In the midst of launching a startup that designed an innovative medical solution, entrepreneur and inventor Paras Patani knew he had to create a new career. Here he speaks candidly to Innovation Destination Hartford about his startup experience and his endeavors to encourage kids to participate in science, technology, engineering, arts, and math (STEAM) activities.
INNOVATION DESTINATION HARTFORD: You have a very innovative and entrepreneurial mindset. Tell us about your startup Castle Surgical and the technology you patented.
PARAS PATANI: Castle Surgical created a kidney cancer surgical device. Dr. Sanjeev Kaul, a Urology Oncology surgeon, and I collaborated on the clinical, usability, and engineering aspects of the concept.
I came up with the idea while I was working at Covidien (which is now Medtronic) managing their suture business. I was always trying to innovate and bring our surgical devices and instruments to market. I was also trying to come up with some idea or re-engineer our existing surgical instruments to solve a problem—I wanted to help people and use technology to help patient care.
Based on what I learned about kidney surgery, we developed an organ clamp that’s designed to clamp on the kidney just around a tumor to make it easier for surgeons to perform a procedure called Partial Nephrectomy. The blood still flows to the entire kidney throughout the surgical procedure, so it eliminates the need to remove the entire kidney during surgery.
I was the lead author on the patent. I hired other engineers help me build the company and those engineers are on the patent too. But it was mostly me.
IDH: Castle Surgical is currently on hold, correct?
PP: Right. With the financial crisis, the timing wasn’t so great to raise money. It was all self-funded for a long time, although I pitched to several venture capitalists.
I used to think if you could build the right product to solve a problem for a large market, it would be successful. And I learned very clearly that without the money from the private equity and private investors, even a great idea with a great business case sometimes doesn’t go anywhere.
IDH: So you decided to switch gears.
PP: Yes, I’m very passionate about kids and encouraging STEAM. I started Snapology West Hartford because, where the first half of my career I’d been using technology to help with patient care, I want the second half to be about these kids.
I’m all about creating the next generation of technologists and engineers and inspiring them. And strategically, I plan to use the funds that I get from Snapology to bring to market the surgical device we put together at Castle Surgical.
IDH: Is Snapology a franchise?
PP: Yes. The franchise is really small. I think there are seven of us now. There’s really not much interaction with corporate. I’ve built my own lesson plans and I have a team of six consistent teachers. In my extended network, there are about 20.
IDH: You touched upon the importance of promoting STEAM with children. How do Snapology courses help?
PP: I’m a believer in the benefits of critical thinking, developing an engineering mindset to solve problems, and impact the world in a purposeful, methodical, and principled way. LEGO® bricks are a great tool because they’re fun and connect with kids. But too often we see families spend tons of money on LEGO sets that are unused after the initial build; or kids take LEGO-based classes and just follow the instructions.
But in real life we don’t have instructions; what we have are problems that need solving. So, my goal is to help the students, kids and adults to become comfortable with technology, understand it, and build and create with it so that when they come across a problem that needs solving, they can utilize their understanding of technical competencies do so. More importantly, even if they don’t know exactly how to solve it, they should have the confidence to know that they can learn about it on their own and figure it out.
So, in our classes, we get away from the instructions. Students start with a base build that facilitates an engineering discussion and then we ask them to change what they’ve built, modify it, and make it better. We often start with LEGO bricks, but move on to mechanics, motors, sensors, circuits, coding, photography, and other technologies.
So for example, in today’s class, the kids are using pulleys. The next class I’ll ask them to use gears instead of using pulleys. Both pulleys and gears go round and round, but our students learn the differences between using pulleys and a gears; the advantages and disadvantages of each; and when to use one, the other, or both. This gets the kids get really excited and inspired to have fun and learn. And that’s what we want.
IDH: It’s obvious you get so much joy out of working with these kids.
PP: I do! I’ve always been that way. I can’t just be someone who makes money. I need to be making a social impact.
I’ve done Internet startups and things, it just didn’t connect with me. Now I like what I do. Sometimes I work 15 to 18 hours a day. I have to be all in.
IDH: Are these classes just for fun are you hoping you’ll spark something in these kids?
PP: I’m hoping it will be a memorable experience for the kids. My primary motive is education. I think the kids need it for a future that’s guaranteed to be full of technology. I don’t think any of us can really imagine what these kids are going to be doing in 20 years. But what I do know is that it’s going to be full of technology and we need to prepare them.
IDH: You mentioned that it’s important for you to do something that has a social impact.
PP: Exactly. Whereas my primary goal is technology education for kids, their primary motivation is to have fun. If we just teach them and try to drill in the need-to-know information, they shut off.
So I very quickly shifted the motive of this company to: 1) It’s got to be fun and 2) It’s got to be educational. The best thing is when the kids are having so much fun that they don’t realize they’re learning. That’s the key here.
IDH: Tell us about how you are giving back to the community.
PP: For every nine kids who take one of my classes I donate one seat to an underprivileged kid in Hartford County. And those are the kids who can really benefit from learning STEAM skills.
IDH: What do you see happening with Snapology in the future?
PP: Getting to profitability would be a good thing. I’m planning on growing outside of this area and just continue growing.
I’d like to get it to a point where the franchise can survive and build some momentum without me. And then I plan to use at least a portion of the cash flow to bring out the kidney cancer surgical device. Even though I won’t make big profit on it, it’s the right technology and one I think patients need.
IDH: Any advice for other entrepreneurs or people who are thinking of launching startups?
PP: I think the number one thing is that an entrepreneur has to know what motivates them. Because it’s not going to be the money for a while, if ever. And you may not always know—you might be challenged figuring out why you’re doing what you’re doing, but you have to recognize that.
Many people will tell you your idea is not going to work or you should just get a 9-to-5 job at a big company. Being an entrepreneur is kind of a slog and it’s hard but, that’s who I am.
So I think any entrepreneur or person thinking about starting a company needs to have a strong conviction. You need to figure out why it is that you’re doing what you’re doing—and determine whether or not that motivation is going to be strong enough to sustain you.