Dr. Pooja Viswanathan, CEO of BRAZE Mobility Inc, joins us to tell her story of how she did things a little differently during her PhD and with BRAZE. We hope listeners learn from her story and get sparked by some great ideas on alternate paths to take.
Host: Dr. Mary Goldberg, Co-Director of the IMPACT Center at the University of Pittsburgh
Guests: Pooja Viswanathan, CEO of BRAZE Mobility Inc
BRAZE Mobility Inc | Website, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter
IMPACT Center | Website, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter
Full Episode Transcript | PDF
00:56 Background & Intro
01:58 BRAZE Mobility and the technology
03:29 From Academia to Entrepreneurship
07:25 Funding and IP
16:15 Mentorship is critical
17:40 How each side can work together
Pooja Viswanathan, Mary Goldberg
Mary Goldberg 00:06
The IMPACT Center at the University of Pittsburgh supported by the National Institute of Disability, Independent Living and Rehabilitation Research, proudly present ImpacTech. Today's episode is "Going Rogue in Rehab Tech”, with our guest Dr. Pooja Vishwanathan, CEO of BRAZE Mobility Inc. Recorded remotely from my soundproof bedroom closet in Pittsburgh, PA, this is your host, Dr. Mary Goldberg. Welcome to our ninth episode of the ImpacTech podcast series. We're super excited to have you here today Pooja, and we'd love to invite our audience to learn a little bit more about you. Also, if you could please provide a bit of an introduction and a mini bio of yourself.
Pooja Viswanathan 00:56
Yeah, hi, thanks so much for having me, Mary. My name is Pooja Vishwanathan. I am the CEO and founder of BRAZE Mobility and before I started the company, I actually was working on smart wheelchair research and development for over a decade. So I was an academic, and then decided to make the leap into entrepreneurship to start the company. So in terms of my academic background, my PhD is in computer science. And my specialization was in robotics and assistive technologies. But you know, very, very transdisciplinary dissertation, I, you know, was was in the computer science department, but then actually did my postdoctoral fellow in the department of occupational therapy. And so have really, over the years, gotten to understand assistive technology, not only from a development, sort of engineering perspective, but also from the clinical perspective.
Mary Goldberg 01:48
You match the definition of rehab tech. Well, you have good cross training in both the clinical and technical disciplines.
Pooja Viswanathan 01:57
Mary Goldberg 01:58
And so can you tell us a little bit about BRAZE mobility, that company, of course, where you are CEO, what technology is it known for, and any other little tidbits to help our listeners understand?
Pooja Viswanathan 02:11
Yeah, BRAZE mobility, we've actually developed the world's first blind spot sensors for wheelchairs. And these sensors essentially transform any regular wheelchair into a smart wheelchair, the sensors automatically detect obstacles and provide feedback to the user through intuitive lights, sounds and vibrations. So we use multimodal feedback for our users. And really, this product is the result of over a decade of research, you know, I spent a lot of time trying to understand not, you know, not just from the technology perspective of what we can build, but also what is needed by end users. You know, what are some of the challenges of power mobility, I think it's still not widely known how challenging it is to it can be to operate a power wheelchair, especially in indoor settings. And in you know, homes, that or other indoor environments that might not actually be very accessible. And so a lot of my journey was really sort of understanding what all of these pain points were and brace mobility sensors really sort of the result of all of that research and clinical evidence and user studies and a whole lot of research and working with all the stakeholders involved. So not just wheelchair users, but their families and therapists and all the other industry stakeholders as well.
Mary Goldberg 03:29
Interesting. Yeah, it's, it's wonderful that it's so evidence based. And is that being said, knowing that much of our evidence base often comes from academia? Can you describe a little bit about what you couldn't get in academia and why you shifted to the industry side? Or was it that the benefits of industry were just too great, or a combination of both and a little bit around that evolution?
Pooja Viswanathan 03:56
Maybe unlike a lot of other, you know, PhD, or students or post doctorates, I didn't really enter into academia with the idea of becoming an academic, I was just really fascinated and disturbed at the same time about the problem that existed at the time. I, you know, soon after my undergrad, I made my first visit to a long term care facility, and saw that a lot of the residents there were slumped over in manual wheelchairs that they couldn't self propel. And they weren't being allowed to use power mobility because of safety concerns, oftentimes, because of cognitive deficits. You know, we know the majority of residents in long term care have dementia. And unfortunately, you know, a lot of times just a diagnosis of dementia was alone to exclude someone from power mobility use, which is really a violation of human rights. And so we saw this problem as researchers and there was really nobody out there in industry solving this problem. So for me, it was just a question of, well, where can I solve this problem right now? And the most obvious place was a academia. And that's kind of why I jumped on it did my PhD project and I kind of always thought and having this is perhaps a very common naive assumption that a lot of academics make is, I'm just gonna build this technology, and then some company is going to come over and license this. And it's going to get out there. And that just wasn't happening. And even in the process of development, because this was such pioneering work, but took us a long time to even understand what some of the challenges were just in terms of, you know, older adults with cognitive impairment. And, you know, most of our technologies, one of the main reasons I was actually very attracted to the lab that I did my research with was the intelligent assistive technology and systems lab out of University of Toronto. And that was one of the few groups in the world that was actually testing with the intended users. Whereas in a lot of other places, what we were seeing was the robotics or, you know, computer science projects, on smart wheelchairs, were really just being done in simulation and weren't actually being tested with the intended users, it was lab volunteers, or whatever. And so they weren't necessarily getting the kind of feedback that we were getting in our studies. And so seeing all of that feedback, and realizing that we still had a really long way to go in terms of understanding concepts, for example, around shared control, you know, what does shared control look like in in the context of a smart wheelchair? When is it okay, and not okay to take control away from the user, these were all very, you know, fundamental questions that needed to be answered. And academia was a great environment to explore those sorts of questions. So that was a really critical part, I'd say, of, you know, my own education and growth in this area. But eventually, we kind of hit some walls. And I couldn't personally find the resources that I needed to get this sort of technology to market without pivoting out of academia, and really looking at industry partnerships, and the market validation that is very difficult to do in an academic context, mainly, because it's not really incentivized in the academic context, right, as an academic, you're rewarded to publish. And while that's all great, and we had already had a bunch of peer reviewed publications, the challenge now was how do we transform something that's just a research prototype, into a real product. And I personally, you know, came up against a lot of hurdles in the academic context to be able to do that. So that's when I made the shift.
Mary Goldberg 07:25
I love the context and clarification and it really exposes my bias and perspective related to well, if you're going to go down this road, you're going to do the PhD, you're going to be an academic for life, right. And it's so very true what what you described about some of the limitations and the kind of contradicting incentives within the academic environment for entrepreneurs. And I hope that listeners who are going down this path, and in PhDs in the PhD programs in this area, learn from your story, and perhaps get sparked some great ideas on alternate paths that they may be interested in taking. And so returning back to BRAZE, you spoke a little bit about resources and being resource limited in academia. I'm curious about how you've been able to obtain funding within the context of breeze. And if you could also describe a bit about the rights to your different products. So the intellectual property considerations.
Pooja Viswanathan 08:32
Right. So one of the first things that I did when I was making that transition, was to immediately separate intellectual property in the academic context from what I was building to create the company. And so what that means is, you know, if you're kind of in a lab, you know, you might have a lab notebook where you're keeping all your research notes, I really wanted to make sure that there was some sort of clear timeline in terms of when the academic work stopped, and when the commercial activities began. And you might ask why. And the reason really is, is as you're trying to create now, this corporate entity, it's really important to understand what the company owns. And when you go out to seek investment, of course, investors want to be very clear on who owns what IP. And so I started discussions very early on. And, in fact, I think, a year and a half before I incorporated the company, I'd already started conversations with the innovation office at the hospital at the time I was at Toronto Rehab, I was also a postdoc at U of T. And so I started conversations with both of those parties. And really what I wanted to make sure happen was that we created sort of an end date on Hey, this is when my research activities stopped. And at that point, disclosed whatever had been done to that point of time to the innovation offices so that they were clear on a what work had been done at this hospital and or the university and what sort of resources of the university and or hospital we'd used for that. work. And what that allowed is then moving forward, if at any point we wanted to use that intellectual property, and wanted to license that IP, and it would be very clear what that intellectual property actually is, of course, as it happened, we did all of that we did disclose the inventions. But as I went on to create my company, and we was doing all these consumer interviews, we actually realized that the entire technology had to pivot as well. So we ended up not licensing any technology from the hospital or the university and ended up creating our own technology at braze. So we ended up owning all of the IP, but it was really important to be able to do that and not get the IP entangled. So that would be my recommendation for anyone who's kind of looking to transition is just sort of create that end date, disclose what you have, and then start creating your company IP, which is going to be your consumer know how your business model canvas, your market intelligence, you can start on all of that stuff. And that doesn't even have anything to do with your product development. You know, that's just you creating your company know how.
Mary Goldberg 11:04
Interesting and good words of advice and caution for entrepreneurs that are in that stage, still very tightly tied to their university. So Pooja, can you please describe the various funding sources that have been helpful or most helpful in helping to accelerate your products?
Pooja Viswanathan 11:24
Yeah, and so initially, I mean, obviously, it helped being an academic because I was familiar with how to write grants. And so a lot of our initial funding did come from more academic type grants, non dilutive. And in fact, you know, I think an important thing to emphasize here is a lot of people when they think of fundraising for a company, they're thinking, you know, angel or VC investment. But there are in fact, several other types of non dilutive sources of funding that you can, in fact, tap into. And for us, a lot of that came through government grants. And we actually want to live pitch competitions, which again, you wouldn't think as a major source of funding, but for us, it certainly was, you know, I'd say we, we probably raised over $100,000, in just pitch competitions that we won. And then, you know, government grants now in Canada, we also have the advantage of a lot of r&d tax credits and funding. So SHRED is a program here that we have in Canada. That gives us r&d tax credits. We also have a lot of support from organizations like insert and Iraq that provide a lot of funding for r&d. And then we do have some organizations here then that beyond r&d also offer commercialization grants, grants from specific organizations, for example, that support women founders, that was you know, again, more non dilutive dot non dilutive funding that we tapped into. So we went quite a ways adjust to on non dilutive grants for the first few years, and in fact, it wasn't until last year that we then kind of took on our first diluted funding through things like safes, and convertible debt and equity. And so there's really a lot that you can, you can raise beyond, you know, the the angel, there's family and friends, for example, there's purchase order financing, you know, once you get to that stage where you actually get orders, you can get financing against that. So, consider all those options, because, of course, you know, once you're looking at VC, you know, the phase of company and your growth needs to really be aligned with with, you know, the VC mindset. And so definitely don't restrict yourself to that and look into all of the other options that are available and certainly took us a very long way.
Mary Goldberg 13:49
Awesome, that bootstrapped kind of funding support has been so effective for you and has sounds like it's given you a lot of flexibility.
Pooja Viswanathan 13:58
Absolutely. I mean, anything where you can hang on to your equity for longer and really help kind of define the values and mission and vision of your of your company is great. So I would say, you know, delay the delay diluted funding for for as long as you can if you can manage to tap into the non diluted funding. Great advice. Yes, it was a really interesting time when I started braise, because at least in Canada, we were starting to see some fairly unique networks being created and funds being created specifically to support commercialization activities. And so the very first grant that we obtained was through Ontario Brain Institute. And it was a really interesting model there because what they did is they weren't giving money to the university or to the company, they actually set it up as a fellowship. So you of course needed an institution for the money to flow in and we identified an incubator within the university campus that was part of the university ecosystem, but also kind of independent from the university. The ecosystem and being able to get that fellowship through that meant that that was now you know, $50,000, for me as an entrepreneur that I could do whatever I wanted with, so I could obviously then invest that into the company. So that became the company's first investment indirectly through Ontario brain. And there were a couple of other funds that work very similarly, where, you know, all you needed was some sort of affiliation with an institution. And it kind of really depends on institutional policies here, I just happen to be part of a specific incubator, that because it was sort of independent financially from the university was able to act as a conduit for some of these funds, but without necessarily creating any IP issues with the university because we weren't actually using significant resources. So that was the policy of the universities, as long as you're not using, you know, nonsignificant use of resources was essentially one of the ways in which you would not need to declare IP. And so because the incubator itself had nonsignificant, use of resources with the university that allowed us to be in this sort of environment where we could own our own IP, but still kind of kind of be part of the university ecosystem, which was really, really nice. So we kind of benefited and got the best of both worlds.
Mary Goldberg 16:15
It sounds like a great firewall, but also a wonderful connection to the entrepreneurial network within U of T to support you in other ways. I assume you got some mentorship through this program as well.
Pooja Viswanathan 16:26
Absolutely. In fact, some of the mentorship is critical, even what I mentioned around separating your IP and starting those discussions early on with the innovation offices, understanding how to negotiate in those conversations, even being educated on the different types of business models, you know, do you give them royalty? Do you give them equity, all of that education was completely through this particular incubator that I was part of which was impact center. And it was phenomenal. And the reason for that education was so terrific is because it was actually run by professors who had started companies, and were well versed with a lot of the challenges of being a researcher and perhaps not being very great at articulating value proposition. So even coaching around, you know, less tech talk or, you know, less sort of jargon and more value proposition language. It was incredible. I mean, for me, it was entrepreneurship one on one, that was the first sort of mentorship and coaching that I received. And being someone who had zero business experience, it was really what gave me the confidence to even pursue this route.
Mary Goldberg 17:34
Awesome. So they could walk the walk, talk the talk, and then helped you do it also.
Pooja Viswanathan 17:38
Mary Goldberg 17:40
That's great. So and largely hearing from you about what works, which is wonderful, I think you've clearly have had a successful path, you've been able to achieve a lot, both from typical academic standards, and on the industry side. And so I'm curious about the flip side of that, in terms of what is lacking and having been now on both sides. What do you think each side needs to help make tech transfer successful?
Pooja Viswanathan 18:06
Yeah, that's a great question. I spend a lot of time thinking about this. And actually speaking with both academia and industry and looking at how do we really work well together, I mean, it's kind of unfortunate, right? That I really had to choose, it would have been fantastic if I was able to kind of do all of these things while still maintaining my academic affiliation, and continue to actively publish, maybe just have a different role within academia, where I could have been more knowledge translation and commercialization focused without having the sorts of deliverables that are typically anticipated or expected of a traditional academic researcher. So I think it would have been really nice if that were the case. But like I said, I think right now, what's what's really not working? Is these conflicting objectives of academia, and especially with applied research, where things really are so close to translation. And really, that should be a pretty big focus. I mean, obviously, you look at the basic sciences, I do think there is a space for that. And I don't believe that every researcher should be forced to commercialize. You know, I think there are certain, you know, fundamental research questions, where researchers should absolutely have the autonomy to be able to explore without thinking of any commercialization or any impact down the line. But when you're in that applied research realm, where often, you know, your whole objective is, in fact, to create impact and to create real product, I do think that there needs to be some both accountability and incentive for those researchers to be more closely aligned with industry and to have market validation be part of their role and to be rewarded rather than penalized. So I think it's almost like we need a another stream of maybe it's professors maybe it's I don't know what the title would be, but it's like we need this third stream that lives somewhere between academia and industry, and their role is really around knowledge. Translation and commercialization, and they're not going to shy away from doing market validation, which often, unfortunately ends up happening right now with professors who say, I just don't have the time for this. I mean, I've got to publish, I've got to teach, you know, where's the time to do it all. So I think that the model needs to change, the structure needs to change and the incentives need to match. And this big disconnect that's happening now, with a lot of funding agencies, essentially mandating that there needs to be more commercialization, they want to see more impact, they want to see outcomes in terms of real world value. But then the universities have been adapted to that. So there's this constant pressure from both ends, where you have professors when they're applying for grants, and when they're providing grants with their outcomes need to be talking about commercialization inputs, but then their own departments are not supporting that. So it's really a mess right now, quite candidly, and I think we need to really reconsider the structure there. As for on the industry side, I think we have a huge gap in CRT, especially right now, there's such a disconnect between what's happening in academia, I am ashamed to admit that, you know, I'd be very surprised if most people in the CRT industry really knew of my academic work, you know, you look at a lot of things that we publish, they're not even really accessible to the broader community. We don't even have a lot of journals that are open access. That stuff's really unfortunate. And so I do think there's a really great disconnect and some of the fantastic work that we do in academia. And really, nobody knows about it other than other academics. And so it's kind of like we're kind of an exclusive community that way where academics are just writing for other academics. And I think we need to start changing that as well start looking at other forms of communication beyond peer reviewed publications actually do get involved in in knowledge, translation activities, that are written with a more diverse audience in mind, and a 40. page paper is not something that a clinician, for example, has time to read. So what's a more appropriate format for all these very important stakeholders that need to know about our work?
Mary Goldberg 22:06
I love that introspection that it's true that what industry needs and those in the clinical environment is not so much what they need to do differently, it's the way that academics could push that information out in a way that is more digestible. And that makes it super actionable. For those of us that sit within the academic environment that may also have some more flexible resources to be able to develop materials in that way and use different dissemination channels. And I also liked what you said about the academic system being inflexible and pretty archaic, that it is still very much like you said, there's the teaching focus, there's the research focus, most institutions also have this service focus where there are these three pillars, we're really talking about the development here, or the implementation of a fourth pillar that could consist of entrepreneurship for those for whom it makes sense that it would receive similar weighting in the promotion and tenure process and hopefully incentivize more work in this area. Cool. So any final thoughts on what is working? Just going back to that anything else that you would want to share with our audience today?
Pooja Viswanathan 23:24
Yeah, again, I think, you know, in terms of what I realized is it's kind of counterproductive to think of academia and industry as these are two separate entities that can't really work together, or where there can't be more collaboration, a different sort of stages of even the product development cycle or commercialization process, I guess. So for myself, when I made that choice to move into entrepreneurship, of course, you know, I'm still very much an educator at heart. And I really wanted to stay involved. And it's been fascinating, because I think unlike what a lot of other people thought, where it was like, oh, yeah, we just sort of abandon the academic world. Now, I have continuously been involved in research. It's just so cool, the kind of research that I've been involved with now. So earlier on, whereas it was we would come up with research questions, and then sort of pursue, you know, some solutions and so on. It's been really interesting, because the products we've created a brace have actually created new research questions. So where earlier on maybe we were asking research questions around general, like sort of activity participation with power mobility, we were looking at safety. It's been really interesting, because after creating the blind spot sensors, one of the biggest questions I had is, you know, what is the role of rear visibility and awareness? And how does that how does that impact driving performance because that's something that nobody's really thought about. And because we haven't really had a lot of technologies to support that visibility and spatial awareness, our blind spots like 10 sensor technology is obviously kind of innovative and new to market. It's not really been something that's been there before, but now that that technology is there, it starts To create new questions, right, and it was all inspired because I saw something around a rear visibility index and cars ever since we got back up sensors and cars. And I was like, oh, wouldn't it really be neat if we had some sort of metric or index for what real visibility is like in different wheelchairs, and the sensors could be a tool to enhance that. And so that actually created a whole new research project that I've now collaborated on as an industry partner. So I'm, I'm wearing an industry partner hat, but I'm still collaborating with all my old colleagues, which is fantastic. And and then, of course, the latest work, which I'm super excited to also be talking to you about further in, you know, a future podcast was the faster framework, of course, that I've been working on with some colleagues, including Dr. Rosalie Wang, which is all about accelerating product development, but also really looking at alternate ways of gathering clinical evidence in order to bring technologies to market faster, especially in you know, CRT and assistive technologies really broadly. So really, really excited by that work. And it's been really exciting to be able to wear two different hats and, and really think about how we can more effectively collaborate as a really as partners rather than this handoff that's been happening historically, where it's like, oh, yeah, academics, we're just gonna hand over to industry partners. And the reality is that that's really not very effective. And we've kind of seen that with the limited success of, you know, assistive technologies historically. So, you know, I think we still have a lot of work to do. But I also think that there has been tremendous progress. And I certainly think that there's a lot more of a positive attitude now to commercialization and knowledge translation where maybe before it was kind of considered a little bit of a dark world, right, I think there's a lot more openness to it now. So I think this is this is the perfect time for us to create change.
Mary Goldberg 26:49
Both of these projects sound super fun and seem like knowledge translation in its finest, where you're identifying the problem and figuring out that there's this gap around it, trying to create new knowledge and adapt the knowledge to that particular context. And that just continues to feed the cycle and perhaps bring academics back in and then more things for you to test out in industry. So it's interesting cycle that perpetuates and it sounds like you've got experience on on both sides that is very valuable. So we very much appreciate your time Pooja and can't wait to discuss faster in a future episode.
Pooja Viswanathan 27:32
Thank you so much.
Mary Goldberg 27:33
Thanks, Pooja. In our next episode with Pooja and her colleague, Dr. Rosalie Wang, we'll dive into the FASTER framework, which stands for the Framework for Accelerated and Systematic Technology-based intervention development and Evaluation Research or FASTER, which is intended to be practical guidance for researchers, technology developers, clinicians, and others who develop tech interventions and seek evidence. Until then, if you'd like ImpacTech, please review us on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts. Thank you again for tuning in and continue to make an impact in whatever you do. A quick note from our sponsors. IMPACT initiatives are being developed under a grant from the National Institute on Disability Independent Living and Rehabilitation Research. NIDILRR is a center within the Administration for Community Living Department of Health and Human Services. IMPACT initiatives do not necessarily represent the policy of NIDILRR, ACL or HHS, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government and the same goes for the University of Pittsburgh. We would like to thank our impacted guests and our production team led by Dr. Michelle Zorrilla at the University of Pittsburgh Department of Rehabilitation Science and Technology.