Our second podcast guest was Dr Nicole Black, a Glicklich Healthcare Innovation Fellow at the Wyss Institute in Boston and CEO/Co-founder at Beacon Bio. Nicole is an engineer and entrepreneur who is developing novel 3D-printed elastomeric grafts to replace damaged eardrums. She combines her interests and expertise in materials science, nanotechnology, additive manufacturing and medtech to create innovative solutions that answer unmet clinical needs.
In high school, Nicole loved all of the sciences. She initially wanted to become a medical doctor, but this changed during her junior year when she listened to a biomedical engineer speaking about their career and experiences. She realised that a career in biomedical engineering would enable her to combine her passion for medicine and engineering, while also providing patient benefit as she could create devices that would potentially be used by millions of patients.
Following this exciting new idea, Nicole obtained a Bachelor’s degree in Biomedical Engineering with a focus in Nanotechnology from Boston University. She explained that her interest in nanotechnology grew as she learned more about materials science during her degree: “ I really felt most drawn to those in the nanotechnology space, particularly around combinations of nanotechnology and materials science… and thinking about not just how you can engineer things that you can see, but [also] how you can engineer things that you can’t see with your naked eye, and how you probe and measure those types of things”.
While studying for her undergraduate degree, Nicole undertook work experiences in biomaterials labs at Columbia University and the University of Sydney, which really inspired her to pursue a career in the medical device industry. As she looked through job postings, Nicole quickly learned that the jobs she was interested in required a PhD, and so these findings guided her to pursue her PhD studies at the Wyss Institute, under the supervision of Professor Jennifer Lewis. “I really liked [Jennifer’s] lab’s work, because she already had some projects that were in the translational space, she had some start-up companies coming out of her lab as well and, in particular, the tie to the Wyss Institute was really powerful because their entire mission is to translate technologies and bring them to the real world. And so, I decided that would match my interest in materials science and nanotechnology in biomedical engineering, and actually use it in an innovative new way.”
Nicole had not expected to join a start-up straight after her graduate studies. This materialised organically during her PhD years as she realised that a lot of innovation happened at start-ups and that there was an opportunity for her and the team to develop their product further. She added that her supervisor was very helpful and supportive in her entrepreneurial activities; Jennifer had experience in the start-up space and she directed Nicole to different programmes, such as the Harvard Activate Program, which “matches science teams with a business lead from Harvard Business School or MIT Sloan, to help with the commercialisation aspects and thinking about facets beyond the science that would be important”.
Expanding on the subject of women supporting women in STEM and mentoring, Nicole shared why she thought mentoring matters: “I think mentoring matters for women in STEM for representation, of course, but also for candid advice. And actually, there’s a difference between someone who is your advisor/boss and people that are your mentors, who are thinking more holistically about your experiences. And as women in STEM fields, sometimes we can face issues that can be personally very challenging: work-life balance issues, sexism in the workplace, and how you might be treated differently. And so, having a mentor who’s been there and been through that, and can really talk to you on a more personal and emotional level about this, I think is a very important thing to have in your life to succeed as a woman in STEM.”
If women do not have access to STEM mentorship at their university, Nicole recommended looking for STEM networks or programmes beyond university, on a national level. Research mentees have been directed to Nicole through various routes, and she thinks that it is also a good idea to directly email a prospective mentor, but you should research them before reaching out, tailor your email specifically to them and ensure that they work in a field that is relevant to your interests. When mentoring students, Nicole believes that letting students take ownership over a particular project is key to inspiring them, because the success of completing their own project gives them the independence and confidence to see that graduate school is a possibility for them.
Beacon Bio, the start-up that Nicole co-founded and is currently the CEO of, produces 3D-printed tissue grafts for eardrum repair. “Traditionally, when people damage their eardrums through chronic ear infections, blast injuries or traumatic injuries, they will undergo a procedure known as a tympanoplasty. The tissues that are used (e.g. autologous tissues) do not match the structure of an eardrum and so a lot of patients have poor hearing after the surgery. And since they don’t degrade or remodel, they also usually don’t integrate well with the host tissue and thus can reperforate and retract, and you might need additional revision surgeries. The ‘PhonoGraft’ is a biodegradable material that’s completely synthetic. And we can print it in the architecture of the eardrum and implant it… So you don’t actually have to isolate any human tissue, you don’t have to grow patient cells, your body actually does a great job regenerating tissue – you just need a scaffold or graft in that place to guide the process.”
When asked whether she experienced any gender-specific barriers to starting Beacon Bio, Nicole explained that people can view you differently when you are a woman starting a company in STEM. She added that: “A lot of investors are used to seeing companies in the medtech space and medical device space led by older white males, and on several occasions when we talk to some potential investors, they’ve specified that they want it run by someone very experienced. And that makes sense, but the reality is that times are changing, and yes, women are being represented more in this space. But it wasn’t that way 20 years ago, and so all the people that have 20 years of experience in this space are not people that look like me… And so sometimes you just need to get the right people at the table who see your vision and who appreciate you as an individual person. I think has been a very important lesson that I’ve learned and learning to value the people that value you.”
Despite the gender barriers that exist currently, Nicole is optimistic about the future for women in medtech. She thinks that “our culture is becoming more innovative and more focused on creativity. And this is an area where I think women can really succeed. And also attention to detail and thinking about things that some people might not think about, for example, when you’re designing a medical device, there are a lot of aspects to it to ensure that it’s ultimately adopted by the surgeon or clinician, as well as aspects that the patient might care about. And so there are a lot of facets that could be under-appreciated if you don’t have the right people at the table, realising these different design aspects. With this emphasis on creativity and innovation, I feel that there will be a lot of strong women leaders at the forefront, because they’re willing to think outside of the box and think of other things that might ultimately lead to the success of this innovation.”
Finally, Ola asked Nicole if there is any book, podcast or movie that she would recommend to our listeners. “There’s a great podcast that I was lucky to be featured on called ‘Good Morning Science’. And I’ve been reading different start-up books: ‘Lean In’ by Sheryl Sandberg and ‘Life is a Startup’ by Noam Wasserman.”
May 24, 2021
Written by Iva Trenevska