Real Life: The Cambridge women changing the world
A trio of Cambridge women have scooped Innovate UK’s Women in Innovation awards, in recognition of their breakthrough business ideas, each receiving a £50,000 grant and support package. Louise Cummings meets the leading ladies
Cambridge graduate Sasha Haco, 28, is developing computer technology, which uses Artificial Intelligence to identify and eradicate harmful or abusive online content through her start-up, Unitary
What brought you to Cambridge?
I came to Cambridge University for my undergraduate degree in Natural Sciences, then ended up staying on to study for a PhD. As part of that, I was lucky enough to work with Stephen Hawking, researching the Black Hole Information Paradox.
Wow, what was it like to work with such an icon?
It was amazing because he is a legend in the world of physics. He had such an amazing mind, and a great intuition about things. It was brilliant to work alongside him for a year and hear his wisdom. I was working on a project that he was passionate about, and I like to think we made some small steps towards an answer!
What attracted to you to this realm of study?
I really enjoy problem solving and love the idea of thinking of things from first principles. There is something so pure about black hole theoretical physics; that it is essentially just you and a pencil and paper and your thoughts, trying to work it all out. It can be quite exhilarating!
How did you come to launch your start-up, Unitary?
I joined a programme in London called Entrepreneur First which is a start-up generator. They take lots of individuals interested in starting a company, put you in a room together and give you three months to network and see if you can find an idea you believe in. It was a complete whirlwind – and by the end of it, I found a great co-founder and start-up idea.
What inspired the business idea?
People post horrible stuff on the internet and it can be very grim, and these things are then really hard to detect and get rid of. With a lot of websites, someone will see something horrible, maybe be traumatised by it and report it to the website, then moderators are also exposed to the horrible content before it gets deleted. So, there’s thousands of people working as moderators having a miserable time, and millions of people using the internet every day, facing abuse. We decided that more should be done to solve that problem using tech. So, we’ve built technology that can identify that content at the point it gets uploaded, before it has to be seen.
What stage are you at with the software?
We are continuing to build the technology, looking at different types of media so text, images and videos. We are starting by tackling videos as they can be the most traumatic – and the worst thing moderators have to deal with. We have a first version of our product out there being used by businesses, and the feedback has been good so far.
What are your hopes for the future of Unitary?
I hope that one day there will be a kind of layer between people and devices and the internet, so every time someone uploads something online it will get passed through our technology first and then once it’s been checked we will give it a tag saying what it is. If it is bad maybe that will trigger it going straight to the police if it’s something like child abuse, for example, but if it’s something that could be good for some websites but not for others, then we will give it a label, so every website can see the tag and decide if it’s right for them.
How did you feel to win an innovation award?
I was really thrilled with it! It was great to be recognised and picked out – and it has enabled us to devote more time to looking at our text models. One thing we are concerned about is how bias can creep into the AI model, and so we wanted to try to mitigate that.
Do you feel proud to be creating technology that could potentially end a lot of online suffering?
It is certainly a big driver. It keeps me going and is a real motivation for doing it. Sometimes, it’s easy to get bogged down in problems, in the day-to-day, but I felt like I wanted to do something that would have real world impact. We hope that in the next decade Unitary will have been able to make a significant change to the safety of the internet.
Find out more at unitary.ai
Dilrini De Silva, 34, runs biotech start-up, Jāna Bio, which uses AI and state-of-the-art stem cell engineering techniques to improve treatment options for ethnic minority populations
What attracted you to a career in scientific research?
My scientific curiosity began as a child, growing up in Sri Lanka in the early 90s, and I put it down to watching a lot of the Discovery Channel, to be honest! Programmes about forensic investigations piqued my interest. I first heard of genetic analysis and DNA when I was about 10, and at that point I never thought I’d come to England and do what I’m doing now.
Tell us about the path that led you to England?
I knew I wanted to study genetic engineering, so initially moved to Bangalore to do my undergraduate degree in biotechnology. At the time, the field of bioinformatics - which is what I specialise in now - was in its infancy and wasn’t popular in India, so I moved to England, to study for my Masters and PhD at Queen Mary University of London. I didn’t know what career prospects I’d have studying bioinformatics, but I loved the subject, and boy, that was the best decision I made!
What brought you to Cambridge?
My first post-doctoral work was at Oxford University, doing infectious disease tracking though genetic epidemiology. Three years later, in 2016, I moved to Cambridge to work for Cancer Research UK. I had a personal reason as my father, who was living in Sri Lanka at the time, was diagnosed with cancer. So that solidified the decision for me to start working in oncology and cancer, and I’ve been with Cancer Research for five years now. My first project was looking at ovarian cancer, and what the genome of the cancer tissue tells us about whether somebody is going to respond to a certain chemotherapy or not. That is an area I’ve always been interested in; how do you target the right therapy to the right patient?
How did you get involved in Artificial Intelligence?
There’s been a growing interest in the biotech and pharma industries about adopting artificial intelligence into the way they do their research and development. I am currently on a secondment with Astra Zeneca in Cambridge where I am working on some AI models for their RND programme. That comes to an end in June and from July I will be focusing on my new business.
Tell us about your business – Jāna Bio – what does the name mean?
Jana means gene in my language! I wanted to bring a flavour of South Asia to England in the work that I do. Jāna Bio came about as I was part of a fellowship programme at the University of Cambridge which was nurturing entrepreneurial talent. I met my co-founder there and we realised we were both interested in making a difference to the places where we come from.
How will the business work?
As we have seen with Covid, some ethnic minority individuals are disproportionately affected, experiencing more severe symptoms and disease outcomes. That’s key because we know that one size does not fit all; there needs to be more personalisation of medicines we take with regards to the different genetics that we have. This is the core of what I want to tackle. We want to gather data from different ethnic populations around the world – starting with the UK because we do have a lot of diversity – to create an evidence base that pharma companies and clinicians can use to tailor treatments to the right patients.
What area of treatment will you begin with?
The oncology or cancer field will be the first as it will have the most impact. There’s a growing cancer burden, with more and more people being diagnosed; this is a harrowing experience for the individual and their families so this has to be the first thing that we tackle.
It must feel exciting to be creating something that could potentially revolutionise treatments and save lives?
Yes absolutely. I think this is why I’m excited about receiving the Women In Innovation award and the funding that goes with it. It means I can focus a big chunk of time on taking this idea forward in a coherent manner. I also think it’s important for someone of South Asian origin to spearhead something like this as we don’t often get the opportunity to work on something which could have such a huge impact on our own communities. This is a major driver for me. It’s going to be an exciting journey.
Find out more about Dilrini’s work at janabio.co
Migraine sufferer Nicola Filzmoser, 24, has developed the Happyr Health app, designed to help children and young people manage chronic pain, using storytelling and gamification
When did you begin suffering with migraines?
When I was about four years old. They didn’t start as the typical migraine but more as stomach issues, which is quite common in young children. They typically experience stomach pain and nausea, known as ‘abdominal migraine’ and that can transform over puberty into more typical head pain. I had stomach issues in kindergarten, then head pain and light sensitivity at primary school. When I was 22, I was put on my first Triptan (migraine-specific medication), which really helped.
How did Happyr Health come about?
I met my Happyr Health co-founder, Cornelius Palm, back home in Austria, when we were both working at a start-up company. We quickly learnt that we had complementary skills. Cornelius was a paramedic in Germany, so had a strong tie to the healthcare sector, and he had also experienced five years of chronic abdominal pain as a teenager. It’s now resolved because he got the right diagnosis and management, but he went through the same challenges socially and emotionally of what it means to have pain, as myself. So, we started to dig into the topic more to understand what is available for people who deal with chronic pain. We found that, yes, there’s medication but the support for emotional and social wellbeing is rare.
What prompted the move to Cambridge?
We started our business idea in Austria, but moved to Cambridge in 2019, as we were accepted on to a Masters in Entrepreneurship programme at the University. That’s when we started talking to others who had experienced migraines, and contacted health professionals such as neurologists, dieticians, physiotherapists, pain experts, psychologists and counsellors to help us to develop the app. Chronic pain is the full package and so you need the full package of support.
How does the Happyr Health app work?
There are three main parts; the first is a mood diary, which helps you keep track of your emotional wellbeing. The second is a pain diary so you can keep track of your pain attacks; this is useful to share with your GP or neurologist. And the third part is exercises we suggest based on an individual’s profile and diaries. We provide very interactive pain management exercises, which include breathing techniques, meditation, and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.
Gamification and storytelling are also at the core of the app, because it’s about building a better relationship with your migraine. So, you see your pain as a dragon, and while this would normally be a beast you’d want to fight to get rid of, in our story you learn this is the dragon that you live with, and can communicate with. You learn how to deal with it, how to build a better relationship with it, and ultimately how to tame that dragon.
Tell us about the experts you work with on the app?
We are very lucky to be working with Dr Prabhakar, a consultant paediatric neurologist at Great Ormond Street Hospital, as well as with charities such as The National Migraine Centre. Our core clinical advisor is Mark Cornelly PhD, who is based in the US, at Kansas City Children’s Mercy Hospital – he is the co-director of the pain clinic there, and helps to provide evidence-based techniques for use in the app.
How did it feel to win an Innovation Award?
It was really amazing, a huge stepping stone for us – and really changed what we can put on the agenda both with the business and mentor support, which has opened up a fascinating network of experts in different areas, and also on the financial side, allowing us to hire our first software developer to work full-time on the product. This will help us to get it to the people who need it as soon as possible.
What’s next for Happyr Health?
We will officially launch the full first version of the app this summer. It is aimed at ages 10 to 25 years, but the dream is to be able to help everyone who suffers with chronic pain, be it young people, adults or the elderly. So, we are also engaging with those groups to see what they need to help them build a better relationship with chronic illness. We hope to improve their quality of life too. If anyone is interested in working with us, we have a patient advisory board that needs new members. They can email firstname.lastname@example.org
Find out more at happyrhealth.com
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