This week for the Founder’s profile edition we have a slightly different article layout for all of you!
I was fortunate enough to interview first-hand Co-Founder of Genetika+, Dr Talia Cohen Solal, about her inspirational journey into building a personalised medical test to create tailored drug therapies for depression patients using innovative technology. She shares with us how her passion for science was ignited as well as the challenges she faced along the way.
Lovely to meet you Talia! Tell me a little bit about yourself and your team
Hi Paasha, so where to begin?!
I am a Neuroscientist by training and have spent 12 years in academia. I did my undergraduate degree in Physiological Sciences at Oxford and specialised in Neuroscience at UCL, as I have always believed the brain to be the most fascinating part of the body. I then moved to the US to carry out research at Columbia University for my postdoctoral research before moving into startups.
Now at Genetika+ we have 7 members in our current team: 5 of which hold PhDs and 2 have graduated with Master’s. My Co- Founder Daphna did her postdoctorate at Harvard before going on to lead the Personalized Medicine Division at Teva Pharmaceuticals. At the moment our team is focused on R&D for Genetika+
Wow, your team most definitely have inspirational academic backgrounds. Tell us, how did Genetika+ come about?
So, I have a personal connection to mental illness which drew me into the area. Since I was 8 years old I witnessed a family member suffering from depression and ever since then I was curious about finding about more about the mental illness, I devoted myself to my studies.
I didn’t feel that my work as a Research Scientist allowed me to impact patients lives directly. I felt, for me, a career in academia was too far from the frontline, so I joined the start-up world first by working for a startup tackling rare genetic diseases and then with Genetika+ where I found my true calling.
Your education has been extensive, a Bachelor’s in Oxford and a doctorate at UCL, what drove you. What has inspired you?
I realised that I was in love with academia at the age of 18 when I took a gap year and did an internship at the National Institute of Health in the USA. It was a programme for high school and uni students to see what being a researcher was like. For my project at the time, I was looking into childhood- onset schizophrenia. It was incredible. It was so great to see brilliant people putting their minds into some of the most challenging problems out there.
Moreover looking into the underlying causes of mental illness allows you to understand not just what is going wrong in disease, but also to appreciate the beauty that lies behind the development of the healthy brain and the miracle behind each and every thought and action we have. That internship opened my eyes to further education and made me realise that I wanted to do a Doctorate to pursue this career further.
How did you realise the need in the market for a medicine platform for depression?
I realised pretty quickly that the market needed a different solution. Current treatment selection by the doctor is a trial-and-error process searching for the right medication out of dozens of medications. New alternatives offering genetics-based drug recommendations operate at a very low success rate, just 15%, but the good thing is this demonstrated that there is a market appetite for a better treatment. The lead genetics company is already generating over $100M in annual revenues.
Sadly, the market size speaks for itself in terms of depression, unfortunately, with over 300M people suffering globally. The biggest driving force for me is my passion to tailor a more personalised approach to medicine. I really want to move past the whole ‘one size fits all’ approach to drug therapies, which I think was appropriate for where we used to be scientifically, but is no longer the best approach.
How did a prototype come about?
To begin we wanted to create something that demonstrated the availability to detect changes in an individual so we could personalise the medical treatment. Not just by solely using AI, but by using human blood samples and developing new bio-markers from these blood samples. We raised our first investment round from 3 Venture Capital Firms and one Angel for our Seed round and were able to skip the family and friends round.
We raised investment around the technology story back up by scientific evidence to support the feasibility. The most important thing was not just to sell the technology, but to fully develop the story surrounding the technology, the need and the opportunity. After doing that which took about 3 months, it took around 6 months to raise funds.
6 months is a relatively short time, so congratulations on that! Do you have any advice for any budding entrepreneurs for their fund- raising rounds?
I would say that persevering through the no’s is very important and finding the courage to say ‘no’ sometimes to investment opportunities, as sometimes, early investors/ offers aren’t always the right one. Also, it’s imperative to know your pitch deck inside out and have the knowledge and understanding to back up every statement, because it will get picked apart by whoever you are pitching to and its a surefire way to establish trust from the beginning.
As you are aware, the number of women in STEM industries is still quite low compared to the number of men. How do you believe we can increase the number of women working in these industries?
I actually feel like I faced a different problem! I encountered loads of women in the field of Biology, more than 50% for sure, but surprisingly the number of women holding high level positions is where the numbers are shockingly low. Women are entering STEM industries but they aren’t making it to the top.
One big piece of advice I would give to young women beginning their career is to take more risks and gambles to push themselves forward. For example, if you have a new idea within the company speak up about it! Differentiate yourself from others by taking risks, asking for that promotion and to be that project lead.
That is most certainly some eye-opening experience. There’s something about your companies’ name that has me intrigued, why the ‘+’?
Our platform provides recommendations based on patient’s genetics, history and blood- based biomarkers. It is this combination which explains the ‘+’, we add a lot more to what is currently out there on the market which is just genetics.
It has certainly been a pleasure to hear more about the Genetika+’s origins and how Talia is working on medical technology that will surely revolutionise the way depression patients are being treated.
If you wish to learn more about Genetika+ you can check out their platforms below: