Bridging Worlds with Anita Goel

Feb/27/2019 / by Chris Mohney

A formidable scientist, innovator, and entrepreneur, Dr. Anita Goel is the founder of Nanobiosym, a high-tech research and incubation operation dedicated to creating breakthroughs in nanotechnology. Holding doctorates in both physics and medicine, Goel has a deep personal knowledge of the science driving biomedicine and its promising nanotechnological applications.

Were you always driven to study both medicine and physics, or did one lead to the other?

From an early age, I’ve been inspired by a deeper quest to find the underlying unity in nature between the life sciences and the physical sciences. I grew up in rural Mississippi in a small town. My dad provided healthcare for this rural community and in a 100-mile radius as the local surgeon, and he would invite me scrub in with him in the operating room. That exposed me to some of the deeper problems in medicine. I also loved mathematics and physics, and I became convinced the same physics used to understand the far reaches of the universe must be applicable to a deeper understanding of life, living systems, and the problems of medicine. This early experience of living on the nexus of different worlds that did not talk to each other set me on a journey to bring medicine and physics closer together in a more unified framework, and to create practical applications from this nexus.

What prompted your focus on nanotechnology?

While I was studying physics at Stanford, and later simultaneously pursuing a Ph.D. in physics at Harvard and an M.D. with the Harvard-MIT HST Division of Harvard Medical School, I started going deeper into the emerging field of nanotechnology. For me, it provided one bridge to bring the two seemingly orthogonal fields of physics and biomedicine under a unified framework.

Nanotechnology, in my mind, is the ability to control and probe matter, energy, and systems on the nanometer (10^-9 meter) and increasingly smaller scales. In particular I fell in love with tiny nanomotors that read and write information in DNA, as these biological machines gave me a way to deeply connect the the worlds of fundamental physics and molecular biology in completely new ways.

What inspired you to found Nanobiosym?

The deeper I went into the study of both physics and medicine, the more aware I became of how disparate these fields are in our modern scientific paradigm. I spent years going back and forth between the physics departments at Harvard and MIT and Harvard medical school — arguably each amongst the best in the world — and yet they didn’t really talk to each other.

Just like my early childhood in rural Mississippi, I found myself at the nexus of different worlds that did not connect to each other. I felt like a child in a candy store with a whole vista of amazing possibilities and new uncharted frontiers to explore. I was fascinated not only with how advances in physics could solve practical problems in biomedicine, but also how a fundamental understanding of life and living systems could expand the paradigms of modern physics.

Nanobiosym has three areas of focus. First is the advancement of the fundamental science of nanophysics. Second is the incubation of technologies that emerge from this nexus and spinning off companies and technologies that can have an impact on some of the world’s biggest problems. The first of these spinoffs is Nanobiosym Diagnostics, whose focus is Gene-RADAR®, a platform that can perform molecular testing via a wirelessly enabled mobile device, in real time, with very high precision, and all its data securely shared in a cloud. The first application for Gene-RADAR is a Zika virus test, which was recently awarded a fast-track approval by the FDA. We’ve signed up some of our first early adopters in the United States but are also fielding international demand as well.

The third part of Nanobiosym is our Global Initiative, which focuses on advancing our disruptive science and technology to not only create novel companies and transform industries, but also to maximize the humanitarian impact on billions of lives. A few years ago, we created our first Nanobiosym Global Initiative Summit in partnership with Scientific American magazine, and we’ve begun exploring the idea of setting up “footprints” in developing countries — like a Nanobioysm branch, or enterprise, or campus — as a way to help these emerging economies leapfrog over their lack of traditional healthcare infrastructure.

Our world still functions in a lot of silos. I love pursuing passions at the convergence of those silos. People often said to me that “you can’t be a physicist and a physician at the same time, as the two fields have nothing to do with each other,” or “you can’t have one foot in basic science and academia and build a great company at the same time.” I’ve always listened to my inner voice more than such other voices. Just as I believe there’s an underlying unified framework in nature, I think some of the greatest leaps forward can come from the convergence of these silos. At this convergence, we are able to make quantum leaps in progress on technological, scientific, commercial, and global impact fronts.

What do you view as the path to help advance nanotechnology over the next ten years?

Nanotechnology has been forecasted as a potential $4.8 trillion-dollar industry, but most of that effort is still sitting in government and academic research labs. One of my visions in founding the Nanobioysm incubator was to take some of that science and technology and help it more rapidly advance, and help to move a nascent industry from the research stage into the commercialization stage. The state of nanotechnology today is somewhat analogous to the IT industry 25 years ago.

How has your Indian-American background informed your professional life?

My parents had emigrated from India to the United Staes to pursue the American dream. I was born near Boston, Massachusetts, and I grew up in a very small town in rural Mississippi where black and white people lived on different sides of the railroad tracks. For school and preschool, my parents sent to me the local Southern Baptist Church. At the same time though, my parents kept me informed of their own heritage — a distant culture from the east. Living at the crux of worlds that didn’t talk to each other has deeply shaped my own character. Instead of looking for truth in any one of those silos, I have always tried to find the underlying truth by looking deeper.

If you enjoyed this read, check out: Getting Small with Gayatri Keskar.


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