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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com works well. I look forward to hearing back from former, current and future students of our group.