GynAware: The Journey of Two Women’s Health Advocates to Creating a Business (Part 1)
"What we have achieved so far has required grit and power and lots of determination to continue despite the occasional failures. And in the end, that’s what it means to elevate each other and other women who deserve personalized care." - Ida Derish and Meera Kanagalingham, Co-Founders of GynAware
Ida Derish and Meera Kanagalingham are two graduate students from McGill University who were paired in the Surgical Innovation program, along with other multidisciplinary team members, to pursue the process of building a medical device company. What was supposed to be an interactive class experience turned into the hope of creating a business venture due to the passion they recognized in each other.
What is GynAware?
Our medical device start-up advocates for personalized medicine for women, by driving innovation in the field of diagnostic gynaecology. Fibroids, which are gynaecological muscle tumors which affect up to 70-80% of women from ages 20-55, are symptomatic and require medical treatment in 25% of cases. However, there is no pre-surgical diagnosis for these tumors, which results in higher rates of preventative and invasive surgeries in women. GynAware’s technology allows a safe pre-surgical assessment of uterine muscle tumours via a tissue biopsy. Theoretically, the implementation of our novel pre-surgical solution will enable gynaecologists to establish patient-specific treatment plans and reduce patients’ anxiety due to a lack of diagnosis.
What set this endeavor into stone was applying and successfully getting into the District 3 validation program at Concordia University. From one week to the next, the two of us were submitting business plans to review to our coaches, catching short breaks at Montreal metro stations, as we were busy scribbling down the last notes about the previous doctors’ commentaries on our way to our next interview.
It was a hectic and exciting time, since we not only fine-tuned our user and customer discovery, but we also had a taste of the unpredictability and day-to-day basis of the entrepreneur life. We were thrust into a world we were unfamiliar with, and constantly juggling and evaluating conflicting advice, opinions and concerns.
Day by day, we would have more to read, more to reflect about, more pieces to the puzzle that would enable GynAware’s continuation. We began generating momentum during our validation process where we connected with over 40 doctors and 10 procurement members across 8 leading hospitals in Canada and the U.S.
Perhaps the most unexpected obstacle was the COVID-19 pandemic, which made it seem like all opportunities to continue communicating with experts, networking and acquire funding opportunities became fruitless.
While our momentum was slowed down, we continued to diligently work on GynAware and improve our team. Consequently, with the adapted virtual opportunities, we were able to deepen our business knowledge, plan for the next milestones for the future and finally acquire key funding from competitions.
Navigating Team Dynamics
Our journey was not easy, and all of our team members, past and present, had an important role in helping with our successes. Inevitably, navigating through team conflicts and practicing the underappreciated art of team building, was also part of the experience. As we transitioned from the classroom to the real world by incorporating our start-up, some team members’ departure caused doubt in our ability in continuing with GynAware.
Building a Team of Experts to Grow GynAware
The question was ever-present in our conversations: How can two biomedical students with no prior knowledge in business or engineering possibly hope to grow a company? The answer was not to link ourselves to the mindset that we couldn’t do it. As the drive behind “fake it til you make it” compelled us both, we were able to support one another and push our limits to fill in the gaps of our abilities, whether that meant hiring new expertise in mechanical engineering, becoming comfortable with networking or learning completely novel skills. We are still learning and growing, but we are happy to do it together.
What empowers us
Overall, it is the mutual trust and respect that we have for each other that empowers us. We know that beyond this journey of entrepreneurship, where a potential future of risks and failure are high, we can overcome a wide range of obstacles together as friends and colleagues. Ironically, our similar backgrounds mean that we often interpret things in a similar manner, which forces us to have constant checks to see if we are headed in the right direction.
"First and foremost, the idea behind GynAware is to bring awareness to a problem that ails all women with a stream-lining based solution. We cannot tell the future, but we see that this is an important mission to uphold, not just for ourselves but for our community of sisters, mothers and grandmothers."
The two of us started as classroom team members and became long lasting partners that fundamentally agree and became attached to GynAware. We grew with it and will continue to grow with it, as artists do with their creations.
Let’s imagine that after a hot summer spent suntanning, you notice a blemish underneath your skin on your arm. Maybe it’s just bothering you or maybe it starts hurting, so you do the next reasonable thing: you go to see a doctor. Imagine if that doctor told you that just in case, they’d have cut off your arm? At best, you’d nod at them, and then get yourself a second opinion. At worst, you’d call them crazy. So why, if we switch to gynaecology, this is suddenly not the norm?
"Why is there no outrage at the idea that women with suspicious fibroids or uterine muscle tumors are recommended and scheduled to surgically remove their uterus, rather than implementing a solution that would alleviate the suspicion in the first place?"
One would think that in an era where biopsies and diagnoses are provided with increasing accuracy, all medical fields would be similarly caught up. As GynAware, we have the mission to initiate discussion around this topic and ideally develop a hardware solution that will enable doctors to clear patients for minimally-invasive procedures to remove their fibroids. We do not want the “what if” question to hang over thousands of female patients. And after months of pitches, interviews, online meetings and figuring out how to navigate the world while running a company, we think that we have what it takes to develop our hardware.
Contrary to what pop culture taught us, we didn’t trample or deceive each other to lift up GynAware as an initiative. What we have achieved so far has required grit and power and lots of determination to continue despite the occasional failures. And in the end, that’s what it means to elevate each other and other women who deserve personalized care. Thank you and I hope you follow our journey in advocating for women’s health by disrupting the current protocols in place with our technology.
Note: GynAware is also welcoming to new engineering co-founders who would like to help advocate for women’s health with us.
This article is the first part of a two-part series written by Ida Derish and Meera Kanagalingham, the Co-Founders of GynAware. The article was edited and formatted by Nikoo Aghaei.
Images provided by Ida Derish and Meera Kanagalingham