Adam Mendelsohn and Tejal Desai, photographed at Nano Precision Medical in Emeryville on March 7. Photo by Steve Babuljak
Tejal Desai, PhD ’98; vice chair and professor, Department of Bioengineering and Therapeutic Sciences, UCSF; winner, Paul Dawson Biotechnology Award, American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy; recipient, UCSF Dean’s Citation for Excellence in Teaching; winner, Eurand Pharmaceuticals Grand Prize for Innovative Approaches to Drug Delivery
Adam Mendelsohn, PhD ’11; co-founder, president, and CEO, Nano Precision Medical, Emeryville, Calif.; former director, UCSF Venture Innovation Program; president, UCSF Graduate Division Alumni Association
Mendelsohn: I remember meeting Tejal at an event to welcome new bioengineering students. She was remarkable in giving this impression of relaxation, while other professors seemed more stressed. Her work fascinated me. Lots of people wanted to work in her lab, so I had to be persistent.
Desai: Honestly, I didn’t know if Adam was going to be a good fit for the lab. But he just kept showing up at our meetings every single week. He would send me emails about what he wanted to work on – the ideas were all over the place. Ultimately, I realized that Adam is so bright that it didn’t really matter what he does, he would make it work. So I ended up asking him to join us.
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Mendelsohn: Before I came to UCSF, I worked for companies in the diabetes field. The research Tejal did for her PhD was also in diabetes. My work in her lab was basically a continuation of her PhD project – to develop a device to deliver insulin using a hybrid of artificial and biological tissues. I was thinking about it as product development. That’s my background, and it was where I wanted to go.
Desai: I could see that Adam had this vision of creating a device that helps patients. But it’s a long road from here to there, with many mundane experiments along the way.
Mendelsohn: Time and again, I asked her whether or not it made sense to try something with the project, and she said, “Yeah, go for it.” So I did, and it wouldn’t work. Then I’d let her know it hadn’t worked, and she would tell me why. She knew that my work would be better and more efficient if I figured it out for myself.
Desai: You can’t mentor everybody in the same way; Adam taught me that. I could have told him, “Okay, you do this and this, and we’ll make sure you finish your PhD.” But I wanted him to find that moment where he understood why it was important to do the painstaking experimentation. And he did. He suddenly just dove in.
Mendelsohn: We founded our company right after graduation. Well, it kind of started before we finished. We won a UC Berkeley business plan competition, then another international competition at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. We got a second place at a competition in Boston. We had all the work done – the pitch, the plan.
Desai: Adam and his co-founders were learning how to start a company with stent technology we developed in the lab. They brought it forward, all the way out of our lab. I was peripherally involved. It was actually very, very good for me to learn that process.
Mendelsohn: Tejal taught me a lot about how to think about science and how to manage scientists. The effort she put into finding people who would collaborate well together – that’s the kind of environment I have tried to replicate at my company.
Desai: This is quintessential Adam – a master collaborator who always sees the big picture. One day he told me that he could introduce me to some of his industry contacts to develop a technology we were working on. Three phone calls later, we had what would become a five-year partnership and a new project. So sometimes I wonder if Adam thought of me as a mentor. I actually learned a lot from him while he was in my lab.