iLoF co-founders
iLoF co-founders

An interview with Oxford alumna Mehak Mumtaz, award-winning female entrepreneur

The University encourages student entrepreneurship at every level, and is keen to provide both support and resources to our students who want to get involved in innovation. One enterprise which has been founded by one of our alumna is Intelligent Lab on Fiber (iLoF): an Oxford-based deeptech on a mission to accelerate drug discovery for currently intractable diseases, like Alzheimer’s Disease.

It's also a female-led business - in July 2020, iLoF received the Global Deeptech prize at Microsoft and Melinda Gates' Female Founders Competition, a global competition for female-led businesses.

We spoke with Mehak Mumtaz, co-founder of iLoF, about the company, her experience, and women in entrepreneurship.

What is iLoF, and how does it work?

iLoF is the world’s first cloud-based intelligent platform for identification of disease biomarkers and biological profiles in a label-free, non-invasive, affordable and portable manner. We create personalised profiles for each patient subtype using a few drops of their blood, and then store the data in our virtual library, which can be equated with a unique fingerprint file. With this data, we can more effectively recruit and stratify patients for clinical studies, fast-tracking the development of accurate, personalised treatments for them.

How did iLoF start?

iLoF is grounded in more than five years of academic research combining photonics and artificial intelligence and applying it to solve healthcare challenges. In an attempt to commercialise the resulting technology, my co-founders joined an acceleration programme called the ‘Wild Cards’ funded by EIT Health. This is where I was first introduced to the team and the technology; we found our strengths and experience complemented each other, we enjoyed working together, the technology and the scale of its potential impact was incredibly exciting, and we decided to join forces quite naturally!
Following that, we spent the next few months validating the need for our platform through interviews with more than a hundred stakeholders in the health, pharmaceutical and technological industry all over the globe, and managed to secure a 2-million-euro investment from EIT Health. We set up the company in August 2019, and have just celebrated our first birthday.

Tell us a little about yourself, and how you got involved in entrepreneurship.

I’m originally from Pakistan, and I moved to Oxford to study Biochemistry as an undergraduate at St Hilda’s college. I’d always been passionate about understanding the molecular mechanisms behind diseases, and my time at St Hilda’s really deepened that interest. This led to a DPhil in Pathology at the Dunn School, where I was part of a translational biology lab. This was my first introduction t the world of drug discovery.

At the end of my DPhil, two things happened that made me interested in a career in entrepreneurship. Firstly, I realised I wasn’t well-suited for an academic research path. I also was inspired by the thriving life science and biotech ecosystem in Oxford with spinouts like the Nanopore and Oxford Nanoimaging using technology to drive a life science revolution. I really wanted to be at the heart of that, and I found that entrepreneurship allowed me to combine my academic background, my love for science, and a commercial mindset to deliver tangible change in a continuously exciting way. 

How did Oxford shape your career in entrepreneurship?

I have been very fortunate to explore the breadth of opportunities Oxford has to offer for budding entrepreneurs. During my DPhil, I participated in various enterprising activities from Saïd Business School’s ‘Ideas to Impact’ program, to RisingWISE which encouraged me to consider careers outside academia. I also got involved with the Oxford Foundry, through their Lev8 Women program which was designed specifically for females considering entrepreneurship. It really gave me a taste of what it was like to take an idea to the next level. Through a subsequent role at Oxford, I was also introduced to OUI and some fantastic mentors who guided us as we were considering spinning out an innovation project from the University.  
iLoF is currently incubated at the Oxford Foundry and I credit much of our recent success and traction to the tireless support of mentors, top training, and wide networks through the Foundry. 

What’s been the best thing about working at iLoF?

My absolute favourite part is being able to work with my team to create cutting-edge technology that is being used to solve real problems in the world – and creating a global difference. Hands-down, that’s my favourite part!

But secondly, what I really love is the sheer breadth of activities and decisions. Every day, and every week, is very different – I could be wearing my science hat and having a conversation with a researcher, or at a different time, interviewing a potential hire, or designing a pitch to be used in client meetings…all in the span of a day. It really keeps me on my toes, 24/7!

Have there been any challenges?

Basically everything has been challenging in some way! It’s really "learning by doing" - from trying to find a clinical need, to internal challenges like hiring people with the right skills, to even personal ones like time management. And it’s constantly evolving too - that’s what makes you grow so exponentially in a start-up.

How has the pandemic changed the way you work?

There were some huge challenges, and we really had to change tactics, including supporting remote working, and loads of operational changes. At the same time, we’ve been quite fortunate. Winning the Female Founders program, and receiving funding from venture capital firms like M12 and Mayfield, has really opened doors for us
But there were also opportunities that we’ve seized during COVID-19. We’ve started working with one of our partner hospitals, in Portugal, and have created a tool that helps forecast clinical evolution of infected patients, to help hospitals manage their resources. We are planning to build and expand on that going forward, even after the pandemic.

Is there anything that could be done more to support women in business?

As women we should be inspired to dream bigger, to be able to realise our potential, and most importantly take that first jump. Entrepreneurs not only sharing stories of success, but also stories of their failures, would really help us to encourage and equip each other. We should do it more often.
I think creating more support networks is another way. Managing a business can be quite daunting and often lonely, so having a support network to support you through the ups and downs can be the difference between success and failure. Programmes like RisingWISE and the Foundry are amazing for accessing both mentors who can show you the ropes and also peers to share your challenges and learn from each other.
Another huge issue is access to funding. I strongly believe we should be moving beyond talk and token gestures towards making funding more inclusive, and by widening the funnel at the top. Investors have a strong role to play here, and more initiatives like the one we went through (Microsoft female founders’ competition) are a much-needed start. 

What advice would you give to women considering a career in entrepreneurship?

I’ve thought about this quite a lot in the past few months. One of the things I think women do quite often is focusing too much on getting things perfect, or being the expert on something before we say "yes" to any opportunity. But I think that holds us back - at some point, we have to take the plunge.

Finally, I’d really encourage them to find a mentor. Working directly with someone who has been there, done that, is super helpful - especially if they're only a few years older, they can be helpfully "relatable"! Finding women to support and encourage us, and who can give us wise, unbiased advice, is so important for what can be quite a tough journey on your own.

What’s next?

We're still expanding our team, and we've got some ideas in the pipeline. In the long term, our goal is to be the go-to smart platform for democratising personalised medicine, and helping accelerate drug discovery. The next year or two are going to be key for that in building our technology and brand, and hopefully, we'll already be making a difference helping millions of patients, around the world.

Read the news story about iLoF winning the Global Winners of Deeptech prize on the Microsoft website.

Find out more about iLoF on their website.

Learn about entrepreneurship at the Oxford Foundry.

Read about the RisingWISE programme for female entrepreneurs.