Pt. 2 Conversations with Ananth Natarajan
Dr. Ananth Natarajan is a physician and engineer specializing in the utilization of advanced technology to solve pressing clinical problems. As a member of the Pasadena Angels, he brings extensive experience in the healthcare field to bear on emergent business opportunities.
Dr. Ananth founded Infinite Biomedical Technologies, LLC (IBT) in 1997 and served as the Chief Executive Officer of the company for over ten years. IBT is a medical device company, develops and supplies neurodiagnostic monitoring instruments for clinical care, research, and field setting applications.
Dr. Natarajan received his BSE in Biomedical Engineering and Electrical Engineering from Duke University at age 18, with Distinction. He received an MSE in Biomedical Engineering from Johns Hopkins University and his MD from the University Of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine, and he completed his residency training in Obstetrics & Gynecology at the University of Southern California.
He lives in San Marino with his wife Margaret and their twelve-year old son, Ajay. In this lively conversation, he describes his involvement with the Pasadena Angels and his core belief in the power of innovation to accelerate positive change.
Q. Since your fields of specialization include bioengineering, what kinds of technologies do you see creating opportunities?
AN: In addition to telemedicine, such as Apple’s recent foray with iHealth, many companies are looking to technologies such as 3D printing, particularly in the area of prosthetics. It’s interesting because previously, if you were building a part, you’d have to design it, get the CAD designs completed, and send it out to be made.
It might take weeks to complete, and that’s a very slow and expensive process. If something is not quite right, the iterations were you had to get it right the first time. Most small companies can’t afford to re-engineer the part and refine their designs in an iterative process like that.
With 3D printing you can design and fabricate with an immediate turnaround time. You can actually iterate and make things for the design. That’s one area that 3D printing is really making a huge difference. It’s a lot cheaper to try things, experiment, prove and refine your design.
I think it will eventually change manufacturing. It’s not quite there yet, because it’s still too expensive. But, the technology will get there. Eventually, having the ability to 3D print parts will be a major game changer for mass production.
In specialized medical fields—prosthetics, for example—when you’ve got a part that has to be highly individualized to a person, and it has a high value. In that case, 3D printing can offer tremendous benefits.
Q. Along with the opportunities and innovation happening in healthcare, what are the challenges facing healthcare startups?
AN: There’s perfect storm going on in medicine right now where innovation is under attack from all sides. It’s becoming more and more difficult to bring a product to market. If you’re talking about something that is a Class III medical device, you’re talking about so much money that it almost never makes sense to innovate and to try these things, because there are higher and higher barriers, such as your ability to get FDA approval and the time involved in that alone.
There’s a saying in medicine that. “Between cost, access, and quality, you can have any two you want.” Something is going to suffer. We are massively increasing access, which is wonderful, but as a society, we’ve decided we can’t afford much more. The ability for big-scale blockbuster drugs, or for implantable Class III medical devices, is not a growth area right now.
However, people are constantly innovating. There are exciting changes underway, for example, it the use of big data in healthcare. The ability to obtain informative data on patients, combined with the ability to inexpensively leverage centralized databases is a huge paradigm shift.
Q. You referenced how big-data is influencing healthcare. Does it also signal a sea change in the business ecosystem at large?
AN: Yes, it’s an amazing time we live in. The ability for us to have algorithms that can look and figure things out, and what’s more, give valuable feedback to patients—in the area of preventative health, for example– is a huge opportunity.
It’s not that the world is ending. The world is changing, as it always has. People are continually innovating. There were challenges in the 1970s, in the 1980s. Think about the Cold War years, and reflect on where we are today.
There were challenges with the stock market crash in 2000 and in 2008. There are always challenges, but you know what? There is always innovation. What this country, and specifically this state, has always done better than almost anyone else is rise to meet those challenges.
I think that shrewd entrepreneurs now are finding ways where they can efficiently deploy small amounts of capital and make big changes within the healthcare industry. If there’s one area in particular I would be betting on and caring about life science in particular, I think it’s healthcare information technology and big data.
Secondly, there are great opportunities to better understand disease processes, our aging population, obesity, and neurology. There’s just so much opportunity in those areas, because it’s still unwieldy and inefficient. People can bring things to the market that can influence healthcare with global improvements. All it takes is one breakthrough idea. Someone could build the next Medtronic, for example.
As an Angel, I’m always looking for genuine innovation. But it’s amazing to me innovators always seems to be running a little bit faster than our problems, and that’s the great thing. That’s what we’re about investing in: keeping us ahead of the curve, keeping our country and our state competitive.
I think what we do, as angels, is both good for the consumer, and it’s good for the entrepreneurs, and I think it’s good for society. It’s an exciting time.