Women in Business Q&A: Dr. Anita Goel, M.D., Ph.D., CEO of Nanobiosym

05/19/2015 04:46 am ET | Updated May 18, 2016

Dr. Anita Goel, M.D., Ph.D., is the Chairman and CEO of the Nanobiosym in Cambridge, Massachusetts. A world renowned nanotechnology scientist and entrepreneur as well as Harvard-MIT-trained physicist and physician, Dr. Goel is focused on delivering new game-changing technologies to decentralize the next generation of healthcare infrastructure. She was awarded the 2013 XPRIZE in recognition of her pioneering contributions to the emerging field of nanobiophysics and her Gene-RADAR® technology. Gene-RADAR® is a fully portable, chip-based diagnostic platform that can recognize any disease with a genetic fingerprint from a single drop of blood or saliva without the need for lab infrastructure, trained health care personnel, electricity or running water. A number of hospitals and clinics have already signed up to deploy Gene-RADAR® across the globe - from rural villages in Africa and India to leading American hospitals.

How has your life experience and career made you the leader you are today?
At the age of 3, my parents and I moved to the little rural town of Prentiss, Mississippi where my dad was heavily recruited to be the local town surgeon. A few years earlier, President John F. Kennedy had increased the quota of visas for foreign trained medical graduates to help fill the desperate need for more qualified doctors to serve rural America. My parents had emigrated from India to pursue the American dream. We landed in the Deep South of the early 1970's, where black and white people still lived on different sides of the railroad tracks. My parents sent me to the local Southern Baptist Church for my pre-Kindergarten education. On my first day of pre-kindergarten (without any effort on my part), I made local history for the little town of Prentiss by becoming the first non-white child to attend its racially segregated church and school. At that young age, I learned how to survive and thrive at the nexus of many different worlds and silos that did not talk to each other.

In Mississippi, I recall spending a lot of time outdoors meditating in nature, studying the likes of Einstein, Tesla, and Swami Vivekananda and wondering about the deep mysteries of the universe. I found myself on both an inner and outer quest to discover truth and meaning in the universe, breaking down the silos between my natural curiosity-driven scientific quest to understand the world around me and my deep inner spiritual yearnings and meditations to know Truth and realize the Self. I loved physics and mathematics, for they provided me a window through which I could realize a deeper understanding of, and appreciation for, nature.

How has your previous employment experience aided your position at Nanobiosym?
In 2004, while still in the midst of completing my clinical training at Mass General Hospital and Brigham as part of the Harvard-MIT and HST MD-PhD Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP), I received a chance call from a team of U.S. military and DARPA officers looking to develop next generation capabilities for pathogen detection for unanticipated threats like anthrax, bioterrorism, and pandemic outbreaks like SARS. They wanted to summon the nation's leading experts across various silos to help tackle these threats to national security. They needed someone who had a "hard-core" physical science background, understood clinical medicine and pathogens, and the new field of nanotechnology.

After two hours of intense questioning by an expert panel about my ideas and my relevant expertise, they offered me funding to demonstrate proof of concept of some of my ideas. They also told me that they believed I would fail, but wanted to bet on me anyway. When I inquired why they thought I would fail, they explained that the project was very difficult and that they were not giving me enough money or time to achieve the proposed seven milestones; from their perspective, the odds were stacked against me but because they saw the potential breakthrough nature of the innovation I was proposing, they were willing to take a bet on me despite these odds. I asked if they were willing to wait until after I completed my six months of clinical work, which was a 60-80 hour-a-week work commitment in the hospitals. They said they could not wait and gave me a few minutes to decide whether I wanted to "take it or leave it." Since I was in a military building with no access to call my family, mentors and advisors for their advice, I decided to meditate and go to that inner space to make my decision. I said yes to the offers and six months later, we achieved all seven milestones and two additional ones, resulting in the U.S. government doubling our funding and leading to multiple awards from the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the US Air Force Office of Scientific Research, the Department of Energy and the United States Defense Threat Reduction Agency. This series of awards helped me to launch the Nanobiosym Research Institute and Incubator in 2004. A few years later, we spun out Nanobiosym Diagnostics to develop and commercialize Gene-RADAR® as a platform for mobilizing, decentralizing, and personalizing the next generation of healthcare.

I am grateful for visionary organizations like DARPA for investing early-on in some of my dreams and providing me with the opportunity to make a quantum leap to manifest those dreams into a reality.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Nanobiosym?
Nearly a decade later, our company Nanobiosym Diagnostics is poised to take the next quantum leap by creating a paradigm shift in global healthcare that will disrupt the centralized model of the healthcare industry. Our flagship product, Gene-RADAR®, is a mobile diagnostic platform about the size of an iPad that provides anyone-anytime-anywhere instant access to personalized information about their own health. What Google did for the information industry and what cell phones did for the telecom industry, Nanobiosym is doing for healthcare. By decentralizing the infrastructure needed to diagnose and manage disease, it will democratize access to healthcare on a global scale, empowering individuals to take ownership over their own health and providing access to the over four billion people who currently lack even basic healthcare.

I strongly believe disruptive technologies alone are not enough to drive the revolution in global healthcare; we need an entire ecosystem of early adopters and change agents to pilot and integrate these next-gen technologies. Engineering the ecosystem is just as important as the physics and nanotechnology engineering. We stand at a moment in history where innovative technologies and forward-looking thinkers will change the world as we know it by continuing to pursue convergent paths that can work in harmony to provide new opportunities to disrupt our current worldview.

What advice can you offer women who are looking for a career in medical research?
My one advice is to first find what you're passionate about, and don't be afraid to pursue it. Don't hesitate to think "outside-of-the-box", or bring together different fields, technologies or even industries that traditionally don't interact with one another. Do not limit yourself to what's been done in the past, and work passionately to make your vision a reality.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
Personally, I think it's very important to find that inner space. I like to find time to meditate and spend time in nature. For me this inner space is a wellspring of inspiration and creative ideas. The outer space is my work in the outside world, my interactions and the manifesting of that inner vision into an outer reality. For me, spending time in this inner space leads to a work/life balance.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
The biggest issue for anyone in the workplace - both women and men - is one's attitude toward taking on challenges. It's important to seek out new challenges to grow yourself and to also not let life's obstacles de-rail you from achieving your goals. This is where self-esteem and confidence play a tremendous role. How you handle challenges, solve problems and handle the limitations that others may try to impose on you will determine your success in the workplace. Remember to balance your IQ with your EQ.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
Throughout my life, ever since I was a child, my dad has been one of my most admired mentors - on both a personal and professional level. I would often accompany my dad into his operation theatres and on his rounds at the hospital. By age eight, I was an MD in my own mind. I became convinced that there must be an underlying unity in nature and that the same physics that we use to understand the far-reaches of the universe must be applicable to understanding life and living systems and tackling the problems of biomedicine.

At Stanford and Harvard, I was blessed to have 2 wonderful scientific mentors, both of whom happened to be Nobel Laureates. Steve Chu and Dudley Herschbach. I learned so much from both of them and am tremendously grateful for their enthusiastic encouragement, mentorship, and deep support of my bold foray into the uncharted waters that lie between the worlds of physics and biomedicine.

Now, as the CEO and Chair of Nanobiosym, I have built an advisory board of world leaders across several silos who are helping me navigate some of these uncharted waters. These include MIT Professor Bob Langer and cloud computing pioneer Paul Maritz, Harvard's first female surgeon and medical pioneer Dr. Tenley Albright, as well as global business leaders like Ratan Tata of India's Tata Group, Ambassador John Palmer, John Abele from Boston Scientific and Alfred Ford of the Ford Motor Company. These great global leaders have had a tremendous impact on my professional and personal life and I am grateful for having them work so closely with me in this journey.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
I admire Madam Marie Curie. She had a deep spiritual dedication to her science. As another one of my childhood heroes Albert Einstein pointed out: some pursue science as a sport and others pursue it the way a worshipper goes to a spiritual temple. I think Madame Curie like Einstein belonged to the latter category. Many may not know that she actually won two Nobel Prizes. Margaret Thatcher is another great example of a personality who challenged the odds against her and strived to manifest her vision into a tangible reality. Mother Theresa is yet another leader whose legacy of working to uplift humanity will always live on. All of these leaders (from 3 different silos) worked for an inspiration and a cause higher than themselves and managed in their own journey to transcend their own egos to manifest a higher vision that they saw into a tangible reality within their lifetimes.

What do you want Nanobiosym to accomplish in the next year?
During the latter half of 2014, I spent a significant amount of time briefing top officials at the Departments of Defense, State, Health and Human Services and CDC, as well as CEOs and CMOs of leading hospitals, on how the United States can win the global war on Ebola and other pandemics.

I truly believe that high-tech solutions available today, such as our Gene-RADAR®, can completely revolutionize how we stop the spread of Ebola and future global pandemic threats.

With Gene-RADAR's ability to detect Ebola and other pandemics in a mobile device with just a drop of blood or saliva, with no running water and no trained personnel and with gold standard accuracy and at a low cost, in real time, we can completely rewrite the rules of medical diagnostics which are currently based on a centralized paradigm rooted in the Industrial revolution of the 1700's. At Nanobiosym, I am trying to make policy makers aware that next generation technology like Gene-RADAR makes it possible to diagnose these diseases pre-symptomatically. This means adopting these next gen technologies will lead to early quarantine; better disease containment; and enable early onset of supportive and experimental therapies, leading to better outcomes.

I believe that the United States can lead and win the global war on pandemics like Ebola, but we must invest our resources wisely to significantly upgrade our diagnostic technologies and capabilities to accomplish this goal.