Naresh Sunkara was born in a small village in India, but when his father got a job in Hyderabad, he had the life-changing opportunity to attend the well-funded Atomic Energy Central School. Around that time “is when I started reading a lot of novels by Robin Cook,” a thriller author who spurred his lifetime love for science. Sunkara initially hated organic chemistry, but a phenomenal tutor explained “how it’s the core of everything you eat, everything you do in life,” and, most importantly for him, how it could be used to make lifesaving drugs. Excited by the possibilities, he became the first in his family to go to college, attending Osmania University, where he majored in chemistry.
Leaving India for more opportunities, Sunkara started graduate school at Tennessee Tech University before transferring to the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. “I always wanted to do something in medicinal chemistry,” Sunkara says. He focused on drug development, antivirals, and anticancer drugs for his PhD. An opportunity to help set up an organic chemistry lab at the University of California, Berkeley, led him west. As a postdoc working with 16 undergraduates, he focused on developing drug-delivery agents, which led to the successful delivery of RNAi-targeting viruses in test animals. That work earned a patent, and he was soon bitten by the Bay Area entrepreneurial bug.
The lack of business education resources for scientists at Berkeley frustrated Sunkara. Realizing other postdocs likely shared his challenges, he created the Berkeley Postdoctoral Entrepreneur Program (BPEP) to help other postdocs learn how to take their science from the lab to a start-up. Sunkara founded his own start-up, Nosocom Solutions, which built devices designed to disinfect lab coats, lead aprons, and other difficult-to-clean personal protective equipment. “We had to do a lot of engineering,” which was a new area for him. While the company was granted two US patents, the unanswered question of who would pay for the product was a challenge Nosocom couldn’t overcome.
Sunkara took those lessons to another Berkeley start-up, BioAmp Diagnostics. As chief operating officer, he provides his entrepreneurial and biochemical expertise in the development of point-of-care diagnostic tools to fight antibiotic resistance. Sunkara continues to help postdocs launch start-ups from their research at UC Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. He also works with the Berkeley Science Fellows Program, which allows graduate students and postdocs to gain start-up experience in a “try before you buy model.” Running a start-up can be painful, he says. But the lessons you learn are worth it. “Even at a low salary, the skills you pick up at a start-up are phenomenal.”