Maria Navas-Moreno
2014 Keller Entrepreneurship Academy Fellow

Maria Navas-Moreno earned a BS in physics and mechanical engineering and an MS in biomedical sciences from the Universidad de los Andes in Bogota, Colombia. She received a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Utah in 2011 with the dissertation, “Optical Spectroscopy Techniques for Human Disease Diagnosis” under the supervision of Professor Valy Vardeny.  

Navas-Moreno did her first postdoctoral training at the Center for Integrated Neuroscience and Human Behavior in University of Utah, where she worked on the application and development of novel techniques used for the reconstruction of a 3D map of the neuronal connections involved in human emotion and behavior using a nonhuman primate model. She joined the Center of Biophotonics at UC Davis as a postdoctoral fellow in 2013 to work on a project that evaluates the use of SERS labels for dynamic cellular imaging and monitoring.

About the 2014 Keller Entrepreneurship Academy Fellowship

The Keller Entrepreneurship Academy Fellows Fund was established in 2014 with the generous support of Barry and Lynda Keller, through the Sacramento Region Community Foundation.

The fund fosters a collaborative approach to entrepreneurship by training innovative engineers, scientists and technologists to commercialize their research and, as a result, strengthen the Sacramento entrepreneurs’ network. Preference is given to women researchers in science and engineering and/or researchers from an interdisciplinary background.

In a nutshell, describe your project or venture. 

We developed a unique proprietary blood test for a group of genetics disorders that will reduce costs and return results faster to clinical labs. 

What’s important about your research or project—and where do you hope to take it? 

My research is about bringing physics and biology/medicine together so we can develop new ways to deepen our understanding of biological processes and improve diagnosis of  disease. People work on all sorts of methods to that end. I am focused on using light and the information light carries after its interaction with proteins or other molecules. My goal is to help develop and to take these technologies to market so they can get to more scientists to do research or to the patients for diagnosis.  

What are you most passionate about in your work?

There are two things that really keep me going every day. One is simple curiosity: I always want to know more about how nature works, everything from disease to quantum physics—that’s what got me into research. The other is to do things that matter and have a real impact on people’s lives. I want to take on projects that solve real world problems in the largest scale possible. That’s what got me interested in technology commercialization and entrepreneurship.  

What was the most important thing you learned at the UC Entrepreneurship Academy?

From the practical point of view, the most important thing I learned was to give shape to the idea. I am still doing that. But being able to put everything you have in your head and your heart in an elevator pitch is a really useful exercise—not just because you would eventually have to give your pitch to an investor, but because it forces you to structure your idea and helps convince yourself that idea is totally worth pursuing. 

The most unexpected?

During one of the sessions, we were shown a TED talk by Krista Donaldson from D-Rev. I guess the purpose of showing the video was about the presentation itself. How to put your idea simply and show the impact in a way anybody could understandand. Certainly Krista does that. But for me, it change the way I see what kind of entrepreneur I am. I want to take technology to everyone. Selling a products to people in the developing worlds is a different challenge, but by making products people can afford, it can be made in an economically sustainable way.

Next steps?

Well,  I have realized the project I took to the UC entrepreneurship Academy is not quite suitable for commercialization quite yet. That may sound like a bad thing but is actually quite the opposite. I think as a scientist I tend to think that everything I do is super  important but not everything is. Finding the right ideas to pursue is a necessary skill to focus your efforts, so you choose ideas that are more likely to succeeded. In my case, I found the project I worked on won’t be solving any real problem, meaning very few people would benefit, thus even fewer would buy the technology.   The next step is to undergo the same process with my other ideas: come up with the elevator pitch, study the market, identify competitors, talk to possible clients, etc., all so I can convince, first myself and later on investors, that the idea is worth the effort and the investment. 

As a women entrepreneur, do you have any insight, experience or concern you’d like to share?

During the academy, I and the other Keller Fellows had the chance to talk to Barry Keller. He commented that when women and men entrepreneurs are compared in various aspects, there seem to be no differences, except when it comes to building capital—that’s where the difference is huge. Why? Is it because the VCs and angel investors world is still a boys’ club? Most likely.

I was recently also at the Entrepreneurship Symposium at UC Berkely, and they had a panel regarding women in innovation and entrepreneurial ecosystems and how to “build a gender-balanced future.” The panel included Jennifer Goldstein (Silicon Valley Bank), Sara Kenkara-Mitra (Genetech), Vanessa Tolosa (Lawrence Livermore National Lab) and Vivek Wadhwa (Standford). I think the intentions of the panel were good but the discussion wasn’t complete. One problem when it comes to this topic is that opinions are extremely biased towards work-life balance and children-related topics, like pregnancy and child care. I don’t think that’s the issue why there are fewer women entrepreneurs or women in decision-making roles in industry. I think it all goes back to being an all-boys club. But what does that mean? During the panel Vivek Wadhwa mentioned something that I have not thought about—how women are often excluded  from the “bonding” activities, like playing golf or taking about sports, you name it. And I think he is absolutely right. Men and women are different, when are we going to accept that? We often have different interests and different points of view, and is precisely that what makes promoting women in entrepreneurship so important.

Diversity of thinking, diversity of believe systems, diversity of backgrounds is what nurtures innovation. I think a cultural change is already taking place—we are at least having a conversation about it—but cultural changes are unfortunately hard and slow to happen. But they do happen. I think a gender-balanced culture is not only in the hands of the women who want to be and currently are entrepreneurs. Everyone who believes that there needs to be a change has to stop putting up with sexism in all its forms. Let’s educate the men (and women) around us, start a cultural change that won’t make entrepreneurship harder for women than for men. Barry Keller is doing just  that and I can only hope there are more like him.