A conversation with Ramille Shah and Caralynn Nowinski Collens of Dimension Inx.
Ramille Shah, Cofounder and CSO of Dimension Inx.
Associate Professor Shah is a materials scientist and engineer in the Department of Bioengineering at the University of Illinois Chicago. Her research experience focuses on the biomaterials and tissue engineering fields with expertise in developing and characterizing new biomaterial strategies for tissue and organ regeneration. Associate Professor Shah cofounded Dimension Inx in 2016
Caralynn Nowinski Collens, Cofounder and CEO of Dimension Inx. Dr. Nowinski Collens, a serial entrepreneur, MD and former VC, currently heads Dimension Inx as the CEO. She is passionate about building teams and organizations that harness technology to drive transformational change and improve the quality of people’s lives. Dr. Nowinski Collens joined Dimension Inx as CEO in 2019.
Please tell us your background story on how you ended up starting Dimension Inx.
Ramille: For the past 20 years, I have been in academia focused on tissue engineering and biomaterials. I have always been motivated to come up with solutions using biomaterials that can help people and make a difference in patients’ lives. I had considered premed, but I fell in love with research and ended up taking this route. As I went through the academic trajectory, I was fortunate to enter into the 3D printing field in 2010 when 3D-printing was still at its infancy for being used in tissue engineering applications. I had a feeling that this tool would be able to create more sophisticated artificial environments that could better mimic what cells see in the body in order to induce the regeneration of tissue more reproducibly. This 3D-printing platform could help bring tissue engineered products to actual commercial realization.
Being one of the first groups to focus on the use of 3D-printing for tissue engineering applications allowed us to see its early limitations, one being the lack of 3D-printable biomaterials. There were not many biomaterials that were both compatible with 3D-printing and fulfilled the requirements needed to regenerate tissue. My research focus since has been to expand the material palette for 3D printing, specifically, room temperature extrusion-based 3D-printing. This allows us to 3D-print structures without the need for high temperatures or lasers to produce the devices. Key people and students in my lab I recruited when I was a junior faculty really took this challenge on and were able to create new materials platforms that have drastically increased the number of compatible materials for tissue engineering and 3D printing.
Through publications and conferences, we got a lot of industry attention in what we were doing and how our material platforms and processes could be used to grow their own pipelines. Trying to develop relationships under the university umbrella was very challenging. That was the impetus to create a startup, so that we can facilitate those interactions and move the tech out of the lab towards commercialization. In 2016, we were serious about starting a company, but we really didn’t know what we were doing. Luckily, Caralynn and I kept in touch and reunited over the years at different turning points in our lives. When she expressed interest in joining the company, I was ecstatic. It’s great working with someone you like with a great personality, and who’s successful and accomplished. It seems like we’ve already been working together for a long time, and I’m glad we intersected when we did.
Caralynn: I met Ramille in 2014 and joined Dimension Inx in 2019. We were introduced by the then President Emeritus of Northwestern University, Henry Bienen, a board member for one of my former companies. He told me I needed to go talk to Ramille after seeing her great talk. So I did. In my career, I have learned that I love building companies and teams; it’s where I have found my niche. I knew I would start another company, though this one was already started, but it was good timing for me to join Ramille and Adam. The fact that this was Ramille’s company had a lot to do with my decision as it’s as much about the team as it is about the problem we’re solving. I have found that I work well with other female leaders, and we realized our personalities worked well together, we can be very productive together, and we have a similar aligned vision. These were all a plus in the decision-making process.
Were there specific scientific or career milestones, such as tenure, that you achieved that made you believe that now was the time for you to pursue entrepreneurship?
Ramille: The academic route/tenure was not a factor when I decided to start the company. The driving factor was interest in the technology from industry. The timing seemed right for the opportunity. When considering starting the company and realizing the potential of the technology, I had a gut feeling that if I don’t do this now, we might miss the ball. Without marketing anything, we were getting so much interest through publications and conferences that made me realize that this was the right time. The fact that I did not have tenure yet was in the back of my mind, but I didn’t want to lose the opportunity to jump on board before it was too late.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
Caralynn: One big myth is that CEOs have all the answers and are experts at everything. I felt that a lot in my previous companies. It’s pressure I put on myself. If I didn’t have the answers, what was wrong with me, was I not the right person for the job? I learned in fact that CEOs do not have all the answers, but they better ask all the right questions. It is not a one person show; it is about the team you have around you. Was this the right team to work with? Did I feel like they would complement my skill sets? If we look alike, it’s not useful. When I look at new hires, we look at the gaps we need to fill. Good leaders are better when they are more self-aware of their strengths and gaps and hire the right team to fill in the pieces. It is not our job to know everything; it’s our job to have the right people around us.
There are certain challenges that women CEOs face. In some ways, they are not thought of as approachable. I have felt that in some cases with my past teams. Why didn’t this person come to me and talk about it? On the other hand, there’s a perception that they are very approachable. They are there to hold your head up and wipe your tears. Team members wouldn’t go to a male CEO for this, but some believe they can go to a female CEO. I want my team to feel comfortable approaching me always, but I also need them to understand when it may not be appropriate. It’s important to have workplace boundaries that make sense.
What are the biggest differences between your role in academia and your role as an entrepreneur? Was there anything surprising?
Ramille: Industry is challenging as it’s a whole different world from the academic bubble. The types of people you interact with are different, and I’m not as familiar with the industry environment. I have been fully engulfed in academia with research, grants, papers, mentoring, and teaching students. In the entrepreneurial world, you need to understand commercialization, the healthcare landscape, and partners that can help with commercial or clinical translation. You can’t do it all yourself – you have to identify the skill sets that are lacking and the kinds of people you have to bring to the team to help progress commercialization. If I was to leave academia and be CEO, I would definitely be out of my comfort zone since the commercial world is very different from academia. Starting the company has helped me hone in and identify other skill sets not used in academia that I never knew I had or was good at. Industry is about teamwork; there is no hierarchy right now at the early stages. We solve and anticipate problems together. In academia, I’m the last word, and I have more control. I have less control in industry because there are so many moving parts. I know my limitations and needed to find a partner with a business savvy background and experience with building teams, negotiating agreements, and building partnerships. Knowing what I know now, I made the right choice with Caralynn and know I couldn’t do what she did in that short of a time. One of the keys to success is knowing your limitations and finding the right people who can help you succeed.
Caralynn: You should know your strengths and gaps. Many academics don’t think the way Ramille does; many are extremely successful in their labs and think this applies to industry, but industry is a different beast. It’s important they recognize their strengths, and learn how to partner with individuals who bring the business side. Together is how you turn a new invention into a successful company. Some academics can run their own companies, but most shouldn’t.
What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being an executive of a startup? What are the downsides?
Caralynn: I love making sense of the chaos – the creativity and strategy needed to put together different perspectives and paths. My job is to make choices and develop plans that lead our company to the right set of value inflection points. Executives must put the puzzle pieces together. This can be particularly challenging in an under-resourced environment, when there are not enough people and money. You can’t hire fast enough. In these cases, leaders need to make tough choices and bring a strong sense of discipline and focus.
Do you have entrepreneurial mentors or sponsors? How did the relationship start, and what has it brought to you?
Caralynn: I am blessed to have had a number of mentors over the years. Few have been constant; more people have been in and out at various points based on where I was at in my career. One mentor told me to pay it forward. This inspired a love of mentoring. For instance, we have a group of interns, more than we should, but I love professional development and sponsoring someone by building them up and thinking of their next stage. Mentors help avoid major disasters through challenging times. The best mentors are there to encourage you during the high highs and low lows. You need someone to encourage you, as it can be lonely as a CEO or entrepreneur.
Ramille: I am new to the game and have not had many interactions with entrepreneurs or CEOs. Most of my mentors are in the academic realm, or some left industry to go back to academia. Teresa Woodruff was a collaborator and mentor in academia, and she knew industry. She had lots of advice when I was at Northwestern and provided moral support as well. Being a female, she understood what I was going through and urged me not to give up. She had great energy. Other key people supported me in my career and advised me on the decision to start a company at this particular stage of my academic career. They gave their honest opinions and answers with no ulterior motive. Although not purposefully mentoring, I’ve already learned so much from Caralynn by observing her as our CEO. She is always willing to provide advice and share her insights based on her past experiences.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women entrepreneurs and executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
Ramille: In my academic experience, I have noticed multiple times that males are heard more. Based on my observations, if another female says something in a room filled with male colleagues, it is not taken as seriously until a male says it. Also, when it comes to maternity leave or being mindful of family life, it is different for women. Even though academia is trying to be more accommodating, it is still challenging. For example in my personal experience, some male students do not understand or are not sensitive to maternity leave. Even though rules are in place for being more acceptive to maternity leave, execution is still challenging.
Caralynn: It’s changing, but women executives or entrepreneurs have not had a high level of sponsorship. There seem to be unwritten rules where male colleagues have been taken under the wings of company leaders and watched out for, even if they are not in the same company. Women don’t do that enough -- not because we aren’t thinking about developing other women, but because the idea of sponsorship is not the same. I think it is changing based on the networks women executives are a part of. I would encourage other leaders to be intentional and find a person you will sponsor. How will you help that person move up the ladder and what will that look like? Put your neck out for them.
How do you achieve work-life balance to pursue entrepreneurship (Things such as childcare, elder care, and other hobbies)? How has the current COVID crisis affected this balance?
Caralynn: I am fortunate as I became a mom after becoming a CEO and have flexibilities that most women don’t have if they are in the process of making their way up the chain. I have had advantages to make rules others had to respect, such as going into the mother’s room versus having to explain to the boss/colleagues that I need to go breastfeed. I took six weeks maternity leave and came back when I felt it was needed, but it was my doing, not the board’s. You have to be at so many different events and have certain flexibility around travel. My husband and I have made rules that we are never away more than two nights, and someone is always at home with our son. COVID has been great for family life, and now executives are rethinking about work/life balance regardless of gender.
Ramille: For me, it’s management and survival versus balance. Being home during COVID has been a blessing in disguise. There were challenges in the beginning especially with gauging how to manage everything. My roles really increased at home - from needing to help with online school, being a full time cook, cleaner, and even barber. We found solutions, worked through it, and are now more comfortable with being able to manage multiple things. Some days don’t go as well as you would have hoped, but you work through it. It has been challenging for my two kids too since they are also having to adjust to the new norm. We make sure they are ok mentally and physically. With COVID, I have to worry about having to go into work and assessing the risks that now come with it that can affect my personal life. COVID has really changed the way we make every day decisions.
How has your role in the home, or how has your home life, changed or evolved since you decided to pursue entrepreneurship?
Ramille: Communication with my husband needed to be increased more than ever to juggle our time commitments and coordinate our schedules. My husband is a physician and his schedule is not as flexible. I have the ability to take on more risk because of my spouse’s career and the financial stability it brings. Not many have that opportunity, and I am fortunate to have it. I couldn’t do it without his support and my in-laws helping with our kids when needed. I got busier and had to make sacrifices - what I couldn’t get done during the day means doing it when the kids go to bed. When I get engulfed in work or if something is particularly stressful at work, it’s challenging to switch it off in my mind when I need to stop and spend time with the kids. It’s something I continually am working to get better at, especially because there are a lot of stressful situations in a startup.
Caralynn: This is the first time I joined a company with a kid. We are a dual CEO household, and we take a team approach, like running a sports team, so there is constant coordination. Who’s working late, who has nights or mornings, and who’s got lunch. The discipline piece is a big thing. In my 20s, I could work until 5-6 am. I can’t do that anymore; I wouldn’t sleep. The biggest change from before kids was that we treated a work week as if it was seven days. On weekends, we were both sitting in the office 8-10 hours a day working. We can’t do that with a kid – and we don’t want to. We make a conscious choice to be with our son. Weekends are “mom and dad days”. You need boundaries in life, or you won’t achieve balance.
What was your experience in fundraising? Do you consider it any different than that of your male colleagues?
Caralynn: I am the fundraiser and signed up for the job. I enjoy fundraising and telling our story, but I don’t enjoy the time it takes away from the business. We paused fundraising during COVID and focused on the business production and team, but now I am back to fundraising. I tend to be very transparent and do not play games. That said, it’s my responsibility to share an inspiring vision and promote the sexiness of the deal. I don’t want to discredit female peers, but I have seen my males peers do this better. Males get into deal making; it can be less natural for women. Most people we are raising money from are men. There’s a different relationship that men can form together than between male and female, and there are disadvantages that come with that. There has been some real consciousness in the last several years of making sure females and underrepresented entrepreneurs have the same chances as white male entrepreneurs. But, we have more work to do.
What do you think deters women from pursuing entrepreneurship?
Ramille: The perceived time it takes to succeed. It is unknown. In academia, you can get handcuffed and don’t want to venture out. A leap of faith is a big deterrence coming from academia.
Caralynn: It’s a risk for any entrepreneur. Early on someone said to me that it’s in your blood or not. I was not sure that was true, but I have grown to believe it is. There’s a level of insanity you need to have to make it work. There’s a reason you see younger entrepreneurs who don’t know all risks and have some naivety, as there’s less to lose when you are young. I couldn’t do it without my support system to fall back on, and I recognize the risks. I am fortunate my husband is an entrepreneur who understands. When it’s in your blood, it’s the only way to be happy.