Ladies, Stop Playing Safe. Don't Undersell Your Business!
Rashmi Sukumaran is a biologist by passion and a programmer by training. Combine both and you get a bio-entrepreneur who integrates her passion and training to form a company (Massive Data Analytics) that provides software, analytical and educational services for biological big data i.e. genomics data.
In our conversation, Rashmi shares her initial struggles with programming to how she started her company, her advice for young entrepreneurs, how she juggles with her roles and much more!
Namita: Rashmi you are a founder, a big champion of women in technology and a mother. Can you tell us about your journey and how you got interested in the field of bioinformatics?
Rashmi: It was by accident actually. I was offered admission to the National University of Singapore for a Bachelor's in Computing. Not knowing much about computing other than playing games and surfing the net, the only major I could relate to was Computational Biology, as I loved Biology. This was back in 2004. I struggled throughout the course to get hold of the programming logic. I wanted to quit but my mother encouraged me to go on. I volunteered for a campus NGO which makes ERPs for charity organizations. Slowly, programming was becoming doable. It was during my final year project while making software for a biological research lab that I fell in love with programming.
My supervisor Prof. Laszlo Orban and his teammates were just inspirational, and they made me realize that programming is a very useful skill to have and the field of computational biology was really exciting where I could apply this wonderful new skill in the field that I am passionate about - biology. Since then it has been constant learning to improve my coding skills.
Today, the days I get to code are my happiest work days.
Namita: Your startup, Massive Data Analytics deals with biological big data. Can you tell us more about what inspired you to build this company and what it does?
Rashmi: After my graduation from NUS, I worked in various research labs as a computational biologist. It was while working in GIS for Prof. Swaine Chen that I was introduced to the area of Genomics. He was a great mentor and played a major part in moulding my skills to what it is today. I really fell in love with Genomics and knew this is what I want to do.
In 2014, I shifted back to India and went on to do my masters in Computational Biology from the University of Kerala. It was during that time I realized that the public here was not really aware of such a field.
The main reason I felt was the lack of opportunities in Kerala. So my classmate, Shahina and I went about setting up MaD Analytics to do just that – create awareness about the field of Computational Biology and to create opportunities. We are happy to share that we will start hiring real soon!
MaD Analytics is a genomics R&D company. We provide consultancy services and take up contract research as well as provide training in the field of genomics. Our clients include national and state research institutions and academic institutions. Our HOD, Prof. Achuthsankar S. Nair provide us with all the guidance and support needed to start.
A presentation by Dr Sridhar Sivasubbu, IGIB was the final push of inspiration that really got Shahina and I to commit to starting MaD Analytics. It was exactly what we dreamed of doing – applying genomics in Indian healthcare.
Currently, we have a product in the R&D stage – a newborn screening device that screens for inborn errors of metabolism (IEM) disorders using just a drop of blood. If a newborn with IEM is diagnosed in the first week of life, with proper care and treatment, the child can have a normal life. Without treatment, the child will have developmental delays and mental retardation. Depending on the severity of the disorder, the condition may even prove fatal.
Namita: Techcrunch reported that female entrepreneurs, U.S. female-founded startups have raised just 2.2 per cent of venture capital investment in 2018. In India, out of 660 deals closed, 82 were companies with at least one female co-founder and women solo founders closed only 20.
Do you think VCs have an unconscious bias towards female founders? What are your thoughts on how the system can be improved and the playing field can be levelled?
Rashmi: I do not know if such a bias exists. A pitching system where the identity and voice of the person pitching are hidden/masked should be tried and see if the numbers change. If it does then yes there is a bias, if no, then the problem lies in the pitch. If there is a bias found – then continue pitching using masked identities is a solution that comes to mind.
If no bias is found then - I feel part of the reason may be that the pitches by women founders may be more on the ‘safe’ side. There have been studies that show that women constantly undersell themselves and men constantly oversell - Be it school GPA or their skill sets.
From young, women are drilled on being safe - Don’t do this, don’t do that, sit properly, talk softly. This oppression has a great impact on women’s personality, self-esteem, and confidence. Being taught to avoid risk all our life, we bring this to our professions as well. And even as entrepreneurs, though starting a business is risky, I feel the business decisions taken by female entrepreneurs are ‘safer’ or less risky than male entrepreneurs, in general. This may be reflected in the pitches and it could be one of the reasons why fewer female founders are funded, especially solo founders.
Changing the system means changing how we bring up our girls. Give them the power to dream and realize their dreams. Enable them to take risks. Show them how.
Women entrepreneurs should be enlightened about this behaviour of underselling since most of them might be playing it safe unconsciously. Make them aware and teach them how to overcome.
Namita: What is your advice for women entrepreneurs who are looking for funding?
Rashmi: There are lots of funds available from various stakeholders – government, incubators, investors. We need to identify the area of the start-up and identify the right fund available. For start-ups in Kerala, Kerala Start-up Mission’s Innovation grant is a great start for initial funding. For bio-startups, there are lots of funds like BIRAC BIG grant. Also, there are lots of schemes for MSMEs. Start-up competitions are also a great way to raise capital. General advice – talk to people in the ecosystem, network, find out how other entrepreneurs in your chosen field started and assess if their method works for you.
Namita: Building ethical products and applications with foresight is also as important. What are your thoughts on the future of this field and how can we ensure its ethical application?
Rashmi: The powerful combination of Genomics and AI is already transforming the world. There are lots of examples and pilot studies around the world where the potential has been proved. AI that can detect cancer from images much faster than humans are just an example.
However, having said that, applying AI for biological data is much different from AI for a non-living thing – say a car. An autonomous car can recognize another car in front of it be it in US or India. However, when it comes to humans we must keep in mind the great diversity among us. Genetics plays a huge role in this. Diseases highly prevalent in one part of the world are sometimes unheard of in another part. So making an AI product based on one population and applying it in another can prove very dangerous and erroneous.
Ensuring ethical application starts from data collection – where medical data is collected with consent and after approval from relevant authorities. Applications made has to ensure that it specifies the full parameters of the training data and the biological assumptions made during its creation so that the end user is aware that the particular application is for only certain populations and may not work for all.
Namita: The co-founder of your company is also a woman, Shahina Afzal. What are some of the advantages or high points of creating a company with a female co-founder?
Rashmi: I think the best part of having a female co-founder is the understanding that we have. The freedom to be responsible for our part of work without having to constantly prove ourselves is a great plus. Anytime our child is sick, we do not have to explain to each other – as mothers, both of us understand the need very well.
Communication is another high point. We can easily communicate and see each other’s viewpoint. Coming to a consensus on decisions is much easier with her. I am the risk-taker among us and she is the practical one. So once we found the right balance among us, it worked out great!
Namita: What inspires you every day?
Rashmi: My son is my inspiration. The product we are building right now is to help children with genetic disorders of metabolism a chance at a normal life. Each day that I see my son achieving a milestone, it reminds me how our product will enable the same for another child, how another parent will have the same smile on their face that I have. Even if we can change the life of one child, we will consider ourselves successful in our mission.
Namita: Rashmi you are a founder, a PhD student and a Mother. How do you juggle the different roles?
Rashmi: With a lot of help and support! My husband shifted from his hometown to Trivandrum so that I can follow my dream as this was the only place in Kerala where I could study computational biology.
Juggling family and work needs a lot of help from family – my father takes care of my son after school giving me the peace of mind to focus on my work. My mother engages him during weekends if I need to attend events or go out of town. My husband cooks dinner and manages my son during days that I am busy or have events that run into the night. I am really blessed to have such help and support, and it is the only reason why I am able to realize my passion.
Behind every successful woman, there is a tribe of other successful women who have her back, the quote says. The #SheDrivesData series of conversations features such successful women who are thought leaders, influencers and changemakers to inspire, advice and elevate other aspiring women.
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