STORIES OF IMPACT
Dr. Ronak Mehta combined her passion for medicine and her love for plush toys to create something she hopes will spread some joy to hospital patients going through a rough patch in their lives. Nerdbugs – a line of stuffed cartoon-like characters representing various organs of the human body, including the heart, gall bladder, neuron, uterus and breasts – are also designed to teach people about anatomy.
“I created this as an educational tool for teaching about human anatomy in fun and light-hearted ways whether it’s a kid or an adult,” Mehta tells Madison365. “When someone is in the hospital or when someone is going through some really tough times in their lives, if I’m able to, in some small way, impact their lives and bring a smile to their face on their toughest days … I think I will have done my job.”
Currently a physician at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Mehta, the founder and CEO of Nerdbugs, says she hopes her innovative Nerbugs idea, which was recently nominated to be a finalist for Amazon’s Women’s Owned Business of the Year, will be able to help impact the lives of strangers all over the world in some small way.
“It’s a joy to see people young and old sharing them on Instagram. There was a baby in the ICU whose parents got him the lungs. There was another woman who had breast cancer who got the breast plushie,” Mehta says. “One woman who had gotten a hysterectomy bought herself a uterus plushie. It is so cool for me to see that.”
Mehta uses silly puns to market the Nerdbugs including “We Be-lung together!” (above) “I aorta tell you how much I love you!” (below).
The Nerdbugs idea came to Mehta more than a decade ago while she was still in medical school.
“I had written this children’s book about the human body,” she remembers. “My hope, at the time, was to teach children and adults about the body in a fun, exciting, light-hearted way.”
She started to think about how cool it would be to take the little nerdy organ characters from the book and make them into plush toys.
“Something tangible that kids or adults could use if they were sick in the hospital or post-surgery,” she remembers. “But I only had medical training, so I didn’t even have an idea on how I would make this idea happen.”
She shelved the idea for years. Fast forward to January of 2018 when Mehta found herself talking to her husband about Nerdbugs and they decided to go for it. Six months later, she finally made this passion project into a reality.
“I just kept having this nagging feeling that I had this idea that kept coming back to me over and over and over again … maybe I should go for it,” she remembers.
Mehta grew up in Marshfield, Wis., a small town in central Wisconsin a little over two hours north of Madison. “In my high school, I think there was one other Indian girl and that was my sister,” she laughs. “It’s funny reflecting how we grew up in such a small town, but the community was great.”
A 2003 graduate of Marshfield High School, Mehta earned her medical degree from Ross University School of Medicine in Dominica, West Indies. She was a physician in the integrative medicine department for the Veterans Adminstration in Salt Lake City, before moving to Madison a few months ago to start at UW.
She was recently chosen for a fellowship at NPR’s “How I Built This Summit” which seeks to “discover, empower and elevate promising entrepreneurs from underrepresented communities with big dreams and the ambition and grit to go for them.”
“A lot of this whole process has been trial and error and just putting myself out there and pushing myself a little bit outside of my comfort zone,” Mehta says. “I’m a huge fan of NPR and that podcast, in particular. I feel like that podcast is really inspirational – you hear all of these stories and about all of these entrepreneurs. A lot of them had very little and were able to just be creative and grow their ideas into something pretty amazing.
“I was so honored to be chosen to be one of their fellows and go and attend and meet these incredible people and just learn from them,” she adds.
She was also recently chosen for a finalist for Amazon’s Woman-Owned Business of the Year. Public voting is open until Saturday, Nov. 9.
“The whole thing has been pretty surreal for me,” she says. “It was an idea that I carried around for so long and I just decided to go for it within the last year and a half. It seems like everything is just coming together. It’s been a whirlwind. It’s so neat.”
In the future, Mehta is hoping to partner with the local hospitals to have Nerdbugs there to give comfort to hospitalized/post-surgical children in need. She says that she’s grateful for the support she’s received in Madison so far.
“The community has been pretty awesome. Since we’re pretty new here, I didn’t quite know where to start. People have been so warm and receptive to supporting me,” Mehta says. “It’s been incredible and I’ve been grateful. It’s inspiring.
“If I can brighten up someone’s day when they are going through something very tough and give them a reason to smile, I will have succeeded in this entire endeavor,” she adds. “That’s my goal.”