Interview with Dr. Sunny Kumar, Director of Innovation at Canada Health Infoway
“Where you’re going is more important than where you’ve been” – Dr. Sunny Kumar
Please give us a little background on your academic career.
I completed my Bachelor of Science degree at the University of Toronto Scarborough Campus in Neuroscience. I then moved to the St. George UofT campus to complete a Master of Health Science degree. This allowed me to gain a deeper knowledge of cell and molecular biology, as it applies to oncogenesis. At the time, I didn’t know if I wanted to delve head first into the world of molecular oncology research, so it was a good way to get my feet wet and decide if it was something I was interested in.
I then did my PhD in the Laboratory Medicine and Pathobiology program from 2000-2006, specializing in oncogenic signal transduction. My research in Dr. Greg Hannigan’s lab was focused on the role of endogenous ILKAP, a PP2C protein phosphatase, in inhibiting cell adhesion and growth factor signaling. I showed that ILKAP is a specific downstream negative regulator of growth factor signaling and reduces cellular markers of transformation.
During my PhD, I gave a talk where Dr. Peter Howley, Chairman of the Department of Pathology at Harvard Medical School, was in the audience. He was very interested in my work and invited me to do my post-doctoral studies in his lab. There, I studied the molecular mechanism of cervical cancer development.
What drove you to initially leave academia and pursue a career in industry?
The decision to leave academia was a defining moment for me and one that I remember vividly. During my postdoctoral fellowship, I went into the lunchroom one day and saw a copy of The Wall Street Journal, with my colleague Dr. David Sinclair on the cover. Dr. Sinclair had discovered that calorie restriction in C. elegans increased longevity. This was later shown in mice as well. Sinclair determined that Sir2, a sirtuin gene, was involved in metabolism and lifespan determination and conferred this anti-aging response to calorie restriction. Overexpression of the Sir2 gene also increased lifespan. Sinclair formed a biotechnology company called Sirtris Pharmaceuticals to discover and develop anti-aging drugs. At the time, GlaxoSmithKline acquired the company for $750 million based on early data.
Upon reading this, I thought ‘I could be doing this’, and knew I had to leave academia. That night I told my wife of my decision, and thankfully, she was very supportive of my choice.
What was it like leaving academia and how did you acquire your first job?
It was scary. After deciding to leave academia, my wife and I left Boston and moved back to Toronto. I remember doubting my decision as I was driving out of the city – I was choosing to leave Harvard Medical School and the position of a lifetime. However, in my gut, I knew that academia had run its course for me and that I was making the right choice.
When I moved back to Toronto, I spent some time with my 5 month old baby daughter and acquainted myself with the early stage venture capital/start-up space. I networked like crazy! I felt like I had to bang on so many doors and even break doors down to get people to talk to me. Part of it was that I had absolutely zero investment/business knowledge. This paid off as I landed my first opportunity an Investment Analyst at the MaRS Investment Accelerator Fund (IAF).
What was your career trajectory like?
As an Investment Analyst, I was involved in seed stage investing in health-related start-ups. Seed capital funding is high-risk because the business doesn’t have a track record yet. I was involved in due diligence, assessing the company’s technology, business feasibility, competition, risks and mitigation and ultimately recommending whether we should invest or not. Coming out of my PhD and post-doc, my world was DNA, genes and proteins and I was thrown into something completely new to me. I did a lot of learning on the job and I was promoted to Investment Manager within my first six months.
Shortly after, I left IAF and joined OMERS on a strategic assignment to examine a contemplated investment in a late stage clinical therapeutic for treating a neurodegenerative disease.
I then accepted a position at the Ontario Centres of Excellence (OCE) as a Senior Commercialization Manager. Here I worked with early-stage entrepreneurs and enterprises with the goal of assisting these young companies in the tricky business waters. I offered assistance on management, marketing, intellectual property, strategy and financing. I sat on the Board of Directors of numerous growth stage companies.
Following this, I took a position as a Program Development Lead at Baycrest Hospital. Baycrest had just received $125M to create a center for aging and brain health innovation and I was hired to lead the development of the center. I worked closely with the Chief Technology Officer and other Baycrest Executives to develop the Centre’s business plan, sustainability plan, operational plan, KPI’s, marketing and communications plans, and nurtured business and commercial opportunities, and was intimately involved in hiring immediate staff
This led to me my current position as Director of Innovation at Canada Health Infoway. Infoway helps to improve the health of Canadians by working with partners to accelerate the development, adoption and effective use of digital health innovations across Canada. Through our investments, we help deliver better quality and access to care and more efficient delivery of health services for patients and clinicians. As Director of Innovation, I work with senior management to influence the direction and types of investments the organization should make to support innovative digital health solutions, with a focus on consumer / citizens’ health.
Do you think having a PhD has helped you in your career, and if so, in what ways?
The biggest advantage a PhD and/or graduate training holds in the business world in analytical thinking. When you are conducting your research in a lab, the process is much more important than the result. You are taught to ask the right questions and use the appropriate strategies to find a solution. The ability to think critically will help you in any career.
I have found that many people lack this skill. With a PhD, you are able to “peel layers of the onion” much faster and get to the core of an issue, while other people will go around in circles. In an investment setting, this allows you to provide a clear outline of an issue and tell a Board of Directors or investors exactly why they should or shouldn’t invest in something.
What advice would you give to students who are looking for career options in industry?
There are some skills you need in the real world that you don’t really learn in graduate school. These include basic business skills, business process, and people management. Three pieces of advice I have to give are:
- Where you’re going is more important than where you’ve been. Make yourself more marketable for the career you want.
- Never enter a situation without a plan – if going into a meeting, do the prerequisite work to understand context, issues, and have an agenda or objectives. When making a recommendation, be prepared to defend your position (much like in a thesis defence)! The worst thing you could do is waste senior executives’ time, which will damage your credibility.
- Learn how to handle criticism. In the business world, you will face opposition and resistance on many initiatives. It helps to have thick skin and an attitude of collaboration rather than competition
Interview by LSCDS Exec Member Neeti Vashi
Neeti is a PhD candidate in the department of Molecular Genetics, pursuing her research in the lab of Dr. Monica Justice. She is interested in a career in Medical Affairs or Medical Writing. She can be found on LinkedIn here.