Mehak grew up in Pakistan, the daughter of two medical doctors. From a young age she was interested in science: accompanying her mother to work and being shown what a blood cell looked like under a microscope used to be the highlight of her weekends. In high school, she started trying her hand at her own research projects, one of which won a prize in a regional science competition.
Her family was struck by the discovery that Mehak’s brother had a learning disability. Despite her family’s medical network, they struggled to get an accurate diagnosis. This was a moment of realisation for Mehak: ‘We still don’t know a lot about how to treat certain diseases. I realised that research is what really drives medicine.’
Wanting to understand the molecular mechanisms behind disease, Mehak applied to study Biochemistry at the University of Oxford, and was accepted with a full scholarship, the Reach Oxford Scholarship. Her family recognised the magnitude of the opportunity, and it was Mehak’s first step out of her comfort zone, to move across the world and study the subject she loved.
Though the first couple of months were difficult, she soon adapted, finding a support circle and immersing herself in the fascinating course material and inspiring environment of Oxford.
However, Mehak wanted to push herself to experience something new, and so took part in the Amgen Scholars Programme, working in industry for one summer during her undergraduate studies. She travelled to another new country, Germany, and worked at Proctor and Gamble, carrying out market research on dry shampoos. That taught her a new lesson about herself: ‘While it was very interesting, it also made me realise that I needed a greater purpose in life: I couldn’t just sell things for the sake of selling and profit-making.’
Pursuing her interest in research, Mehak was accepted for a PhD at Oxford. While she found her work on cell signalling in cancer very exciting, she began to grow restless, finding her work often too slow and repetitive.
To tackle these feelings, Mehak sought to discover where her skills and passions lay by trying something new. She took part in the Oxford Development Consultant Initiative, where she joined a group of student volunteer consultants carrying out an impact assessment for the Women’s Global Empowerment Fund.
As part of the project, she volunteered to go to Uganda for a week on her own, interviewing stakeholders and speaking to women on the ground. As well as connecting with these women and learning about what they were doing, Mehak discovered she really enjoyed the teamwork involved, which contrasted with her more isolating experience in academia.
She also participated in programmes that developed academics’ entrepreneurial skills, including the Ideas to Innovate Programme run by the Saïd Business School in Oxford. ‘The concept was to bring researchers together with business students and encourage cross-fertilisation of ideas, as well as give them a different perspective and the confidence that their skills can be applied to different fields.’
As she began to consider the different paths her career could take, she also started to doubt herself. ‘I felt like I’d given these four years to research, but now I didn’t want to do it anymore. At the back of my mind was the thought that this was the only thing I could do.’
However, she realised that her PhD had prepared her for a lot more than academic research. Besides developing her analytic thinking and problem-solving skills, she knew her studies had also made her more resilient. ‘There have been lots of challenges throughout my PhD, demotivating events and experiments that I’ve been able to work through. I learnt how to keep myself motivated, and I know that I am resourceful enough to do anything and everything that I put my mind and heart to.’
She was able to join an innovation programme at Oxford to bring together key stakeholders including some global medical technology and pharmaceutical companies as well as hospitals to improve clinical outcomes for rare cancer patients. ‘That was a fantastic project for me because I was not only applying some things that I had learnt during my PhD in cancer but was also developing new skills like how to write a business plan or think through commercial strategy.
I was forced out of my comfort zone in more ways than one, including speaking to diverse groups of people and developing a network.
Mehak realised that entrepreneurship might be the way forward for her.
Unfortunately, her team was unable to raise funding for that project.
Failure is the best teacher
says Mehak of the experience. ‘Eventually, when I started working on my current business model, what I learnt from that time was very useful. I knew where to focus, and what I shouldn’t do.’
Mehak came to the decision that she needed to develop her commercial skills and mindset, and so applied to a couple of strategy consulting firms, eventually getting an offer from the strategy arm of Ernst & Young, EY-Parthenon.
‘That was a completely different way of thinking: in science and research it’s all about deep expertise, whereas in strategy consulting a broad knowledge background is what’s considered valuable, and the ability to move and think fast, and make informed decisions to the best of your abilities. It was a challenging adjustment, but the way I was thinking about it was: this is a time for me to learn.’
In parallel, Mehak participated in one of EIT Health Wild Card’s venture-building programme: individuals from different backgrounds were brought together for a business validation program, with the possibility of funding being offered at the end of the two-month journey. This was where she met her future co-founders and developed the business plan for iLoF, Intelligent Lab on Fiber, with the aim of building a cloud-based library of digital disease biomarkers that can be used to screen and stratify patients in an inexpensive, portable and non-invasive way.
However, the first challenge they faced was to find an initial focus for their company. After speaking to hundreds of people in related industries, the team learnt that Alzheimer’s research could really benefit from their technology. ‘Despite decades of research, we’re still very far from a cure for this devastating disease. The idea was to accelerate the drug discovery process by stratifying patients based on these digital biological fingerprints. This would make clinical trials easier, cheaper and faster to conduct, and enable development of personalised therapies.’
The project was a success, and the team raised funds for their company in August 2019. ‘At that point I realised that healthcare entrepreneurship had always been at the heart of my interests,’ says Mehak, ‘so I decided to really commit to it, and I’ve been working full-time for iLoF since January 2020.’
Now Mehak is the Chief Operating Officer at iLoF. ‘My role really combines everything I’ve learnt. I do a little bit of everything: speaking to different people, thinking about strategy, pitching at different events, meeting investors, managing parts of the team, a bit of marketing… even delivering the post!’
I think that’s one of the joys of working in a start-up, you do more than one role.
That’s what makes it difficult, but it’s also what keeps me on my toes – every day I’m learning something different and dealing with new challenges.’
Her journey to entrepreneurship hasn’t been without its challenges. ‘I did struggle – and still do struggle at times – with impostor syndrome. Learning to recognise that critical voice inside you is the first step to overcoming it, and the next step is to counter that critical voice with another more positive one. Talking about it and realising I am not alone, along with this conscious reframing has really helped.’
The skill that Mehak most had to work on was developing networks, something she didn’t feel was emphasised in academia. ‘One thing I did notice was that, despite efforts to promote women and women-led start-ups, the gender balance is still very worrying – at networking events, you look around and it’s usually white-haired and male. That can be difficult, but I try not to let it affect me, but actively seek female mentors and role models.’
Supporting her networking, Mehak has participated in several woman-centred programmes, including RisingWISE, a collaborative Oxbridge network for women in research and entrepreneurship. ‘I think the vibe and energy in those programmes is completely different, and that’s something that I enjoy. Women really flourish and learn from each other. It’s been a very important part of my journey and confidence building.’
Networking is one of the main tips Mehak would give to other women in their careers: ‘There are so many people that I reach to when I’m facing a challenge, and there are going to be a lot of challenges. Having that support circle and making sure that you have a wide enough network is very important, especially for women.’
But her biggest piece of advice is:
Try out new things and learn different skills. In general, we shy away from experiences that are different from what we’re used to, but I think we need to look at uncertainty in a positive light and see it as a learning opportunity.
‘I had to actively put myself in situations which were very uncertain, situations where I felt I stuck out like a sore thumb, and not everything worked out. But even when you fail, the lessons you learn can be more important than being successful at something. Just explore.’
Even now, that’s what Mehak is doing: ‘I’m learning a lot of new things… and I’m very excited to see where this takes us next!’
Find out more about the iLoF.
Story written by Bryony Stubbs.