Learning Paths Podcast
Lena Levin has been a successful medical device entrepreneur for over a decade – but it wasn’t always obvious what her path would be. After earning a degree in accounting from Tel Aviv University in Israel, Lena joined with some friends to start a company, knowing little about the medical field. She’s learned what she needs to know through taking classes, talking with doctors, and studying on her own. In this episode, she talks about how she makes space for continuous learning while also running a company full-time.
Ben Rubenstein: Well, thank you for joining me today, Lena. I thought we could start by talking a little bit about your career path to this point. I know that you studied accounting and business and ended up going into the medical device industry. So can you tell me a little bit about how you got from your education to what you’re doing now?
Lena Levin: Yes, absolutely. So, I started my education as a certified public accountant in Israel in Tel Aviv University with a whole agenda in mind. And it is still the main core business of Israel to be part of a startup nation. To be part of something and create my own startup. I and my two partners, Ofec and Derek, Ofec Levine and Derek Levy – they are engineers. Aric is a medical engineer, and Ofec is electrical engineer. And we had this vision in mind that we want to create a startup. We didn’t know what field to choose and the choice fell between green energy and medical field because it has to be something meaningful. So saving lives via green energy or saving lives via helping surgeons or physicians to do better jobs. That was our choice.
So we enrolled into a competition of students, [an] entrepreneurial international competition at Technion [University]. It was 10 years ago, I think it was the second round, and eventually we came without any idea. We just knew we wanted to create something meaningful and through the research that we did step by step within this framework of students, industry mentors, and Technion itself, the research institution, we chose the path of medical devices.
First, we were exposed to surgeries via YouTube and we understood there is a huge need to create smart tools to enable physicians to do their job in a more efficient and easy way. And we took very simple procedures like hernia repair and we saw a tremendous struggle that surgeons face in their everyday lives.
Hernia repair, for example, it’s one of the most common surgeries. It’s an elective procedure that in the end the patient should have an aesthetic result. And it’s a hole in the abdominal muscle wall. And in the end, the patient after one-hour surgery has to feel good. However, the research back then showed that there are a lot of complications, and we decided to create tools. None of us are physicians, so we decided to create tools that help surgeons to achieve the final goal – the perfect procedure, let’s say.
The first device that we developed was a managed deployment device for hernia repair, and at the stage of prototype, it was acquired by Covidien after less than two years. So it was a very quick exit. It was a very simple device that just helps to deploy the mesh inserted through the five-millimeter tracker into the abdominal cavity and deployed over the muscle defect. And since then I think this was our path. We decided that we will create devices that help surgeons to do surgery better.
The next step, and this is my current company, was Via Surgical. We need to choose what to do. So all of us lack the basic knowledge of medicine. None of us went to medical school. And the way we learned it is initially via YouTube. And then via anatomical atlas and then talking to surgeons. So it was all kinds of sources non-connected, and the connection that we needed to do was by ourselves.
The integration was not there. So in a way, we were asking the surgeons what do they need, and the surgeon is not always aware of what he or she needs because they are trained in a certain way and they perform thousands, thousands of hours of these procedures so they become an expert. And they have the struggle, but they do not really see it anymore as a struggle.
For us being in the operation in OR and looking from the side and being engineers or people who are not physicians, saying, “Wow, why would the physician do like this? This is very complicated.” And for me personally as the CEO and co-founder of a medical device company, this was a gap. So first I went to regular medical schools and I took several classes. Basic classes, first-year classes like biomedical engineering, basic chemistry, etcetera. But it’s my time. I need to run the company. I need to create the product. And in addition, I needed to study. And so it was not very convenient. And this is where I actually met you and Harvard online medical school [HMX], and it was just the puzzle [piece] that fit exactly into the place. I could open the video, I could learn specifically what I needed so I could return and learn it to the level where I can speak with surgeons, sharing the same language, the same knowledge and appreciation I received from them was beneficial for both sides because they felt trust. I feel I understand what they’re talking about, and it was a mutual communication.
So right now we have a product on the market, but we’re not stopping there. We continue to develop next-gen products. We entered the hernia field initially and now we are already operating in the orthopedic field. As soon as I understand the concept and I can operate and [use] the terminology that physicians use, I can actually expand it to other fields as well.
Ben: I’m curious, when you talked about the HMX courses and maybe other things that you looked at, beyond just sort of being able to kind of dip in and get what you need and then apply that, did you find that there were particular ways of learning that were helpful to you in sort of understanding these maybe not completely foreign concepts but things that were a little bit new to you, say in biochemistry, something like that, that really helped to solidify it in your mind? Is it visuals? Is it clinical applications? What was most useful to you in understanding those new concepts?
Lena Levin: So, before I took the course in Harvard online medical school – I think it was biochemistry – I enrolled physically in this course in the local university in Israel, and I attended every class, and I have to tell you, I didn’t understand anything, and the level of my skill was very high. I said, “Okay, I am a graduate. I’m a cum laude, I’m a CPA, and I don’t understand this basic concept like biochemistry of the blood. What’s happening? What is ADP? What’s going on with energy there?”
And I think I had a great sense of relief by taking [HMX courses] and by seeing it visually, how it really works. It’s also complicated because all biochemistry is built of abstract concepts for people who come from my background. At least I can tell only about myself and my pals, the engineers, we need to see and touch and to feel. And the way it is presented in [the HMX] biochemistry course, the visual, it’s so helpful.
And suddenly the most complicated terms become, by visual aids, became so available to understanding. I think this is the greatest advantage that you use, cartoon-like – it’s not even cartoon, it is animation, but it’s so real that you can understand and it stays there because all the biochemistries are building blocks like Lego. You get to have the whole machine in there. But it all started from building these blocks together. And animation helps a lot in building these blocks together. What is the relationship between the concepts?
So maybe two main advantages. One that I acquired a basic language to be able to speak with the physicians on their level so I can operate terminology and I can understand what they’re saying. Another one is it gave us – it gave me an inspiration for the creation. We didn’t just stop on this device to be used in a non-invasive way. But I think we’re now creating something very unique and the knowledge that I gained…I cannot really elaborate more about the next-phase product, but I can definitely say that it’s a hybrid product at the edge of engineering and pharmacy and the basic concept and the inspiration was received from viewing it visually in animation, how the biochemistry works.
Visualizing helps me to understand very abstract and complex subjects and then to go to a specific surgeon with specific questions in order to receive really specific answers. So the beginning of the research was from self-learning and self-observing of this knowledge.
Ben: And you mentioned already how your focus as the leader of a company needs to be on that company and on your products, and that’s obviously a very time-consuming thing. So how do you even begin to make time to learn these new things, practically speaking?
Lena Levin: The best way it works is, it’s in my work. I just put it in my schedule. Every lesson is more or less 20 minutes, or if you go deeper it’s 30 minutes. So I schedule a time and I go into this very intensively. And then if I don’t understand something, I just can use anatomical atlas or chemistry book. But, major basic concepts are very understandable just after 20 minutes. More complex subjects like how cells communicate, or clinical applications, were more challenging, so I needed several times to see this topic. So it might take 40 minutes, for example. But I can remember that for me the most complex initially was the rules of energy – how we create energy, how the self generates energy…I took one class initially in the university, but I didn’t need anything else after just seeing it in a visual way. So, it simplified this complex idea just for the understanding of what’s going on.
I use all this knowledge as mainly for me it is used to create new devices or to gather ideas for new products. So it doesn’t mean that I want to be a surgeon [or] I want to be a doctor. I use it in order to communicate more efficiently with the surgeons or with physicians, so they understand what I’m talking about. And I understand what they’re saying. And I can build my question more precisely.
Ben: So I’m curious if you were to go back 10 years or so to when you first were starting out in this industry launching your first product, is there any kind of advice you would give to yourself then about embarking on this path and what you might do to be most effective? Or to someone who’s thinking about venturing into a new field, any advice you would have about taking on those challenges where you don’t have exactly that formal background?
Lena Levin: Yes, absolutely. So maybe I can share one of the stories. We created the prototype, and we needed to test it in a pre-clinical situation with one of our medical advisers. We came to Boston and during the setting, during the operation, and the surgeon is all focused on the task.
I ask from the side of the patient, “So don’t you think it will hurt the patient?” And my question was about the pain or the way the procedure is done, it may be painful. He was looking at me very puzzled.
He said, “How it can be painful? He’s under anesthesia.” So it’s all this gap between communications and then I understand I really have to learn their world, the world of the OR, in order to communicate it correctly.
So for me it was a long path. Back when I started Harvard Medical School online didn’t exist yet, or at least we didn’t have access to it. So maybe it was exclusive. So I wasted a lot of time just reading sometimes without understanding.
And I think my best advice is that if you don’t understand, and this is what’s good about this platform is if I didn’t understand, if I didn’t understand something, I would just write it down. I wouldn’t waste my time. And I would rely on the expertise of a person behind the platform. And it was a real physician, real expert answering my questions. So this was amazing. I wouldn’t find it [elsewhere] – I could spend hours just going through books and wouldn’t find the answer.
And then the challenging part was a small test. It brought me back to university or to Technion where you have to study, and they were not – it’s not the simple question that you memorize and you remember and you answer.
It really – you have to think like a physician. You have to think about the process. It’s not enough that you read and you memorized it and you can answer it. It requires your extra step to really understand. And they are designed in a way that they push you to more to understanding rather than memorizing.
Ben: Well I really appreciate you speaking with me today. I think, really, our listeners will appreciate learning about this unique journey that that you’ve had going from little knowledge of a field to really understanding it and being able to develop products that are clearly very important and very helpful to a lot of people.
And especially how you’ve recognized what those gaps are in your knowledge and you’ve taken those concrete steps to learn more and not just said, “Well, I don’t understand this,” but actually taking those steps to understand it and apply it in a real situation.
So, thank you again. And good luck to you in these new products that you’re launching that I hope to hear more about soon.
Lena Levin: Thank you very much, Ben. Thank you for having me.