As the saying goes, It takes a village to innovate, because innovation is all about collaboration, and collaboration is all about creating an ecosystem for health technologies to make an impact.
Shivani Joshi, our next pathbreaker, works as a subject matter expert at the intersection of digital health, technology and business, helping teams and companies to create better products and services based on robust science.
Shivani talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about combining her fascination for medical genetics with the latest tech developments such as big data, machine learning, and AI to work on solutions designed to improve human health and the quality of life of human beings.
For students, a career is not a straight line. It doesn’t have to be. Take your time to identify your interests, build your skills and use your talent to chase your dreams !
Shivani, can you talk a bit about your growing up years?
Hi, I am Shivani. I was born and raised in Mumbai. My parents are retired; dad worked for RBI and ma for ONGC. I have a younger brother who is a helicopter pilot and an entrepreneur. My cousin, brothers, and aunt, we are super close, they grew up with us, so I grew up in what I call an extended-nuclear family. My schooling was pretty chill. I studied in a convent school called Fr. Agnels in Vashi, after which I did 11-12th Std in Science in Modern College Vashi. I was an average student in school; biology always fascinated me. Though I am very active now, in school, I did not take part in many extra-curricular activities. When I was in school, if I thought it was fun, I did some activities, sporadically, e.g. learning Bharatanatyam for a like a year, after which I found I had no hand leg coordination 😉. I also have a yellow belt in Taekwondo, which was fun until I discovered bench aerobics (it’s like Zumba but with a bench). I did bench aerobics for many years, I loved our instructor, but that ended after the class shut down. After that, I was busy preparing for 10-12 exams.
I have the cutest parents ever. My parents have raised my brother and me to think independently. They have always supported my decisions. So whatever I was curious about, I could do that, within reason, of course. As long as I had decent grades, I could do anything or nothing. Their parenting philosophy has played a vital role in shaping who I am. Since I was allowed to experiment with things, it has given me the courage to take bold risks, learn from my mistakes and chase my dreams.
What did you do for graduation/post graduation?
After 12th in Science in 2002, I did my BSc in Biotechnology from Vikas College, Vikhroli. There I had a teacher called Samruddhi madam who taught us genetics in the first year. She got me hooked on DNA. It’s a fascinating molecule. She coached me to get extra information about medical genetics. That’s when I knew I was going to work a lot with human DNA. That’s where an average student like me started topping the class. DNA is fun!
In 2005, I enrolled for MSc in Biotechnology at Birla College, Kalyan. I was having a lot of fun with human-medical-genetics. I attended lots of workshops and seminars all over Mumbai. In the second year, I did my research project in CREMERE (Center for Research in Mental Retardation), which became PreventiNe Life Care Pvt Ltd in 2007. I was ranked 1st with first-class in both years of MSc Biotechnology, amongst the top 10% students in University of Mumbai 😊
What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and rare career?
My career path is not a typical straightforward one. Today, my career has two layers. I am a scientist-entrepreneur and an ecosystem builder. There are many people and events that have helped me in the pursuit of my dreams. It’s a very long list. I am not shy to ask for help. I have several mentors and coaches. I call them my Board of Directors, who I return to, time and again for advice. I must underline, whenever I have asked for help, I have received in unimaginable abundance. Ask, always keep asking 😊
I firmly believe “It takes a village for one to succeed”.
Some key events and people are:
My curiosity about DNA and its impact on human life drove me to get my PhD and PostDoctoral researcher position in Genetic Medicine at Aarhus University Denmark. Thanks again to Samrudhi Mam.
Over a candid conversation in 2009, with my mentor Dr. Suresh Ganage, colleagues Dr. Ushang and Dr. Vrushali, and the CEO of PreventiNe Life Care, Mr. Abhimanyu, I was sure I had to quit my job and pursue my PhD.
In 2010, I embarked on my research journey in Denmark under the guidance of my PhD supervisors Prof Søren Rittig and Prof Bente Jespersen. I worked on a roller coaster of ambitious projects for 11 years, especially with Prof Søren Rittig and the A-lab team! During one of those projects, I learned about the importance of bringing lab research to the market and its impact on the lives of affected individuals and family members. In Denmark, especially since 2015, many people have helped me transition into my commercial role today, namely Anne-Sofie and the team from TTO (Technology Transfer Office) at AU (Aarhus University), my co-founders and initial team in the start-up Silvi.ai and my confidant-cum-mentor-cum-coach Xenia, who helped me mindfully take these leaps.
Notably, my loved ones Mike, Paula, Theresa, Naresh, and my family, know me better than myself and help me learn and take a final call on critical events in my life.
How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Tell us about your career path
During my BSc and MSc, I was curious about DNA and Medical Genetics. I knew I wanted to work in that field. Since I had attended workshops and did a research project in CREMERE, I wanted to learn in-depth on
- How to do the diagnostic tests in the lab ?
- How do you make test reports ?
- How to do research and publish the results ?
- The theory and practice of genetic counselling where you communicate about the hereditary condition, diagnosis, and next steps to the affected individual and family members
- How a speech therapist, occupational therapist, neuro-developmental professional play an essential role in the lives of specially-abled kids ?
So after my MSc, I asked, and I was subsequently offered a job as a research scholar in CREMERE. I started working there right after my master’s in July 2007. If CREMERE didn’t offer me the job, I had done my research and had a list of labs that did similar work so that I could apply for a job over there. I didn’t need it in the end, but I was prepared.
By Sep 2007, CREMERE became PreventiNe Life Care Pvt LMT (PLC), where I continued working as a research scholar. My R&D work was mainly with techniques such as DNA sequencing, karyotyping, GC/MS metabolic and biochemical testing. We specialized in the screening and diagnosis of (rare) genetic diseases such as Down Syndrome, Fragile X syndrome, Inborn Errors of metabolism. Occasionally, I was also part of writing grants with senior scientific members to Indian Council of Medical Research and Dept of Science and technology. Since it was also a research center, we collaborated with other researchers to do projects using the techniques in the lab or setting up new techniques e.g. enzyme assays. I was also involved in publishing scientific articles and presenting in conferences.
I enjoyed presenting and communicating science, therefore, I was asked to become a product specialist and help the marketing and sales teams. It was my job during the CME (continued medical education) events to explain the details of the diagnostics test. E.g for DNA sequencing, what samples we used, how were they transported, what methods were used, their principles, how we made the test results, what was the next action plan for unsolved cases and how we collaborated with the referring doctors in projects and publications. Basically the scientific and technical details of diagnostic tests offered by PLC.
I also worked with IT teams in PLC because they needed the help of a biologist like me to develop a lab information management system. That’s how slowly, after being in an organization for some time, I started getting additional responsibilities. I took them because it was fun.
After 2.5 years, I knew I wanted to do a PhD in genetic medicine. However, since I traveled +4 hours each day for work (Vashi-Malad), I did not have time to apply for PhD positions. So I decided to quit my job and do only one thing, prepare for a PhD application. So, in Jan 2010, I quit my job in PLC.
I was prepared for the fact that this pursuit for a PhD position might take like 2 years. So I had a plan, to prepare for IELTS, GRE etc in the 1st 8 months, then look for teaching jobs in coaching classes nearby as I continue to apply. I passed IELTS in Feb 2010 and started preparing for the GRE exam. Fortunately, Aarhus University (AU) Denmark had a position with an International Mobility PhD stipend, for which the deadline was in Apr 2010. I applied and waited. In July 2010, I got a call for an interview in Denmark. This was my first visit to Europe. I attended the interview on 12th August 2010. I was selected for my PhD in genetic medicine. Yayyy!
In Dec 2010, I began my PhD in Genetic Medicine in ‘Genetic Aspects of Nephrotic Syndrome’. Kidneys leak large amounts of proteins into the urine, in Nephrotic Syndrome. The worldwide prevalence of NS is approx. 16 cases per 100,000 children with an incidence of 2 to 7 per 100,000 children (Ref: PMID: 25733763). I worked with patients and families from the Pediatric Department of Aarhus University Hospital. Among several things, my primary tasks were
- draft the project
- get permission from ethics department to conduct the project
- raise money for the operational costs of the project,
- gather clinical data and blood samples from affected children and family members
- set-up DNA sequencing work flows
- compare the identified genetic variations in published literature
- communicate with the clinical genetics and referring doctor about the findings
- do further research on pathogenic role of the possible disease causing variations, publish the results
- present the research findings in conferences
- I also taught courses in molecular medicine
I had two major projects on two types of Nephrotic Syndrome, SRNS and SSNS.
Since it is a rare condition, I had to collaborate with pediatric departments all over Denmark and in some cases in Europe. All my projects are multi-national and multi-disciplinary as I had to collaborate with researchers, doctors, clinical geneticists, bioinformaticians and IT experts to make a scientific database of the included patients and their genetic findings, which was used by peers in my team in A-lab to do further research.
The aim of my PhD research was to study the spectrum of genetic variations in children with SRNS in Denmark and to identify the first ever genetic factors involved in SSNS families. The data from the research would be used by clinical geneticists and doctors to characterize and treat the patients in best possible way, which is part of personalized medicine. We know today that the “one size fits all” approach may not work for all patients. In complex diseases and conditions, the characterization of patients can help them receive targeted treatments and therapies.
I submitted my PhD thesis in Mar 2014 and defended it in May 2014. Interestingly, in Denmark, PhD is a full-time employment. You get a good salary, pension, and other benefits. I was awarded a full 3 year salary and some research funds. However, I needed a 3 month extension, which was covered by my lab’s funding.
By Mar 2014, I started on my postdoctoral research, which is a position similar to an assistant professor position. It’s important to note here, I had sowed the seeds for this postdoctoral position in Oct 2013 itself. By coincidence, a group in Harvard Medical School had published their work on genetically modified zebrafish. We established a collaboration with them, raised funding, and work began in Mar 2014.
Zebrafish have been used for many years to study kidney diseases. A genetically modified form of Zebrafish was developed, that can mimic human nephrotic syndrome (NS). It was possible to make the fish overproduce the factor of interest and we studied the effects of the over-production of the protein on fish and its kidneys. The results were supposed to improve our understanding of NS and eventually lead to development of better drugs, thus improving overall clinical management of NS and reduce the side effects of the current treatment with steroids.
Ref: PMID: 29502161 The developing kidney in a 48-h post-fertilisation zebrafish embryo. Shown is an image of a transgenic fish Tg(wt1b:EGFP), expressing the fluorescent protein E-GFP in kidney progenitor cells. The kidney is seen by its GFP expression, with notable structures labelled. The pronephric tubules have not yet reached their full length at this stage of development but will elongate further by 3.5 days post-fertilisation
In Sep 2015, I was at an event at the Tech Transfer office in AU, where I learned about how the research in the lab can help people in the real world through technology commercialization. Its impact fascinated me. I always wanted to work in a space where I can improve the quality of life of a human being, today! That’s possible today with technology, primarily through something called Digital-Health.
During 2015-2017, along with my research, I learned about the business aspects of bringing lab research to the market and the latest tech developments such as big data, machine learning, and AI. So I was curious about applying these advancements in my research work. This is where the international nocturnal enuresis biobank INEB was born in 2017.
To raise money for INEB, in 2017-2019, I was part of several commercial applications, in a team effort to build several public-private partnerships e.g. between university, medical device company, management consultancies, tech start-ups. We came in second for many grant application processes, so there was no money, but in the meantime we raised part of funding from a Pharma company. So from Mar 2018 I became Project Leader for INEB, managing the project spread across 8 countries.
Biobanking is a process to collect samples such as blood, urine or body tissue for research on human health and disease. In INEB we collected blood or saliva, to extract DNA to do advanced genomic studies in trios (affected child, mother and father). The plan is to collect clinical, psychological, genetical and if possible medical device data so we can understand and treat nocturnal enuresis (night-time bedwetting) better and learn from the regional differences.
While I was working on INEB and fundraising, I worked as a Scientific advisor in a consultancy called Pharmaevidence ApS from May 2018 to Mar 2019.
A machine learning start-up called Silvi.ai was born in Dec2018. I was part of the co-founding team. That’s when my start-up journey began. In Apr 2019, I officially worked with team Silvi, creating a machine learning solution to automate meta-analysis.
Since I was still leading INEB, had strong research and medical knowledge base, I found myself helping other health tech, med tech, fem tech, digital health start-ups with their concept development, product development, regulatory approvals and of course fundraising 😉 That’s when I decided to start my consultancy, CDG ApS, where I currently work as a knowledge partner with companies, investors and consultants who need my help. Meanwhile, I am also affiliated as an Healthtech advisor in several tech incubators in EU and India. Moreover, I have just become an ambassador in EU-India Innocenter, where I will help them bring EU innovations to India. All my work, especially since 2019, has been toward building a more robust start-up ecosystem in health tech. Hence I use the titles scientist-entrepreneur and ecosystem builder 😊
How did you get your first break?
I have many firsts and hopefully more to come.
1) First – First was my first job, at CREMERE and PreventiNe Life Care in Sep 2007
2) Second – Another break was in Denmark, where I did my PhD in Genetic Medicine in Aarhus University, in 2010
3) Third – My first break in entrepreneurship, was in Silvi.ai legally in Apr 2019
What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?
Challenge 1: Time-Task-People Management. I am a very curious, energetic person who is impatient. I lacked structure in managing my tasks and time. My mentor Karsten could see my potential and has been helping me get things done like a pro and manage my teams well.
Challenge 2: Xenia has been helping me navigate the transition from academia to industry, by understanding firstly what I desire and my why.
Challenge 3: Identifying my strengths, limiting beliefs, and going big. That’s where Mikaela’s structured and systematic coaching ‘dreams to reality’ helped me a lot.
Where do you work now? What problems do you solve?
I work at my consultancy called CDG ApS. I am a knowledge partner for health tech, med-tech, femtech, digital health business growth. I come in as a subject matter expert and help teams and companies to create better products and services based on robust science.
What skills are needed for your role? How did you acquire the skills?
I apply several skills at my work. Let’s start with technical skills. I have a strong knowledge base in Science, biomedicine, genetic medicine, IT in the health sector, and hospital and regulatory requirements in Denmark and India. I acquired them through my education and hands-on experience through my jobs in both countries.
I do not code (yet!), but I learned to work with machine learning algorithms in the start-up. Since I understand scientific data and its applications, I can help with software development in health tech. I am curious. So it helps me keep up with the latest trends in Science and Technology. My PhD training honed my critical thinking and analytical skills. I also apply several transferable skills such as project management, quality consciousness, commercial acumen, public speaking, negotiating, providing feedback, knowledge creation, reporting information, research, and planning, managing teams, making and implementing decisions, etc. Problem-solving, cross-functional collaboration, relationship-building and risk taking skills come naturally to me. Every human being is unique. I love working in very diverse (age, race, gender, geographies) teams.
What’s a typical day like?
No day is alike. My favorite days are when I have time to meditate and exercise in the morning, followed by working on my tasks (all thinking jobs) in the first half of the day, followed by meetings in the second half of the day that ends with a walk in nature. But, remarkably, the sessions where we brainstorm and create a plan to translate ideas from whiteboard to reality, the execution excites me.
What is it you love about this job?
I love its ability to improve the quality of life of a human being.
How does your work benefit society?
I work on solutions designed to improve human health and the quality of life of human beings.
I apply my knowledge base and skills to bridge the gap between lab research and the market. I work in interdisciplinary teams and ensure our work is based on robust scientific evidence to benefit people using the solutions.
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
It is challenging to pick a favorite when you care about your work very much and when it is spread over several continents.
If I have to, it would be incorporating the International Nocturnal Enuresis Biobank (INEB) in Denmark, Belgium, Italy, Germany, Poland, Japan, China, and the USA. INEB is my brainchild. It was my privilege to lead the project with an incredible team of dedicated doctors, researchers, students from nephrology, psychology, genetics, and techno-anthropology. I also worked very closely with lawyers and other commercial leaders. The diversity in the project was magical. Unfortunately, the project is paused now because of COVID, but I hope it will resume soon, and the affected children and family members will benefit from the findings and developments.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
Here’s what has worked for me:
- Nurture your curiosity
- You matter, your questions matter, ASK
- Have coaches and mentors. They will help you see beyond your abilities
- In Marathi we have a saying “aikave janache karave manache” which translates to, ask for advice, do your research and analysis. In the end, do what seems logical to you. Trust your gut and chase your dreams
- A career is not a straight line. It doesn’t have to be. You can use your talent in any way or form you wish
- Get financially literate, so you can be smart with your money and build a life you desire
Ooo, so many. Human health is the common denominator in all my endeavors. I have an educator, a venture builder, and a philanthropist in me. Rest time and possibilities will tell. Stay tuned 😊