The 20-year-old who founded a 3D printing breast prosthetic startup

Nitika Midha
Nov 17, 2019 · 5 min read
Surithi presenting at the Student Startup Grand Finals where she came 2nd!

For women who have undergone mastectomies, the procedure can be traumatic both physically and mentally.

Enter Arula — a startup which 3D prints prosthetics for women who have had mastectomies. By creating comfortable and affordable prosthetics, Arula’s mission is to give choice and dignity back to all women.

I recently caught up with Surithi Yogalingam, CEO and co-founder of Arula, for a chat on the journey of her startup. Surithi is an Advanced Science and BCII student at UTS, and her team came second in our Student Startup Festival 2019!

Where did the idea for Arula come from?

The idea of Arula came to me two years ago, when I was in North India helping set up health camps. There, I came across a couple of women who were struggling with the options available to them after they had a mastectomy — especially because of the stigma associated with their procedure. I wanted to learn more about it. So I did what I could as a broke uni student, I stood at a bridge over multiple days and tried to talk to people, and was eventually introduced to some women who had been affected by breast cancer and undergone mastectomies.

This experience wasn’t easy, but it really allowed me to understand the problem space very well. One of the women, Odelle, who had had a mastectomy in 1996 for example, was handed a piece of plastic to wear in her bra. That’s where Arula came from, out of a real desire to help these women who had been screwed over. First by cancer, then by the financial burden which comes with cancer, and through the hundred other problems which arise with breast cancer.

Can you explain what the production to distribution process looks like for Arula?

Surithi (right) with her co-founder Stephanie (left)

Understanding what our final users want is really important to us, so the first thing we do is to talk to the women we are trying to help. After we have talked through the logistics of what our users are looking for in their prosthetics, we use a handheld scanner to scan their body into a 3D model. We then assemble the product. Essentially, the prosthetic looks like a sports bra and is super easy and comfortable to wear. Once the product is complete, we send it back to the women and ask them if they like the product. If not, we keep reiterating the product till the women love it.

What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced with launching Arula as a med-tech startup?

My biggest challenge with launching Arula has been a lot of people questioning my technical knowledge and capacity to run a med-tech startup because of my age. But, I’ve been able to dispel a lot of their concerns by being really aware of the problem space and confident in what my users really need. If there are founders reading this, the main advice I would give them is the only people who will matter in your life right now and for the next 5–10 years are your users.

According to an AFR article you’ve already managed to raise $50,000 to develop your idea. What would you say are three important points for founders to remember at the funding stage?

  1. Don’t approach investors immediately. Because investors try and retain control over your business, I would recommend getting funding from unusual sources during the initial stages. Anything that doesn’t force you to give away equity of your startup.
  2. Make sure you know what you’re talking about, don’t try and bullshit the investors. If you don’t have expertise in a certain area of your business, that’s okay — find people who do and get them on board. Investors are really smart, they can tell when you’re not confident.
  3. Just because you’re being offered a lot of money, doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. You can’t get greedy and you need to stay calm no matter the amount your being offered.

When you pitch, you’re quite captivating. What would you say are the key points founders should remember when they are developing their pitches?

  1. Make sure you’re taking people on the journey with you. Most founders pitching often talk about the logistics, but the average listener won’t care about that. in order to captivate the attention of the audience, you need a hook. That’s a memorable statement or idea which people will remember randomly in the middle of the night or in the shower.
  2. Cut out the jargon. As an engineer running a medtech startup, I get the desire to add complex words and terms but you need to remember that the average listener won’t know what that means.
  3. Keep your slides short and sweet. People are going to be listening to you — so stop focusing on your slides, and start focusing on your story.
Surithi and Stephanie at a UTS Startups Event

It seems like you’ve gotten a lot of support from UTS Startups. In what ways have they helped you develop Arula?

UTS Startups really helped me by introducing me to Pete Davidson, who was the first seed funder of Paypal and is one of the best humans I have met till date. Pete’s gentle guidance and strict mind space really helped me stay focused on my problem and startup. Even when we were getting a lot of media attention, Pete helped me stay grounded and channel my excitement into Arula. The community is also amazing — I love the team, we seriously play ping pong every day.

Any advice for students thinking of launching a startup?

Be as aware as you can be of what you’re getting into. People tend to think startups are glamorous — you spend most of your days drinking wine with fancy investors and boom, suddenly you have a million-dollar startup. But that really isn’t the case. The truth is when it’s 2 am and you’re filling out a financial spreadsheet which you don’t really know how to do, that’s when you’re actually running a startup. It’s a lot of hard work, late hours and commitment — and it’s not easy.

This piece was written by Nitika Midha of Textbook Ventures — we organise startup events, write newsletters, and share tech jobs for student entrepreneurs across NSW.

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Nitika Midha

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Textbook Ventures

Startups news, entrepreneurship and stories aimed at tech-inspired students

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