Humans of YJA

February 6th, 2020

Kunal Parikh

After I graduated from high school, I went to India and spent time with Jain Maharajsahebs. I asked one of them “if I’m going to be in Sansara, even if just for another 10-15 years, what should my purpose be?” And I remember a Maharajsaheb named Dharmaprem who very clearly told me “your purpose should be to serve others and nothing else.” That was really powerful for me at the time. Because of Jainism and my upbringing, I always wanted to make an impact and help others. I don’t think I felt, “that is my mission or that that was my purpose,” until then. I went to The Ohio State University after I finished high school, and my mission was to determine how best to serve others. I started doing research in a lab on deep brain stimulation and Alzheimer’s treatments, and I was excited to see how research could help me achieve my goal. I was working 60+ hours in the lab and didn’t really care about anything else. I really thought biomedical research was the platform that would best allow me to serve others. During my sophomore year, I learned about a prolific inventor and entrepreneur, Dr. Robert Langer. He gave a webinar on blocking patents that opened my eyes to the other pieces of the puzzle that I needed to understand in order for my research to have a tangible impact on someone’s life. His talk made me interested in policy and entrepreneurship as vehicles for serving others. That led me to work in the Ohio Legislature, where I was excited to see how Republicans and Democrats would come together and develop policies to solve problems for their communities. Unfortunately, at that time, Ohio had an $8 billion budget deficit, and it became clear that budget cuts were going to happen and likely affect the community organizations that were doing great work in Columbus and throughout Ohio. So we started a not-for-profit called Dollars 4 Change to raise money and awareness, and bring volunteers to community organizations that we thought were doing great work. I realized that as we were doing great work in the community, our most impactful accomplishment was leadership development. But in terms of financial impact, I saw inefficiencies in the non-profit model, and became interested in for-profit entrepreneurship as a vehicle for impact. During my senior year at Ohio State, I started my first for-profit company, called Core Quantum Technologies, based on diagnostic technology invented in the lab I was working in. While I was building out that company, I took a class called Personal Creativity & Innovation, where we read the Artist’s Way. The book recommends that as soon as you wake up, you write three pages by hand in a full-sized notebook. You don’t eat or brush your teeth, or do anything until you write those three pages, and that was really powerful for me. The idea is that you write your stream of consciousness, and become aware of your inner thoughts/being. When I first started doing that, it would take me an hour and a half a day. The goal of serving others is really broad and morning pages helped me understand what that actually means to me: what am I specifically passionate about, what gets to me, what problems do I want to solve for humanity? That helped me identify my purpose and mission, which is to create a world where no person is limited by the circumstances of their birth. I quickly realized that a single company wasn’t going to allow me to have that sort of impact I’m currently a faculty member at Johns Hopkins University in the Departments of Biomedical Engineering and Ophthalmology. When I first arrived at Johns Hopkins for my Ph.D., I built an incubator for social enterprises called the Social Innovation Lab. There were great technologies and bright, talented individuals in Baltimore and at Johns Hopkins, but they faced challenges realizing the impact of their ideas. We identified promising ideas and technologies and young people who really wanted to have an impact, and helped them build sustainable business models. To date, the Social Innovation Lab has incubated 80+ mission-driven companies in all sorts of areas: education, healthcare, urban development, poverty alleviation, both at home and around the world. All of these experiences have informed and influenced my current work at Johns Hopkins focused on developing and commercializing solutions to unmet needs in ophthalmology that contribute to vision loss and blindness globally. Importantly, we’re doing this in a manner that enables access and affordability in regions where the need is the greatest. In summary, those 10 years after going to India and speaking to Dharmaprem, were really 10 years of iterations to figure out “what is the best vehicle to maximize my impact.” Jainism is my core and has driven what I do and how I do it, and even who I work with and what I work on. The aspect of Jainism that has always stayed with me is Sarvajivaan no Kalyan, and I believe that’s what we should be working towards while in Sansara. We should have that sort of feeling and mission to uplift all living beings, and that’s what I’ve been focused on in my own life to date -- how do I enable that mission with what I am uniquely good at and what I am able to do?