Surgeon Rena Dharmawan on Embracing Risks, Rebellion and Routine
The consultant in the Division of Surgery and Surgical Oncology at Singapore General Hospital and National Cancer Centre Singapore wears many hats, from doctor to educator to serial founder
Not focusing solely on clinical surgery could have been detrimental to Rena Dharmawan’s medical career, but thankfully, marrying her various passions has brought about the greatest reward.
“I’m probably the only surgeon in a public institution who is doing 50 percent surgery and 50 percent innovation, tech and start‑ups,” she shares. “To me, that’s a bit of a [gamble] because surgery is good bread and butter, and stepping out to try a different career path is [a big] risk. That said, I’ve been very blessed with opportunities from my employers to be able to pursue both.”
In addition to her consultant roles with the Singapore General Hospital and National Cancer Centre Singapore, Dharmawan is an assistant dean and professor at Duke‑NUS Medical School. She also has an undergraduate degree in engineering, which she obtained before enrolling into medical school.
“I always knew I wanted to have tech involved in my career,” she recalls. Her entrepreneurial calling has culminated in the co‑founding of several start‑ups in the healthcare space.
The first was Privi Medical, which manufactures Instarelief, a drug‑free product that brings immediate relief to haemorrhoids patients without side effects. The product received approval from the US Food and Drug Administration in 2018 and was selected from the highly competitive Biodesign Innovation Fellowship at the Stanford Byers Center for Biodesign. Dharmawan has since sold the company.
Inspired by the proliferation of apps and superapps in recent years, she also co‑founded Jaga‑Me in 2015, a tech solution platform offering on‑demand services, matching freelance nurses and caregivers with home‑bound patients. While she is still a shareholder in the company, her role has evolved to that of an advisor.
Her third venture, a co‑working space for startups in the healthcare sector called Catalyst, was launched in 2019 but has since ceased operations—a casualty of the Covid‑19 pandemic.
Risk and resilience make for mellifluous bedfellows in entrepreneurial pursuits, and disruptors, as the saying goes, are often rebels. “Resilience is a nicer word for rebellion, right?” Dharmawan muses.
“Growing up as the middle child, the more something challenged me, the more I’d fight for it. And I usually don’t take no for an answer unless there’s a very good, valid reason. With innovation or startups, because you’re doing something different, you tend to get a lot of people saying [that] things are not possible. So you naturally have to be a little bit resilient or rebellious to show it can be done successfully.”
That said, she believes in taking calculated risks: “I’m not the all‑in kind of poker player.”
What is keeping her busy these days is yet another brainchild initiative: the Duke‑NUS Healthcare Innovator Programme. Launched this August, the nine‑month fellowship programme brings together a multidisciplinary team of students and mentors, and quad‑partite collaboration with industry, business, engineering and healthcare players to develop technology solutions to real, unmet clinical needs and bring them to market.
The innovation theme for the inaugural batch is Women’s Health and FemTech, and the teams will work on obstetrics and gynaecological needs in partnership with KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital.
To conjure the stamina required to juggle her numerous roles, including that of a mother to two, Dharmawan’s typical day starts with a 3 km to 5 km morning run. Then, she sends the kids to school before going off to work. She makes sure that she completes all her work before 7 pm, as the time after that until she heads to bed at 9.30 pm is devoted exclusively to her children.
“I’m a person of routine,” she says. “I’m addicted to running. Surgeons tend to be very similar; we’re sporty, alpha people. We’re very driven.”