In Conversation: Nao Gamo, PhD, Founder and CEO of NeuroSonics Medical, Vice President of BD at MDC Studio, Associate at Verte Family of Funds, and Executive Women In Bio Chapter Vice Chair

By Sarah Ellinwood
March 13, 2023

Dr. Nao Gamo has led NeuroSonics Medical since its incorporation. Before becoming an entrepreneur, she spent 15 years as an academic researcher in neuroscience and psychiatry, with a focus on the molecular and cellular mechanisms underlying cognitive impairment related to psychiatric disorders. She was also an Adjunct Assistant Research Engineer and Research Associate in Biomedical Engineering at the Johns Hopkins University, where she worked to develop the NeuroSonics Medical technology. 

She is also passionate about helping those transitioning from academic research to an entrepreneurial career. Over the past few years, she has given several webinars and participated in panels about entrepreneurship and her career path to local groups and research institutions, including the Johns Hopkins University, Institute of Marine and Environmental Technology (IMET), and Children’s National Hospital. She has also mentored over 20 students over her career so far to help them to experience various biotechnology careers and guide them towards their next stages in life. 

Dr. Gamo also recently stepped up as the new Vice Chair of the Executive Women in Bio Committee for the Capital Region Chapter of Women In Bio, where she is taking these activities to a larger scale to encourage women who are aspiring founders and executives. For all her contributions, she has been recognized as a RealLIST Connector 2021 (“leaders growing Baltimore’s tech and entrepreneurship network”) and Women In Bio Capital Region Chapter’s 2021-2022 Rising Star.

In addition to her Rising Start recognition in 2022, Dr. Gamo was also nominated by her peers as a finalist for the 2022 BioBuzz Community Building award.

I had the opportunity to meet Dr. Gamo as last year’s WIB HERstory Gala, and with this year’s Gala on the horizon I thought it would be a great time to catch up and see what she’s been up to.

You have quite an amazing background – can you tell us more about your career trajectory to this point?

My background used to be purely academic research in neuroscience and psychiatry, where I was researching the cellular and molecular mechanisms underlying various psychiatric disorders. 

I’ve always been interested in translational research – making sure that we bridge what we’re researching in the lab to the impact it has on patients and society. Towards the end of my academic career I was looking for a way to have more of that impact. I explored various directions and had the opportunity to start a company called NeuroSonics Medical, where I was working with a friend to create a miniaturized therapeutic ultrasound device to make neurosurgery a lot less invasive. 

We worked on that for several years, and then lately I’ve become more and more involved with the MDC Studio, which helps other people start their own medtech companies. There I started to become more ingrained in business development, working with portfolio companies, and doing outreach in the wider entrepreneurial community. 

You won last year’s Women In Bio Capital Region Rising Star Award – what have you been up to since then?

Since receiving the award last year I’ve been pivoting NeuroSonics Medical. One of the big things I’ve learned is to recognize when you need to change directions. With that, one of the difficulties I’ve learned about by running my own company is that I don’t always get very clear signals, and it’s really hard to take that step back and try not to be emotional about realizing you need to change direction. I’ve become more decisive, especially where there isn’t a clear “yes” or “no” answer.

I’ve also really trying to get more involved in the entrepreneurial community, especially through MDC Studio. I also stepped up as Vice Chair of the Women In Bio Capital Region chapter’s Executive Women In Bio program and am really excited about launching several activities this year to help other women leaders.

Are you attending this year’s HERstory Gala? If so, what are you looking forward to?

Yes! I met a lot of great people at last year’s Gala – I’m looking forward to reconnecting with old friends as well as meeting new people.

I’m also don’t get too many opportunities to see people in person – much of what I do is over Zoom. It’s always really exciting for me to to go an in person event because I get the chance to say “hi” to people I’ve only ever seen on camera.

Tell us more about how Women In Bio has impacted your career, as well as what you hope to accomplish as you step into the Executive Women In Bio (EWIB) role for the Capital Region chapter

Women In Bio has impacted me quite a bit. When I was first transitioning out of academia I met a WIB member who worked in the biotech industry. We connected, and she jumped on a call with me to tell me more about the industry. She even took the time to revise my resume, which was really helpful as I was changing careers.

Dr. Nao Gamo, standing next to Dr. Geeta Peverada, accepts the 2022 Rising Star award at last year’s Women In Bio HERstory Gala

Now that I’m farther along in my career path, I can pay it forward and help others who are also wanting to transition from academia to industry. I’m especially excited to join the EWIB committee because I love being able to help aspiring women founders and executives. In addition, connecting with the other women on the leadership team has been a wonderful experience, and I consider some of them very, very good friends now. I’m able to get advice from them and share my insights in return – it’s been really rewarding.

I’m still fairly new to the EWIB role – we’re about to launch our first event of the year, which is a “VC 101” workshop led by Dr. Deborah Hemingway, who is another amazing local scientist who made the just to entrepreneurship. We’ve been brainstorming a whole bunch of other ideas for the year, including helping women get boardroom-ready, with the goal of doing one EWIB event per quarter.

What advance do you have for someone currently in academia who is interested in becoming an entrepreneur?

For me, being an entrepreneur is like doing a PhD all over again. You have to be really proactive about going out there, asking questions, and researching questions you don’t know the answer too. 

There are also many parallels between a PhD and a startup. In both you come in very excited and full of ideas, but there’s a period of “stumbling around” and feeling bad that you’re not farther than you anticipated. You also will inevitably experience bumps in the road that will set you back, and it’s hard not to take that personally.

When you think about graduate school and entrepreneurship in this way, it can be comforting and reassuring because you were able to overcome those challenges to get your degree. Think back to how you approached your PhD – asking questions, listening to others, and knowing that you’re not the only one that’s fumbling. 

Realize too that your degree has equipped you with skills that people from other fields might not necessarily have. You’re an expert critical thinker, and you also likely have experience applying for grants. Many startups also need to apply for grants to help them get their feet off the ground, so you already have a leg up.

Finally, just like when you constantly have issues with a thesis project, you also need to be mindful of when it might be time to change directions. It’s really hard to admit defeat, but in the end you’ll probably be better for it.