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Jean Phuong Pham

Entrepreneurship can open doors for anyone willing to put in the work, says Jean Phuong Pham, EG21. Now that she’s successfully launched her own startup, she’s excited to use her experiences to empower a new generation of innovators.

“The beauty of entrepreneurship is that regardless of your background, if you can persuade and rally people, you can pursue anything you want,” she says. “I believe I have what it takes to lead.”

It’s a conviction that’s clearly reflected in her work as a student in the Tufts Gordon Institute master’s program in innovation and management. Over the past 18 months, Pham has built her fledgling company Cellens Inc., which offers a high-performing, non-invasive test for bladder cancer, with co-founder Igor Sokolov, professor of mechanical engineering.

“The current method to detect bladder cancer is painful, inconvenient, and time-consuming—it's technology from 100 years ago,” Pham says. Cellens’ new technology, based on Sokolov’s research, combines atomic force microscopy and machine learning to quantify physical characteristics of cell surfaces for cancer detection.

Pham has led her team to success every step of the way, winning competition after competition, including the Montle Prize for Entrepreneurial Achievement and first prize in the medical devices and life science track of the Tufts $100k New Ventures Competition. The Cellens team also joined the National Science Foundation I-Corps program, receiving $50,000 in grants to do market research and establish their value proposition for patients, doctors, hospitals, insurance companies, caregivers and other stakeholders.

“We honed and refined our pitch during the first few competitions,” Pham says. “Then I-Corps helped us formulate a plan to go-to-market.”

Most recently, in February, Cellens earned first prize and the Alira Health Prize at the MedTech IGNITE accelerator, hosted by MassMEDIC, the Massachusetts Medical Device Industry Council. Cellens received $15,000 in cash and $15,000 in in-kind services, as well as six months of mentorship on topics such as building a successful team, recruiting a board of directors and ensuring quality control.

Pham has been leading Cellens full-time since she finished her degree in February. The startup has plans to run large-scale validation studies with some of the best cancer hospitals in the country under a grant from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

Now, she’s ready to take Cellens to the next level while paying it forward. She’s eager to bring her knowledge to VietChallenge, a nonprofit accelerator for Vietnamese-founded startups that she co-led with Mai Phan Zymaris, F11.

“I understand the struggle and the opportunity and can now provide much more realistic and reliable advice and mentorship and moral support to these founders,” Pham says.

She found that same support throughout her time at Tufts, including from biomedical engineering lecturer Anh Hoang.

“As a woman founder who also commercialized Tufts technology with great success, she’s someone I look up to and feel grateful for,” says Pham, citing Hoang’s insights into medical devices as well as regulatory and reimbursement issues.

Pham encourages anyone interested in entrepreneurship to come to Tufts.

“The innovation program at Tufts is a no-brainer,” she says. “You gain management skills and you can get your hands dirty trying to build something from the ground up. I wouldn’t be able to do all I’m doing now without that hands-on, one-on-one interaction and mentorship here.”

Profile written by Karen Shih.

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