Ani’s battle against cancer informed and shaped her entrepreneurial journey, with the two becoming intrinsically linked.
Written by Gregg Bayes-Brown, Oxford University Innovation
Being an entrepreneur isn’t easy. Ask anyone who’s started a company, and they’ll give you a whole saga of obstacles they’ve had to overcome. Typically, we think of these challenges in business terms. Things like honing leadership skills under crisis, having the courage to make a crucial pivot, signing the deal that saved the company from certain doom — these are all par for the entrepreneurial course.
For Ani Haykuni, founder of OUI Incubator and digital health company Vann, her challenge was something far more fundamental. She survived cancer. Twice.
“It all began in 2015,” Ani told OUI. “I had just applied for an MBA at Oxford and received a scholarship. I was preparing to join the programme that September, and went to hospital for a routine check up before travelling to the UK.”
The doctors told Ani that they’d found something and she would require additional tests. She was subsequently diagnosed with breast cancer in its third stage, at the age of 30.
“What I felt, in that first minute after being diagnosed, made me look back into my past. Everything that happened to me, all the memories. In an instant, my values changed. I understood that what I had taken to be important in my life wasn’t that important at all. In those couple of minutes, everything had changed, and I was between life and death. I had to choose, am I going to ask why me? Am I going to give up? Or I take this as another experience, another problem to solve? I’m an engineer — other engineers would understand — when we see problems, we need to solve it.”
Ani went with the second option.
Prior to her diagnosis, Ani admits she had little concept of what people with cancer face. In her home country of Armenia, there is no insurance for cancer. People diagnosed with cancer could be paying anywhere from between £60,000 to £150,000 depending on what form of the disease they have. Even with Ani’s higher earnings, it was a struggle for her to pay the bills.
Despite her hesitations, Ani’s friends and family convinced her to start a fundraiser. In it, she spoke of her life’s ambition of reaching Oxford being dashed by the disease and how she’d been forced to defer for treatment. She told people how she refused to give up, how she remained optimistic, and how she just needed some support. She promised that if she beat it, she would do everything she can for others in the same position as her.
Her story of stoic resolve in the face of cancer resonated. The story went public. Soon, thousands of people were sending her emails. People she’d only had a fleeting interaction with were getting in touch to support her.
Her conversations during this period spurred on the desire to do something to help patients, but her first attempt hit a brick wall of prejudice. She’d gone to see a bank manager without makeup, and was ignored.
“If it happens to me, means it happens to other cancer patients as well. I decided I was going to do a project to break those stereotypes,” said Ani. She would then use her newfound reach to publish pictures of what living with cancer looks like. “I showed people that look — if you’re on cancer treatment, that’s not the end. You can still be happy, have a family, be a human, can feel and think. We need to have a better society for support people going through difficulties. We need to be better than who we are.”
Her efforts to break the taboo surrounding cancer in Armenia began to gain more traction, with more people reaching out to offer their stories. In one case, she heard from the husband of a wife had shut down in the face of her diagnosis and was refusing treatments. Ani spent time listening to the wife’s story and then shared hers, convincing her to receive treatment.
“I told her that she should never give up, she had a loving family, and that life is beautiful,” said Ani. “Few months after, I received a picture from the husband. I saw their children. There was a cake. The wife went back to treatment, made a cake for daughter’s birthday, and created this beautiful family photo. It showed me the potential impact of my work and my life on the lives of others. I then understood that with just a few words, I can save someone’s life.”
Conversely, some of these conversation would end in tragedy.
“I had been speaking to a young lady with lung cancer in her early twenties. She used to talk to me all the time and ask questions. Time passed and I realised I hadn’t heard from her. After my fourth surgery, I opened her facebook, saw she’d passed. That’s the first time during my journey that I cried.”
The loss only motivated Ani more, and a gleam of an idea on how to help entered her mind.
In September 2016, Ani moved to Oxford to start her MBA while finishing her treatment. Eventually, she would both be awarded her MBA and receive the all clear.
After that, the idea for Vann became a lot clearer. The platform is focused on assisting clinicians with their consultations with patients on chemotherapy. While on chemotherapy, patients will see their doctor once a month for fifteen minutes. During that appointment, only a couple of minutes will be given to discussing issues, with the rest taken up by tests and check ups.
Consequently, a lot of pertinent information about the patient falls between the cracks. Even with the full fifteen minutes devoted to the issues, it is still not enough time to accurately cover the past month. In addition, patients may feel so bad that they forget information and side effects or struggle to express what they have experienced. This can also compound anxiety and depression, which cancer takes full advantage of.
By offering a way for patients to discuss and record their symptoms, Ani hypothesised that she could help patients with their survival.
Vann collects information from patients such as their vitals, side effects and impacts on mental health. It can then make this information available to both patients and doctors, helping clinicians make informed decisions about treatment. The platform can also collect anonymised datasets for researchers, aiding drug discovery and cancer research, and will be provided to patients and clinicians free of charge.
“It’s different (to platforms) because Vann is based on cancer patient experience,” said Ani. “The platform has been designed and developed in parallel with my own treatments. When I was very ill, I was in and out of hospital. I took time to speak with staff about the idea and incorporated their feedback. I’ve also used my interactions with numerous cancer patients to shape its development. Consequently, Vann takes into account the needs and experiences of patients and clinicians, while also providing an invaluable tool to researchers.”
In August in 2019, Ani learned that her cancer was back. Rather than back down, she redoubled her efforts and formed Vann. Shortly thereafter, she would join OUI’s incubator.
“Throughout my life, I’ve asked if my life has a value or not. Who am I? I wanted to find my path. After all this, I realised this was my path. Everything happens for a reason. Every day had a value, my life meant something to others, and that I could have impact on others. Encouraged me more because I knew my battle against cancer wasn’t just mine, it was a battle for thousands of others — cancer patients going through the same. We were a community. My life and everything that I was doing was helping others.”
“I’d go get chemo then run to the Incubator,” said Ani. “The Incubator team would try to get me not to rush, but I knew I wanted to do it. It was tough with treatments, but was invaluable in terms of getting experience and gathering knowledge. But most importantly, every time I went to the Incubator, it felt like family.”
For the majority of 2020, Ani has been shielding from COVID-19. In a similar vein to her response to cancer, Ani has spent lockdown working on Vann, which she has described as incredibly productive for the company. As a result, Vann is aiming to launch its platform in the coming months.
“I want Vann to be the number one product for cancer patients to help them on their journey,” said Ani. “I want vann to be a friend for every cancer patient, to help to save lives, and create a better future for cancer.”
OUI began speaking with Ani about this piece earlier in the year, speaking with her three times over the past few months. Consequently, we were ecstatic to hear that, during our last sit down with Ani, that she is now cancer free for a second time.
“I have a message to cancer patients: never give up,” said Ani. “Giving up is easy. But it has never been an option for me, not now or in the future. It does not matter what the diagnosis is. Remember that life is amazing and beautiful. There is always a way out of a difficult situation, just look for a light in darkness.”
Vann will officially launch soon, and is currently looking for investors, partner organisations and any other potential collaborators to join Ani on her journey.
Find out more here: https://www.thevann.com