Meet a Member: Swarna Balasubramanian
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I grew up in Chennai, a city located in the southern part of India. I completed my undergraduate studies there and then came to the US to do my PhD in Biochemical Engineering at the University of Maryland. While I was doing my PhD, I also did a part-time internship at Acidophil, an innovative start-up that creates, manages, and co-invests in new biotech start-ups in a semi-serial manner. We worked to solve unmet needs in agriculture, animal health and human health using a combination of synthetic biology and chemistry This was my first, significant exposure to start-ups, venture capital, family offices and marked the beginning of a passion for entrepreneurship and innovation. What started as a six-month internship in Acidophil ended up being something that I was actively involved for the next eight years. After Acidophil, I was curious about how pharmaceutical companies operate and what happens on the other side of the deal table. Today, I work in the Emerging Innovations Unit within R&D at AstraZeneca. My group finds and catalyzes novel science and technology that could become the ‘Next Big Thing’ in drug discovery and development, with the aim of creating the next generation of therapeutics for patients. We do this by working with start-ups and academics on innovative ideas that could have a big impact in the future of the biotech and pharmaceutical industry. I am grateful for such a forward-thinking innovation role with an opportunity to interact with so many smart scientists and business folks in the industry.
What motivated you to get involved in science, who inspired you?
I owe my initial interest in science and entrepreneurship to Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw. Kiran is the founder and the executive chairperson of Biocon Ltd., a biotechnology company based in Bangalore, India. She started Biocon in her garage when she was 25 years old. Today, the company has presence in more than a hundred countries and is a leading manufacturer of affordable medicines. I first read about Kiran when I was an undergraduate. Women in entrepreneurship was virtually unheard of at that time in India and her story appealed to me personally. It inspired me to pursue higher studies in science and to explore the entrepreneurial path. In my first role at Acidophil, I learned how to take an idea all the way from the concept to exit, including how to finance a start-up. Not all the start-ups that we worked on were successful, but I learned both from the successes as well as failures. I’m working in a global pharmaceutical company now and my role is very entrepreneurial and involves interactions with innovators and entrepreneurs.
Tell us more about how you landed at AstraZeneca?
This is an interesting story of how something that I did for fun ended up being beneficial in the long run. In 2014 when I was still a PhD student, I participated in an Open Innovation challenge that was run by the same team that I am part of now at AstraZeneca. My proposal was selected to be a winner of that challenge and was awarded a cash prize. I then forgot about the competition and went on to work for Acidophil. Fast-forward six years, the team at AstraZeneca reconnected with me regarding inventorship of a patent that came out of the proposal that I had submitted as part of the competition. It was great to see my idea being implemented. I was also amazed by the entrepreneurial nature of the team and how they diligently followed-through good ideas irrespective of where they came from. At that time, I was exploring other opportunities; given the entrepreneurial and science-focused nature of AstraZeneca and the team, it is not a surprise that I decided to join them.
What is some advice you have for aspiring entrepreneurs?
As you pitch your ideas to investors and partners, you will get a lot of no before you get to yes. Try to determine what they are saying no to — is it the problem? the solution? or maybe it is the way the idea is being pitched? The answer to this question contains a lot of valuable information and can help tweak your story to get a yes eventually. So be persistent. But more importantly be curious!
What advice would you give to women in life sciences and biotechnology who may want to follow in your footsteps?
Get broad exposure to a lot of different areas of the business whether that is in science, business development, regulatory, finance, legal etc. This can be via volunteering, attending information sessions, taking a course or more active involvement via internships, co-ops etc. While having deep expertise is important, broad exposure gives a bird’s eye view of what else is out there and how all the parts come together to make a successful business. It develops the ability to speak the language of various stakeholders and understand things from their perspective. This skill can be incredibly helpful in managing a diverse team and communicating with stakeholders. Networking is a key part and an added benefit of these experiences as well.
As a woman in science, can you speak to adversity you may have encountered and how did you overcome it?
For me personally it is not a matter of being a woman, but more of the adversity many immigrants face. None of my family members had been to the US when I moved from India, so it was a completely new territory. Many things I had to learn by myself… It was hard work, and it took a lot of courage and optimism to get where I am today.
For women in the field, I think things are changing. As a woman in biotech, AstraZeneca is a good place to be, because they invest in, develop and support women leaders. There’s a lot more work to do, but I think any female scientist or professional is in a better place today than before.
What tech trend are you following today and why?
My job involves following emerging trends in the industry. I am excited about the possibilities of TechBio, spatial transcriptomics and 3D cultures to name just a few.
How did you get involved with TiE Boston, and what prompted you to become a member?
I first heard about TiE when I was in Maryland; TiE DC had organized a startup event in the Indian Embassy. I was part of that event. I thought it was very well-organized with a lot of great feedback to the startups, but I didn’t get actively involved at that time. When I moved to Boston Thara Pillai, a TiE charter member and board member, recommended I get involved. Given my interest in entrepreneurship, I thought this was a great fit, and I became a charter member right away.
Every time I go to a TiE networking event or charter member event, I come back energized, inspired by all the great things people are doing in the society. Then I think about what else I can do to give back to society? I think that is the biggest impact TiE has had in my life. For instance, I can mention the recent charter member social hosted by Santhana Krishnan, and his great support for artists, especially South Indian artists…This was something I had thought of a few years ago and it was very cool to see someone implementing that idea.
What did you find most rewarding about your involvement with TiE Boston?
I served as a co-chair for TiE University which was one of the most significant experiences I have had. When I was a student, I had participated in business plan competitions, which helped me to develop my entrepreneurship skills. Therefore, a program like that was important to me, and I wanted to help other students as well. Through the TiE University program, there was a lot of mentoring along the way, lots of workshops. Because this was my first experience collaborating with TiE in a major way I had frequent meetings with Anu Chitrapu, the TiE Boston President at the time which gave me the opportunity to receive some leadership coaching and mentoring from her. It was so incredibly rewarding to see the TiE Boston winner then go on to win the global finals and later awarded the TiE Rising Entrepreneur of the Year.
Also, I attended TiE Women Pitch competition for the last two years and found it inspirational each time. I believe it’s one of the best programs in TiE. The technology and innovation was incredibly promising, the applications were very innovative and entrepreneurial. Many of the startups had sustainability and environmental aspects, which I believe all entrepreneurs should start thinking about.
Are there any books or podcasts that you would recommend to other entrepreneurs?
I would recommend Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela. That’s one of my favorite books. Nelson Mandela faced a lot of adversity, but he had a clear vision and was persistent. He was able to execute upon it and achieve what he started out to do. The second recommendation I’d have, a recent book I read, is Atomic Habits. The premise of the book is that most people who are portrayed as geniuses, are not. In fact it’s the simple result of hard work, determination and small habits that we do every single day that actually culminates into something much greater. One of the habits I took from the book is to practice more meditation — I have a lot of meetings during the day and have to constantly shift my attention from one project to another. So I try to meditate for at least a few minutes every morning. It helps me to stay centered and make decisions in my meetings more effectively.