Marta Gaia Zanchi, the Woman advancing Healthcare Technology at Stanford, reflects on her Career Path
It’s almost impossible to talk about health care technology in the Silicon Valley without Marta Gaia Zanchi’s name coming up. As an Adjunct Professor at Stanford School of Medicine and Faculty Member for Mobile Health with the Stanford Byers Center for Biodesign, she is at the epicenter of new ideas, the brightest minds, and financial backing for health care technology. She is heavily involved in the health entrepreneurship community, including with roles at the Data Collective (DCVC) as well as serving on several company advisory boards. Her work has led to some very impressive accolades including more recently the Silicon Valley 40 Under 40 Award and Women of Influence Award, both in 2016. She holds a Bachelor of Science Degree in Biomedical Engineering and Master of Science Degree in Electrical Engineering from Politecnico di Milano, and a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering from Stanford University. We were blessed with the opportunity to sit with her as she reflected on her tremendous career path.
For Marta, passion for healthcare technology began at an early age. In High School she specifically recalls being inspired by the passion of doctors but also sympathizing with their limitations as individuals.
“There was a common frustration: unfulfilled eagerness to reach more people with better care… [Doctors] were inspiring people, limited by the number of hours in a given day. I thought tech might be the way to help expand their reach. There’s more to it — I know it, now — back then, this understanding was all it took to make me want combine a long-standing sense of mission with a personal, newer excitement for engineering.””
It was this clarity in purpose that empowered her through college to be proactive and take full advantage of the opportunities afforded to her. As she found, understanding the context of your studies and learning with a purpose plays a huge factor in academic success. A clear vision always leads to more insightful questions and productive discussions with professors and advisors.
“I can think of many professors and many doctoral students who have been very influential throughout my bachelor and graduate studies. They believed in me. They empowered me with possibilities. They invited me in a world of creative opportunities, by opening their labs and showing that they trusted me to contribute value to their important work. I am grateful to all.”
Pursing a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering at Stanford put her in direct contact with some of the world’s most advanced medical devices, pushing the limits of technology to solve incredibly complex issues. As she progressed through her studies however, she developed a sense of impatience with the limitations of a purely technical approach to healthcare.
“Amazing devices are built on a bench, but if that’s where they remain, they are not going to help anyone. The translational aspect — the challenge of translating research findings into clinical practice and public health policy — began to interest me deeply, so I enrolled in a program at the Stanford Graduate School of Business to learn about entrepreneurship. It was an extremely formative time as well as my first exposure to, also, the regulatory requirements entrepreneurs need to meet to bring their devices to market. A few months after, I learned about this fellowship offered by the Stanford Biodesign program (now the Stanford Byers Center for Biodesign): an opportunity to work at the Food and Drug Administration in Maryland, and learn about regulatory affairs from within. I seized it and it was one of the best decisions I’ve made during my PhD studies. I loved the work, the importance of it, and the complexity involved in meeting FDA’s difficult mandate to assure the safety and effectiveness of medical devices, while fostering innovation in the industry.”
When asked about specific career advice, Marta was quick to point out that mindful learning has been one of her greatest assets and is always eager to pass on her wisdom by mentoring student groups.
“I make learning an explicit goal of every day. Whether it is by reaching out to one of my mentors, reading an HBR article, taking a class, starting a new book or meeting my students — or one of a million more ways, I am mindful of my limitations and intentional about my growth.”
While explaining the importance of being mindful of your limitations, she also stressed that we should not downplay our unique traits. Rather, we should leverage them and advocate for ourselves and our needs.
“I have some eccentricities — peculiar habits and idiosyncrasies — as well as unique priorities and needs. Early in my career, I tended to minimize them, even hide them. I was susceptible to others telling me what was expected and normal. I have always tried to be very aware of other people’s eccentricities, priorities and needs, but did not always advocate for mine. It was a mistake. Fast forward to today, my unique traits have become some of my best assets, and I am stronger for it. Not to mention, a whole lot happier.”
Marta also reflected on her fateful decision to purse the technology side of healthcare rather than medical and explained how the two must come together in order to deliver a successful solution.
“Physicians are in the best position to make original observations by working with their patients, on a daily basis. They know the diseases and conditions best. And, they generally understand the constraints in which they are operating, as they come from their workflow and own health delivery organization. Engineers and business people can be taught that, but this knowledge is generally not part of their curriculum, nor is it part of their daily life as working professionals. Also, I have met many physicians who are extremely creative. In fact, in speaking with them about their observations and needs they encounter, they are generally eager to share their ideas and inventions.
However, it is engineers who are trained to break down complex technology problems into a stepwise approach, and work through a formalized process of think-build-test-iterate towards invention of technical solutions that meet specified inputs and constraints. They generally have their pulse on latest enabling technology, and quick understanding of what technical risks exists in developing new ones.
Yet all of this is hardly useful, if one fails to consider all the other variables that go into actually bringing these technologies to market, in the hands of consumers, patients and physicians: intellectual property issues; business models; reimbursement; regulatory pathways. A business-savvy person with healthcare industry expertise can chart the market potential for the innovation, and explore sources of funding.
So you see, it’s really not about who’s best. Understanding the need is the primary condition for technology innovation — and having all the competences required to walk the process from need to market is a close second. Only a well-assorted, multi-disciplinary team can have it all.”
In her parting words, she reflected on her own role in the many organizations she is engaged with and expressed a deep sense of satisfaction in the impact she is having on the world today.
“ I am an engineer at heart, yet I am no longer at the bench, developing technologies. Consistently with what my interests have always been — to do my best to positively impact patient outcomes and improve health, through technology innovation — I have become more and more interested in the process, which I learn and practice in different contexts: academia and entrepreneurship, the latter including the investment community. I still think important that for going into health technology, one ought to have a core area where one is really expert, and that can be an area of engineering or an area of medicine, or perhaps something else.”