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Interview with an Alumnus

  • Swaminathan Rajaraman
    post format

    Featuring Swaminathan Rajaraman

    April 2013

    April 2013

    This is the first edition of "Interview with an Alumnus". Every month, we will publish a series of Q&A to reconnect with MSMA alumni. This should be a fun way to learn what they are now doing and where they are, as well as their views on the development of MEMS.

For this first edition of "Interview with an Alumnus", we contacted Swami. Hello Swami, how have you been?

I'm doing well. Thanks for honoring me the inaugural "Interview with an Alumnus" edition of the new MSMA website.

We're happy you accepted our invitation to answer these few questions. To start this short interview, why don't you remind us about the work you did as a Ph.D. student in the MSMA group.

Swami's PhD workClick on the image for additional information
I was part of the MSMA group from 2005 to 2009. I worked on several different projects when I was a member of the group. My Ph.D. dissertation was on "Micromachined Three-Dimensional Electrode Arrays (3-D MEAs)" for applications in in-vitro and in-vivo electrically active cellular networks and tissue. Additionally, I worked on development of microfabrication processes for high-aspect ratio SU-8 micromachining, several laser micromachining processes, microneedles, micromachined stents etc... One of the techniques I co-developed when I was in the group, Metal Transfer Micromolding (MTM) has been utilized in several MEMS applications developed and published by our group.

MTM is indeed a very popular fabrication technique in the group! For the folks who are not yet familiar with this technology, check out one of Swami's papers on the MTM technology. Swami, if you have looked at our research page, you may have seen that we still have projects on microelectrode arrays for in-vivo neuronal recordings. What have you been working on since graduation?

Since I graduated in 2009, I have worked on commercialization of Microelectrode Array (MEA) technology. I co-founded (along with others including Dr. Allen) a company called Axion BioSystems, which has commercialized the industry's first High-Throughput MEA system.
Swami's workClick on the image for additional information
This system is currently in use in over 10 institutions worldwide for high-throughput screening of compounds, drug candidates, toxins, environmentally harmful materials, chemicals, nanoparticles etc... I currently lead two groups in the company, responsible for biological assays, materials development and MEMS devices prototyping/small scale production. My group is also working on MEA sensors for "on-the-body" and implantable applications. The Company has around 25 full-time and part-time employees and we are located on the Georgia Tech campus and are a part of the ATDC (Advanced Technology Development Center).

Seems like your Ph.D. work was a stepping stone towards the creation of Axion Biosystems. I'm sure this will be very inspiring for our current Ph.D. students. Based on your personal experience, what are some of the pros and cons about working for a MEMS start-up company?

Working in a start-up is very challenging to say the least. Since I have been at a start-up from the beginning, I can say I have seen the evolution of a start-up from scratch. Some of the pros are as follows:

  • Seeing an idea grow from something that was on a black board to a 25-person company with a lot of promise.
  • Reaching device commercialization (not just the potential for commercialization) and practical applications of some ideas you worked on in graduate school.
  • Mentoring undergraduates, graduate students and employees.
  • Learning all aspects of company evolution - building teams; infrastructure; patent execution; sales pitches; grant writing (Axion has a lot of Small Business Innovation in Research (SBIR)-based funding); supporting customers; talking to customers; how to mold and inspire people that work for you etc...
  • Realizing that great technology cannot stand-alone and we need marketing, financing, sales, advertisement etc... as key pieces for growth of technology into promising products is great experience.

As with everything in life, there are disadvantages to being in a start-up too. Some of these are as follows:

  • All the infrastructure and teams/personnel had to be built from the ground up. This can be viewed as a pro too since I had a lot of say in who will be hired and what equipment to buy.
  • Lots of late nights and hard work (in some ways in the beginning years of the company, I felt like I never really graduated from school).
  • You have to compromise on great research ideas in favor of practical ones that can be brought to market faster. And no more conferences (I miss the Hilton Head MEMS meeting greatly!!).
  • MEMS processes very seldom are stand-alone products. While in a group like the MSMA group, all the focus is on development of new MEMS technologies, in a company environment you have to work with other technologies (software, electronics, biology, packaging etc.) to make the final product. This means compromises (not always pleasant) on development, money that can be spent on MEMS, resources etc...


Very insightful! And just so you know, the Hilton Head MEMS workshop is still as good as in years past! Mark will be the technical chair of the 2014 workshop, so hopefully you can join us there. Thank you so much for your time. I think this was a great way to launch our "Interview with an Alumnus" series. What's the best way to stay in touch with you?

The best way to stay in touch with me is through email. My Georgia Tech email forwards to my Axion email. So either srajaraman@gatech.edu or srajaraman@axionbio.com works well. I look forward to hearing back from former, current and future students of our group.

COMMENTS

  • user

    Florian

    April 2013

    Swami, thanks again for your contribution. Talk to you soon!

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