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November 2017

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.

 

 

An Earnest Appeal to You, the Mankind

in SciWorld by

Dear Human,

Do you know that the fitness tracker you are wearing, or the smartphone app monitoring your daily physical activity, or the electronic health record (EHR) from your clinical visits are a few of the major sources of my training? What is this training for? Who is my employer? The answer to the latter question is the healthcare industry. And, I am training to fulfill my job responsibilities, which are plenty: correctly diagnose diseases, predict novel disease patterns, identify the invisible population who are at risk, predict the success of clinical drug trials, so on and so forth. But, aren’t clinicians and researchers worldwide already doing this? Yes! But, the manual labor, time and the costs are too high as compared to the results, which often have errors or missing values. Hence, they have put me to task. To meet these demands, my training needs to be robust. And boy, it is (or at least the opportunity is)! I am currently floating in a vast ocean of information from biomedical research, patient records, and wearable devices. The more information I get to train over, the better will be my efficiency. All this sounds hunky-dory till I get to the glaring stumbling blocks in my learning/training.

First, this vast ocean of information is extremely noisy and miscellaneous. Often, I don’t know what to do with a piece of information that I have picked up because it doesn’t have a label or notes attached to it. In other cases, I find conflicting labels on the same piece of information. This, typically, happens when two different parties have labeled the concerned piece of data after referring to two different medical ontologies. So, the problem is more with inconsistencies/conflicts amongst the ontologies and not so much with the labelling itself. But, I am at the receiving end of this, and indirectly is the healthcare industry. Second, despite its size, this ocean is not representative of the entire world population as we have a huge chunk of people without access to primary health care. So, in a word, the ocean that I am floating in is ‘biased’. Third, disease progression over time is often unsynchronized or discontinuous among patients. A major limitation in me is that I lack the ability to handle time-course analysis. Fourth, the causes and patterns of progression for most of the diseases are not completely known. Adding to this is the limited number of patients recorded for each disease type. Thus, to classify these medical conditions into domains for my improved training appears difficult right now. Finally, although I have been created by man, for man, interpreting me is like reading a black box – a complex system whose internal mechanisms are not clearly understood. Interpreting my workings is crucial and has far-reaching consequences as clinicians these days are increasingly relying on data-driven solutions for decision-making and patient monitoring.

With the stumbling blocks in place, let me now give you a quick overview of what you can do to make me work better for you. First, since patient numbers for capturing information are limited, collect as many features as possible for each available candidate. They could be electronic health records, wearable devices, information from social media, environments, surveys, online communities, genome profiles, and beyond. Try working on an approach that could let you throw all these data together and integrate them to help me generate actionable insights. Protecting me, and sensitive patient data would be another priority that you’d need to work on. Add more expert knowledge that is curated from medical journals, research papers, and professionals into the existing information ocean. This would help me train in the right direction. Moreover, considering that time is an important factor in every health care-related problem, another dimension to work on is to make me time-sensitive. And finally, of course, make me more interpretable for the clinicians. The more they will understand me, and my results, the finer I can work for them.

And while I end this letter, I realize that I forgot to introduce myself. Anyway, the subject is way deeper than my name, so in a way, it matters less (?). Some of you might already know me. For others who don’t, I am Deep Learning (DL), a subset of machine learning in AI.

My way of functioning and decision-making mimics your brain. I am currently used in a lot of other application domains, but today I wanted to have a word with you on my role in health care. Because if you survive, I survive. And, vice-versa. Get the drift?

Thanks for your time.

Yours faithfully,

DL

 

Reference: Deep learning for healthcare: review, opportunities and challenges

Photo courtesy: Nvidia blog

Cover image courtesy: http://startupheretoronto.com/partners/cvca/vc-investing-convergence-ai-healthcare/

 

Author: Saikata Sengupta

Saikata Sengupta is currently pursuing her Ph.D. from Department of Neurology at Friedrich Schiller University, Germany. You can follow her on Linkedin or Twitter

 

 

Editor: Arunima Singh, PhD

Arunima obtained her PhD in Computational chemistry from the University of Georgia, USA, and is currently a postdoctoral researcher at New York University. She enjoys traveling, reading, and the process of mastering a new cuisine. Her motivation to move to New York was to be a part of this rich scientific, cultural, and social hub.

Second editor: Manoja Eswara, PhD

Manoja Eswara did her Ph. D. from University of Guelph, Canada and is currently doing her postdoctoral fellowship in Cancer Epigenetics at Lunenfeld Tanenbaum Research Institute, Toronto, Canada.

 

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.

 

 

In the land of opportunities, an immigrant’s perspective

in That Makes Sense by

The ruckus and ballyhoo instigated by controversial immigration laws under the new administration has had me reflecting on my own purpose behind coming to the U.S. I belong to the 37.6% of Indians who have lived in the U.S for ten years or less. In fact, it’s been less than a year since I moved here. What was it that brought me halfway across the world, in a cramped 22-hour flight, far away from my loving family and the country, to which my heart and soul belong? What did I seek and what did I find?

To Indians, America is the land of opportunities. For most, it is the opportunity to make money. But thanks to my hard-working parents, I grew up with enough financial comfort to not know the pinch of poverty. Money wasn’t the bait that lured me here. I had just graduated with a PhD in Microbiology from one of the best institutes in India and experienced the broad realm of research. But to improve and innovate, I had to be at the cutting-edge of research, at the source of creativity, where research is a combination of thoughtful experimentation and successful collaboration. As Steve Jobs said “Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower”. I got my lucky break when one of the professors at Stanford University invited me to join his lab. Where better than that to be at the frontlines of research!

What I found when I arrived was a university which harnessed all the power of technology to make research life easier and quicker. Naturally, it also led me to think about how I could improve science back home. The piles of paperwork, the rigmarole of acquiring signatures from every person at every level of the administrative hierarchy, the constant lingering outside admin offices to politely badger them to process your order, all of which greatly hampered research in India could be circumvented by a few clicks on the computer. Without this unnecessary time-sink, researchers would be able to focus their entire energy on developing a good research question. All of this however, was what I had expected to find in the U.S.

What I didn’t expect was the positive influence that the place had on me both as a scientist and as an individual. The research environment here thrives on cooperation and collaboration, without any ulterior motives. The healthy competitive spirit of the place renewed my dwindling faith in the cooperative and candid nature of the scientific community. At a personal level, the emphasis on work-life balance here has given me enough time to think about my long-term goals. I could pause in my frenzy to publish in a high impact journal and explore fields outside academia that I am interested in. Be it science writing, data science or modern statistics, there are courses, seminars and workshops you can attend to hone your skills. There are talented career counselors and active alumni networks who are eager to help you set and realize your goals. It is a haven of resources, waiting to be utilized. These resources and respect for researchers as individuals is what I feel is lacking back in India.

The resources and innovations do come with a price tag. The seed of science research can bear fruit only when watered by money. Government funding for science research in India is around 8 billion, uncomparable to the 155 billion invested by the U.S federal government and the huge sums contributed by philanthropic billionaires of the country. As researchers, we have to continue to communicate the importance and necessity of investing in basic and applied research to the government. At the same time, introducing a technology-driven administration in universities will ensure proper allocation and channelization of funds, without being caught in the web of corruption.

Indian science has seen many great scientists in the past. Our space research is among the best in the world, as is evident from the whopping success of the Mars mission. But it is important to not stagnate now. It is important to change with time. If I could change one thing about my PhD life, I would choose to care a little less about science and a little more about the myriad of things life has to offer. And if I could change one thing about my institute, I would choose investment in technology over historical bureaucracy. We need to embrace technology, be more forthcoming and make science more enjoyable. Healthier work environments will mean happier researchers and better research. I do realize that I also have a responsibility towards making this happen. Writing about it is hopefully my first step.

(http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/05/how-science-fares-us-budget-deal, http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/02/winners-and-losers-india-s-science-budget).

Featured Image: Pixabay

About the author:

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 everyday, 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. But nevertheless, she is irreversibly drawn towards the charm of a career in academia.

Editors:

Sushama Sivakumar is a postdoctoral student 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.

Roopsha Sengupta is establishing herself as a freelance editor. She did her PhD in the Institute of Molecular Pathology, Vienna and postdoctoral research at the University of Cambridge UK, specializing in the field of Epigenetics. She loves words, science and kids (not necessarily in that order!).

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