Company aims to ease treatment of asthma
by Stephen Johnson, Mercury News
In just seven years, Bhairavi Parikh helped raise venture capital, start a biomedical company, develop a beneficial new device for asthmatics and win federal approval in March to begin selling the product.
Oh, and by the way, she did it all while raising four children.
The 37-year-old and her husband, Rajiv Parikh, founded Apieron of Menlo Park in 2001 to help minimize the symptoms of asthma, a condition affecting 20 million people in this country.
Building on her biomedical engineering doctorate, Bhairavi Parikh worked with others at the company, which has about 70 employees, to develop a gadget called the Insight eNO system.
The device lets doctors measure nitric oxide molecules in a patient's breath. That's important, she said, because the air-passage inflammation that causes asthma has been linked to how much nitric oxide is in a person's body. By monitoring nitric oxide, doctors can determine the amount, type and frequency of medicines asthmatics need to take to avoid breathing difficulties.
The Insight eNO product approved in March for doctors' offices costs about $7,500. But Bhairavi Parikh and her team are working to develop one that asthmatics could afford to buy and use at home. She hopes to get that approved for sale in three years.
Here are edited excerpts from a Mercury News interview with her:
Q Aside from Rajiv having asthma growing up, why did you make the Insight system?
A The vision for this company is that we make the lives of asthma patients better, so they're not taking too much medicine and they're not taking too little, and they don't have symptoms and they're not afraid to go over to their friend's house because they have a dog and they don't land in the emergency room. It seems altruistic. But it's what the company is founded on and it's the hopes and dreams that actually keep this place moving forward.
Q What do you think about the scarcity of women biomedical executives?
A I do think it's rare. It's even rarer that females found companies. I'm hopeful that in the future it will become more of a commonality as opposed to something that is construed to be not normal. There is always a pull in a woman when she chooses between family and career, and you can't always have it all. It's a very difficult thing to get to the point where you can successfully manage a family and manage having an executive-level position.
Q How do you do it?
A My mother. My nanny. My sister-in-law. My father. We're raising a family by community, you know. I maintain a fairly flexible schedule. I make sure that I spend time with my kids every single day. And I work at nights when they go to bed to make up the time that I'm not in the office. If you build a good working relationship with your peers and with your team members, it can work.
Q What are the pluses and minuses of founding a company with a spouse?
A It was probably the best experience of my life. I mean, I've been married for 17 years, we dated for quite a while before that. We have a very good solid working relationship and there's this mutual respect between the two of us. So conversations are always open, always honest. You don't have to worry about stepping on each other's toes. You don't have to worry about saying the wrong thing and having to deal with the repercussions. The bad thing about it is that the venture community doesn't encourage it.
Q What was their problem with it?
A "You don't want to have two people in a company that have stronger loyalties to each other than they do to the well-being of the business." I would strongly disagree with that statement, because we had a positive experience. But it's not an uncommon point of view.
Q How was it raising venture capital?
A It was extremely difficult. We were young, just finishing graduate education, having young children at home. So I think that made it more difficult to raise money. And my husband came from high tech, he didn't have medical device, pharma or biotech background. His expertise was not in the area that we were looking to raise money in. You have to find the venture capital that believes in you and believes in the story, and the story was that we're going to go change the lives of asthma patients.
Q What is the hardest thing about running a company?
A From a personal perspective, the thing I work hardest at is to make sure that you have a happy organization and it's what takes the most amount of time. Irrespective of meeting your goals and making sure that everybody is trying to get to a common place, the best thing and the hardest thing is to build relationships and to have people become loyal to the cause and to you.
Q You said when you were younger you studied dance and even performed with an Indian classical dance troupe. Why did you get involved in science?
A The whole concept of problem solving keeps my juices flowing constantly and it's actually what I do best. I love to dance. It keeps you whole. But science keeps your mind going. There's always a new problem to solve, there's always something new to invent.
1. She started dancing when she was 3 and considered pursuing dance professionally. "Now I live vicariously through my daughter (Shivani), who dances incessantly."
2. She said she drives a minivan because "the love of my life is my family," and she needs it to carry her four children.
3. She listens to extremely loud music when she's alone and loves to "escape into the arts."
4. She cites as life-changing events trying to raise venture capital while pregnant with her fourth child and feeling helpless when her son, Anand, was hospitalized with an infection.
5. Her mother is a biologist and her father is a chemist.
• Birthplace: Waterbury, Conn.
• Position: Co-founder and chief technology officer at Apieron
• Previous jobs: Senior sensor engineer at Natus Medical in San Carlos
• Education: Bachelor's degree in biochemistry from the University of New Hampshire; master's degree in biological engineering from the University of Connecticut; doctorate in biomedical engineering from a joint program with the Worcester Polytechnic Institute and University of Massachusetts Medical Center
• Family: She and her husband, Rajiv, have four children: Arjun, 12, Shivani, 10, Anjali, 8, and Anand, 5.
• Residence: Palo Alto