“Failing once doesn’t mean you’ll fail forever, and you can simply restart and work again.”
Dr. Jowy Tani is the CEO of Taipei Medical University Biomed Accelerator, Taiwan’s first university-based biomedical startup accelerator. He was an alumni of the Berkeley-Taiwan Biomedical (BTB) Fellowship and Stanford Biodesign Global Faculty Program. He has extensive experience in architecting biomedical innovation ecosystems, leading medical innovation projects, and coaching Medtech strategies for startups. As a neurologist-innovator, Dr. Tani has in-depth expertise in dementia, sleep medicine, and electro neurophysiology.
He is also serving as the Deputy Secretary-General of Taiwan Neurological Society, Director of Wan Fang Hospital Sleep Medicine Center, Deputy Director of Wan Fang Hospital Biomed Innovation Center, Deputy CEO of Taipei Medical University Biodesign Center, and Assistant Professor of Neurology at Taipei Medical University.
Can You Tell Us a Little Bit about Yourself and the Berkeley-Taiwan Biomedical (BTB) Fellowship? (Educational background, hobbies, interests, anything you would like to share with our Berkeley engineering community?)
As a neurologist in an academic medical center, I had the opportunity to get involved in a few clinical studies involving innovative medical devices. It was during these experiences I came to realize that Taiwan had an excellent environment for clinical study, and that we could create a lot of value by developing innovative medical devices and then validating it in Taiwan’s clinical environment. I eventually applied to the Berkeley-Taiwan Biomedical (BTB) fellowship program, an entrepreneurial fellowship with a focus on medical devices jointly hosted by UC Berkeley College of Engineering and Ministry of Science and Technology, Taiwan.
What has been your career path from college graduation up to today? And what inspired these educational and career choices?
I went straight into neurology residency training after medical school because I am fascinated by how the brain functions. During my residency training, I saw a lot of patients suffering from dementia and cognitive impairments. These patients suffered a lot in their daily lives because problems in the brain prevented them from carrying out many essential daily functions. Although scientists had tried hard to develop drugs that might improve the brain function of these patients, the breakthroughs are hard to come by. I began to focus on dementia and cognitive impairments after I finished the residency training, to explore potential Medtech solutions for the patients.
How or why did you choose biomedical engineering as a career path/area of study?
As a physician-innovator, one could try either a biopharma approach or a biomedical engineering approach to solve a health problem. While many important health problems had been solved by the biopharma approach, developing a biopharma solution generally takes a long time, up to 10-15 years.
On the other hand, developing a solution with the biomedical engineering approach takes much less time. A medical device could be brought to market in 3-5 years. When a medical device working not as intended, innovators could often change its design to make it work. The biomedical engineering approach is more interesting to me as a young physician-innovator who loves to “make things work”, it also fits more of my personality too.
How was your experience with the Berkeley-Taiwan Biomedical Fellowship program?
Coming to Berkeley was a wonderful experience. Berkeley is a very vibrant community where we learned a lot of things and made many friends. Berkeley campus is also a very open-minded environment that encourages growth and learning. I was surprised by how open people are to innovation.
Being a physician-innovator focusing on patients with dementia and cognitive impairment, I have been working on a cognitive prosthesis device that uses artificial intelligence to help these patients overcome their cognitive impairments. It would help the patients utilize the part of the brain with preserved function to compensate for the part of the brain with impairment, significantly improving their quality of life. During the BTB Fellowship, I was able to attend UC Berkeley courses, interact with world-renowned EECS faculties, and learn machine learning techniques essential for the prototyping process.
As a BTB fellow, I was fortunate to have the valuable opportunity to work in Berkeley Skydeck, the UC Berkeley-sponsored startup accelerator. During my time at Skydeck, I learned about how Silicon Valley startups work together with accelerators and venture capitals in an innovation ecosystem. As the nexus of Berkeley’s innovation ecosystem, Skydeck provided funding, programs, and training opportunities to students and members of the academic community and I believe that was what Taiwan lacked.
What was your journey like to become the CEO of Taipei Medical University Biomed Accelerator?
When I came back to Taiwan after I finished my BTB fellowship in 2018, Taiwan had a young biomedical innovation community. Taiwan had an excellent healthcare system and established tech industry, but new biomedical startups were often trapped in the so-called valley of death; they often had an early-stage product but had difficulty entering the market. We from Taipei Medical University realized that we need a biomedical accelerator that could help startups get through the valley of death.
There were very few faculties and physicians in Taiwan familiar with the concept of university-based accelerator and university-based innovation ecosystem at that time, so the leadership of Taipei Medical University discussed with me the possibility of establishing a university-based biomedical accelerator in Taipei Medical University. With the support of President Chien-Huang Lin, Vice President Chieh-Hsi Wu, Business Development Dean Mao-Chun Lin, our Deputy CEO Sharon Yi, and our Operation Manager Sebastian Ku, we then founded the Taipei Medical University Biomed Accelerator.
There was no other university-based Biomed Accelerator in Taiwan at that time, so we were the first ones to enter this field. As a pioneer, we had to think of everything and prepared for the risk involved. We had to think about how do we gain the support of stakeholders, including partners within and outside our university? How do we recruit the startups? How do we invest in startups? How do we match the startups with their mentors? How do we improve the startup’s access to resources and international markets? How would we hold demo days?
I would say our startups and partners are the keys to our accelerator’s modest success. I am extremely grateful for the trust and continuous support from our partners including BE Health Ventures, UCSF Rosenman Institute, Premo Partners/Japan Biodesign, AstraZeneca, and NBRP. I would also thank Taipei Medical University alumni and friends that have generously supported the accelerator.
What makes you good at your job?
I think that in order to be a successful CEO of a biomedical accelerator, you have to have a lot of interdisciplinary knowledge. For example, if you are good at the investment process, but you know nothing about engineering or medicine, then you may have some bias while doing investments. Experiences in finance, engineering, and medicine are very helpful for the job.
A good way to accumulate know-how in these fields is through networking with professionals in the respective fields. Learn from their knowledge and experiences instead of doing everything yourself.
What is your ultimate career goal?
I wish that one day we could have a world-class biomedical accelerator that can help international startups enter the Asian market, and one that can help startups in Taiwan and Asia access the global market. I think that good mentoring alongside timely and well-thought-out investment really helps startups from the ground up. Also, a lot of biomedical startups struggle with getting to patients and to doctors, and I wish to bridge between the two groups. My ultimate aim is to help Taiwanese startups succeed at a global level and see the regional biomedical innovation ecosystem flourish.
What is challenging about your work? And what keeps you enthusiastic about your work despite the challenges?
Building any type of accelerator is hard, and there are definitely a lot of frustrating moments promoting innovation outside of Silicon Valley. Not all people are comfortable with innovation and disruptive technologies, even more so in the healthcare field, where people tend to be conservative for the sake of patient safety. Our team often have to spend significant effort familiarizing people with the benefits of innovation before they would be a supporter of changes. Nevertheless, our team grows by the day and it is comforting to know that I’m with a crowd of amazing and talented people. Furthermore, knowing that people and their projects will benefit from my accelerator team keeps me going. It is also very gratifying to see the startups that we helped achieve their milestones.
What advice do you have for students interested in running their own start up?
When I was a college student, I couldn’t appreciate all the resources that I had. When you are a student, you have more opportunities to pick yourself up and try again, even if you fail the first few times. Also, being a student, you have the opportunity to network within the rich academic community around you, don’t miss that out!
What was the most valuable thing you learned in Bioengineering at Berkeley?
Before I came to Berkeley, as a physician, I had the mindset that I had to be perfect and refuse to fail in anything that I do. But Berkeley changed that mindset. It taught me how to prototype fast, fail fast, and fail early. It taught me that I didn’t need to be scared of failure. Failing once doesn’t mean you’ll fail forever, and you can simply restart and work again. This mindset changed my perspective on how I view the world; that failure wasn’t always bad, as long as you try again. If I did not have this experience, I wouldn’t have built the accelerator. Berkeley really molded how I grew and learned as an individual.
Any caveats, observations or advice that you learned through your career that you would like to share to current students?
During my time at Berkeley, one of the experiences that impacted me most was my Skydeck experience. I would recommend the students utilize the opportunities that Skydeck offers while you are in Berkeley. I benefited a lot through the mentorship opportunities I received through Skydeck. I also learned a lot from classes, but the entrepreneurship class at Haas School of Business was the most memorable course for me. I would also recommend the Product Management course from EECS and the School of Information.
Echoing my earlier statement, if you have something in mind, just do it and do not hesitate. People had been asking me whether they are at the right time to apply for the BTB Fellowship. My answer would be that if you are in Taiwan interested in a future in biomedical innovation, just do it as soon as you have the chance to do so!
Dr. Jowy Tani
Dr. Jowy Tani was an alumni of the Berkeley-Taiwan Biomedical (BTB) Fellowship, where he came to study startups in Silicon Valley. He is currently back in Taiwan and the CEO of Taipei Medical University Biomed Accelerator.