?

VC: During tea breaks between experiments, I always threatened to run away from lab and open my own lemonade stand with my classmate. But that didn’t quite happen!

What did happen was this: you know that little voice in the pit of your stomach, the one that tells you something is a bad idea? Since my undergrad days, that voice had been telling me that bench research wasn’t for me, and it just got louder over time. I tried to forge ahead despite that voice, because I wasn’t sure if it would change with a change in research topic.

But as I got older, I started thinking about what I really wanted to do – not what I thought I was supposed to do. Ultimately, the decisions you make will directly impact how happy you will be day to day, and sometimes you’re just not a right fit for a particular environment, no matter how hard you try.

Eventually I started spending more time outside the lab – working with international students on community events, interviewing people for articles, and making my own music videos (Genius in a Lab Coat). These activities kept me energized to finish my thesis project, and also taught me invaluable skills that were directly responsible for getting me employed.

CSW: You are currently working with Inscopix. How has your growth been?

VC: I started out at my company as an Application Scientist, a role that is responsible for the success of the company’s customers. Since Inscopix is a neuroscience company that created a new technology platform for preclinical brain imaging applications, my PhD background and personal interests in writing, communication and education made me a great fit for both the company and the role. I have a lot of fantastic colleagues and an impressive number of fellow PhDs at Inscopix because we highly value the ability to serve our customers – fellow neuroscientists – in accomplishing their experimental goals. It’s been a great way to leverage my research background and experience, and stay connected to a field I love.

As startup companies grow, employees can grow with them.  From directly addressing customer needs, I’ve moved into managing the educational infrastructure that supports them. My latest role also includes training new members of our field team to become masters of our technology for both sales and support roles.

Young companies are dynamic, living entities, and if you find one that you mesh with, you’ll never be bored!

The funny thing is, even karaoke contests and beauty pageants come with useful transferable skills.

CSW: And amongst all this, you never gave up on your passion for singing and being a beauty queen finalist for the 2013 Pacific Miss Asian America Beauty Pageant.

VC: I’m a singer and competitor by nature.  During grad school, I participated in karaoke contests and joined an acapella group at the NIH. Music is an amazing anti-depressant, and singing practice helped me through many tough days of failed experiments!

To really get out of my comfort zone, I competed in a local beauty pageant in my final year of grad school.  It took me two years to get my nerve up, but a good friend of mine encouraged me to give it a try.  Even though I’d spent most of my life as a nerdy tomboy, I figured well, why not?

Although I had no idea how to walk in heels or put on makeup, I approached the situation as a scientist would – do some research on what you don’t know and run some experiments, just like in the lab! I did a lot of Googling, YouTubing and analysis of fashion runway videos to figure out how to strut my stuff, and got placed in the top 5 as the oldest and possibly nerdiest contestant that year. Even my pageant Q&A answer featured Bill Nye and the need for more science communication!

The funny thing is, even karaoke contests and beauty pageants come with useful transferable skills. For example, I will be the “Master of Ceremonies” for a company event for the second time this fall, due to my past experience in the spotlight.

I want to change the definition of what it means to be a PhD, and free fellow scientists to pursue the personal path that is right for them.

CSW: How did “Free the PhD” come into existence?

VC: My transition outside academia was one of the most stressful times of my life. Many competing emotions and fears ruled my life in those last 2-3 months before I finalized the transition. I was afraid of moving on. I was afraid of letting myself and my graduate advisor down from what I thought was the “right” career path. After building a wonderful community in graduate school, I was terrified to move across the country to a new place where I knew no one. It was imposter syndrome to the extreme when I started at my company. I had no idea what I was supposed to do or pay attention to in a workplace with such different priorities and concerns than in academia.

So many of these fears were unfounded – and so much stress could have been avoided – if I had had access to a resource where I could learn from people who had made this journey before me in an efficient, organized and empathetic manner. I felt alone during that transition process, and wished for a resource that spoke to both my intellectual and psychological needs during one of the most defining moments of my professional life.

That’s why I founded Free the PhD – a learning and career coaching resource for fellow scientists who are ready to move into the world past the bench. I want to pass on the knowledge I’ve gained from personal experience and from interviewing fellow post-academic PhDs to build a community – one that people can benefit from through multiple transitions and new adventures. I’ve put hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars into this passion project because I care about empowering fellow PhDs to enter and impact all sectors of society, from industry to education to government.

I want to change the definition of what it means to be a PhD, and free fellow scientists to pursue the personal path that is right for them.

After all, if we want to change the status quo, it’s up to us to take the lead!

Choose to make an impact on the world with your skills and knowledge, inside or outside the lab, in the most effective way for you.

CSW: Very encouraging! What would be the take-home message that you would want the fellow PhDs to keep close to their heart?

VC: One of the reasons it’s so hard for fellow PhDs to leave academia is because we’ve grown accustomed to deriving personal value from the academic environment. That’s all many of us have ever known, and that’s OK. Just remember that your current environment is not a reflection of your personal worth– it can shape you, but it does not define you.

Your PhD experience will inform and enrich the rest of your life, no matter where you go next. Choose to make an impact on the world with your skills and knowledge, inside or outside the lab, in the most effective way for you. That is the path to success.

About Vania:

Dr. Vania Cao is founder of Free the PhD, a career resource and training platform for scientists looking to transition to a life they love. She works at a neurotech startup by day and still performs in a band in her free time.




The contents of Club SciWri are the copyright of PhD Career Support Group for STEM PhDs (A US Non-Profit 501(c)3, PhDCSG is an initiative of the alumni of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. The primary aim of this group is to build a NETWORK among scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs).

This work by Club SciWri is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License

Path of a TIFR grad student to an NIBR investigator – Face à Face with Dr. Ajeet Pratap Singh at NIBR

in Face à Face by

My first encounter with Ajeet Pratap Singh (APS), then a graduate student was when I joined Prof. Veronica Rodrigues’ lab at Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Mumbai in 2006 as a freshly inducted Master’s student. Sharing the work space, Ajeet was my daily dose of inspiration, support, comic relief and poetry; from his undying love for ghazals and poetry, and an accomplice in watching cricket together in between experiments.

Dr. Ajeet Pratap Singh at MPI for Developmental Biology, Tübingen, Germany

Undoubtedly, the one thing that everyone in the department could vouch for Ajeet is his single-minded focus on science. He is grateful to his postgraduate mentors, especially Dr. Suvendu Ray at Tezpur University, Assam, India for instilling his enthusiasm in the life sciences. “He would tell us about the most recent scientific discoveries in the field of Biology. These discussions opened a different world for us. Most of us were used to the matter of fact training that we get in our schools, with limited focus on free thinking. He was a big motivation for me to pursue a PhD and get a first-hand experience of the excitements in the field of science,” says Ajeet.

During his doctoral work on neuronal modeling under Prof. Veronica Rodrigues and Prof. K. Vijayraghavan, Ajeet benefited from their ‘complimentary approach to science’ and the comprehensive PhD program at TIFR. Ajeet credits his PhD program for emphasizing strongly on learning new skills. He is thankful to Prof. Vijayraghavan for having played a huge role in shaping his career even after his graduation from TIFR in 2011. It was his guidance that inspired Ajeet to pursue his postdoctoral research with the phenomenal developmental biologist Christiane Nüsslein-Vollhard, popularly known among colleagues as Janni, and a Nobel laureate of 1995. Things worked out for Ajeet and he soon moved to the beautiful, German university town of Tübingen to work with Janni at the Max Planck Institute (MPI) for Developmental Biology. He was also a proud recipient of the EMBO long-term fellowship.

A glimpse of Tübingen summer punting, by Dr. Anurag Singh
Ajeet with postdoc advisor Prof. Christiane Nüsslein-Vollhard. Picture courtesy – MPI for Developmental Biology /

Ajeet fondly recalls his experience with Janni, learning basic concepts of developmental biology. In addition, the multidisciplinary and international research environment only made it all the more stimulating for him. He feels that interdisciplinary education is undermined in the Indian schooling system, and he encourages everyone to seek opportunities to learn from different fields to be able to deliver quality science in the current age of collaborations.

Ajeet is now an investigator at Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research (NIBR) in Massachusetts, since August 2016. However, the transition from his postdoc lab to NIBR didn’t happen overnight. While studying color pattern formation in zebrafish (for his post-doctoral research), he observed that the fishes liked to stay together (shoaling), and this inspired him to develop a system to study social behavior. Alongside his postdoc, he kept working on his idea and developed genetic tools to study it further.

Janni provided him the platform and freedom to pursue his ‘additional’ interests. Ajeet invested on developing simple behavioral assays to measure social behavior of zebrafish, made several gene knock outs to probe into the genetics behind this shoaling behavior.

Opportunities often come to those who are prepared – and Ajeet was prepared.

Towards the end of his postdoc in 2015, he came across an advert from the NIBR – looking for scientists interested in genetics of zebrafish social behavior, aimed to better understand human social behavior and the disorders related to them. As it was so closely related to his line of work and interests, Ajeet found a perfect fit and was offered the job the very same day as his interview. Commenting on the differences in research foci in academia and industries, Ajeet opines, “In general, the long-term goals of industry and academia are clearly different – both have a prime emphasis on the generation of knowledge base, but in industrial research knowledge, those that would seem to help solve diseases of humankind get immediate priority. However, at NIBR, fundamental research is highly encouraged – our work on zebrafish is basically like any other basic research.” Despite his spectacularly successful academic track so far, Ajeet acknowledges the imbalance between the increasing number of PhDs and postdocs coming out each year and the paucity of jobs in academia that cater to them; something that has been described as a Ponzi scheme by others. He feels that it is imperative to spread awareness about careers beyond academic tracks for researchers.

As Ajeet grows his group at NIBR to understand complex social behaviors in zebrafish and to utilize this model organism for drug-discovery in the longer term, I see his story reminding me of many crucial lessons in planning a successful career. It is a story that highlights personal commitment towards developing and working on independent ideas, and active mentoring at every crucial step of one’s career. With the synergy of the two, chances are high that one is ready to embark when the right career opportunity comes by. More importantly, these are pivotal in creating independent lines of ideas and research – the only way to nurture and pursue science.

More about Ajeet: Follow Dr. Ajeet Pratap Singh’s research works here, and get in touch with him here.

Author: Somdatta Karak, PhD works with Club SciWri as a writer and editor of articles aimed at helping Indian scientific community in research as well as entrepreneurship. You can get in touch with her here.

Editors: Mathura Shanmugasundaram, PhD and Sayantan Chakraborty, PhD

The cover image was designed by Vinita Bharat, PhD. Follow her work as Fuzzy Synapse at Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. The inset images were kindly provided by APS, Dr. Anurag Singh and momentum-photos.

The contents of Club SciWri are the copyright of PhD Career Support Group for STEM PhDs (A US Non-Profit 501(c)3, PhDCSG is an initiative of the alumni of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. The primary aim of this group is to build a NETWORK among scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs).

This work by Club SciWri is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.


Transition from Bench to Investor relations and Patient engagement-Face to Face with Dr. Michelle Avery

in Face à Face by

Nida Siddiqui (NS), interviews Dr. Michelle Avery (MA), who tells us about her love for science communication, and how she used skills learnt during her PhD, to transition from bench research to being the ‘Director of Investor Relations and Patient Engagement’ at Summit Therapeutics.

NS: Could you tell us about yourself?

MA: I loved science since an early age, and even volunteered at a local science museum when I was old enough, but I could never have imagined where it would take me. I earned my undergraduate degree in neuroscience and dance from Skidmore College. While I was there, I had a professor who told me that in order to have a career involving neuroscience, you had to have a PhD. And so, off I went to get my PhD, which I obtained from the University of Massachusetts Medical School, where I studied axon degeneration in Drosophila. I knew that I wanted to branch out from academia and so opted to not do a postdoc. After graduation, I joined a life sciences communication agency, called MacDougall Biomedical Communications. I’m now the Director of Investor Relations and Patient Engagement at Summit Therapeutics, a small biotech company developing drugs in Duchenne muscular dystrophy and C. difficile infection. I also compete nationally in ballroom dancing in my spare time.

NS: What were some of the exciting projects that you did during your PhD/Postdoc?

 MA: I was a very fortunate grad student – the vast majority of my experiments went very well and resulted in several publications, two first authored papers and two others. My work centred on understanding axon degeneration. For the most part, I worked on a fusion protein that was originally discovered in mice about 20 years before I got to UMass, but its mechanism was still a mystery. We found that a protein, called Wlds, can stop axons from degenerating during injury and in some models of disease, a process that was previously thought to be passive one. I used Drosophila genetics to unravel how Wlds functions, and demonstrated that it acts through mitochondria. I also participated in a forward genetic screen, where we created thousands of mutant Drosophilas to find ones in which their axons didn’t degenerate; further proving that axon degeneration is an active process like apoptosis. We found several mutants that many others in the lab followed up on (and are continuing to follow up on).

 NS: Did you have a dilemma after your PhD, to choose from a postdoc/industry position?

 MA: My heart was not in research – I loved every aspect of it, except for doing it. I knew it wouldn’t be fair to myself or whichever research team I go to if I continued onto a postdoc. I was lucky enough to have a PI who was very supportive of me and my decision to go into industry, although some of my thesis committee members tried to pressure me into doing a postdoc.

 NS: When did you decide it was time to move on and transition to industry?

 MA: I decided a couple of years into my PhD that I wasn’t likely to continue on in academia. I’m a big believer that one should always love what they’re doing and make a change if they don’t. I did chat with several of my friends about whether to drop out of the PhD program or to finish my degree and most of them responded with “you’ve come this far, you’d probably regret it if you don’t finish.” I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished, but am happy to leave the bench behind.

NS: What are the skills that helped you crack your current position?

MA: Four main skills are crucial for my job:

  1. Learning – People often take for granted the main skill that we are taught in any PhD program. How to learn and then apply that learning. This ability has allowed me to learn the business of science, read and decipher scientific papers for the masses and be able to effectively research any challenge and come up with solutions.
  2. Problem-solving – They don’t call it research because you do it just once. Science has taught me how to expect the unexpected and find a way around it. Every company has unique challenges and figuring out the best way to address them is key to good communication.
  3. Communicating – In my career, it’s very important for me to be able to tell a compelling story to a wide variety of audiences – from young patients to other PhDs who have now turned into investors. The overall message stays the same, but the details change, based on the level of knowledge each group has. Having the opportunity to present to different groups during grad school has helped immensely in this regard. In addition, my PI was great at preparing us for presentations – any time we presented in a conference or other event, we practiced in front of the entire lab and received detailed feedback on every slide, from the words we used to describe to the content of the slide.
  4. Confidence in questioning authority – We all know that science would not advance if researchers weren’t bold enough to question the reigning dogma. We’re taught to prove the null hypothesis and question every aspect of ours and others’ data. This is a very useful skill when it comes to shaping a communications strategy, crafting the message that conveys your story and preparing your team well for a question and answer session with different audiences. It ultimately gives more credibility to the company, which is a company’s greatest asset in biotech.

NS: Could you describe your role as the Director of investor relations and patient engagement?

MA: In smaller biotech companies, investor relations and corporate communications are one and the same. The life of a biotech company depends on its ability to raise money and fund research. For that, you need a compelling story, honest and frequent communication and a good relationship with Wall Street. These three tasks fall under my purview.

A compelling story should start with a simple message that permeates through all communications of the company. Therefore, I’m responsible for all external written and oral communications – the vast majority of which I take the first draft on, whereas some others (mainly scientific presentations/posters) I simply review to make sure they support our story. The communications I draft include, website text, press releases, presentations, conference call scripts, Q&A documents and financial filings (as a public company, we have to file certain forms with the Securities and Exchange Commission).

On the honest and frequent communications front, I typically map out a year or two worth of upcoming events (e.g. conferences, corporate and scientific announcements), identify gaps in the frequency of communication and come up with clever ways to fill those gaps, such as targeting a scientific publication for that time far enough in advance.

In regards to maintaining a good relationship with Wall Street, there are three categories of Wall Street folks that I interact with: bankers: that help us to raise money; buysiders: the investors that buy our stock; and sellsiders: who write reports on our company recommending whether to buy, hold or sell our stock.

NS: Could you elaborate on investor relations strategy?

MA: An investor relations strategy includes interactions with the bankers, buysiders and sellsiders; a plan for continuing the relationships, and also building them. Thus, I spend a lot of time traveling with my Chief Executive Officer and Chief Financial Officer. Each bank typically holds conference during the year, where we present and get to meet one-on-one with buyside investors. Usually, we take a day or two on either side of these conferences to meet the sellsiders or other investors who weren’t at the conference. We also conduct what are called non-deal roadshows, meaning we’re not looking to raise money, but rather are out meeting with buyside investors at their offices. We try and conduct a non-deal roadshow every three months at different locations both in the US and Europe. For sellsiders, we frequently call and meet ones that write about us to make sure they’re as up to date as possible. We also seek out and educate sellsiders that write about other companies in our space. It’s important for them to know as much as they can about a disease space, so we make sure they have an accurate picture of our company which may increase our chances of getting mentioned in research they cover about other companies. In some cases, you can even persuade a sellsider to start writing reports about your company. Another incredibly important aspect of my job is to make sure that we all stay out of jail. All joking aside, there are certain obligations that a public company has in terms about what and when it discloses certain information. I tend to say I’m the nosiest person at the company because of this task – I need to understand what’s going on with every group within the company to know whether or not we need to make a disclosure and when we need to do so. It’s also great to have a head’s up when something like data might be coming, so I can plan the scenario and ensure we have all the right messages and materials ready when it’s time to get the disclosure out. There are many other aspects to investor relations, but these are the main components.

NS: Could you describe the concept of patient engagement?

MA: Patient engagement is relatively new in biotech companies. More and more, biotech companies are realizing that patients are very important for the development of their drugs. In order for a drug to get to the market, you need patient enrolment in clinical trials, and therefore, they need to be designed with patients in mind. So, this role is a two-way street – where we need to educate the patients and in return we need to be educated by them. On the educational front, I spend time traveling to patient organization meetings, to present our approach towards treating Duchenne muscular dystrophy and our clinical trials. These meetings are a great way for us to be educated about the patient population – the questions they ask and discussions they have could be very informative. We also set up periodic webinars, send around newsletters, use social media and keep the patient and family website up to date. Another way that patients educate us is through an advisory board, where we get their feedback on clinical trial protocols, what’s most important in their quality of life and what attributes they look for in a potential drug. It’s great to be at a company that cares about its patients and works to involve them in our drug development as best as possible. It’ll be even better if one day I can tell the patients that we have a new treatment option for them.

NS: What would be your advice to PhD students and postdocs looking to transition to the industry?

MA: I would advise students and postdocs to follow their hearts first and foremost – if you want to make a transition, you can do it and be successful no matter what pushback you may or may not receive from various advisors. Make sure that you openly communicate about your desire to transition – it could help open up doors to networking with others who may have made the transition. Look for other ways to network with those who have made a transition – your city may have a biotech organization that holds events, there may be alternative career talks at your institution or LinkedIn can be a good way to find people to connect with. Finally, look for ways to enhance your skillset for whatever career you may be interested in – if it’s communications, see if there’s a blog you can contribute to on a topic of your choice or sign up for presenting whenever you get a chance. Best of luck to you!

About Dr. Michelle Avery:

Michelle Avery, PhD, is Director of Investor Relations and Patient Engagement at Summit Therapeutics. Previously, she held various positions of increasing seniority at MacDougall Biomedical Communications with her last position being Senior Account Executive. She earned her PhD in neuroscience from the University of Massachusetts Medical School and BA in neuroscience and dance from Skidmore College.


About Nida Siddiqui:


Nida Siddiqui is currently pursuing final year PhD at the Centre for Mechanochemical Cell Biology, University of Warwick, UK. Follow her on LinkedIn and Twitter @siddnida.

Editors: Paurvi Shinde, PhD and Sayantan Chakraborty, PhD

Paurvi Shinde did her PhD, in Immunology from University of Connecticut Health and currently works as a Post Doc, at Bloodworks Northwest in Seattle. She’s loves editing and proofreading scientific articles, to convey the message behind it, in a clear and concise form. Follow her on Linkedin.

Sayantan Chakraborty is an IRTA postdoctoral fellow at the National Institute on Aging, NIH, Baltimore. A geneticist by training, he’s now exploring the realms of transcription factor dynamics in T cells using quantitative microscopy and systems biology tools. His interests extend to being the Editor for NPR Office Hours and Friends of Joe’s Big Idea. As he grows, he’s looking forward to interacting and networking with fellow science communicators and outreach managers across the globe. Additionally, he’s also a Crisis Counselor with the 24/7 Crisis Text Line. Follow him on Twitter @ch_sayantan

Cover image: Pixabay

The contents of Club SciWri are the copyright of PhD Career Support Group for STEM PhDs (A US Non-Profit 501(c)3, PhDCSG is an initiative of the alumni of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. The primary aim of this group is to build a NETWORK among scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs).

This work by Club SciWri is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License


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