Five steps to entrepreneurial enlightenment
Dr Pahini Pandya, Co Founder of Panakeia Technologies
Imagine an 8-year old child, stomping up to its parents with a purpose. With fists resting on the hip, all matter-of-factly, the child looks up and announces, “I have decided! I want to help ill people, so I am going to be a scientist!”
When asked why not a clinician, the child replies with all 8 years of wisdom “True, doctors help people. Scientists and inventors help doctors through better tools and more knowledge – meaning they can help even morepatients.”
That child was me.
True to my word, 15 years later, I worked on developing novel image analysis techniques to study how cancers spread and used those to understand what causes drug resistance in patients. I always knew my research journey would take me to Cambridge – but what I didn’t know was where it would catapult me next.
Discovery: During my PhD and more importantly during my Post-doc, I had a nagging realisation - while my research was indeed translational, it was far from the clinic.
As a result, I got drawn towards Innovation Forum which equips scientists with skills to really “translate” their research where I got introduced to entrepreneurship. A taste of this forbidden fruit combined with my academically fortified curiosity, I was driven to learn more about entrepreneurship and I happened to serendipitously (as happens often in Cambridge) stumble upon Entrepreneurial Postdocs of Cambridge (EPOC).
By the time I became a committee member at EPOC, I was as certain as my 8-year old self that entrepreneurship was the best path towards my vision of helping patients.
Validation: I was very certain in what I wanted, but I didn’t know how to progress with it – The Office of Postdoctoral Affairs (OPdA) and the postdocs 2 innovators (p2i) network came to my rescue. With their support, I attended the Biotech and Healthcare Venture Creation Weekend run by the Entrepreneurship Centre at Cambridge Judge Business School (CJBS).
This program took me on a 72-hour trek – all the way from idea generation via business validation through to pitching. While short, this event was the window into the life on an entrepreneur. It allowed us to access mentorship and expertise, helped us build a team, an idea, develop a business proposition, validate it and pitch the venture to a panel of experts. For me the benefits didn’t just end there, I built my confidence, found a team there with whom I continued to work on the venture that we pitched.
Creation: Along with my new-found team members, I continued towork on and refine the proposition and validate market demand. We pivoted several times, eventually we had something concrete. That is when I applied for the Maxwell's Centre Impulse Programme (sponsored through EPOC and the p2i programme), because I knew that I needed that little kick again to take me to the next level.
I applied to this program due to the focus on deep tech ventures and its structure. The 3-month program taught entrepreneurial basics over 6 days (3+3) mingled with scores of self-work. The 3 months break between 2 teaching sessions was supported by constant mentorship.
The highlight for me was that I was assigned a mentor who couldn’t have been a better fit. He had a background in medicine and law; had worked both in policy sector as well as life science investment. This helped us move from a rudimentary technology to a demonstratable version of very-early product in 2 months. This combined with one-to-one sessions with experts got me to a pitch-ready stage. I could now actually envision raising funds and taking my product to the market!
Building: At every stage, I had a set of goals. The programmes I attended allowed me to build the right sort of knowledge and skills to take me beyond the finishing line. Having understood the scope of my venture, I attended the Social Venture Weekend at CJBS. This event enabled me to visualise my venture in a completely different light, reminding me of the impact I could potentially make.
I also pitched my venture at AstraZeneca Science Start-Up Competition and attended the CJBS Ignite programme. Equipped with the support, advice and experience I received as a result of these, this I was ready to venture out into the real world!
Since then, I’ve faced several ups and downs, changing teams, evolving business and successful fundraising. In the end, I have persevered all the way to Entrepreneur First. I am excited to continue my journey of helping patient anddoctors by building AI-based diagnostic tools for cancer as the co-founder of Panakeia Technologies.
Enlightenment: This journey has been an accelerated learning experience resulting in a seismic paradigm shift. This experience made grow as a person; it changed my perspective in ways I could have never imagined, probably in ways I can’t still articulate.
Nonetheless, some things do stand out which are relevant to entrepreneurs and postdocs alike:
The learning never stops – my entire journey has only cemented this fact. I thought this only applied to academia, but the venture creations and my subsequent start-up taught me otherwise.
Perseverance – much like the learning, this shouldnever stop. This is one of the most important skill that I learnt in academia which gave me an edge in my entrepreneurial ventures.
Moving quickly and adapting quickly – I learnt this initially at the venture creation weekend and was taught to put it in practice during Impulse. The focus should be on achieving milestones within a given period rather than achieving milestones of the best quality possible but taking an indefinite amount of time. I built a minimum viable product in the 3 months of Impulse – before that it took me 6 months to have a decent business proposition. Grants require this too!
Ask – the talk on market research at Impulse really brought this home! It also introduced me to a framework that I could use in real situations. It made me realised that we lose out on so many opportunities just because we are afraid to ask. For instance, I would have never pitched at the finals of AstraZeneca Science Start-Up competition had I been scared to ask. In fact, I would have never applied in the first place.
Entrepreneurship is a mindset - people who are willing to think about things a little differently and work towards making them happen. You can have it in a lot of different settings - in a lab, a big corporation or your own venture. One of the things most aspiring academics don’t realise is that when you are running a lab of your own you need to be flexible, and adaptable. You also need a good knowledge of:
finance (budgeting for and managing your grants)
marketing (telling a clear compelling research story)
building your personal brand
achieving milestones in a practical manner (and within a reasonable timeframe)
While this is a summary of my journey, I hope it encourages other postdocs to explore entrepreneurship. Feel free to reach out if you have any thoughts/suggestions or questions.