Have You Met…Cigdem Benam, PhD

Meet our new Associate Portfolio Executive, Life Sciences

Q: Where did you grow up?

A: I was born in Turkey and spent my childhood in different parts of the country, but mostly in Ankara. I did my undergraduate studies in Middle East Technical University, one of the best universities in Turkey, and then got a scholarship went to Britain to continue my education at the University of Wales. Then I had a lot of back and forth between Turkey and Britain and eventually came to Boston for a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard University.

Q: How did you hear about Innovation Works?

A: I was working as the outreach manager of the technology transfer office of the University of Pittsburgh helping faculty understand commercialization and agents in the process. That is when I had a chance to learn about innovation ecosystem players in the region and the critical role IW plays for Southwestern PA.

Q: What drew you to work here?

A: I supported academic founders in my previous roles with validating their ideas, helping set up startups, and enabling them to take their discoveries to patients. The chance to get a deeper understanding about life science investments and venture capital in general, learning more about economic development considerations and getting the chance to see almost all innovative ideas coming out of the region drew me to work at IW! I also loved the description on the website where the team represented themselves as ‘problem solvers’, it really resonated with me.

Q: Let’s say I’m an entrepreneur in Southwestern Pennsylvania, what can I ask for your help on?

A: You can ask me (or IW) to discuss your idea, learn about the ecosystem, bounce back thoughts on product development, resources, hiring, funding, or just to vent out as an entrepreneur!

Q: Reflecting on your experience in entrepreneurship for the life sciences, what is the number one piece of advice you would give a startup?

A: Think of the end and walk backwards. Understand the regulatory pathway as early as you can and incorporate that knowledge to your product development efforts. I can’t emphasize enough how critical it is to understand the regulatory requirements.

Q: What technology/industry are you most excited about and why?

A: I enjoy the challenges around drug discovery and feel excited about what the 4th industrial revolution will bring into this space. There are multiple startups working to exploit AI and machine learning to accelerate drug discovery, to target previously undruggable targets and I look forward to all the advances in this space. I think Pittsburgh can have a lot to offer with two major integrated healthcare systems and world-renowned universities with unique and complementary strengths.

Q: Step back to Cigdem at age 18, what line of work had you envisioned for yourself? How closely aligned is your current work to that vision?

A: I have never been one of those people that knew what they wanted to be since their childhood! I have had a never ending curiosity and desire for learning new things, but also got bored quickly once I mastered a topic. So, I worked by elimination. I worked in multiple sectors and settled in life sciences innovation, which I never envisioned when I was 18! One thing that aligns with what I envisioned for myself though, was having direct impact and making a change. I found that ability in life sciences innovation.

Q: What issues that face our region are you most passionate about?

A: Pittsburgh has amazing science and scientists. A lot of brilliant minds come from across the world to our universities. There are a lot of support organizations for commercialization and entrepreneurship, but it seems like we haven’t fully exploited the potential. I feel quite passionate about enabling university knowledge spillover to help economic growth.

Q: Who were your influences growing up?

A: I enjoyed reading Russian literature, especially Dostoyevsky when growing up. I loved the way he described in detail the human condition, emotions, and the little details. But if you are asking for a specific person that would be my mother. She is an attorney, a busy professional with two kids with a busy husband. There weren’t as many women attorneys at the time in Turkey and she was a successful woman operating in a male dominated space. She has been a great role model and influenced a lot of my thinking and who I am today.

As for my career, I had great mentors when I was working at the University of Colorado, Anschutz Medical Campus. One of them is Stan Lapidus, who is a very successful life science entrepreneur, who I had the pleasure of working with and learning from.

Q: Do you have a recent book, TV show, movie or Podcast that you enjoyed?

A: I love podcasts as I can’t find as much time as I would like to read. So instead, I listen to podcasts to stay current. My most recent favorite one is by Wharton School’s professor of organizational behavior Adam Grant’s where he interviews successful people from various industries. It is like a crash management course but also a great way to observe the human condition.

Q: What does an average Saturday look like for you?

A: I have young kids, and I am trying to do an MBA. So, most weekends are planned around kids’ activities, spending time as a family and squeezing in my homework for the degree! Having a supportive partner makes it all possible.

Q: When asked for a ‘fun fact’ about yourself, what’s your go-to?

A: I studied Italian, French, Russian and Persian and can speak a bit of each!



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Innovation Works

Innovation Works is one of the nation’s most active seed funds. AlphaLab (AL), ALGear, and ALHealth are nationally ranked startup accelerator programs of IW.