Petite and graceful, Amita Shukla speaks with an accent that’s difficult to place. It’s evidence of a childhood that took her to three countries before she arrived in suburban Maryland with her family in ninth grade. She’s articulate, curious, patient and thoughtful-an exterior that masks her capacity and drive.
“The passion comes from within,” says Shukla, a member of the team that won this year’s Stanford business plan competition. “Work becomes play. Entrepreneurs believe in what they do so deeply that they can pull a company through ups and downs. They’re independent spirits. They’re bold and want to build a business for more than just returns. They want to imprint their culture and values in a profound way.” That spirit, she says, is a family trait.
Shukla was born in Germany, the daughter of a biochemist and a chemist. After a stop in Finland, and three years in India, the family moved to Maryland. There, they built a company that made tools for genomics and proteomics research. The technology was based on her parents’ research, but by the time she was in high school, Shukla was working trade shows, doing business development and sales and marketing for a company that eventually became known as AmiKa Corp. (It was named after Amita and her younger sister, Kavita).
AmiKa had no outside funding. It was run conservatively with a dozen employees and was profitable from the very beginning, she says. Her parents sold AmiKa to Harvard BioSciences in July 2000, just five months before Harvard launched an IPO with an intellectual property portfolio that was largely AmiKa’s.
While she watched the ebb and flow of a budding startup, Shukla was learning how to satisfy her own curiosities. When she was 16 she had a toothache that her grandmother treated with a medicinal herb known as majuphal. Though the herb is a common ingredient in all-natural toothpaste, Shukla was the first to explain how it worked after three years of research in the lab of a University of Maryland scientist. With no prior research experience, she developed and patented a treatment for gum disease based on a majuphal extract.
As more evidence of the Shukla entrepreneur gene, Kavita just finished her freshman year at Harvard with two patents already in hand. She filed the first one at 13 and later, during her senior year in high school, won the Lemelson-MIT Program’s innovation apprenticeship for a packaging paper that uses a fenugreek seed extract to stop fruit from spoiling.
Eyes Wide Open
Amita Shukla graduated from Harvard in 1998 with a degree in biochemistry and took a job with Merrill Lynch’s health care group in New York. That experience, she says, opened her eyes to the biotech business at a macro level-the trends, markets and companies that drive the industry.
She returned home to Maryland a year later to help with AmiKa’s sale. With the sale still pending, Shukla and a high school friend launched an Internet business. Pick Anything Inc. is an online directory for consumer information. Although the Web site is still up, the business is all but dissolved.
“As time changes, the business environment also changes,” she says. “You have to be quick to adapt. All the dot-coms learned that as the tide changed.”
Attending Stanford’s Graduate School of Business reinforced the lessons Shukla learned at home. She and three other students worked tirelessly to start a medical device company called VisiVas and won the school’s business plan competition this year (see story, next page). The VisiVas team has a patent pending, $25,000 worth of prize money, interested investors and free services from a law firm.
It’s not enough, though. VisiVas sits in limbo while the team members plot their futures. Shukla, for one, has found a niche that combines her experience and her passion: She will join New Enterprise Associate’s life sciences team as an associate in September. She’s not giving up on entrepreneurship, mind you. Her goal is to work in NEA’s office on Sand Hill Road for a short while to give her invaluable insights into the world of venture capital and to understand VisiVas in a broader context. If all the stars align, VisiVas may turn out to be NEA’s newest portfolio company.