“I wanted to look at the macro causes of humanity rather than the micro causes of biology— the 30,000 foot view as opposed to the 20x,” says Nina Tandon, co-founder of EpiBone, a New York-based bone bioengineering startup situated within the Harlem Biospace. The Harlem Biospace is a biotech incubator and houses a community of biotech entrepreneurs. With a masters in electrical engineering from MIT and a PhD in biomedical engineering and MBA from Columbia, as well as a couple years of pharmaceutical consulting at McKinsey and Company under her belt, Nina Tandon has found that perfect harmony between the science and business world— where the work in the lab can come to life, translated into real life applications.
“What young people and girls need to realize is how creative science is— a lot of science is reading and writing, education and entrepreneurship”
Starting as a child, Nina’s love for science was fostered by her family. She jokingly claims that her mother and her siblings were her first research group. Growing up in New York City, with a sister who was color blind and a brother who was night blind, she and her siblings would ask questions and make up small experiments to test memory and depth perception.
Her parents— an educator and financier, respectively— always encouraged her towards science with the notion that “girls can do anything.” Like many young girls, Nina was interested in many things, from fashion to theater and poetry. She says, ” it was tough to see science as a job as dynamic as it really is. Originally I wasn’t ready to commit. But what young people, and girls, need to realize is how creative science is— a lot of science is reading and writing (creativity used in poetry), education (learning new things), entrepreneurship (learning to make something tangible from your work)”.
Once she started working in science more seriously she was hooked— she studied electrical engineering at Cooper Union and eventually met Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic, whom she considers to be one of her greatest mentors. Gordana “always encouraged me to grow over the past ten years. She taught me nothing is out of reach— to be a risk taker. She was someone who invested and took risks to help me and to get where I am today”.
It was during the Bush administration’s stem cells wars and health care debates, while conducting research for her PhD thesis under Gordana, that Nina began to question the permissibility of her research.
There comes a point in a scientific career, she says, when you decide what part of the sector you want to deal with— the “what is DNA, cells, etc” route, or the “business approach,” where you translate research into everyday life. “The 30,000 ft skyscraper view, or the 20x microscope view”, she describes. After finishing her PhD, she decided to try and explore the other causes, prompting her to attend business school and work as a McKinsey consultant.
“1+1 can equal three one day and zero the next—which ingredient led to what is sometimes very unknown”
That interest in both worlds, she says, helped her get where she is today. “Science and biology are so robust and synergistic. There is never one way to get something done in biology— 1+1 can equal three one day and zero the next,” she laughs. “Which ingredient led to what is sometimes very unknown.” For her, the PhD in science and the MBA created a synergistic and powerful combination, one that may not have been powerful 10 years ago nor will be as powerful 10 years from now. That, combined with good timing and chance, brought Nina to EpiBone
In 2010, Gordana’s lab had been published in a New York Times article in regards to being able to create personalized bone grafts for patients. The combination of Nina’s scientific and business knowledge became crucial to helping kickstart EpiBone from a scientific project to that of a real product. She worked on the business plan with her co-founders to send to BioAccelerate NYC, a New York based investment fund, and from there it was a series of ventures to learn more about the business side and to gain funding.
“You need to get people on the outside world to care. Science is a public service.You need to find the perfect balance between lab work and and fundraising to launch your product”
For EpiBone, after the NYT article was published in 2010, a craniomaxiofacial surgeon working from a different Columbia based lab collaborated with the Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic’s Laboratory of Stem Cell and Tissue Engineering. This was the birth of the company. After receiving a BioAccelerate grant in 2011, they began to test the product in pigs from 2012 through 2013. During this time, Nina and her co-founder Sarindr Ick Bhumiratana were a part of the pilot class for the Innovation and Entrepreneurship class at Columbia, which Nina claims was pivotal in helping them bring the science project to “science business”. After that they received funding from places like the 1000 Awesome Foundation, the NIH, and the Thiel Foundation. Finally, in 2014, EpiBone became its own company as a part of the Harlem Biospace. For science-based entrepreneurship, Nina says, you need to “start regulatories, market, finance, and learn about intellectual property” in order to make that break from science to business.”It’s important for all entrepreneurs to have passion, intellect, flexibility and humility” , she says. “You need to be flexible to make new decisions, always cultivate your intellect, and be humble and ask for the help you need”. Especially for life science, she says, “you need to get people on the outside world to care; science is a public service and you need to find the perfect balance between lab work and fundraising to launch your product”.
Although Ms. Tandon has many impressive claims to her name, she says that she is most proud of being able to work in a collaborative team environment, with her co-founders Ick and Ben, trying something that has never been done before. She sees it as an adventure— a road trip where you don’t know what you are going to see in the window but know that there will be an interesting process and a final destination. She is excited to hopefully transform the lives of people who desperately need help. “It is a privilege to be able to ask these questions and to have the chance to help and to be a part of the EpiBone story”.
And when asked about her advice to current college students wanting to be a part of science-based entrepreneurship she suggests that they shouldn’t be afraid to experience what they want to do. “Try to get as close to what you want as possible, have experiences in what you are passionate about-through shadowing, internships, clubs, classes etc. Take risks and start to answer the questions for yourself.”