Pinar Karaca-Mandic learned an adage as a PhD student in the economics department at the University of California, Berkeley: If you could get your grandparent excited about your research idea, then you had likely found a worthwhile cause to pursue.

A paper she had written on technology adoption—as applied to DVD players—didn’t energize her grandmother; nor did a fleeting interest in airline frequent fliers. But when the fledgling scholar trained her focus on the healthcare industry, she knew she was onto something.

“Ultimately, you want to make a human impact,” Karaca-Mandic says. “Healthcare is something you personally experience. You experience it through yourself, through your relatives, through your friends.”

Karaca-Mandic has since established herself as an esteemed health economist, a fitting vantage point for her new role as the director of the Carlson School’s Medical Industry Leadership Institute (MILI), which connects students and the medical industry in the pursuit of innovation and education.

Karaca-Mandic moved across the river from the School of Public Health this fall, joining the Finance Department as an associate professor. In taking over MILI, she replaces Stephen Parente, the Minnesota Insurance Industry Chair of Health Finance who’s been nominated for a position in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

"Healthcare is something you personally experience. You experience it through yourself, through your relatives, through your friends."

- Pinar Karaca-Mandic, MILI Director

After taking the MILI baton from Parente, who served as director for 11 years, Karaca-Mandic says she sees room for “natural growth” that will allow MILI to keep pace with the fast-moving medical industry.

Specifically, MILI plans to update its curriculum, reach a wider swath of University of Minnesota students by strengthening intra-campus relationships, and create new opportunities for interaction between industry and academia, all with an eye on the growing role of data in the field.

“To keep up with that, we cannot stay back,” says Karaca-Mandic, adding that MILI plans to host a national conference and offer professional development courses for working professionals.

“We need to incorporate a lot more data analytics and informatics tools into our training. That’s the only way for our students, I think, to go out of here and be comfortable using these tools—and they’ll need to use these tools.”

That sort of forward progression meshes comfortably with the spirit of MILI, which recently won the MBA Roundtable 2017 Innovator Award for its signature hands-on learning course, the Medical Industry Valuation Lab.

Pertinent preparation

Based on her experience studying the healthcare industry from a variety of angles, Karaca-Mandic is well-positioned to lead the way. At MILI’s annual kickoff in late September, Parente opined, “When we were thinking about leadership changes … I could not honestly think of anyone better suited to take this on.”

Karaca-Mandic grew up playing with microscopes and mixing test tubes in her parents’ medical lab clinic in Ankara, Turkey, but she didn’t train her professional focus to healthcare until after getting her PhD. Then, she discovered that many of the tools she used in studying industrial organization as an economist applied to the healthcare industry.

She’s since studied many components of the industry, including health insurance benefit design, the small group and individual insurance market, the Affordable Care Act exchanges, and medical technology adoption. At the end of September she received a four-year grant of about $1.6 million from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (part of the Department of Health and Human Services) to study how physicians discontinue using treatments that have proven ineffective or unsafe. She’s also received a new grant from the American Cancer Society to investigate the uptake of new “biosimilar” drugs.

She views her move to MILI as an extension of her vision to “improve healthcare access and outcomes through both market-based incentives and regulation” by allowing her to help shape the education of future and current professionals and work with industry leaders—including MILI’s Executives in Residence and National Industry Council—to solve complex problems.

“These kinds of questions cannot be addressed, I think, just from the lens of an academic alone,” she says. “They are better understood, and much better insights are drawn, by talking with the industry, talking with the startups who are trying to develop a new medical device, for example. MILI does exactly that. It brings innovation to the center of how the industry evolves and brings student training on top of it.”