Geek of the Week

Geek of the Week: Bioengineering PhD Shivani Ludwig retains studying in seek for concepts at Xinova

Shivani Ludwig. (Xinova Photo)

Here’s an idea: Shivani Ludwig should be GeekWire’s latest Geek of the Week. OK, that was easy. For her part, Ludwig has a much more difficult role in the equation.

As an innovation development manager at Xinova, the Seattle-based spinout of Intellectual Ventures, Ludwig is tasked with trying to turn good ideas into great inventions.

“I’ve always been interested in solving problems,” Ludwig said. “So, with medical school in mind, I chose bioengineering as my undergraduate major to get a good foundation. But as I learned how bioengineers built better medical devices, or drug delivery molecules, or imaging systems, I found myself captivated by these technical problems and clever solutions. This scope for technical invention convinced me to continue on to become a bioengineer instead.”

While working toward her PhD in bioengineering at the University of Washington, Ludwig learned how to understand a problem in great depth before finding a solution.

“It’s very tempting to jump ahead to running experiments, but finding answers will be an exercise in futility if you don’t fully understand the question you’re answering,” she said.

In the last couple years of graduate school, she shifted her focus to entrepreneurship. To earn the UW’s Technology Entrepreneurship Certificate, she took classes alongside MBA students in marketing, finance and business strategy and crafted a business plan for an academic project while working as a commercialization fellow.

“I’ve continued my involvement with this community by judging and coaching students in the UW business plan competition,” she said. “My desire to solve problems ‘in the real world’ combined with my interest in entrepreneurship is what attracted me to Xinova.”

Learn more about this week’s Geek of the Week, Shivani Ludwig:

What do you do, and why do you do it? As an Innovation Development Manager at Xinova, I find ideas and help the most exciting ones become realities. I get to work with a large network of innovators: brilliant minds from all over the world who come up with novel ways to solve problems of all sizes across numerous industries. It’s a humbling and rewarding experience because while I constantly see and deal with the immense challenges in commercializing something, I also see the incredible amount of innovation that people can realize, especially when you bring a few innovators from unlikely fields together.

Also, after spending six years studying one topic and working on one focused project in graduate school, it’s a bit of a wild ride to work on a wide range of projects, from food science to process engineering to water sustainability. It’s a great way to work out that broader science and engineering knowledge and apply those research skills — and I get to keep on learning!

What’s the single most important thing people should know about your field? One of the biggest hurdles to innovation is getting the problem right. So much time and effort is often spent on solving the wrong problem. It’s just as challenging, if not more, to understand the true root of a problem. In fact, one of the most surprising things about working in innovation is that the “failed” ideas help us ask the right questions to zero in on the problem we need to solve.

Where do you find your inspiration? So many places. I find it in others’ stories of how they overcame hurdles to achieve success. I also find it when reading or hearing about a new and exciting technology. For example, judging and coaching students at the UW business plan competition reminded me why I enjoy the work I do. It’s inspiring to see the great potential in their ideas, and especially how they’ve already brought their ideas to life.

What’s the one piece of technology you couldn’t live without, and why? Google Calendar (or other online calendars) and its reminders. Not only does it help me keep track of things, it lets me clear my mind and let go of distant tasks until I get those reminders.

Xinova offices in Seattle.

What’s your workspace like, and why does it work for you? This is our entryway. There are plants, wonderful natural light, and even a couple swings. I love coming here to tackle a task that is particularly intensive, or have a quick meeting with colleagues. Around the corner, this is also a full vibrant display of the periodic table, with actual samples of most of the elements. I walk by this multiple times every day; it’s a great reminder that 1) we’re all enthusiastic geeks, and 2) science is really cool, both of which sum up my workplace vibe quite well.

Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life. (Help us out, we need it.) Get up and move around. I find that I can’t just sit in one spot for hours to get something done. A change in location, even just a different room, brings a fresh burst of energy — and it’s good for you!

Mac, Windows or Linux? Windows

Kirk, Picard, or Janeway? Well I’ve never seen an episode of Star Trek before.

Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? I want to say “cloak of invisibility” because I’m an extremely avid Harry Potter fan. But a transporter would be more practical and helpful. A time machine is just asking for trouble!

If someone gave me $1 million to launch a startup, I would … Gather scientists and the best communicators and solve the problem of transparency and reproducibility in academic research. There are so many great innovations that get lost or misunderstood because of paywalls, heavy jargon, and the pressure to produce only positive results. We’re doing a lot already to bridge academic research with commercialization, but we also need researchers to collaborate more.

I once waited in line for … a Harry Potter book. Several times, in fact: for books 5, 6, and 7. There was something really amazing about a very diverse group of people, kids and adults, in our modern world, waiting hours and hours in line for a book!

Your role models: Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s journey of shattering many glass ceilings and philosophy on how to enact change inspires me, along with Barack Obama’s charisma and optimism in the face of relentless criticism, and Sheryl Sandberg’s determination and ability to motivate so many women to take initiative to achieve higher. I’ve also long appreciated Alan Alda’s fierce advocacy of science communication. Lastly, I have to mention Dr. Frances Arnold, who is not only a brilliant scientist in my field (and now a Nobel Laureate!), but also a gifted communicator and role model for women in STEM.

Greatest game in history: The classic Mario games, Banjo Kazooie … and any good strategic game with a classic deck of cards.

Best gadget ever: The smartphone. What else has so revolutionized our lives, how we connect with each other, and will continue to shape how we interact with other technologies? Without it, many online platforms and software solutions wouldn’t be what they are today.

First computer: I think the first one I used was an old Gateway desktop back in 1997.

Current phone: iPhone 8

Favorite app: Right now, my Kindle app. I’ve never been more efficient at reading since I realized I can get a book and read it immediately and anytime on my phone.

Favorite cause: Science. Distrust in science is fanned by misinformation and misunderstandings and is increasingly dangerous in our technology-filled world. I strongly support causes that address this, whether through better science communication or encouraging under-represented groups to pursue and find success in STEM. I support STEM education, especially for women, through Society of Women Engineers and working with elementary school girls to foster an interest in STEM through engineering and science projects. Through ENGAGE, I help STEM graduates learn how to communicate science, both visually and in speech, so that the world understand us better.

Most important technology of 2018: Genetic “fortune telling.” Being able to understand our health on a personal level can help enable precision medicine. Although, with great information comes great responsibility. It has to be interpreted with caution and careful understanding of the limitations.

Most important technology of 2020: Aren’t we supposed to have flying cars by then?? If not, I’ll settle for self-driving cars/transit for the general public (in a way that is meant to reduce traffic on the roads).

Final words of advice for your fellow geeks: Have the courage to be vulnerable — that’s when new and exciting things are most likely to happen to you. Also: keep reading! Never stop reading.

Website: Xinova

LinkedIn: Shivani Ludwig

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