Biomedical Systems are improving and extending patients’ lives through cutting edge health technologies based on multi-disciplinary engineering approaches.
Kavya Suresh, our next pathbreaker, Head of System R&D at Verathon Inc (Vancouver, Canada), leads a multi-disciplinary R&D team in the respiratory business unit of airway management devices that are used in anesthesiology, critical care and emergency medicine.
Kavya talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about picking biomedical engineering as a major because of its relevance in every engineering stream (mechanical, electrical, software etc).
For students, don’t focus too much on your specialization. Instead, look at the bigger picture and figure what you have to do to get there !
Kavya, can you tell us about your early years?
I grew up in Chennai, India and spent all of my childhood through my bachelors here. I moved to the US for my masters at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, PA and continued working in Pittsburgh, until we decided to move to Canada last year.
I’ve grown up learning bharatanatyam and continue to learn from my guru and would spend my weekends in Pittsburgh attending class and helping teach little kids at our dance school.
What did you do for graduation/post graduation?
I did my bachelors and masters in Biomedical Engineering.
I completed my Bachelors at SSN College in Chennai and moved to the US for my Masters (Biomedical Engineering) at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
What were the drivers that led you to such an offbeat, unconventional and unique career?
I had actually picked Mechanical Engineering as my major during my bachelors but decided to change my primary choice right before I joined. One of the experiences that made me pick Biomedical Engineering early in my career was my visit to Mukthi Foundation in Chennai after I had completed my boards. Mukthi foundation is an organization that designs and manufactures artificial limbs and calipers. I had the opportunity to tour the facility, witness the designing process and see how the process worked. This experience got me quite interested in what I could be working on if I took up Biomedical Engineering.
When you pick Biomedical Engineering as your major, it comes with its positives and challenges. Being a Jack of all has its challenges when you need to land your first job. You are competing against people who have majored in mechanical/electrical/software, if Engineering is the direction you wish to pick. What sets you apart are the domain specific projects you work on or the relevant internship experiences that you gain.
How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path
As mentioned, my first break was getting an opportunity to do my internship at Blue Belt Technologies, an orthopedic surgical robotics startup that was founded in 2003. I started my career as a design assurance engineer, performing system, software and hardware testing for the NAVIO surgical system. It features robotics-assisted technology that integrates handheld robotics and CT-free (radiation free) surgical planning to guide surgeons in performing accurate bone cuts for indicated knee replacement surgeries.
The 2 month summer internship soon turned into a semester long one where I continued my coursework alongside my work part time. I decided to pick courses in my final semester that would help me in my work. I got a full time job at the company in the Mechanical Engineering team upon graduation.
I learnt a lot on the job here and picked up any little project that came along. The leadership was extremely encouraging, I got a chance to try my hand at managing some smaller projects that I was working on. I soon realized that while I was enjoying doing what I am doing, I enjoyed the project management aspects much more in comparison to the engineering work I was doing. We had an opening within our company for a project manager (PM) role and I decided to apply for it. This was a turning point in my career as it opened up a ton of opportunities for me.
I spent the next few years as a PM, and this was an incredible learning experience working closely with cross-functional teams including engineering, quality, regulatory, operations, upstream and downstream marketing on new product development programs. Our company got acquired by Smith + Nephew right on the heels of the launch of my 1st major new product development program. This came as a whole learning in and of itself. I learned pretty early in my career, how to report out to upper management, especially when they aren’t close enough to the program on the ground. I learnt how to deliver succinct messages with the right amount of detail, while still instilling confidence that our team has got it.
Our group soon moved into a rapid growth phase and we realized that the PM team needed to grow as well. My colleague and I were the only 2 PMs in the company and found the need to form 2 small PM teams to take on the growth in the portfolio and in the number of programs. I was soon responsible for all new indication expansion programs (expanding use of the NAVIO system into new surgical indications in the orthopedic space) in the Robotics team as the manager of the PM team, and hired my first PM on the team. This team grew quickly from 1 to 3 people. This was the right team size for me at that point as I was learning how to move from being an individual contributor to being a manager. My focus needed to be more on people management, learning to delegate, staying connected to the details while still empowering my team. This was an incredible experience. I enjoyed every minute of being a people manager, including the challenges that come along with it.
I hadn’t really thought about changing my role, though I knew I wanted to get back into R&D someday and perhaps lead an R&D team.
The Robotics division was in a scaling phase and part of the management team gave me exposure to aspects such as re-organization. This was a huge learning experience for me.
Our software organization was creating many teams within its new organizational structure and I was asked if I would be interested in leading one of the groups. This involved setting up the org from ground up, defining roles & responsibilities. Apart from hiring a local team in Pittsburgh, this role involved setting up an overseas engagement center in Pune, India and hiring a whole team of engineers in India to be able to grow and scale the team.
I took on this role as the senior manager, as I felt this would give me a break back into R&D, and I would get the experience to set up an org from ground up and learn what it is to lead a team that is larger in size, with part of the team being in a different time zone all together.
Upon review of the org changes after a year and a half, we realized that there was a lot of overlap in program related responsibilities between two groups. I worked closely with my colleagues on a detailed proposal to upper management on how best to combine the groups, clarify and simplify the roles, which would help make their program involvement more efficient.
These years at Smith+Nephew taught me a lot about organizational structuring and most importantly change management.
This led to my team getting combined with the systems engineering organization and I took on leading the systems engineering group.
In 2021, we decided to move to Canada as a family and I moved to the respiratory division of Verathon Medical. Here I lead a cross-function R&D team for the systems portfolio, managing other engineering and program leaders.
How did you get your first break?
What I consider as my first break was getting the opportunity to do my internship at Blue Belt Technologies while in my masters program. I had reached out to the CTO of the company Branko Jaramaz, who was a professor at Carnegie Mellon University. I had reached out to get an opportunity to do my masters thesis in his Lab. I learnt through our communication that he had a company doing some really innovative work in the field of surgical robotics. I realized that the logistics of me doing my masters thesis there may be challenging, but I reached out to see if there were any opportunities in the summer that I could interview for, and that’s how I got my first break in the MedTech industry as a design assurance engineer.
What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?
Working in the US comes with the challenge of getting picked in the work visa lottery. Unfortunately, we as working professionals have no control over it. It took multiple attempts for me to get picked and was the main driver for my husband and I deciding to move to Canada.
Where do you work now? What problems do you solve?
I work at Verathon Medical in the Respiratory division leading an R&D team comprising electrical, mechanical, software engineering, and program management.
Here, I work in the respiratory business unit of airway management devices such as video laryngoscopes and bronchoscopes that are used in anesthesiology, critical care and emergency medicine.
A good portion of my work day involves meeting with my direct team or stakeholders from various program teams or others from the management team to discuss program related challenges, any associated decision making or escalations that are needed, and the work that comes along with it. Other times, the discussions are more people or process related. Depending on the time of the year, there are discussions on employee hiring, interviews, etc. that I am a part of. For some programs where our vendor relationship is critical, I am involved in discussions with the vendor as well. I try to block off times of the day to get my individual work done.
I love that each day is different, the challenges you deal with, the decisions you need to take, etc.
How does your work benefit society?
The best part about working in the MedTech industry is the direct impact your products have on people. Whether it is Smith + Nephew with a purpose of life unlimited or Verathon with a mission of improving and extending patients’ lives, there is a strong sense of satisfaction you get from the work that you do.
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
A program that is close to my heart is the very first launch of the total knee arthroplasty indication on the NAVIO surgical system. This was my first major project as a program manager, and was set to launch right around the time Blue Belt got acquired by Smith + Nephew. One of the biggest learning experiences, I enjoyed every bit of working on it and strategizing how best to phase the releases to launch as planned.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
It’s not always easy to know exactly what you want to do in the next 5 or 10 years. I have admired individuals who know exactly what they want to do. But if you don’t, you are not alone. Once I was in my job, I found it easier to determine what parts of it I enjoyed, what I wouldn’t want to do in the longer term and what I would want to work towards in my next role. It also helps to talk to people around you, there is so much to learn from other people’s experiences. I made sure that I picked up little pieces or work that came along, without worrying about whether it was directly “my job” to do it or not. Especially early in your career, this will be a great learning experience.
I don’t have my 10 year vision chalked out even now, but I know I enjoy leading a large team, being part of setting and driving strategy and directing teams to achieve the goal / strategy that’s been laid out, finding the optimal way to get there and helping teams overcome the challenges that come along. I see myself in a role where I constantly learn, get to stretch myself and grow.