Dr. Arti Santhanam: A Collaborative Scientist’s Passion Helps Build a Top-Five Tech-Based Entrepreneurial Community

What does the Zulu word “ubuntu” have to do with a successful science and tech fund at Maryland’s TEDCO? To start, it’s been a guiding force for that fund’s leader.

The Maryland Technology Development Corporation (TEDCO) has an important mission in Maryland: “enhance economic empowerment by fostering an inclusive and entrepreneurial innovation ecosystem. Identify, invest in, and help grow technology companies in Maryland.”

As the Executive Director of TEDCO’s Maryland Innovation Initiative (MII), Dr. Arti Santhanam plays a key role in delivering on that mission. She leads the MII fund investing in commercialization and start-up science and tech companies spun out of five participating universities: Johns Hopkins University, Morgan State University, and the University of Maryland’s College Park, Baltimore and Baltimore County campuses. Established in 2012, MII has invested $47.5M that has resulted in 144 startups, $692M in follow-on funding and 7 exits to date.

Dr. Santhanam knows that success would not occur without collaboration, one of the core values at TEDCO. For her, collaboration brings to mind the word “ubuntu.” Archbishop Desmond Tutu defined the Zulu word “ubuntu” as “My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in what is yours.” In the simplest terms, Ubuntu means “I am because we are.”

Ubuntu is much more than just a word—it’s a philosophy, a world view, and a framework for how we relate to and work with others. While the concept of ubuntu has spiritual connotations, it has practical applications as well. As a socio-economic ideology, ubuntu encourages equity and equality as a means of generating shared wealth, promotes collective responsibility for the greater good, and fosters appreciation for each individual’s unique talents.

At TEDCO and within the MII program, ubuntu manifests itself primarily in the core value of collaboration: “We focus on building trust and credibility across the organization and with our customers. We are transparent in the exchange of ideas and our encouragement of one another. We value teamwork in our pursuit of supporting innovation and entrepreneurial excellence.” Driven by this value, we embody ubuntu both internally and in our service to Maryland’s diverse entrepreneurial community.

TEDCO has worked hard to knit together an entrepreneurial ecosystem that connects like-minded entrepreneurs, subject matter experts, academics, legislators, and business leaders from all corners of the state. They weave together a diversity of thought, variety of skills, and myriad needs of Marylanders to build a vibrant tech-based entrepreneurial community that’s consistently ranked in the top five in the United States.

A Childhood Illness Shapes a Career Path

Dr. Santhanam’s journey to becoming both a scientist and a visionary tech leader began as a girl in her native India, when she was diagnosed with a childhood cancer.

An insightful doctor near her village in India understood she needed special care; based on his advice, young Arti spent a portion of her childhood traveling 2 hours by bus from her village home to a city hospital that had the resources to treat her. She had many interactions which helped her understand both the disease and how important it was for her to be in a space with the best treatments available in her region.

A wonderful, influential science teacher also made her want to be a scientist. The teacher’s passion for the topic and Santhanam’s own experience surviving childhood cancer inspired her to work in this space of scientific discovery very early on.

A PhD in microbiology and molecular genetics from Rutgers University in New Jersey followed a Master of Science in clinical biochemistry from the University of Madras in India. After completing a postdoctoral study at the National Cancer Institute, Dr. Santhanam worked as a senior scientist and subject matter expert for MITRE Corporation and later for her own consulting firm, collaborating with partners at DOD to address global health concerns. She then joined TEDCO where, prior to taking the helm as executive director of MII, she served in a number of capacities, including that of investment analyst for the Maryland Venture Fund and director for the Life Science Investment Fund.

MII proved to be the perfect fit for Dr. Santhanam’s many skills. She could see ground-breaking science and tech happening at institutions where they weren’t thinking about getting it to market. At the same time, there were patients desperately hoping to access those discoveries for themselves or their families. She saw the solution.

“As someone who had been both a patient and a scientist, I knew both sides. I have always been passionate about bringing affordable healthcare to all and accelerating innovative solutions from bench to bedside; my work at MII does just that,” said Dr. Santhanam.

Exceling in Leadership across Maryland

In order to fund ground-breaking research to treat Stage 4 metastatic breast cancer, Dr. Santhanam founded the METAvivor research program while serving on the board of directors of the Annapolis-based non-profit advocacy organization, METAvivor Research and Support, Inc. METAvivor was chosen as one of the top patient-run research programs in Vice President Joe Biden’s Cancer Moonshot Initiative and has so far been granted over $7.8M in research grants.

She also participates in Leadership Maryland ’20, the Maryland Energy Innovation Program (MEI2) investment committee, the Maryland Governor’s Life Science Advisory Board (LSAB), and SpringBoard Enterprises’ Women’s Health initiative. She participates actively in both the ADVAmed Business Development working group and the Women in Bio-Capital Region chapter.

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