April 15, 2020
In 2001, Nehal moved to Pittsburgh and had been working as a consultant when she decided to go back to school for a second master’s degree. A decision that set her on a trajectory to becoming a prolific figure in the Pittsburgh innovation ecosystem. Today, she is at the interaction of academia and industry – fostering relationships and coordinating the development of innovative medical technologies.
Nehal Bhojak is the Director of Strategic Business Initiatives at Pittsburgh CREATES, a University of Pittsburgh initiative that supports collaborative surgical and medical innovation, research, and training. Prior to joining Pittsburgh CREATES, Bhojak was the Director of Innovation at Idea Foundry, a local business and technology accelerator.
Nehal: You have to evolve the technology to address the problem because startups take a long time, especially in the healthcare space, it takes a long time to going get to a product that's going to be in the market and the market changes many, many times between the time you're going to start doing research or start building your product when you take it to market. So, you have to be comfortable as a team, as a technologist, as a business leader to make changes even if they're incremental along the way.
Mike: From CTSI, this is the Products of Pittsburgh. A show about the people in Pittsburgh – innovators, scientists, community leaders – and the remarkable stories behind how they came to be and the work they’ve produced. I’m Mike Flock. On the show today, we catch up with Nehal Bhojak, Director of Strategic Initiatives of at Pittsburgh CREATES at the University of Pittsburgh.
Mike: In 2001, Nehal moved to Pittsburgh and had been working as a consultant when she decided to go back to school for a second master’s degree, a decision that set her on a trajectory to becoming a prolific figure in the Pittsburgh innovation ecosystem. Today, she is at the interaction of academia and industry – fostering relationships and coordinating the development of innovative medical technologies. Nehal grew up in Mumbai, formally known Bombay, a big city on the west cost of India. In 1997, at age 24, she moved to the United States, although it wasn’t to a big city. In fact, it was far from it….
Nehal: I came here, actually, I went to Michigan. I did my first master's degree, which was in architecture and human factors, so human computer interaction is what I worked on, collaborative design and so on. I was at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor and I came here in 1997 to pursue my Master's and, I often say this to people, it was such a, like a reverse culture shock for me because I came from a really big city, you know very much like New York in, kind of, scale and activity, and Ann Arbor is a classic American college town. Everything closes at 10:30 pm. So, it was a little bit of a shock for me, not the way I was expecting it to be but yeah 23 years now that I’ve been in America.
Mike: Growing up, what did your parents do?
Nehal: So, my mom is a physician, she's retired now, she's a physician. My dad was an engineer but he was a vice president business development for his company, which was really technology-based, heavy machinery, so they were both in fields that I feel like I bring together now in my current role which I never planned for so, my career has been very organically kind of developed because my bachelor's, as I said, my undergraduate degree was in architecture and design in India, that's where I did my undergrad, and I always wanted to pursue that because I really enjoyed the kind of design process whether it was designed thinking, building things. I really, really enjoyed that. I do pride myself on having a creative bent of mine so I really thought architecture kind of brought together hardcore engineering and design together so I always wanted to be in that space.
Mike: So, after you graduated from the University of Michigan, what did you do next?
Nehal: I started working for a boutique management consulting firm in Chicago. I was in Chicago, lived in Chicago for about 3 years and my role was a lot of product strategy, product design, and just overarching management consulting. I really, really enjoyed that because it had nothing to do with architecture whatsoever but I could draw on a lot of things that I learned in architecture and especially the human factors piece of it which is very relevant to product design. So, I was in Chicago for about three years and then I moved to Pittsburgh with the company that I was with because they were opening an office in Pittsburgh and I was one of the few that said, sure I'll go because I have a twin, identical twin.
Mike: No kidding.
Nehal: And she’s in Pittsburgh so I wanted to be closer to her so that's why I moved I said, yeah, I'll go and the rest, as they say, is history
Mike: Nehal moved with the company to Pittsburgh although eventually changed jobs and began working for a firm called I2 Technologies, which offers supply-chain management and optimization consulting. Not long thereafter though, Nehal decided to pursue a master’s degree at Carnegie Mellon University in Public Policy and Management. She was able to tailor her experience to include many different disciplines, which ultimately led her to the space of innovation and economic development….
Nehal: While I was at CMU I had a capstone project, so CMU in all of their master's degrees they have capstone this project where you work with a local company on a project you know specifically tailored to some area of interest that you might have but also bringing in, solving a problem for that company, and Idea Foundry, which was just formed, I think they were six months old, and they brought a capstone project to Heinz, which was really to develop these business process tools for startups, unlike doing it for staff management consulting firms, the large company problem solving was very specifically to develop a toolkit for startups and I was very intrigued because I had done that for large companies and I was really curious as to why and how it would be different for startups. So, I selected that project and I got to work on the very first company that they ever invested in. It was called Inspect Tech and I'm still in touch with the founders which is so strange for me. That was a great experience. I enjoyed it so much because it really helped me draw on so many different things, the attention to detail, the process oriented thinking, and kind of figuring out the problem solving aspect of looking at the big picture that startups need to look at but then really breaking it down into little pieces. So, I really, really enjoyed it and obviously they liked me, too, so when I graduated, they offered me a job and I was the very first employee that they hired.
Mike: So, you said you were the first employee hired by Idea Foundry, and you eventually become the Director of Innovation and you were there for almost 15 years, what was that experience like?
Nehal: It was the best work experience I've had in my life. I learned so much and I was exposed to so many different things while I was there. It was really a unique experience. I thought, you know, for somebody that didn't come from that background to be exposed to that variety of types of technologies, types of companies, even types of personalities, because, as you're probably well aware, you know working with startups that are faculty-led or even sometimes student-led, very different trajectories. So, it really helped me understand from start to finish what it takes to build a business to make it successful and try to take it to that next phase. The other benefit, I thought, you know, that I enjoyed a lot was because I was the very first employee I got to wear many hats and I was involved in pretty much everything from figuring out the names for the companies that we invested in because they were not companies yet they were right at formation really diving in into the market, working with the other investors, working with the founders to just down in the trenches, solving all these problems with them. So, you felt that a piece of you was really associated with each of those companies and even now, after 15 plus years, more than that now, 17 years ago, some of the companies that I worked with I still feel a sense of personal belonging that I don't think I'll ever have, I don't think, or ever had before that job so I just that was my that was a wonderful experience for me. It’s taught me everything that I know now.
Mike: With all the different startups that you've worked with have you noticed certain attributes whether of the team or the concept that allow them to be more successful?
Nehal: Yeah, on the team side, I think flexibility and coach-ability. I think they're two really important attributes and what I mean by that is a lot of the founders that work with startups, it is their baby. They’re very, very attached to the concept, they’ve worked significant number of hours honing that concept, building it into a product, but there does come a time where you kind of have to be comfortable taking input from somebody that's looking at it from a very different set of eyes. Not taking things personally, being able to really course correct if needed and even that means taking a real harsh look at your own baby. It's hard to do but I think that's a really important attribute. I think I would say the same thing even from a technology perspective, you have to evolve the technology to address the problem because startups take a long time, especially in the healthcare space, it takes a long time to get to a product that's going to be in the market and the market changes many, many times between the time you're going to start doing research or start building your product when you take it to market. So, you have to be comfortable as a team, as a technologist, as a business leader, to make changes, even if they're incremental along the way and that's probably the most important attributes I would associate.
Mike: Nehal worked with 177 startups, including over 40 healthcare and life sciences ventures, in her role as Director of Innovation and executive-in-residence at the Idea Foundry, a business and technology accelerator that provides investment and management expertise to startups. So, she’s really seen it all. From stellar teams and technologies, to ones that need a lot of work or even pushed in a different direction. Flexibility is an important attribute of any startup. That involves seeking out feedback, thinking about problems from new angles, and adapting to changing environments. In 2017, Nehal did some adapting of her own and decided to take her talents to the University of Pittsburgh.
Mike: How did you decide to make the transition from Idea Foundry to Pittsburgh CREATES?
Nehal: So, I was, you know, I was sort of wrapping up my role at idea Foundry. I had been there for a long time, done a lot of companies. I had worked with about 177 companies at idea Foundry through my career so after a point, you know, I was like, okay I'm looking for a change, but I didn't really want to get away from the innovation space. I am very passionate about it. I enjoy the process, but I was starting to get very interested in the corporate Innovation piece and there was a lot of conversation in the region about bringing in industry, driving kind of industry-oriented innovation. I wasn't really looking or even aware of Pittsburgh CREATES because it hadn't been officially launched when I joined. They reached out to me, Max Fedor, who is the executive director. I've known him for a long time and strange aside: Idea Foundry had invested in a company that he was CEO of so I knew him through that, through that role and then also through Coulter. He reached out to me and he asked me if I would be interested. We had several conversations and again it was one of those, you know, right time, right place moments where it really pulled together all of my different areas of interest and it was a really good pivot for my own career. So, I decided to jump in so we're two years old now and it's been a really wonderful two years.
Mike: Tell us about Pittsburgh CREATES, where you're at today?
Nehal: Sure, so Pittsburgh CREATES is a very unique program. It's been in the works for a long time. It was officially launched just two years ago so it's relatively new on Pittsburgh's landscape, I guess, but it was a brainchild for medical director Dr. Duvvuri and he's a surgeon, ENT surgeon, and he was working on a number of different, advising a number of different companies on their devices, on their surgical devices. A Pittsburgh connection, I guess, is medrobotics that you probably know of, it was a company that was a spin out from CMU. How he chose this lab is a snake robot and, this is going to date me, but back in 2004 that snake robot was supposed to be, the market application for the snake robot was going to be mining application, mining and inspection, and I think they went through some iterations, but Dr. Duvvuri was a clinical advisor to the company and he was the one that kind of decided or advised them to change direction and look at the snake robot from the perspective of doing throat surgery and that was a concept that developed. He put in several hours, I think, of his input and insight into making the product what it is and I think him and a couple of others over at the ENT of the otolaryngology department had been doing this organically with companies for a long time and they realized there's a big need where medical device companies, whether they’re in the surgical innovation space or just devices in general, they often require insight from clinicians which is very hard to come by and I know that from, you know, personal experience having been on the side of the companies that you want to get insight from the people that are going to be the users of the technology, the beneficiaries of the technology, but it's really hard to get a set of 12 surgeons together in a room and say, hey, you know, here's the product, evaluate for me and let me know, you know, how it should work or what the application should be. So, that was really kind of the germ of the idea that evolved into what is Pittsburgh CREATES today. And what it is now is it started in the ENT department, but it is essentially a medical device industry facing innovation center that brings together the perspectives of clinicians into the innovation process. So, at CREATES, we work with a number of different companies, large, midsize to emerging companies that are in that process or stage of building their next generation of technology and we’re able to provide access to a number of different clinicians from the UPMC pool of surgeons, nurses, scrub techs and even leadership, from an adoption perspective and we’re able to kind of help companies with everything from usability studies to just product insight development and strategy, and also market adoption and pricing and business models and all of that. So, it's a very unique program kind of sitting at the intersection of Pitt and UPMC. We’re a Pitt entity and Pitt program but we are very closely affiliated with the school of medicine, which is a clinical department so a lot of interaction with UPMC, a lot of access to UPMC.
Mike: Pittsburgh CREATES is an example of the symbiotic relationship that exists between academia and industry. Universities produce talent, the graduates that can go on and work to support various industries in the economy. Universities also support a range of faculty and staff, generating new knowledge and conducting cutting edge research. For this reason, industry often looks to academia for solutions because the research can lead to valuable products and services. The Office of Sponsored Programs at the University of Pittsburgh works with researchers and external partners to build these collaborations and secure funding to support research at the University. Nehal’s multidisciplinary background and experience coaching startups and partnering with universities and industry groups really set her up well to excel in her current role as Director of Strategic Initiatives at Pittsburgh CREATES. But for Nehal, experience is only just one part of it…
Mike: If there's one word you could select to describe yourself, what would that one word be?
Nehal: Tenacious. Yeah, that's me. I am very tenacious. I don't give up easily, no matter what it is.
Mike: From when you were in school to where you're at now, have you had any specific role model or mentor that you would point to?
Nehal: Um, many different role models, mentors, I think, often I always look at my dad as, you know, a role model. Although I'm sure he will be surprised if he was listening to it because I've never admitted it publicly, so, here you go. He was always very tenacious, still is, at the age that he's at, he's 84, and he is extraordinarily tenacious. He does not ever back down, if he has a challenge that is placed in front of him. So, I think at a very high-level, from a personality perspective, I often aspire to when I saw him do that. That and people skills, I've always noticed that my dad can basically sit in a room with pretty much anybody and be able to have a conversation, which I often found really amazing so I would say that my dad has been probably a role model. A really good mentor for me was also Mike Matesic who's the CEO of Idea Foundry. One of the things that you often learn from him was just jump in and you'll figure out things so I always appreciated the fact when I was young and completely inexperienced at the role that I took on at Idea Foundry. I was thrown into situations which always scared me and I'm like, yeah, I'm not going to be able do that and he’s like, you'll figure it out. Shout out to him, he was a wonderful mentor to me.
Mike: You mentioned you have an identical twin? Is she still in Pittsburgh?
Nehal: Yep, yep. She’s a physician, over at Western Psych., she’s with UPMC. She’s always been in Pittsburgh. She looks exactly like me so if you see someone on the road that ignores you, it might not be me, but it's happened, actually. It’s so funny you ask that, especially now because we're just a block or so apart from each other where we work and I'm often up in Presby. It happens all the time, you know, they’ll come up and be like, hey Dr. Bhojak, and I’m like, nope, not her. It’s funny.
Mike: Any hobbies or interests outside of work?
Nehal: I'm a big movie buff
Mike: Oh, really? Any particular genre?
Nehal: No. Surprisingly, I was just having this conversation at work with someone who was completely surprised to find out that I'm a huge Star Wars fan and they're like, yeah, I wouldn't, you know, imagine that you were but yep, I’m a nerd at heart. But no, no particular genre. I just really enjoy good movies. It's like my favorite thing to do in my downtime just I can go into the dark noir kind of movies, to mystery, to anything really. It's just totally depends on my mood.
Mike: Interesting. Well, I know with movies there is obviously a storytelling component. Is there any sort of similarity with that you see when it comes to the startups and sort of the storytelling element of pitches and so forth?
Nehal: Yes. That’s interesting. I never made that connection. Yea, there is absolutely. I think narrative is everything for startups. Because you have, and I was always very fond of saying that you get one-time to make a good first impression and you have very little time to catch somebody's attention so you have to really get your narrative short, sweet, and right at the same time, and it's much harder to do than one would imagine. It takes a lot of practice. There's definitely that storytelling component and being able to kind of grab someone's attention, and make them care, more than anything else, because that's really at the end of it if you're pitching to an investor, really the simple answer is why should I care, and the same thing with movies I would imagine.
Nehal. That’s why it helps to have a twin. She's my she's my go-to when we watch these weird movies that nobody else wants to watch.
Mike: Does she also like movies like you?
Nehal: Oh yea, so it’s fun. It’s fun to have that connection. We don't need to talk too much and just go watch the movie and we talk about it after. And it’s just not movies, I think all performing arts. I think if I had not been raised in India, I probably would have pursued performing arts. In India, there is such a focus on STEM and I would have pursued that as a career. I might’ve.
Mike: Was architecture and design even kind of less encouraged?
Nehal: It was definitely less because I come from a family of doctors. My mom is a doctor, sister is a doctor, and cousins are doctors or engineers. This was my rebel moment like, I’m not going to do either of those and I’m going to do something completely different and creative. But here I am.
Mike: Coming back to working with doctors and engineers.
Nehal: I know, it’s a big joke in my family. They’re like really, what happened to all of that? That’s fine, I’m still very creative.
Mike: Nehal Bhojak, Director of Strategic Initiatives at Pittsburgh CREATES at the University of Pittsburgh. And by the way, Nehal’s knowledge of movies is no joke. After our interview, Nehal and our producer, Zach, went into some serious depth talking about various actors, directors, and movie producers. She’s a movie buff, no doubt about it.
That’s our show. Thank you for listening to the Products of Pittsburgh. Be sure to check out our website at ctsi.pitt.edu/podcast to hear more episodes, as well as learn about CTSI programs and services. I’m Mike Flock along with Zach Ferguson, until next time on the Products of Pittsburgh.