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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.

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

Battle of Wisdom: CRISPR-CAS9

in Sci-IP/SciBiz/SciWorld by
Editor’s Note: Gene editing for a better (or worse) is coming to a store near you. Some of you may have followed the ongoing patent war on the ownership of CRISPR-Cas9 technology between University of California (Berkeley) and Broad Institute (MIT-Harvard). But there could be many who are wondering what is the fuss all about? At the Career Support Group (CSG) for STEM PhDs we might still continue the debate about CSG’s usefulness to biologists vs non-biologists, but as inventors we are always in unison about perfecting the art of claiming ownership. #ClubSciWri is always attempting to listen and respond to your expectations and we are pleased to present the “Battle of Wisdom:CRISPR-Cas9” from Dileep Vengasseri. Dileep has nicely deciphered the meshwork underlying this matrix of claims to the CRISPR invention. We hope this story helps make sure that the next big thing from your gray matter secures your rightful ownership to the intellectual property.- Abhinav Dey

My dear friend, this 60 minutes of my time and 1597 words are for you! As you rightly said, maybe we should discuss our opinion(s) in public at least for educating others on what we have learned during the due course of our time.

Disclaimer: All what is written/expressed here are my personal opinions, and are not to be construed in any manner as a reflection/opinion of the firm that I am associated with. My words are solely my words! I will try to be as generic as possible to ensure there is absolutely no conflicts of any interest. This is purely a personal blog, written within the constitutional freedom that my Country has offered me when I was born here.

Many great battles are won not in the battle fileds, but in the minds of the battle leaders. What we read, saw, and talked about were the after-effects of those battles won or lost inside those great minds. In the great epic Mahabharata, Arjuna was about to lose Kurukshetra battle even before it was fought. But, there was a Krishna to save him from that humiliation. Many may not be as lucky as Arjuna was.

Before I begin, with all due respect, let me remind all of us one trivia very clear. US is not the “World” … it is just one of the many countries [a privileged one, indeed] of this world.  A larger population residing outside that privileged country, do not play a “World Cup” between their states or clubs. They don’t re-spell a word to make it look like they have invented it. For them, the metal “Al” is still aluminium and not aluminum.

We, living at the periphery of the world of modern(?) science, have got enough fuel from CRISPR-Cas, the game-changing method of gene editing, to satisfy our ego of being a part of a ‘privileged community’ who understands (?) the words like ‘gene editing’ and ‘CRISPR-Cas’.  For all such ‘privileged souls’, the “IP Battle of CRISPR-Cas” is more than just another battle. Let me call it a “Battle of Wisdom”.

But, was this battle worth fighting?

Let me begin with disecting this IP battle to four main sections: (1) Technology (2) The Battle Field (3) The Win and (4) The Strategy. May be, in future, I can complete this article with “Lessons Learnt”.

  1. Technology: At least from what is publically available, we know that Doudna/Charpentier’s team made that beautiful gene editng system work in-vitro in prokaryotic cells, in a neater, simpler manner than what it was in the nature itself. Instead of using a 3-component system including tracrRNA, crRNA and Cas9, her team beautifully designed a 2-component system, including a key synthetic, single guided RNA (sgRNA), that effectively performed site specific genome editing along with Cas9 (It is interesting to note that in-vitro 3-component system is also IP protected!). What was the big deal? The big deal was its simplicity, efficiency, and marketability. It was not that gene editing methodologies never existed before… however, now the World has access to an elegant gene editing system that is much more easy to perform (no more protein engineering!) & predictable. We also know that Feng Zhang (don’t forget George Church’s back-to-back publication in Science along with Feng Zhang) made it work in the eukaryotic system.
  2. The Battle Field: No one (at least the majority of money makers) wants a gene editing system that works only in prokaryotic systems. So, the “Battle of Wisdom” eventually boiled down to the IP on gene editing in eukaryotic system with CRISPR-Cas. Duodna filed a US patent application (remember, US is not the World, more so when it comes to IP protection) first and Feng Zhang got the first granted patent in US (note that the USPTO could have  provoked an interference at that time itself, but they didn’t!). Feng Zhang’s patent ‘claims’ to ‘cover’ eukaryotic CRISPR/Cas gene editing system (no comments on its “claims” and/or its “coverage” as the battle is still on…at least let the battle be fought under the belief that the land that is going to be conquered is still fertile!).  Duodna had anyway made it easier for Feng Zhang to get his patent granted by ‘boasting about’ her team’s achievement in multiple forums and explaning ‘how difficult it is/was to make it work in a eukaryotic system’.   Alas! enough of such wisdom on eukaryotic system was passed on to that Patent Attorney who filed her provisional applications, at least before the one on 19th October 2012 that is prior to the Feng Zhang’s priority date of 12th December 2012. Now, the battle of wisdom (what we call as “Interference Proceedings”) is to establish who invented (i.e., conceived and/or reduced-to-practice) the “eukaryotic CRISPR-Cas” first. Duodna will be fighting to make a point that porting CRISPR to  eukaryotic system is just a non-inventive aspect. Feng Zhang is going to fight back at least on the ground that if it is that obvious why did it then take Doudna a good 6-9 months to achieve the same.   I refrain from making any comments on how long or short is 6-9 months in a field like Molecular Biology. I know that my dear friend, who forced me (as usual) to write this long article, has wandered in the wilderness of IISc campus behind an elusive protein for a good 6 years :-)). And, I must admit that I have made the entire story of this Battle of Wisdom to a deeply  abridged version as the facts of this case are much more than what this layman article can handle. But, I believe that this much background is good enough to make my “teaching moments” convincing.
  3. The Win: Does it matter who wins this battle? Of course, YES! All battles are known after the leader who has won it (Aravind Kejriwal and Hilary Clinton are no where near their counterparts, as of today). Generally, the winner get the privilege to write the history that we all can read and study. But, is this Battle of Wisdom the same as any other great battles fought, lost and won? No. What is required to win this battle? It is required to show that who has invented the “eukaryotic CRISPR-Cas” first; it is required to show what is inventive/not inventive in this field; and it is required to show what constitutes an adequate written description/enablement in this field so that the “public disclosure function” (spirit and letter of any patenting system in the world) of the patenting sytsem is intact.  But, as with any other battle, only one person can be the winner. But, what will they both win or lose? The loser will any way have a deep wound in ego that may take years to heal. But, will he/she lose everything? Need not be. It depends on what other IP portfolio or picket-fencing that he/she has done around this gene editing tool. For example, a good claim on the synthetic guide RNA, a good IP portoflio on a better Cas9 proteins,  a better method for transfecting the cell, or an alternative to Cas9 itself… all these can make or break a commercial deal.  Is the winner going to get everything? Need not be.  During this entire process, it might open a pandora box and a myriad of avenues to potentially invalidate the patent claims that the winner can take home, to limit its claim scope, to limit its application coverage etc.
  4. Strategy: Isn’t it important for everyone in the field of IP to realize that most often a “hand shake” may do more good than “a fight”.  Before taking the army to a battle, it is important to know if raisng a white flag will be more beneficial than a gruelling battle. It is important to understand for what one is fighting a battle.   Does anyone fight for satisfying an ego or to make a point?  It is imporant to  understand that in a patent battle field, a wiser does not fight from their heart, but from their mind!. It is  important for each of the fighting members to know “What will happen if we do not fight, but rather collaborate?”.  Both Doudna/Charpentier and Feng Zhang could have been still partners in Editas, and they could have ruled the field.  When you fight in public, you expose yourself…you expose more than what you wanted to. And, what you have exposed can kill you even if you win YOUR fight.

Three more points to ponder:

  1. IP protection of PCR technology made Roche the king of DNA amplificaiton for quite sometime. Why? It is true that PCR was a technology that literally transformed the world of Biotechnology. But, was the IP protection on PCR probes for important pathogens less important? Were Taqman probes for real time PCR less important? Were the chips that made thermal cycling easier less important? No. All of them “together” made PCR a “cult” technology. That’s what a strategy means.
  2. IP protection in the field of ESC took Thompson and Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) to the center of the scientific world. Many IP/Tech Transfer cells in the Universities across the world wanted to be like WARF. As far I know, WARF gave its rights for free to any academic instituties, but made any industry pay for the same. Great! What were the other things that were needed to sustain and progress that technology ? An environment that morally support ESC research, a completely synthetic media to grow ESC, a culture that is devoid of mouse fibroblasts … all these were essential for taking ESC to reach its maximum potential. In modern day science, it is unlikely that we will see a winner of a single battle emerging as the “real winner”. A real winner is going to be the one who knows the game and strategize accordingly.
  3. US is not the “World”, and IP rights are jurisdictional. So, make yourself open to strategize for the real world!

Another Disclaimer: While starting my blog in WordPress, I had promised that I will not proof-read what I have written. In the past, many times, I had become a victim of my perfectionism and my writings had never seen the light. So, please pardon any typographical, grammatical, or otherwise errors. I hope factual errors are not there. Please let me know if you find any errors so that I can correct the same.

Authored by

 

Dr Dileep Vangasseri, PhD (Indian Institute of Science, IISc); Post-Doctoral research, University of Pittsburgh; Senior IP Professional, John F. Welch Technology Center, GE India Technology Center Pvt. Ltd., GE Global Research, Bangalore, India). Dileep has over ten years of in-house IP experience in Life Sciences, Healthcare and Medical Diagnostics industry after eight years of academic research experience in Bio-Organic Chemistry, Gene Therapy and Cancer Immunotherapy. He is well versed in all facets of patent analytics, techno-competitive intelligence, technology forecasting and business development.

This blog was originally posted here on December 7 (2016).

Featured image source: Pixabay

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

Finding antibodies in the haystack…

in Entrepreneurship by

Face to Face with Thomas Leung, CSO, BenchSci.

 

The first day I started my postdoc in the Bremner lab, I remember talking to Tom, a graduate student working in the “Epigenetics” wing of the lab. Being fun-loving and most importantly coffee loving, we instantly bonded and formed a team…doing Science and talking non-sense. I witnessed the BenchSci growth closely…it is amazing how Tom took his idea forward, pursued relentlessly and now successfully launched his startup, raising money from both angel investors and VCs. Within a short span, the BenchSci team won University of Toronto Banting and Best Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (BBCIE) Fellowship 2016, Ontario Centre of Excellence (OCE) Smart Seed 2016 and the Brightlane Entrepreneurship Award (BEA) 2016. To inspire potential start up seekers in CSG, I interviewed Tom recently about his journey with BenchSci.

 

ME: Tell me about BenchSci?

TL: BenchSci is a machine learning software that analyzes and decodes scientific papers to extract antibody usage data in the form of figures. These figures are then further indexed and aggregated to make them easily accessible to the research community.

ME: So, how did the idea get started?

TL: During my PhD, one day I was planning a new experiment, which required a lot of new antibodies for this huge Western blot. I was sitting in front of my computer, using conventional search engines and looking through PubMed to search for antibodies that have been validated in peer reviewed papers. After many hours, I thought to myself, “wouldn’t it be nice if there was a database somewhere that I can just input my favorite protein and I will be able to see all papers produced with different commercial antibodies against that protein?”. I started looking online and realized that such database does not exist, so I decided to build one on my own.

ME:  How did you go about it? What’s the process involved and how did you form a team?

TL:  To build this massive database, I know that I am going to need someone with superb programming expertise. My whole academic career was in Life Science and I do not know many people in Computer Science. I know that UofT is a great place with awesome ComSci talents, so I logged into my LinkedIn account and typed in “UofT, programming”. The first result was David Chen, who became our Chief Technology Officer. Amazingly, David is both an adept programmer and a PhD researcher in Neuroscience. I invited him out for a drink and we chatted for many hours and that’s how the team got started. I continue to look around UofT and assembled an awesome team right here, including our Chief Executive Officer, Liran Belenzon, MBA from Rotman, our Chief Database Officer, Elvis Wianda, PhD from Medical Biophysics, and our Community Architect, Maurice Shen, PhD from Pharmacology.

ME: How did your exposure in University of Toronto (U of T) help you in this pursuit, from a lab to a startup?

TL: UofT has many incubators aiming to nurture and support new ideas. We took advantage of this great opportunity and went to a few of these wonderful incubators such as the Hatchery at the Department of Engineering, the Creative Destruction Lab at Rotman Business School, and H2i at the Faculty of Medicine. Also, being a research scientist myself means I was able to talk to many professors and researchers to get valuable feedbacks and comments. For instance, our scientific advisors Dr. Jim Woodgett, Director of Research at Mount Sinai Hospital, Dr. Ruth Ross, Chairwoman of the Pharmacology Department and Dr. Ioannis Prassas, Staff Scientists at Mount Sinai, gave us many great suggestions that helped us develop and improve the BenchSci platform to better serve the scientific community.

ME: How is your platform different from the several antibody validation websites that already exist, like Antibodyreview, Biocompare, etc…?

TL: We are a true validation platform, meaning that we directly showcase experimental usage validation of antibodies in peer-reviewed journals. As a researcher, I realize the importance of seeing a figure more than anything, that’s why BenchSci is designed to show scientists antibody evidence-of-use directly in the form of figures, and not just a mere citation number.

ME: So right now what’s the design of your BenchSci website?

TL: It is very straightforward. All you need to do is go to our platform, type in the protein you are interested in and press, “enter”. We will show you a list of figures produced by commercial antibodies that target your protein of interest. You can continue to narrow down your search to fit your experimental criteria by applying multiple layers of filter including technique, tissues, cell lines, and disease models. We have a demo video on our website at www.BenchSci.com. For one minute of your time you will immediately realize how simple it is to use BenchSci.

ME: Do you plan to move to other reagents, other than antibodies?

TL: Yes for sure. BenchSci is a powerful software that can decode scientific papers, and we are also planning to target other experimental reagents that require validation information before making a purchasing decision.

ME: Is the software the end product that you will sell, if so, what is your future direction after that?

TL: We are offering BenchSci free to use for all research scientists. We truly believe that BenchSci would be helpful for researchers around the world. Many PhD students that we talked to had one recurring comment: “oh how I wish I have something like this earlier in my career!”.

ME: You mentioned to me that you are the CSO, but not the CEO of the company, although the idea is yours. For scientists like me who do know much about startups, can you describe how these titles work out? What or who decides these things?

TL: Each of our founders plays very specific role in the company. As the Scientific Officer, I am responsible for all things life science and biology related during product development, from backend data collection logic to frontend user interface search mechanics. I am not directly involved in the coding (which is done by David and Elvis), I design the scientific reasoning behind the code. Our CEO Liran is responsible for all things on the business side of our company. It is a triangle: Science, Technology and Business, each of the founder’s specialties in each of these components makes the team strong.

ME: There are two types of people who are getting into startups. One kind, like you, start with your own idea. On the other hand, I was attending a talk recently and the guy wanted to start a startup and he did some research on what’s hot right now and came up with an idea and went about it. According to you, which type is more sustainable? Or do you think both will work the same?

TL: The story that you build from the idea is the important element. A good story will resonate with people and bring more impact to the idea. However, the idea can either be something that took place in your dream, or something that was triggered after hearing another person’s seminar. The only difference is that, if you are creating a solution to a problem close to yourself, it is easier to convince others the value of your solution. It is more credible for a cell biology scientist to create a solution for the reagent problem than, for instance, an outsider from mechanical engineering. Let’s say I realized this terrible traffic problem on the highway and wanted to build a transportation system to solve this problem. This idea itself might be very good, but since I have no computer or engineering background, it would be more difficult for me to convince people about this idea.

ME: Finally, do you have any advice for beginners, who want to start a startup?

TL: Imagine a road parked full of cars, looking for a parking space is not going to be possible. If your car is your idea and the road is the market, with so many other solutions already out there, it would be tough for your idea and product to develop and grow. To build a startup, good “product-market” fit is important. Do not try to find parking space on a road already filled with cars. Instead, create solutions for problems that do not yet have a good solution. Maurice, our Community Architect, wrote a very good article for students who are thinking about startup, you can read more here.

 

 

You can find more information about BenchSci, see the following:

Company info: http://www.benchsci.com/about/.

Demo/Introduction video on www.benchsci.com

Company statement: http://blog.benchsci.com/2016/09/15/the-benchsci-story/ “The BenchSci Story”

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/small-business/science-startups-make-research-faster-cheaper-more-accurate/article32270645/ “Science startups make research faster, cheaper, more accurate”

 

About Thomas Leung:

 

Tom Leung completed his MSc in Virology and PhD in Epigenetics at the University of Toronto. For his PhD thesis, he investigated the molecular mechanism of repressive genetic bookmarking during cellular division and the potential application of reversing these bookmarks as alternative cancer therapeutic approaches. As a molecular biology research scientist, Tom experienced first hand the inefficient organization of biomedical publications.

Tom is very passionate about the development of a solution to better organize the vast amount of data in scientific literature in order to bring the most relevant information to scientists to facilitate the next big biomedical breakthrough.

 

About Manoja Eswara:

Manoja did her PhD from University of Guelph, Canada, where she worked on unraveling nuclear cytoplasmic transport pathways for transfer RNAs (tRNAs). Currently, she is doing Postdoctoral fellowship at LTRI, Canada, on Cancer Molecular biology and Epigenetics. Her work is focused on understanding the epigenetic factors involved in regulating replication and gene expression in Cancer cells and the potential use of small molecule inhibitors targeting them as Cancer therapeutics.

 

Featured image source: Pixabay

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The different hats of technology transfer officers

in Entrepreneurship/Sci-IP by

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With the establishment of Bayh Dole Act in 1983, US universities started establishing “Technology Transfer Offices”, whose main job was to evaluate inventions coming out of their laboratories. This helped universities to protect their intellectual property (IP) and license it out to startups or established companies. Technology transfer begins as soon as inventors disclose their technology to technology transfer offices. A technology transfer officer then wears different hats- an inventor’s, an attorney’s, an entrepreneur’s, an industrialist’s or a consumer’s to weigh various aspects of the technology before he/she consents to file a patent. As simple as it sounds, it requires a sound knowledge of the science involved and the rules and laws of patent prosecution. It also requires the business acumen needed to license a technology after filing a patent. Let us go through these steps one by one:

Determining prior art: The first and the most important hat worn by a technology manager is that of a patent agent. He/she asks the most important questions on the disclosed technology that a patent office will also ask: Does the technology have “utility” in the real world? Is the technology “novel”? Given all the previous knowledge or literature in the field, is the technology described by the inventor “obvious”? A patent will be granted by a patent office only if the answer to the first two questions is affirmative, and the answer to the third question is negative. Based on literature and patent database searches for the disclosed technology and judgment from experience, technology transfer officers decide whether to proceed forward with the technology and file a patent.

Freedom to operate (FTO): Wearing an attorney’s hat, the tech transfer officer asks another crucial question: Assuming that a patent is issued for the disclosed technology, can the owner or licensee of the patent practice the invention without infringing upon other patents? In other words, how much “freedom to operate” does the patent actually confer to its inventor/owner/licensee when compared with other patents that have been granted in the same area. A patent that cannot be practiced is as good as not having the patent. It is like investing in a dead technology. No business will buy or license out the technology. Patent prosecution being a very expensive process, a technology transfer officer evaluates the FTO very carefully to decide whether or not to invest university’s money to protect the technology. In my future blog, I will discuss FTO in detail.

Market: The next hat that a technology transfer officer wears is that of a marketing analyst. A tech transfer officer is not only involved in protecting the IP but is also instrumental in supporting the development of the technology. The whole idea of protecting the technology is to incentivize the companies to license out the technology from the university to make it useful to the society. To attract industries to invest in the technology many important questions are asked in advance: 1. What is the current market for the technology? 2. What is the market landscape (what other companies are involved in the technology space?) 3. If the technology enters the market, how much market penetrance will it get? In other words, will the industry see the return of investment if they license the technology from the university? Stage of development: A crucial factor in marketing university-owned technologies is to gauge the stage of development of the technology. Most of the university-based technologies are very embryonic or in other words, very early-stage technologies. Such technologies, especially in biotechnology, need a lot of investment from companies who are licensing it, both in terms of money and product development. Remember, an issued patent has a term of 20 years from the date of filing in

Stage of development: A crucial factor in marketing university-owned technologies is to gauge the stage of development of the technology. Most of the university-based technologies are very embryonic or in other words, very early-stage technologies. Such technologies, especially in biotechnology, need a lot of investment from companies who are licensing it, both in terms of capital and time investment. Remember, an issued patent has a term of 20 years from the date of filing in USA. A technology that requires a long incubation time will eat up the patent term (number of years of the patent rights). Losing the patent term means losing the competitive advantage. Therefore, the technology transfer officer needs to ascertain that there will be sufficient patent term remaining for the company, to recover its invested dollars and generate a considerable return of investment on the product.

Tradeoff analysis: One of the primary objectives of technology transfer offices, as I have already mentioned, is to see the university technology get developed into a product that is directly useful to the society. Therefore, the tech transfer officer evaluates pipeline products of companies, their business and development plans, their market share and capital as well as their past performance in developing the licensed technologies. The question whether the technology is suitable for a startup or an established companies is very crucial. A startup will have a vested interest in developing a technology. Therefore, it will have a focused approach towards the development of the product. In the case of established companies, they will have several products in their pipelines. Therefore, their focus, and hence, the development plan my change with changing priorities that is heavily shaped by the market. At the same time, startups are risky, and their product development pipelines are not as well charted out as an established enterprise. Therefore, an important challenge for tech transfer officers is to do a tradeoff analysis to narrow down the companies that will provide the best opportunity for the technology to get developed into a viable product.

Technology valuation: This is perhaps the most difficult part of the technology transfer process in the universities for which there are no easy answers. In general, the technology transfer officers rely on past deals (also known as comparable deals) for similar technologies and market analysis to come up with a value. There are complex quantitative ways to estimate the cost of the product 5-10 years from the present day for a thorough evaluation. One can easily imagine the difficulty in predicting the market a decade in advance. The two most important aspects of valuation are license issue fee and royalty. The latter is most important for universities, as it is their return of investment for their innovation. It is through royalties that universities can pump back money into the basic research and infrastructure. They can also incentivize inventors by giving them a part of the royalty.

Salesman: A tech transfer officer also needs to be an excellent salesman. Like a prudent salesman the officer has to win the best possible deal (in terms of royalty from the sale of the technology (also known as consideration) and due diligence (DD) terms for the technology development) for the universities. This is the most challenging hat worn by a tech transfer officer. It starts when a company shows interest to license a technology for making, using and selling it as a product. The tug-of-war involved in coming to a perfect term for a licensing deal is a thesis on its own. It will be sufficient to stress that this step requires the wizardry of a technology transfer officer to win a profitable deal for the university to support everything that a tech transfer office stands for. During the negotiation process, the officer always makes sure that the interest of the university and its IP is given the supreme interest. Once, the negotiation is done, the deal is formalized in a license agreement and is then bound by the law of the state.

Police Officer: Following license agreements, tech transfer officers monitor the strict DD terms. DD is very crucial for technology transfer officers, because it acts as an instrument to make sure that the technology gets developed in a timely manner. Breaching DD leads to termination of the license agreement.

The final goal is to see that the technology gets developed and is transferred to the masses for their consumption, thereby advancing the society through cutting-edge science and technology.

Ananda Ghosh

https://www.linkedin.com/in/ananda-ghosh-3238a716

Entrepreneurship Experience in Bangalore

in Entrepreneurship/Face à Face/SciBiz by

 

I have been asked to put down my experience of starting and running a business in Bangalore. All of us have lived in Bangalore for at least 2 years inside the IISc campus. Our view of Bangalore is heavily skewed by our experience at IISc. My view of Bangalore was that it is a very settled, slow moving, high-tech and amazingly green city.

I graduated from IISc in December 2008 and returned to Bangalore only in January 2015. This time I was in a different part of Bangalore, the startup region – south Bangalore. I was pleasantly surprised to see the speed of development here. Everywhere you go, you will find boards of companies hanging over houses, buildings and shops, new buildings being constructed to house more and more companies. No street is left untouched by the startup buzz.

We started our company at a coworking space. The concept of cowork space is pretty amazing as it gives you a feel of office without being too hard on your budget. Most companies are bootstrapped at least in the initial period of their existence, our case was no different. Companies providing cowork spaces most often convert big houses into workspaces, where they charge you per seat (~5k) and also provide you with a registered address for your company. You can also get a dedicated room or cabin for your team at a slightly higher cost per month.

Being in a cowork space you get to interact with other startups and participate in their journey. I will often see a 3 member founders team suddenly getting a lot of funding and increasing their team to 30-40 in a matter of a week and then moving out of the coworking space. Others will remain stable and work on their product. Some will stop coming as their startups were not going anywhere.

Our company is now 1 year old, unofficially (0.5 years, officially). We are now incubated at IISc. Instead of putting everything in one post, what I have decided is to write to you in intervals as I go through more experiences.

 

Neha Satak Astrome Tech

 

Neha
Astrome Technologies (www.astrome.co)
(An Indian Space Technology Company)

 

 

 

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