Bench to Bedside research has the potential to empower lives through commercialisation of cutting-edge technologies and innovations in the realm of medical technology.
Viveka Kalidasan (PhD), our next pathbreaker, Technology & Commercialisation Lead at Agency for Science Technology and Research (A*STAR), Singapore, spearheads the commercialization of innovations with a focus on medtech and femtech use-cases.
Viveka talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about her work on wireless sensing (WiSe) sutures, that led to her being recognised as one of the top 100 Women in Technology in Singapore as an Innovator and Technopreneur.
For students, Dream…But don’t just stop at dreaming, find ways to pursue your dream and make it a reality !
Viveka, can you tell us about your background?
I’m a small-town girl from India, who was encouraged to dream and pursue her dreams, by her doctor parents. My parents are progressive people, who raised their girls as ‘children’ and not only as ‘daughters’, thus breaking the gender barriers and enabling our progress.
I always had entrepreneurial aspirations from childhood. This may be because my parents had their own Nursing Home and I saw them working hard and directly empowering lives. They had the incredible choice of being their own boss. This entrepreneurial aspiration is the key for my belief in translational research, that is to bring research from the confines of the lab to the market, for better use of humanity. Today I’m an innovator and a deeptech entrepreneur, with focus on medical technology. This is because of my background.
What did you do for graduation/post graduation?
I did my BTech in Biotechnology from TamilNadu Agricultural University (TNAU), Masters in Medical Nanotechnology from SASTRA University and a PhD in Materials Science & Engineering (BioMaterials) from National University of Singapore (NUS).
What were the drivers that led you on such an offbeat, unconventional and unique career?
I was naturally drawn to biology, particularly to advances in Biology from school days, as my parents are doctors. So, I went on to pursue a Bachelor’s in Biotechnology from TamilNadu Agricultural University, as it was an upcoming field, back then in 2006. The BTech Biotech course at TNAU is a prestigious one and it has world-class infrastructure. During my UG, I was drawn towards Nanotechnology, as it was an emerging field then. So, I immediately took up a final year project (FYP) research in nanomaterial research, a first-time attempt in TNAU.
For my FYP, I biosynthesized silver nanoparticles from a newly discovered bacterial species. Silver nanoparticles have antimicrobial properties. A green synthesis method using bacteria is a novel way to fabricate uniformly shaped nanoparticles.
This encouraged me to pursue a DST sponsored Masters in Medical Nanotechnology from SASTRA University. During my M.Tech, I also qualified for the prestigious IITM Summer Fellowship (May -Jul 2011), where I worked in the (then) newly formed Biomaterials Lab in the Dept of Biotechnology.
Almost a decade ago, I arrived in Singapore to pursue my PhD at National University of Singapore(NUS) unaccompanied by anyone, but driven by my dreams. Singapore is a land of possibilities for anyone who has a dream(s) and the relentlessness will to pursue it. For me, the NUS ecosystem further enabled and facilitated the same. For a small-town girl, who was encouraged to dream and pursue her dreams, a PhD in NUS was really a dream come true. NUS (PhD) gave me all that I aspired for in my professional life. I built novel nano-biomaterials for cancer theranostics during my PhD candidature in NUS MSE. It was truly a global experience to have done my PhD in one of the world’s best institutes for materials science and engineering research.
My parents have always been my key influencers and mentors from the very beginning till today. I also chose my own mentors on my career path. Mentors play a key role in shaping your aspirations into reality. So far, I have been able to pursue what I truly believe in. I truly pursue my passion and will find ways to do things in my preferred way. My parents have always been my enablers and facilitators. They set the path for me, which has propelled me to excel.
How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted?
As mentioned, I was initially fascinated by biology, especially human biology. So I pursued a Bachelors in Biotechnology. Then, I got attracted to nanotech, so i went on to pursue a Masters in medical nanotechnology. This was a DST sponsored course, as I was the topper of my batch throughout.
Then I went on to get a PhD in NUS in Materials Science and Engineering with a Singapore government scholarship.
During my PhD, I worked on fabricating ‘biocompatible’ magnetic nanomaterials for cancer therapy and diagnostics (theranostics). The fabricated nanomaterials were used to treat cancer through magnetic hyperthermia (MH). When nanoparticles are injected at the site of tumor and the patient is subjected to an external magnetic field, the particles vibrate and cause increase in temperature. This raise in temperature can selectively kill tumor cells, as tumor cells have a disorganized vascular system (blood vessels) when compared to normal cells. This is called MH. For diagnostics, the same nanoparticles can be used as contrast agents for Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI). Therefore my work on magnetic materials were used for multimodal cancer theranostics.
NUS (PhD) gave me all that I aspired for in my professional life. While the researcher in me built novel nano-biomaterials for cancer theranostics, the leader in me served in NUS Graduate Students’ Society (GSS) as Senior Director for International Student Affairs and Chairperson for Communication; the entrepreneur in me hustled in NUS Entrepreneurship Society (NES); the care-giver in me served the students of Tembusu College both as a Graduate Fellow taking care of Tembusians and the Editor-in-Chief of their online student magazine, TreeHouse. Despite the fact that I grabbed every opportunity that suited my aspirations, the PhD journey wasn’t a cake walk. Failures and challenges made me a better and stronger human. A PhD in NUS is truly beyond the four walls of a lab.
After my PhD, as I’m a believer of translational research, I tried to commercialize my medical implant invention, which is my postdoctoral work in NUS Wireless Bioelectronics Lab.
When I joined the lab, I had to learn new skills, as I had to marry my materials science expertise with the lab’s wireless capabilities. I eventually invented and innovated a wireless sensing (WiSe) platform technology to monitor surgical site complications, happening deep within the body. Typically, when a person who underwent surgery develops sudden complications like bleeding, infection etc., it will appear as symptoms after 7-10 days. But by the time the symptoms like fever, nausea, blood pressure etc., arise, it might be too late and fatal. My WiSe technology comprises of an implantable tiny chip, that can be attached at the site of surgery, during the surgery itself. A mobile phone sized reader can power the sensor chip and communicate what is happening within the body, to the clinicians, patients and care-givers. I pursued my passion to commercialise the technology. I went on to pitch my invention at various platforms and raised hundreds of thousands of translational funding and went on to bag the LOTUS-NUS Healthcare Award of 50K SGD and Young Investigator Award. This coverage by print and telemedia put me on the spotlight and got the attention of high profile Key Opinion Leaders, Investors and Medtech giants and companies. It was quite a ‘WiSe’ journey.
My current job role was created for me. I’m the Technology Development and Commercialisation Lead, looking at commercialising innovations from Singapore’s largest research conglomerate, Agency for Science Technology and Research (A*STAR).
There is one thing that is evident, I create my path and find great people along the way and I’m completely driven by passion.
Inorder to give other young people the opportunity, I started my mentorship startup, The Edify Project (www.theedifyproject.com), fondly called Edify. Edify offers a suite of mentorship opportunities to people from all walks of lives.
How did you get your first break?
I consider every step as a first break.
The pivotal moments would be when I won the NUS Scholarship to pursue my PhD in National University of Singapore and when I bagged the LOTUS-NUS Helathcare Award.
The former brought me to the world of possibilities and the latter put me on the map of medtech ecosystem.
Me becoming the Singapore top 100 Women in Technology, is a cherry on top of all that preceded.
What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?
Being a brown woman in the deeptech-medtech space, though challenges are inevitable, they are rewarding at the end of it. The challenges I face take on different disguises.
The most important ones which I experience and many women in leadership roles may resonate with are,
Challenge : Doubting my calibre as an innovator and technopreneur, as my Asian woman identity precedes my capability and talent. This is because the deep-tech-medtech entrepreneurial ecosystem is predominantly male-dominated and male-driven. This is a common social construct that might dampen opportunities for women.
How I overcome: I make use of every opportunity given and never turn my back on any opportunity. One opportunity leads to another. This helps me stay visible and high in the game, in order to garner the recognition and traction. I make sustainable connections for life and show the highest level of integrity while I deliver my results. Slowly I realise, my laurels precede my physical identity.
Challenge : When they realise that I’m a highly successful and capable person, people tend to drive me in their direction, in order to fulfil their KPIs, backed by my efforts and laurels. This poses the threat of diluting my efforts and distracting or impeding me from reaching my destination, sooner.
How I overcome: While I listen carefully to my team, mentors, advisors and every stakeholder and accommodate their views, over the years, I have learnt to politely say no and stay firm in my views and decisions. I’m everyday trying to master the art of balancing the fine line between being an empathetic leader and being taken for granted.
Challenge: When the milestones are successfully achieved, people expect me to take a backseat, while the rest of the journey will be driven by a man from a dominant race. This undermines my effort.
How I overcome: Make myself irreplaceable and unavoidable as I know that the passion and grit I have towards my technology or venture or craft is unique and tailor made. The ability to transfer knowledge across the team and yet be at the top of the game and irreplaceable, is an art.
Challenge: Being paid lesser than peers and expected to believe that I’m worth that pay.
How I overcome: I let the stakeholder know why I’m worth what I ask for. I show my past credentials and future plans to convince them that I set the stage and run the show.
Apart from this, my inherent and undying passion to be a leader par excellence in my chosen field, to be a deeptech-medtech founder, helps me keep my spirits high and never lose myself, while I fight the storm. This gives me a sense of purpose to hang-on and strive harder and smarter. I have the inimitable support of my family (my strength), my friends and mentors to hold me when I’m low.
Another very unique way I have adapted to overcome challenges is by paying it forward as a mentor to deserving talents and ventures. I founded Edify, a one-stop, innovative mentorship platform for deserving talents across the globe. I’m also a mentor-in-residence to various venture creation programmes like UN Women-Care Accelerator programme, UK based cLAB ventures, Beyond Health Hack, Parkway Hospitals Innovation challenge etc., This way, I’m doing my part in creating a culture and ecosystem of good-willed humans and incredible ventures, across borders. This is my way of empowering fellow beings who will empower every woman, girl out there and make the world gender neutral.
Where do you work now? Tell us about your role at A*Star
My current job role was created for me. I’m the Technology Development and Commercialization Lead, looking at commercializing innovations from Singapore’s largest research conglomerate, Agency for Science Technology and Research (A*STAR). I spearhead the commercialization of biophotonics based technologies with a focus on medtech and femtech use-cases.
I’m currently spearheading the commercialisation of biophotonic technologies like LiDAR, Photoacoustic imaging, Raman spectroscopy etc., for female technology (FemTech) applications like monitoring reproductive health of post-menopausal women, pregnant women, breast cancer tumor removal etc.,
How does your work benefit society?
I believe in translating technologies from lab to market. I believe that the innovations I’m working on will empower patients and women.
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
I was immersively involved in the translation of my postdoctoral invention – wireless sensing (WiSe) sutures that can detect postoperative complications on time. WiSe sutures are a novel class of sutures that are patient-centric. WiSe has put me on the map of powerful women inventors. I’m today recognised as one of the top 100 Women in Technology in Singapore. Looking back at my path, this recognition alongside some of the most powerful women in Singapore, is a humbling experience.
My work has also been published in the prestigious Nature Biomedical Engineering (nBME) journal. This is a researcher’s dream. A publication in nBME, sets the direction of further research in the set field. Furthermore my work made it to the cover page of the October 2021 nBME issue and was highlighted in Nature News and Views.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
Dream…But don’t just stop at dreaming, find ways to pursue your dream.
As I look at commercializing technologies from A*STAR, I will eventually spin out one of them and become a founder myself. Parallelly, as the Founder-Director of The Edify Project, I will carry on with my mentorship initiatives for deserving talents and startups.