Rebel Bios: 50% death rate was too much for me
How a Turkish girl started a MedTech company from scratch
“When I was 12 I went to my father and asked if I could go to music school. He dismissed it as the height of folly me and goaded me to pursue a “more serious” profession. I followed his wishes but I still filled my life with music, I learned to play baglama and singed at choirs. At university, I played guitar and bass but there wasn’t enough time to keep it up.”
When I started my master’s in medical microbiology, I realized what could be achieved with research. Then everything changed on starting my PhD. I saw the people suffering in the hospital, my drive and passion focused because I wanted to help those people. I had been acting like a student, but after that, my eyes were opened and I realized that — you can do anything you want. People usually don’t like hospitals but I wanted to be there and I worked as a clinical microbiologist at that medical school in Turkey alongside my studies for 8 years.
Realizing the Awful Reason for 50% of Deaths on Intensive Care Units
I was in the hospital’s infection control department when I realized the scale of the problem. Up to 50% of deaths in intensive care units are caused by hospital-acquired infections. Currently, detecting infections can take up to 3 days, losing valuable time. I was inspired to the solution, which was to be my Start-up, by my PhD advisor who is an infectious disease specialist, that and by reading a book about Alexander Fleming and his experience with vaccine development.
The Moment I Realised I had a Start-up
While writing my PhD project results, my advisor got an email with a training opportunity for academics. He asked if I would like to go in his stead. It was a training program for entrepreneurs. It was the first time I had heard about entrepreneurship. They asked why I was there if I hadn’t had a project going on. I said that we always had projects going on and my PhD thesis had generated good results. They liked the idea and the results, they explained it was possible to use government money to form a Start-up. At first, I wasn’t convinced but they really liked the project results and pushed me to apply for a government grant to commercialize it. I had to set-up a company to take the grant, so I set up Aksense and won the grant. At that time I started to work as an academic in a government university. I was working 2 days a week as an assistant professor, and I was flying every week from the Black Sea to Istanbul for the rest of the week to spend on Aksense. I was living like that for one and a half years. Initially, I did not think I would become an entrepreneur but realised I liked working for the company more than being an academic — However, the professors at university did not support me as a scientist trying to develop something new. I had the potential to do more than I was doing and they did not let me. I felt trapped. So I left the university to work full-time for the company.
After that, I needed money for my company so I approached another university in Istanbul with an offer; that if they gave me permission to work at my company AKsense, I would start working for their university. They accepted and I started to work 4 hours lecturing a week to nursing students and spent the rest of the time on the company. I didn’t have to fly every week between different provinces and could devote more time to AKsense.
The things written in the textbooks can be changed, indeed, they are being changed.
It’s a bit of a catch 22. We have to focus on one thing to become successful, and working at university takes time. But until you receive enough funding working with universities while growing the startup is required to progress.
What drives you to succeed?
In general, my parents always pushed me very hard, and also, working in the hospital during the master’s and PhD education was very hard, but I never gave up. This tenacity put me in good stead for the challenges of founding a start-up.
I’m caring — I like helping sick people which is the drive behind my startup. I’ve since learnt I like being an entrepreneur and spent time learning lots of things from fields such as accounting, hiring, firing, laws, etc.
I was an introvert, but during my entrepreneur journey, I have evolved, as success can be assisted by harnessing a more extroverted character. Dealing with negotiations and communication across the board has led me away from my previous shy character.
Aksense has developed a portable device that analyses patient blood and determines the infection within minutes. This allows for diagnosis at the very earliest point of infection where intervention is most effective.
Turkey — both detrimental and inspirational for work
In general, biologists don’t have job opportunities in Turkey. So, I decided to become a scientist to improve myself. I specialised over 8 years, doing my master’s and PhD in medical school. Since I didn’t have many supporters, I always had to motivate myself. But my inspiration has always been Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
By Susannah Williams
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