Dr Surbhi Gupta is an experienced Medtech executive with over 15 years of experience in the life sciences industry. Her impressive resume boasts an array of senior roles, publications and academic achievements, including a PhD in Biophysics from the Indian Institute of Science, highly regarded university for its research in science, engineering, design, and management. She’s currently heading a commercial team at Precision Robotics, a medical robotics start-up in London, and is a successful and talented leader in an industry which is still dominated by men. ‘It’s one of the drawbacks of my industry’, Surbhi says, reflecting on the hiring processes she’s been involved in. ‘There just aren’t enough women for me to choose from because there aren’t enough of them applying! It’s probably because women don’t choose this field as often as men do.’
These words are particularly meaningful when considered in the context of Surbhi’s own experience. For almost every achievement that propelled her onto the next stage of her career Surbhi had to work twice as hard, fighting against existing beliefs and defending her choice to pursue a scientific career in the first place. Growing up in a traditional family in India, a PhD in science was not something she was encouraged to pursue. On the contrary, like many other young girls in the area where she grew up, not only was she never encouraged to pursue higher education, she was actively discouraged from it. ‘Young girls were expected to focus their attention on getting married and starting a family. Boys could go for further education, yes, but girls – no,’ says Surbhi, recalling her childhood. ‘My father was particularly vocal about it. He’d always say that I should get married first,’ she adds with a chuckle.
Today Surbhi, the successful scientist and leader that she has become, can look back on those circumstances through the lens of humour. But back in her childhood, the potential devastating consequences of such an environment must have been felt acutely. From a very young age, Surbhi was bright and academically gifted. She excelled at school, and no doubt was encouraged and amply praised by her family, who must have been proud of her achievements. The expectation to shut the door on all academic pursuits in the name of married life must have felt jarring to anyone who’s seen Surbhi’s apparent aptitude and ambition.
After her PhD, Surbhi was determined to pursue her scientific goals abroad – a task that proved to be challenging. ‘I had written to over 50 PIs (principal investigators) in the UK before being selected by one in Cancer Research UK (CRUK).’ Moving to the UK meant needing to adjust to a new country. ‘Initially, it was quite hard,’ says Surbhi. ‘I was the only Indian in our research group which had over 20 Postdocs. But London is a very diverse place. I was accepted very quickly and made a number of very close friends, some of whom I’m still in close contact with.’
Surbhi’s family are infinitely proud of her today. After all, in addition to a husband and two daughters, Surbhi is not only an accomplished scientist, she’s also someone who has deliberately shifted her career path into the Medtech field, a move which can’t have been easy. ‘I wanted to do something that had an immediate impact on the lives of cancer patients out there,’ Surbhi says. ‘My mother’s passing away with breast cancer was a pivotal moment for me. Here I was a scientist and a researcher and what I did made no difference to the actual people affected by the disease, and I desperately wanted to change that.’
Wanting to move away from basic science and do something which had more direct impact on patients, Surbhi applied for a role at Cancer Research Technology (CRT), which was the commercialization arm of CRUK. ‘I had a very successful academic career, so my Postdoc supervisor was very unhappy that I was leaving science. Everyone thought that a business development role was not good enough for me and I should have stayed in pure science. But I have never regretted my decision.’ For Surbhi, it was the perfect time to move on. ‘I got pregnant with my first child towards the end of my Postdoc, and, in fact, this was one of the reasons I wanted to leave science and have a more structured job. Being in a lab can be a 24-hour job sometimes and I knew with a young family this was going to be difficult. I don’t regret this though. In fact, I’m very glad that I made this transition back then.’
The challenges of the new role presented themselves as learning opportunities. Starting in a junior business development role, Surbhi learned about intellectual property (IP) and interaction with industry. Two years later, Surbhi was offered a role as IP and Licensing Manager at King’s College London.
‘My second daughter was born between my jobs at CRT and King’s. My boss at King’s was very supportive and I had the opportunity to work flexibly during that time. Raising two young girls with a full-time job was going to be hard. Also considering that my husband was a very busy cardiologist and was concentrating on his career as well, working part time was ideal for me.’
Surbhi continued to learn and grow in every new role she got. Eventually, she was head hunted to join Imperial Innovations where she led the Medtech portfolio. ‘During my time there I developed very good relationships with the founders. When I successfully led the fundraising for Precision Robotics project, it was a natural transition for me to move to the company full time.’
As is frequently the case in the start-up environment, at Precision Robotics Surbhi has had the opportunity to get involved in a wide array of projects: regulatory, quality, clinical affairs, IP, BD, and legal just to name a few. ‘Now I’m more of a generalist leader rather than a niche technical person. I’m leading teams of people where they know much more than me about their specific area of expertise. They don’t need me for technical support, they need me for my leadership and guidance and understanding of the overall full picture.’
‘The secret, I guess, is to be open to any opportunity that comes your way, not to be shy and not to indulge in self-doubt too much.’ Surbhi’s passion for what she does is evident as she says these words. It is what makes her such a great leader – she’s inspired by a great vision, a mission to take the latest scientific innovations out of the theoretical confinement of the lab and deliver them to the actual people needing them. If you ask anyone, this is nothing short of inspirational.
And yet, even today, with the impressive array of achievements and experience behind her shoulders, it is not all smooth sailing. ‘There are lots of men in this industry and as a woman it is not always easy, you know,’ says Surbhi. ‘The beliefs about what you are capable of when you are a woman, the prejudices, the misogyny – these things are all there, even today, and even in the UK. It is a lot more subtle, and therefore a lot more treacherous. A word, a look, a dismissive comment – you have to really watch out for it and be confident because the moment you are not, you can be overwhelmed by it.’
It is astonishing to hear this impressive woman describe the prejudice she experiences in her field, but she is not dismayed by it. Far from it, it inspires her to encourage young girls to pursue careers in the fields traditionally dominated by men, particularly STEM. ‘It’s a numbers game – the more women go into sciences, the more of them will be out there filling the senior positions they deserve.’ With her own life being a testament to how a woman can excel in a career despite all the discouragement, and especially as a mother to two girls herself, Surbhi wants to be a role model to many aspiring young women. ‘There were many great people who have helped me along the way,’ says Surbhi. ‘I’ve had both men and women as mentors, but women in particular were important in helping me along. I hope to be a mentor to other young women as well.’
‘If I had one piece of advice to young women right now,’ says Surbhi, ‘it would be to be true to yourself. As a woman in a competitive field dominated by men, you can often be tempted to behave in a way you think a man would, whatever that may be. That’s not true. You can and should be yourself. Being yourself isn’t a weakness. It’s a strength.’
March 01, 2021
Written by Maija Kozlova