Q&A with Beverly Tang, Co-Founder and CEO of Starlight Cardiovascular; Ferolyn Fellowship Class of 2023

by | Jun 14, 2023 | Ferolyn Fellowship

Bev Tang is the co-founder and CEO of Starlight Cardiovascular, a company that is developing a portfolio of devices to treat babies born with congenital heart defects. She is a dedicated biodesigner whose career has focused on treating life-threatening cardiovascular and neurovascular disease. She brings 15 years of early-stage innovation and leadership experience to solving critical unmet needs in the pediatric cardiovascular field. Bev holds a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering, a Stanford GSB LEAD certificate in managing innovation and was a Stanford Biodesign Fellow. She is a strong advocate of diversity and inclusion of women and underrepresented minorities in medtech.

We had the privilege of catching up with Bev to learn more about her career, company and the Ferolyn Fellowship.

Q. What drew you to cardiology and specifically pediatric cardiology? 

A. When I first started learning about biomechanics, it seemed like the world was divided into two categories: blood or bones. I chose blood. I was and continue to be fascinated by the cardiovascular system. I love working on challenging, life-saving technologies. I think it is amazing that we can navigate through the vascular system to get devices where they need to go and treat disease using minimally invasive techniques. The fact that we can save people’s lives from a heart attack or stroke through a small plastic tube is incredible. 

I was exposed to pediatric cardiology during my first industry experience, which was at a structural heart startup company. I learned that physicians were “MacGyvering” adult devices to fit into babies, oftentimes purposefully cutting things apart that had been tested to withstand fracture and fatigue. From an engineering perspective, I knew that we could do better. Now as a parent, I feel like we have to do better. 

Q. Your company name, Starlight, is not what you’d call a typical medical device company name. How did you choose it?

A. “Starlight” comes from the beloved children’s nursery rhyme, “Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight.” That verse evokes a sense of hope and wonder, and I think that is the essence of the company. We want to give these precious patients a wondrous, happy and healthy future. This is why we’re developing purpose-built devices to treat babies born with congenital heart disease. Our devices replace open-chest surgeries on newborns with minimally invasive procedures delivered through small incisions in the blood vessels.

The name also pays homage to Dr. Nina Starr Braunwald, one of the first women to perform open heart surgery. She led a team that was the first to replace a human heart valve that she designed herself and was also among the first women to be certified by the American Board of Thoracic Surgery. Her storied career took her to UC San Diego and Boston Children’s Hospital, two places that are important in our company’s founding story. She was described as pioneering and determined, yet kind. Those are qualities that I deeply admire. As a mother of two young girls, I am continually inspired by women like Dr. Braunwald, who were able to excel and find purpose and happiness in both their career and their family life.

Q. What pathways did you consider before biomechanical engineering, or was your direction clear early on?

A. During high school, a parent came to speak about being a neonatologist, and I was completely drawn to it. I already loved babies — I have 50 first cousins, so there were always cute little kids running around. I went into college as a pre-med, intending to go to medical school and perhaps becoming a neonatologist myself. 

One of the activities I was involved in during my undergraduate years was the Asian American Health Initiative. It was a student-run organization where undergrads and medical school students would go to underserved Asian communities and conduct blood pressure screenings and educate people about diabetes risk. I loved getting into the community. I also got to know a lot of med students and learned a lot about their training. I came to the realization that, in my heart, I was a maker and wanted to create and build things. A compelling lecture given by the chair of the Materials Science and Engineering department helped crystallize things for me. I knew while I definitely would be involved in healthcare, it would be as an engineer, rather than as a physician.

Q. What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

A. I honestly love what I’m doing and feel very fortunate to have the opportunity to do something that I am so excited about. That’s not to say I didn’t have an interest in other paths! When I was much younger, I wanted to be an architect because I was so inspired by Julia Morgan. I still remember when my parents took me to Hearst Castle after we had moved to California from New Jersey and thinking how spectacular it was. I still think it would be fun to build and / or renovate houses. Today, I would say that I would love to try being a vascular surgeon for a week. I have watched so many surgeries in my career, and I still find each one fascinating and riveting! I went to a grand rounds where Dr. Michael Lawton was showing a complex arteriovenous malformation (AVM) neurosurgery he had performed, and I found it to be so elegant. It made me want to try sewing and resecting tiny little vessels for hours at a time.

Q. What is one of the most valuable pieces of advice you’ve been given in your career so far?

A. I was lucky enough to have known Ferolyn Powell when I was very early in my career. She gave two simple, but amazing pieces of advice that I still carry with me today. The first was “create a record of success.” This is so important, especially early on in your career when you don’t have a lot of experience. It made me more aware of the role of my values and choices in building a reputation. Ferolyn pointed out that to build a good reputation, you need to work hard, collaborate, make good choices and demonstrate responsibility and accountability so that you can create that record of success. 

The second was to not view your career as a straight path but as a bunch of buckets— where each bucket is a relevant experience needed to achieve your eventual end-goal. Many people think that their career needs to build in a linear way—as if you’re climbing a mountain to get to the top. While this can make you hyper-focused on staying on the path, it can also result in  missed opportunities to gain valuable experience and knowledge. So, when a new opportunity comes along, I ask myself if the experience will “fill an empty bucket” instead of, “Is this the next role I had planned for myself in my career ascent?”

The bottom line is that opportunities don’t always come in a prescribed order. It’s important to keep an open mind about what might be next. I tell Ferolyn’s bucket analogy to every person who’s ever asked me for career advice. It’s completely changed the way I make decisions.

Q. What’s an insight you’ve had about leadership and how are you currently exploring it in the Ferolyn Fellowship?

A. I think many people have stereotypical notions of what a leader is and how to try to emulate that persona to the outside world. The thing I’ve learned is that leadership takes a lot of introspection. It’s as much an inward thing as it is an outward thing. If you don’t know yourself, you can’t be a consistent, authentic leader to others. Right now, the fellowship’s mentor, Claudia Carasso, is leading us through an exercise of “excavation” to help us distill our “brand essence,” and it’s really all about who we are and how we make others feel. 

I am fortunate to have Karen Long as my mentor because she has been on both sides of the table as an operator and now as an investor. She has a deep understanding for many of the challenges I’ve been facing and gives pertinent advice on execution—but more than that—she gives insightful personal advice for how to lead with heart through these challenges. That’s true of the whole fellowship and that’s what I love about it. It’s complete, whole-person mentorship!

The other thing I’ve learned is that authentic leadership means that there are as many different types of leaders as there are different types of people and that you can learn from each one of them. The cohort I am in this year is really fun and truly impressive and inspiring. I feel so fortunate to be able to not only learn from the mentors but also from my co-fellows, who are each brilliant leaders in their own unique way. 

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