Senior Manager of Development & Communications Melissa Duggan sat down with Shivang Dave of PlenOptika to talk about research as social impact and his experience in our Social Business Accelerator.
Can you tell me a little about your background?
I’m from Sacramento, California. I’m East Indian and American and so I visited India a lot when I was a kid. Back then, India had dramatic levels of disparity and poverty, and my parents never shielded us from it, which had a big effect on me. From a very early age of five or six I had set my direction: to try to “make things better” and have an impact. I had an inclination that medicine was the route to achieve this. When I got to college, I switched from being pre-med to bioengineering, because it allowed me to integrate my passion for the sciences and engineering in a way that medicine didn’t allow, and I realized there was more potential to impact more people through research.
In 2003, I helped develop a wearable bio-monitoring technology with the goal of enabling patients from lower-income neighborhoods in Oakland to be monitored by health professionals remotely because of the financial barriers to long hospital stays. After UC Berkeley, I went to graduate school to pursue a PhD in bioengineering and nanotechnology at University of Washington, Seattle. While I was there I engaged in programs in the bioengineering department and business school focused on training scientists and engineers on technology translation and entrepreneurship. These programs gave me the tools to pursue my growing realization at the time, that unless researchers can take their innovations out of the university and bring them to market, they do not have the impact that they’re supposed to.
After earning my PhD, I came to Boston to join the inaugural Fellowship class of the Madrid-MIT M+Visión Consortium. It was a very unique program that allowed postdoctoral fellows to be semi-independent and to pursue their own ideas that leveraged the resources in Madrid and Boston. We were challenged to identify large-scale, unmet medical needs in the world and to develop technology around the pre-existing barriers – PlenOptika came out of this process.
Do you have any specific stories of mentors who really impacted your trajectory?
I’m a kid who always felt blessed to have good teachers and mentors. Mr. Green, my eighth grade history teacher, really inspired my love for Berkeley, where I ended up going to college. He was a Berkeley alum who was there in the 60s and he used to inspire us with stories of its the academic and cultural tradition. He cited famous quotes to broaden our perspective, which resonated with me. That, and he was just a really great teacher.
In college I had a physics professor, Bob Jacobson, whose class was so over-subscribed that he made a second section. Turns out, I was the only one who came to the second section. Even so, he maintained the second section during which he and I would be at the blackboard for 45 minutes every week. When I was trying to pick grad schools and having a life crisis about which opportunity to select, he was one of the only people who encouraged me to ignore rankings and prestige and pursue the school that was the best fit for me. If it did not work out, I could switch – nothing is fixed in stone. It’s so easy to feel “locked in” in Academia and in Indian/Asian culture. I still reflect on his advice more than a decade later.
Can you talk a little bit more about PlenOptika? Milestones? Highlights?
Our team of four postdoctoral fellows started PlenOptika in the Madrid-MIT M+Visión Consortium at MIT. Although I didn’t have an optics research background, I joined the team because I understood the industry, having previously worked on global health and the translation and commercialization of an eye care delivery device in grad school. Over the last five years we have raised over $1.3 million in grants, published papers, won awards in business plan competitions, and tested over 1,200 patients in five different clinical evaluations – Boston, Madrid, India (two trials), and China – and partnered with some of the most influential eye hospitals and eyeglass organizations in the world. We’ve been scrappy; we’ve been very opportunistic; we’ve adapted; and we’ve aligned incredibly helpful mentors along the way. It’s been a long winding path between two points, but it’s come full circle.
"I’m very confident that will be able to raise money soon, and in large part because of the relationship at SIF and the transformation we underwent – from being investable company that wasn’t coming off as an investable company, to being perceived as investable by the investor community."
What brought you to SIF?
Coming in I knew nothing about it, and I was really hesitant at first. I thought, “we’re pretty experienced. We’ve been doing this for a while now, have gone through accelerators and incubators already, and we do not need another accelerator.” It was Susan (Musinsky), Marissa (Silapaswan), and Vikram (Punwani) at SIF who shared their time andperspective with me, helping me see the opportunity in joining SIF because of its strong social impact focus. Prior to SIF, we had been advised by friendly investors to de-emphasize our social impact focus, because it often raises red flags with for-profit investors. We kept this in mind and focused on how to address these concerns while engaging with SIF. I was very fortunate because I had an amazing mentor team. In the end, although I didn’t want to focus on slide deck iterations during SIF, we did, and it helped tighten up and craft our story. Although we have yet to raise private investment, I’m very confident that will be able to raise money soon, and in large part because of the relationship at SIF and the transformation we underwent – from being investable company that wasn’t coming off as an investable company, to being perceived as investable by the investor community.