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'I Had Nothing to Lose'

When Vamsee Pamula, ’92 MS Electrical Engineering, sees chances to apply his big brain to business opportunities, he takes the leap. His latest venture is a daring moneymaker — and a potential life saver.

People  |  Sep 29, 2016  |  By Greg Lacour
Vamsee Pamula

Vamsee Pamula, co-founder of the biomedical company Baebies. (Eric Perel Photography)

Vamsee Pamula might as well have flown to another planet. It was early fall 1994, his first week as a 20-year-old grad student at UNLV. The world he knew was south India, where his father, an electrical engineer, maintained the power grid for a bustling city of 2 million while trying to bring electricity to impoverished rural areas. Pamula knew nothing of the United States, certainly nothing of Las Vegas, where he’d decided to seek a master’s degree solely because a cousin of his had gone to school there.

But early on, he made a crucial acquaintance whose background mirrored his own. Rama Venkat was in his early 30s, at the time an associate professor of engineering from Chennai (formerly Madras), the city near where Pamula had grown up. Both men were members of the Brahmin caste of priests and scholars, the keepers of knowledge across generations. Pamula naturally gravitated to him.

“I remember one of the first days he was here, I think I was leaving to go pick my daughter up from school, and I asked Vamsee if he wanted to ride with me. He said, ‘Sure,’” recalled Venkat, now dean of UNLV’s Howard R. Hughes College of Engineering. “We were talking about different types of things, what he needed to be successful, and I told him some of the ways he might do that.”

Venkat was taken aback. Most master’s students, especially those from other countries, weren’t so enthusiastic practically from the moment they stepped off the plane. “For some reason, that incident, which showed drive and enthusiasm, sticks with me until today,” he said. “He was curious and willing to take an opportunity and seize on it.”

He still is.

On a hot late Thursday morning in June, Pamula is meeting in the conference room at Baebies, his latest entrepreneurial venture. The company occupies about 18,000 square feet in a nondescript corner of North Carolina’s renowned Research Triangle Park, the 7,000-acre high-tech research and development campus near the state capital of Raleigh. Pamula co-founded Baebies in 2014, helped secure roughly $13 million in equity financing for the company’s expansion a year later, and expects to begin selling its neonatal health screening products this year — all after he sold his first tech startup, which he founded in 2004, for $96 million.

Little about Pamula’s appearance or demeanor suggests a young tech millionaire at the helm. He’s slight, bespectacled, of medium height, and outfitted in a gingham button-down, cotton slacks, and loafers. He speaks softly and looks more like a grad student than his 42 years of age. He is an ideal reflection of what UNLV increasingly wants to do — spur brilliant students into entrepreneurship and use its research to drive economic development in Southern Nevada. That’s a pillar of the university’s Top Tier strategic plan to rise as an institution.

In the conference room, Pamula gestured to Baebies’ motto, printed on the wall in the same lowercase gray and blue of the company’s logo: “everyone deserves a healthy start.” The company operates on a simple mission Pamula and his co-founder, Rich West, devised. Roughly 1 percent of the 137 million babies born worldwide every year have treatable heritable disorders or genetic diseases, and Baebies wants to use its technology to improve screening procedures and devices for early detection and expand access to all babies of the world.

For instance, Baebies is working on an electroencephalogram-based procedure to test infants for hearing defects. Children can’t communicate that they’re having trouble hearing until they can talk, but by then precious developmental milestones will have passed. So Pamula wants Baebies to develop and sell products to detect and treat the condition early, when treatment has a far better chance of success.

Of course, he could accomplish this in an academic setting, but he decided some years back that he’d rather go the business route. Pamula doesn’t see a conflict between profitability and the medical and social good.

“I’ve never thought of myself as a businessman,” he said. “It’s just that, fundamentally, what was underlying this whole path was making something useful for others — the business follows that.

“It circles back to this interaction I had with this professor from Duke back in ’93, Frank Starmer. He kind of reinforced what my father always taught me: that whatever your education, put it to use to help somebody else. It was always his mantra. And if you do that with some idea of how business transactions work, you can build a business out of that. You do good; you do well; you do both.”

That’s where and when Pamula’s interests really started. His father was an engineer for the government electric utility for the state of Andhra Pradesh, on the southeastern Indian coast on the Bay of Bengal. It was and remains a frequent target for cyclones and other storms that cause power outages, so Pamula and his siblings — one brother, one sister — learned early about the importance of engineering to people’s lives.

His older brother became a cardiac surgeon while Pamula enrolled as an electrical engineering student in 1990 at Osmania University, in the city of Hyderabad, some 400 miles northwest. Three years in, he volunteered as an assistant for a biomedical engineering conference that drew researchers and scientists from around the world to Osmania. Starmer, a computer science professor at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, was one of them.

At the conference, he spoke about computer science as a matter not of theory or pure academics but problem-solving, on a large and vitally important scale. “He said, ‘I usually seek out problems,’” Pamula recalled. “He was a computer science professor, but he hung out mostly in the medical center, looking for problems so he could solve them.” The young engineering student had never thought of his studies as a practical tool.

That was his first great watershed moment.

His second came when he began studying under Rama Venkat at UNLV, riding a borrowed bicycle to and from campus and working on a research assistantship that included a full tuition credit and a small stipend. The assistantship involved studying ways to reduce potentially radioactive dust at the nearby Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository. After it ended, the two men continued to work together on Pamula’s master’s thesis, which centered on a process called molecular beam epitaxy, the stacking of atomic layers of materials atop each other; the resulting “sandwich” is a crucial component in, among other things, semiconductors.

Pamula would work all day under Venkat’s guidance, the dean recalled. Then Venkat would pick up his young children from school, eat dinner, put them to bed, and call Pamula, who invariably was still at the lab. The two published a paper together when Pamula was still in the master’s program, an unusual feat. “(Dr. Venkat) was just very enthusiastic about any problem,” Pamula explained to me in the conference room. “He’s a very smart guy, and with varied interests. You hear about these scientists from 200 years back, the guy who would work on math, work on physics, like Pascal and …”

“Ben Franklin?” I offered.

“Exactly. He’s like that, in a way,” he said. “Very versatile. He could take any problem and solve it.”

The two still keep in touch, talking by phone every few months and visiting when work takes either near the other. “What he has done in the last 20 years since he left UNLV is amazing,” Venkat said. For all their similarities, though, the dean said Pamula differs in one important respect: “I wish I was more of a risk-taker like him.”

Pamula’s third watershed moment came as a doctoral student. In 1996, with Frank Starmer’s example still in his mind, he enrolled in Duke’s engineering Ph.D. program. Three years in, he and a team of fellow students entered a project in the inaugural Duke Startup Challenge. It’s similar to the student-run Rebel Venture Fund, created by UNLV’s Center for Entrepreneurship to invest in startup companies and provide mentoring and resources to support their growth.

Pamula’s team won first place and $30,000 in prize money. They started a business with their first product being a wireless mouse that can be operated in the air. It had applications for operating cellphones, playing games using it as a baton, and as a wearable to monitor health. After finishing his Ph.D., with a growing interest in biomedicine — and inspired by his older brother— he founded a new company that perfected a method for manipulating droplets of liquid on a flat surface, a useful technique in medical fluid sampling and DNA testing. It was called Advanced Liquid Logic, and he spent nine years as its chief technology officer before selling the company to the San Diego-based global genetic sequencing and genotyping company Illumina for $96 million.

With Advanced Liquid Logic, Pamula explained, the technology had directed the team and its mission. With Baebies, it’s the other way around; mission comes first, and it’s up to him and his 40 employees to create the technology to match. He draws his inspiration in part from his mentors, but also from his experience growing up in a country where children suffer for life because they lack access to basic treatment for heritable disorders and genetic diseases.

He mentions congenital hypothyroidism, a thyroid hormone deficiency in babies that can stunt growth and cause intellectual disabilities. It’s a rare disease, affecting one in about 3,000 babies worldwide — but one in about 750 in south India. If screened for and diagnosed early, it’s easily treatable with inexpensive tablets. But such tests are not available to most poor people in India and most of the developing world, though the treatment is affordable.

“To me, it seemed like a crime not to address that. A baby is a baby, wherever the baby is — rich or poor, black or white, whatever,” Pamula said. “The baby should have the best start that can be afforded by the society.”

Under Venkat, he said, he learned how to be a researcher, to persist on a problem until he found a solution. Afterward, he learned how to turn that impulse and those skills into a method for finding big problems and solving them for both profit and society’s benefit. Now, he encourages UNLV’s students in the shoes he wore 20 years ago to follow his entrepreneurial path.

“What’s the worst that could happen? If it fails, you just go back and do something else,” he said. “People are not comfortable with that idea. It’s like jumping off a cliff, and you don’t know how you’ll land. You’ll have to figure it out on the way down.”

He laughed, acknowledging his exaggeration. Point stands, though: Sometimes, even with three degrees’ worth of knowledge, you have to act on faith. “People, I guess,” he said finally, “are not willing to jump off the cliff and trust that they could figure a landing on their rapid descent down.”