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Ambika Bumb

Company: CEO & Founder of Bikanta

Location: San Francisco, CA

Bikanta is introducing a new platform nanotechnology based on nanodiamonds to push the boundaries of current optical imaging methods for medical diagnostics for early cancer detection. It has been also been recently featured in: TechCrunch,

Tell us a little about your educational and previous background

A respect for knowledge and education I think has been passed down in my genes. My father excelled in his education and became the first PhD in his family. My maternal grandfather went back to school in his forties to become a veterinarian and he also made sure his daughters had the opportunity to broaden their horizons, becoming the first women in their town to go to college. My parents came to the USA from India for higher education and have been the most encouraging and supportive people in my life, particularly in terms of activities that pushed our brains to explore new ideas. In high school, I liked engineering, medicine, economics, and law. I chose to study biomedical engineering and economics for my undergrad at Georgia Tech.

After undergrad, I was very lucky to be awarded the NIH-Marshall Scholarship to travel abroad to Oxford for a PhD. The NIH-Marshall program is truly a unique one. As a student in the program, I was able to setup a doctoral thesis project that has brought together four laboratories from two institutes, four fields, and two countries – an experience that was incredible. I jumped directly into research in the exciting area of nanomedicine. Learning to work around limitations, build collaborations, and coordinate multiple groups are some of the most important lessons that I left this training with.

I then did two post-doctoral fellowships, one at the National Cancer Institute and the second at the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute. During this time period, we developed nanodiamond technology that can hone into diseases like cancer, allowing for earlier detection and treatment.

Last year, I started Bikanta to help bring these tools into the hands of all researchers and physicians.

How did you start working in your respective job/industry?

I have always been interested in space at the juncture of engineering and medicine. My first biomedical engineering (BME) class at Georgia Tech was one where as naive freshman we were directly split into teams and given a real BME problem and told go figure out in a few weeks. No teachers, just us, the library, and the internet. I remember one was an issue of how to deal with the carcasses of mad cow diseased cows. We learned about how the disease was caused by prions which turns out can survive almost anything and are very infectious. Many hours of research and brainstorming later we developed an idea of an incarcerator with specifications particular for the mad cows. I loved how we learned about a complex and very clever disease and then engineered a solution to tackle it. It drew in every area of science and required our creative juices to flow. I was pretty much hooked by the field after that. I began focusing in on nanomedicine during undergrad research and then more completely at the beginning of my PhD in 2005. My research specifically on nanodiamonds began in 2011 and I started Bikanta last year in 2013.

What were the failures/challenges you faced, how did you address them?

In science and in a startup, failures and problems make regular, if not continuous, appearances. I think what you have to do is not view them with a negative connotation that can be disheartening or even defeating. Maybe it’s the research training speaking, but I instead try to take them as additional information or data points that can be incorporated into my strategy of how to reach the solution or target. There is a lot of learning that comes from knowing what does not work. I try to take those situations as opportunities to learn and to pivot.

What were some ethical challenges you faced?

I have not faced any significant ethical challenges yet in my current role with Bikanta. When I first joined the medical research and technology field, I did debate questions of ahimsa and animal research. New tools for medical treatment have to be tested in cells and animals before being considered for human application. I take it very seriously to understand what I’m doing, minimize animal studies, and, when the need is there, design the studies smartly to yield the most information. I hold myself responsible to value the lives of all organisms and hope that my work will benefit a larger population in the end.

Has Jainism played a role in your career? What Jain values do you use day-to-day when engaging in your work?

Being Jain causes me to be conscientious. Jainism is a lot about introspection, understanding oneself, and then applying that understanding in your life through Samyak Charitra (right conduct). The values of Satya (truth) and Ahimsa (non-violence) are the ones I’ve most actively applied in my personal and professional decisions, for instance in my eating habits and the kind of company culture we create at Bikanta. The process of self-reflection will continue…

What defines success for you?

‘Impactful’, ‘high quality’, ‘innovative’, and ‘resourceful’ are all adjectives I associate with success, but what it really comes down to for me is that success is a feeling of satisfaction. That satisfaction sometimes comes from reaching a goal or by receiving validation from someone I value or by feeling like my actions have impacted someone in a positive manner.

How do you strike a work-life balance with family or other activities and professional work that you are involved with?

I do not look at personal and professional lives as opposing things that need to be “balanced”. Just like a healthy diet needs both vegetables and grains, the life I desire for myself needs both family and career. They are not contradictory but complimentary. Both of these aspects of life do require time and nurturing. On one day, something family-related will be the priority and on another something work-related. It does require managing and planning and may not always be easy, but I feel it is unhealthy and fairly useless to feel apologetic when you temporarily prioritize one over the other. If I’ve decided that the next few hours are going to be for family time, then I do not let myself feel guilty about not working and visa versa. Maybe you should ask me this question again when we have kids!

What advice do you have for budding entrepreneurs in this field?

There was a quote on the wall in my elementary school classroom: “Those who always try never fail and those who never try always fail.” Believe in yourself and your aspirations and then work really hard and with focus, discipline, and principles for them.

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