Interview by Derek Grosso
Name: Zeenia Kaul
Profession: Co-founder, CEO, and Chief Scientific Officer at ReHeva Bioscience
Education: Ph.D. & M.B.A.
Community Involvement: Pelotonia
Quote: “Curiosity to learn and keep discovering is the new way of life. Failure is the new success.”
Give us a snapshot of your career path: ReHeva Biosciences is transforming cancer treatment into disease management by bringing new, plant-derived cancer drugs to market. My biopharmaceutical startup is based on more than 20 years of research by my parents, Dr. Renu Wadhwa and Dr. Sunil Kaul, both acclaimed molecular biologists. Growing up, I saw my parents’ devotion to their research — over time, a small discovery led to years of study, which resulted in the identification of a unique seed line from a common plant that is selective in killing cancer cells while leaving normal ones alone.
I remember being dragged to lab after school — helping my parents with chores like washing glassware, photocopying research articles, and cataloging reagents — and accompanying them to conferences during school breaks. At the time, I never understood why they would take a school-going girl to conferences on aging and cancer.
Then, my parents had an opportunity to do a year-long sabbatical in Sydney, Australia. I was being exposed to yet another education system, making new friends, and learning the Aussie accent. Witnessing my parents’ friends solve big problems with such humility had a huge impact on my life. Little did I know I would return to the same lab years later to pursue my graduate studies.
Fast forward to the present: On any given day with ReHeva, I wear multiple hats — from acting as a clinical operator and designing experiments, to fundraising and meeting with investors, to serving as a liaison between the manufacturers and clinical team, to applying for additional grants to continue our important work.
What gets you up in the morning? And what gets you through the workweek? Curiosity, eagerness to succeed, ownership, and drive to build something that will have a long-lasting impact. I try to focus on the most important thing that needs to be done today.
What advice or mentors have helped guide you along the way? I’ve been fortunate to have many mentors helping me along my journey. First and foremost is my mother, Dr. Renu Wadhwa. When I was a young girl, my parents moved from India to Japan, and my mother had to start over in Japanese society, which is male-dominated. She paved her own way — earning a second Ph.D. — and never gave up on establishing herself as a leader in the field. Her relentless positivity, and the ability to “pick up crumbs and make something of them,” has had a huge impact on my life.
My Ph.D. supervisor, Dr. Roger Reddel, has also been a significant influence. He was a family friend before becoming my mentor, so I had the pleasure of seeing his serious side in the lab, but also witnessing him at home and 100 percent dedicated to being a husband and father. Roger showed me that you can be on the cutting edge and an expert in your field, but also have a healthy balance between work and family life. He runs a leading research center with passion, humility, a drive to serve, and a huge smile on his face.
Finally, my business partner, Bill Diffenderffer, has taught me so much about entrepreneurship and recognizing possibilities. I met Bill during my fellowship and while working on my M.B.A. at The Ohio State University. In fact, I took Bill’s class on entrepreneurship, and we connected on my cancer research as his wife’s Stage 3C ovarian cancer was reoccurring. Bill’s business experience and mentorship has helped propel ReHeva forward in ways I could not have imagined. His Zen mindset and “bring-your-best-self-every-day” attitude is something I strive for in my day-to-day.
What do you do or where do you go to unwind? I do enjoy hanging out with my family and connecting with my friends across the globe. Our four-year-old boy is my source of energy. I spend my evenings gardening and doing arts/crafts — and there is no better energy booster than a good workout. I am participating in Pelotonia again this year. Come support the team!
What are a few of your favorite local spots in Columbus? Oh, many. I relax at quiet and classy restaurants, like The Guild House, Figlio, Veritas, and The Pearl. Of course, the food has to be good — that is a given!
When you were a kid, what did you say you wanted to be when you grew up? I recall coming home after my first day as an intern at Novartis and telling my mum that I wanted to be CEO of a pharma company.
What books or podcasts are you reading/listening to right now? During my internship at Novartis (in Japan), I was given the book “Magic Cancer Bullet: How a Tiny Orange Pill May Rewrite Medical History,” by Dr. Daniel Vasella. It described the journey of Dr. Vasella and the team at Novartis discovering and developing the revolutionary cancer drug, Gleevec. After reading this book, I knew I wanted to be the CEO of a pharmaceutical company. I was fascinated by the journey of drug development and the passion those working in pharmaceuticals have for discovery, research, and bringing forward innovative drugs that can impact the lives of thousands of patients.
What does it mean to you to be chosen for the Next Up Columbus award? This is a recognition of my parents’ work and ReHeva’s success so far. We are truly honored to be selected — and to have an opportunity to share our work with the larger Columbus/Central Ohio community.
If someone were to ask you what the “pulse” of Columbus is, what would you tell them? Growth (culturally and economically, particularly in life science companies and startups) and diversity.
The Next Up Columbus Awards highlight emerging leaders who are connectors and ambassadors in central Ohio and who are making a positive impact on the future of Columbus. The Columbus Young Professionals Club would like to offer special thanks to our 2022 co-presenters, Discover Financial, Ohio Dominican University and Spectrum for their support of this year’s awards program. Meet the entire “Class of 2022” »