Career Perspectives: Naresh Sunkara, CEO, Founder of Nosocom Solutions Inc

Please describe your current position.

I am the founder and CEO of a startup, Nosocom Solutions Inc., through which we are developing new technologies to prevent healthcare associated infections (HAI). As you can imagine, I wear multiple hats at our startup. For the first two years, my focus was on product and prototype development, market evaluation, writing grants, fundraising, and a bit of marketing. While my academic training was mostly in chemistry, molecular biology, and virology, the startup involves hardware and software development. It was a huge learning curve, but I got help from a good team and our advisory board. A lot of the resources that I gathered came from some intense networking. Now, as we are close to launching our product in the United States, my activities revolve around FDA approvals and other regulatory activities, working with multi-national companies for creating sales and distribution channels, recruiting teams, and more fundraising.


Naresh Sunkara

How far in advance of your planned starting date did you begin looking for jobs?

I started thinking about launching a startup about two years into my postdoctoral training at the University of California, Berkeley.


How did you learn about your current position?

Living in Silicon Valley had a huge influence on my career decision. There are plenty of resources and opportunities to learn about entrepreneurship here. It made me consider my professional aspirations beyond academia and industry.


Were any resources (inside or outside your university) particularly helpful in your job search?

Entrepreneurship programs offered at UC Berkeley and UC San Francisco played an important role. Also, an entrepreneurship group that I founded at UC Berkeley, the Berkeley Postdoc Entrepreneurship Program, helped me.


What was your work or educational background before you were hired?

I received my PhD in organic chemistry from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, where I worked on developing anti-viral drugs. I moved to UC Berkeley for my postdoc where I was working on RNAi, especially focused on in vivo delivery of RNAi that targeted viruses.


Which aspects of your background (doctoral training, postdoctoral training, internships, etc.) were required for your position?

Skills I developed while in school, such as independent thinking, persistence, collaboration, networking, and leadership, played an important role in preparing me for this position.


How long after your interview did you start your position? Were there any barriers to starting your position when you had hoped (e.g. lack of space or funding available, time to secure appropriate visa or any other official procedures)?

Lack of a visa, funding, space, and people who didn’t believe in my idea–all were hindrances. After three years of bootstrapping my startup, we secured a patent, finished a proof-of-concept clinical trial at a cardiac care center, developed a product (including creating four versions of the product), and we are now getting ready to enter the market.


How would you describe the interview process and how did you prepare for it? Were there any skills or experiences in your CV that seemed to stand out?

The good thing about launching a startup is that you interview yourself, see what you lack, and make up for the skills by learning them or by picking partners with whom you can work.


Did you pursue any other position or career path prior to being hired in your current position? If so, what factors led to your ultimate job choice?

I worked with the tech transfer office at UC Berkeley to create an internship program for grad students and postdocs.  I ended up interning for almost two years. This gave me a good sense of what was involved in prior art search, technology evaluation, and the marketability of technologies.  Understanding the process helped me with filing patents for our startup (especially in reducing the legal costs), finding industry partners, etc.


Has your career trajectory followed the path you had expected when you started graduate school?

Absolutely not! Like most grad students, I started out wanting to become a research faculty member at a university.


Is there anything about your current job that you had not expected before you were hired?

Pretty much everything! Startups are much harder than I could have ever imagined. But then, I think grad school makes you more resilient and persistent. You also have to learn when to give up.


Are there any particular skills or experiences you wish you had before you started?

I strongly feel that grad school doesn’t prepare you for real life in terms of business skills. I wish I could have at least taken a few business classes while I was still in graduate school.


How do you spend an average workday?

Since I’m at a small startup, I have to spend about 12 to 16 hours a day dealing with all kinds of issues mentioned previously.


What do you like the most about your work?

I like the fact that our startup can definitely save lives.  Every day is a new learning experience. I like the independence of picking a good team, setting the vision for the company, and meeting so many awesome people who want to help. Lastly, I can set my own working hours.


What do you find the most challenging about your work?

Things don’t usually move as fast as we want them to, especially while we are trying to work in the healthcare industry. The bureaucracy can be a pain.  Also, because we live in Silicon Valley and are running a hardware startup in the healthcare space, people want to compare us to Facebook or Google. This can make us look like losers. But we just have to be immune to everyone judging us, because software or a mobile app by itself is not going to save lives. We learned to base our convictions on verified data and customer feedback. We made sure that there was a scalable business opportunity that solves a real problem, and kept moving forward.
What skills do you think are absolutely essential for your position?

Patience, persistence, and confidence are absolutely needed.  You need to learn to take “no” for an answer.  You need to be able to pick the best team to work with. Picking the right teammate or employee is one of the hardest things. You must learn to network with the right people, especially those with the skills and experience that can help you. Be ready for a long and bumpy ride. But then, it will all be worth it. What you learn from working at a startup can make you a highly desirable employee.


Do you think it helps to have a certain personality to do the work you do?

Yes. You should be able to take a bit of risk and be willing to fail. But then, I think grad students and postdocs already understand that risk.


At any point, do you regret not having pursued a career in the academic field?



What advice would you give to someone looking for a position like yours?

Try to work at a startup first, and volunteer to put on multiple hats while working there. The technical/research skills that we pick up during grad school and postdoctoral days are certainly not enough for working in the real world. Launching a startup is not for everyone, but if you can continue to live with little money, love your research, and want to take your research to market, a startup is worth a shot! After all, you are the only one who loves your research more than anyone else in the world.


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