Headshot of Nandini Kanthi ’27

Nandini Kanthi ’27

Nandini Kanthi ’27 is the CEO and co-founder of Sensible, a startup that provides an affordable menstrual hygiene product that screens for cervical diseases. The diagnostic device uses naturally discharging menstrual blood.

The scholar shares with Catalyze host Allyson Horst ’27 about her entrepreneurship journey, from competing on a high school debate team to filing for a patent. Nandini is studying public policy and neuroscience at UNC–Chapel Hill.

Listen to the episode.

Music credits

The episode’s intro song is by scholar Scott Hallyburton ’22, guitarist of the band South of the Soul.

How to listen

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Catalyze is hosted and produced by Sarah O’Carroll for the Morehead-Cain Foundation, home of the first merit scholarship program in the United States and located at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. You can let us know what you thought of the episode by finding us on social media @moreheadcain or you can email us at communications@moreheadcain.org.

Episode transcription

(Allyson)

Nandini, thank you for joining us today. I first met you at Discovery Weekend just about a year ago. What ultimately drew you to Carolina, and what factors did you consider?

(Nandini)

I grew up not too far from here. I grew up in Cary. UNC-Chapel Hill has very much been a part of my childhood, coming here on the weekends with family or knowing friends who went here. It just felt nice to have a place that felt so familiar but also would give me enough of an opportunity and, I guess, distance, per se, from home that I could develop and grow independently. Also, it’s just an amazing school and an amazing place for me to pursue what I’m interested in career-wise. I’m, for now, let’s say, interested in something in the healthcare field. UNC has a great ecosystem for that, so I’m very lucky.

(Allyson)

Yeah, amazing. And then just last year in high school, you were heavily involved in the Future Health Professionals, which is also known as HOSA, as well as policymaking in your hometown. How are you continuing to blend your background in policymaking and science through your academics and extracurriculars at Carolina?

(Nandini)

Yeah, definitely. So, I’m a double major in neuroscience and public policy here. So I’ve been very fortunate to be in a lot of classes where I’ve been able to mold my interests together, like in my public policy classes, when we would get the opportunity to write briefs on a topic that we’re interested in. So last semester, I spent heavily researching a topic that’s very close to my heart and that I’m very passionate about, which is mental health access and equity, and I wrote a policy brief, actually, about how a lot of states in the U.S. don’t really give children adequate mental health care, and how that’s actually leading to a lot of human rights violations in the states, which a lot of people don’t know about. And so, it’s really given me the opportunity, and UNC makes it easy, also being a liberal arts school, for me to be able to blend those interests together.

(Allyson)

Yeah, and I think we were in the same policy class last semester. I remember your presentation, and it was so in-depth. How did you get drawn to that topic specifically?

(Nandini)

Actually, in high school, I was on the debate team, and we had this one topic about mental health equity and how insurance companies are constantly evading paying for mental health care. While I researched that, I found this interesting article about how in Illinois, there were parents who were giving up custody of their child to the state just so their child could get mental health care. Because when you become a foster kid of the state, North Carolina is mandated to provide and cover all your health care costs. That’s something that’s happening in 21 states across the US. The last time the government wrote a report about it was in 2003. I thought that was interesting because it’s a huge, huge problem, and no one’s talking about it. The one article I found from a national source was NPR in 2019. I got lucky coming across that article, reached out to the reporter, and just did more research on it. Then throughout high school and in my first semester, leading into the second semester here at Carolina, I really delved into that topic, talked to more stakeholders, and was trying to understand what exactly was going on.

(Allyson)

Wow, that’s amazing. No, I honestly did not know any of that information at all now until you said that. But on the topic of public health and access to medical devices: Sensible, which is the organization that you co-founded and lead as CEO. When did you start thinking of this specific issue, and how did that cultivate into Sensible?

(Nandini)

It was inspired by personal experiences, but also circumstance allowed for Sensible to become what it is. I’ll start at the beginning. I was part of HOSA in high school, which was a really great opportunity for me to engage in a career field that I was interested in. One of the competitive events for the organization was called Medical Innovation. A couple of my friends and I teamed up for that, and we had to come up with this hypothetical medical device or innovation. We were thinking on this like, what is a problem that’s really close to our heart and what’s something that we could come up with? A lot of us had a lot of shared experiences with periods and our menstrual health, a lot of experiences in our culture where we felt almost ostracized while we were on our periods. For example, me, myself, I’m a Hindu. That’s the religion my family practices. And part of that, when I’m on my period, I’m not allowed to go to the temple or go into certain rooms in the house because I’m considered “unclean” or “dirty.” And this was a sentiment that a lot of my friends also experienced in their houses.

But we had never talked about it. I’d never had a conversation with any of my friends about it until we were in a room trying to think of a problem to solve, and we were really getting deep about it. But for something that’s such a shared experience among millions, almost thousands of people around the world, no one was talking about it, and we were like, how do we address this issue? In that research, we also came across the fact that in a lot of underdeveloped, underserved areas, that disease incidents rates were extremely high. Naturally, that was because these areas didn’t have the capital to subsidize health care facilities or professionals like doctors that could serve those areas, take care of them, those populations. Combining those two things, we came up with Sensible, which is a diagnostic menstrual pad aimed at screening for cervical diseases in underserved populations. Our concept was, what’s the singular way your bodies expel blood naturally? You don’t need to poke a needle, draw blood, send it to a lab, get it processed. The one way your body expels blood naturally is menstruation. Why aren’t we taking advantage of that more?

We were like, what if we could create a device that while you’re on your period, it collects the blood, processes it, and spits out a result for whether or not you’re positive for, and our initial use case is cervical cancer, so that’s what we’re screening for, so whether or not you’re at risk for cervical cancer. That was the concept. It’s very similar to when you were during the pandemic, when you would have to take a COVID test at home, it’s a very similar technology to that. In minutes, you’d be able to know. Our concept was making diagnostics cheaper. Our device has the potential to screen for something at $5 or less compared to a $300 a pap smear. Our concept was just making health care more accessible and, in the process, be able to destigmatize menstruation by associating it with a life-saving construct. So, tackling two problems at once.

(Allyson)

That is amazing. I never would have thought of the naturally dispelling blood and using that in that sense. That is wow. I can’t believe you guys came up with that in high school at that. That is fascinating.

(Nandini)

Thank you.

(Allyson)

But on that same note, you were saying you co-founded it with your fellow high school mates. And so, is your team expanding today, or who makes up that team in general?

(Nandini)

Yeah. So originally the team started with four people, including myself. And then after that, a couple of people graduated, and then the team structure changed a lot. And down the line, we had to recruit more to sustain operations. So, we went to… Our first source of people were underclass men at our high school. So, we recruited who are current COO and CTO are. After that, we needed more and more manpower. We recruited our first class of interns this past fall. Our team currently consists of 15 people with both executive and interns. We have people with talents from all over the place. We have people who are really well-versed in marketing and promotion, people who are very well-versed in research skills and product development, finances. It’s important to me and my team that we have a diverse set of perspectives and skills on the team. And with a product like this, it was also very important to get people from different cultures and different ways of life because when you think about a topic like menstruation, for something that’s so stigmatized, it’s stigmatized in different ways for different communities. So, if we really want to address the problem at its core and do so properly, we want to make sure that the minds behind it are contributing to those ideas and making sure that we really are addressing the problem in every way possible.

(Allyson)

Yeah. And this is a massive undertaking of just addressing this issue entirely as well as managing this many people. So, what obstacles have you faced while doing this?

(Nandini)

Yeah. So naturally, anytime you work with a group of people, people you bring on to your team, it’s not always going to work out. And I think in the day and age that we live in today, it’s very easy to get interested in a lot of things. So, people who are very passionate about a project for six months may not retain that kind of passion six months later. As a leader and working with a team like this, it’s very important to distill that passion or re-instill that passion in team members. So, I think for me, it’s important to give team members a lot of autonomy. I think a lot of times it’s very easy to tell and then they just do, but to make people really invested in the project, and the reason they were brought onto the team in the first place is because they were passionate about this idea. So, to give them a stake in the game and be like, “Hey, if you have any ideas, I would love to hear them, and let’s make them happen.” Just making people excited, really, every day about what they’re working on, and then just allowing them to explore themselves, learn, and grow at the same time. Because me, too, I’m also learning and growing. So, it’s very important that they’re also doing the same.

(Allyson)

Yeah. And so, you’re CEO of Sensible. So, what does that role entail for you?

(Nandini)

So a big part of it is meeting people, making connections, and providing a vision and direction for Sensible. I have some amazing, very, very talented team members who handle operations and product development and are very, very well-versed in very niche areas, but are also very good at handling a lot of other tasks. And so, for me, it’s just making sure everything fits together, like the puzzle pieces really do go together, and that everyone’s on top of their game, and that we are growing, not just working in a stagnated space, but just making sure we’re growing, and people know who we are. And as CEO, it’s just providing the vision, I think I’d like to say.

(Allyson)

Yeah, that’s amazing, especially as a first year, having all this experience on your belt. I can’t even imagine how impactful that is just for you and your future experiences. Truly amazing. And then you are filing for a patent, right? Or are you patent pending for Sensible?

(Nandini)

We are patent pending. We’ve already filed. So thankfully, we’re just waiting now. It’ll take a hot minute.

(Allyson)

How was that journey of filing that patent for you? Have you ever done that before?

(Nandini)

I’ve never done it before. We did file a provisional about a year ago, so I went through somewhat of a similar process. But for the first time, I’ve never done anything this intense of an undertaking. I had some very amazing team members who had done something similar and worked a lot on it. But for me, it was something entirely new. We had a grant that we won about a year and a half ago from Lemelson–MIT, up in Boston. They provided us a pro bono IP agent, Shirley Fung, amazing Akona IP [Law Firm], plug in that. But she was very, very helpful in educating us about the process and how when you’re trying to file for IP, the idea must be novel. But there’s still ways that you can deviate from this extinct technology, protect yourself. That’s very important working in a space like this. When you’re talking about something very passionately, a lot of people take advantage of that. So, make sure that you’re protected. We just had very amazing people educate us about the process and hold our hand throughout the whole thing. And so, we got very lucky with that.

(Allyson)

And you were just talking about that grant, and that grant was just a little under $8,000, right?

(Nandini)

Yeah, $7,500.

(Allyson)

Yeah. And what did that grant mean to you, not only as an inventor, but a female inventer for this very specific topic that you feel very passionately about?

(Nandini)

It felt amazing. I think it was really the first in a series of validations that we were on the right path and that we were really doing something very meaningful to have an organization like that back you and invest in you and be like, “Hey, we believe in this idea,” and provide us not only just money, but resources and mentors. We had a very amazing mentor, Dr. Esther Brooks, an amazing individual who would check in on us every week. If we needed to connect with somebody at different universities who are very much experts in this field, she wouldn’t hesitate to make those connections happen. When we would make mistakes, she would call us out on it. She really was somebody who guided us through the process. And throughout that journey, she really made us both experience… Let us know that as female inventors working on a project that is so stigmatized, she helped us understand how to balance that stigma. For me, for example, when you’re talking about a topic that a lot of other people feel uncomfortable about, there are moments where at a couple of presentations, people would be like, don’t put that image on your slideshow. It would be a picture of a uterus bleeding or something. It was like a clip art. It wasn’t even a real image, but they’d be like, “It’s too raw. We don’t want to see that. It’ll make the audience uncomfortable.” And I’m like, “How else are we supposed to explain what we’re doing?” Menstruation is a very real process. And to explain what Sensible is, we need to talk about that context. She would help us balance the, don’t throw it all at them at once because a lot of people get scared. But at the same time, don’t hide what you’re trying to say because you were talking about very important, very real things. It sucks that sometimes you have to do that. You have to play that balancing act. But she guided us through the process of teaching us how to really educate the public in a productive way.

(Allyson)

This sounds like a massive responsibility and a lot of experience going into this. You’re a first-year student, so how do you manage Sensible, along with other extracurriculars, along with academics? How do you do all this?

(Nandini)

I’m not even going to lie. I feel like I don’t. But to be honest, first semester was hard because college was very new for me. I was trying to learn college, trying to learn adulthood, and keep up with stuff that I was already doing, Sensible being one of those things. I took some time in the beginning. I think one thing that’s very important, I think a lot of people feel afraid to do this, is to say, “Hey, I need some time. I need some time for myself so that I can come back and work on this project in a much stronger space.” And I definitely struggle with that. I’m not going to lie, the first few weeks of college were hard keeping up with Sensible and keeping up with classes, learning this new system of life. But I think it’s very important. Because if you yourself are not operating in the way, you’re not in your top shape, then you can’t really offer what you had the potential to offer to your team or to whatever initiative you’re taking under. So, whether it’s a couple of days a week, sometimes it’s nice to step away and be like, take that space, recoup, rejuvenate, and then come back even stronger. I didn’t really learn that before. That’s something that I didn’t really know, and I learned, and I’m very grateful for. I think it’s made me even more capable of working on this project.

(Allyson)

For sure. Just a little mental break and you come back 10 times better. I feel the same exact way. But for aspiring entrepreneurs, do you have any advice you can give them for balancing in life and work as well as just extracurriculars?

(Nandini)

Yeah. As an entrepreneur, it’s very important to… Because a lot of times when you’re especially starting out, you’re not working on your own time, you’re working on somebody else’s time. You’re trying to meet people, get their advice, get their mentorship, and they have a schedule that’s already set. You’re the one that needs to change things around. It’s important to just be flexible, I think it’s very… And really be on time for things, be on top of it, and just talk to as many people as you can. I think that’s my biggest advice. Don’t ever be afraid to take a risk because as we’ve heard the very famous quote, “You miss 100% of the chances you never take.” I very much live by that. It’s like, when someone says no to you, keep going after them. Don’t take no for an answer and really push for what you believe in. A lot of people will try to scare you away and be like, “I don’t really believe in this idea. It’s too early to really say how you’re going to do.” But if you don’t believe in your idea, nobody else is going to. The more you believe in it, the more you can make others believe in it. Just really be passionate about what you’re doing, full send, no hesitation, full send.

(Allyson)

I love full send, like immediately, 100%.

(Nandini)

Yeah.

(Allyson)

You really embody so many leadership qualities, not only in your role at Sensible, but just in general, just talking to you. Truly, you are just so passionate about it. But this past summer, you went to Minnesota on a sea kayaking and backpacking expedition with Outward Bound. What were the leadership skills that you took away from this experience? And how did you apply that to your role in Sensible today?

(Nandini)

Yeah. So, one really big thing was, I think, listening. A lot of times when, obviously, you’re in the woods, and there’s not a lot of stimuli around you, aside from the birds chirping and stuff. But in being in such an isolated area away from your family for so long, I think a lot of being with the group, it wasn’t just me, it was a lot of the people in the group, too, were feeling very down. It’s very hard because I’ve never camped before. I’ve never lived where every day my only goal is just to survive and go to sleep at night. It was very tough the first few weeks. Just being there for others on the team and listening to how they were feeling about the situation empowered me to be more open about how I was feeling. I think I bottled up a lot of my emotions. Really being on this expedition taught me that it was okay to let loose and open up. The other thing was just you never know what the other person is going through. And again, it’s very easy when you’re going through so many emotions at once and in a new environment, it’s very easy to not say anything and pretend like you feel one way when you don’t feel that way at all.

So really listen and observe and just be there for people no matter what. And if there’s a misunderstanding, it’s okay. Be mature about it, and go to them and resolve that conflict. That was a big lesson we learned. One of the best lessons I learned this summer was conflict resolution. Outward Bound is amazing. They had this cool acronym called CFOR: Concern, Feeling, Ownership, and Request. I literally use it for everything. I use it to talk to my professors. I use it to talk to friends. It’s just a way of expressing your feelings. Obviously, when you feel angry or upset about something, your emotions are not intact sometimes, and you get very emotionally charged and are not able to communicate what you feel like communicating. That just provided some structure in my head. But yeah, just people should know. It’s a great abbreviation, please use.

(Allyson)

That experience makes you really reconsider every aspect of your life. You’re like, “Oh, my goodness. I took everything for granted.” It’s fascinating talking to people afterwards, and you’re like, “I’m in different headspace completely!” It’s amazing.

(Nandini)

Oh, yeah.

(Allyson)

But on that same note of summer experiences, so where are you going for Civic Collab? We just found out a couple of days ago. So where are you going for that?

(Nandini)

I’m going to Annapolis, Maryland. So
I’m very excited. I’m going to be working with this organization, helping them put together some grant opportunities for some local nonprofits to alleviate poverty. And so, I’m very excited. I have an amazing group that I’m going with, too. So, I’m looking forward to it.

(Allyson)

Yeah. And what do you hope to take away from this upcoming summer?

(Nandini)

I think maybe… I don’t know. I’ve never lived with a lot of people like that in one space while also working with them. I think coming to college, one thing that I really appreciated was alone time because you’re constantly surrounded by people. I just feel like this summer is going to really teach me how to balance that even more: work and personal life. At the same time, be able to meet people who are going through challenges and really see firsthand what’s happening. I feel like I haven’t had a lot of experience in my life witnessing that. I feel like you read about a lot of things in the news, you hear about a lot of things from people or stuff like that. But to really interact one-on-one with stakeholders, I think, would be a crucial experience that I hope to take away from the summer.

(Allyson)

Yeah, nobody talks enough about alone time. I feel like that was one of the biggest things when I got to college. I’m like, when can I be by myself? And it’s just like, never. So, it’s going to be very fascinating to see how that balances out. But my last question has become a staple within all my interviews. What has been your favorite Carolina memory thus far?

(Nandini)

I think for me, going to the stadium at night. I did it for the first-time during Discovery Weekend with a group of scholars, and we were just running around being a little silly. In a stadium so big, you feel so small. And looking up at the sky late at night, you really get to see it. It’s a great view from there. And so, it was just nice to experience some time with friends in a place that isn’t as crowded as maybe the other buildings or quads on the campus. And then I did the same thing the first week of school, so it just seems to be a recurring theme at the start of every semester. So maybe again, very soon, I will do it again.

(Allyson)

Yeah, for sure. It’s very fun going in the stadium when nobody’s there. It’s so nice and quiet. But thank you so much for joining us today. I really appreciate it.

(Nandini)

No, thank you for having me. It’s been amazing. An honor. Thank you.