Enterprising Minds

Caring for cancer patients

Umaima Ahmad

WHO? Umaima Ahmad, former corporate lawyer and Cambridge alumna, now co-founder and CEO of medtech startup, 52North.

WHAT? Neutrocheck®, a small, easy-to-use, low-cost device and app that allows patients undergoing chemotherapy to test their own blood on the move if they feel unwell.

WHY? To keep chemotherapy patients safe from infection while making their lives less stressful and reducing the burden on hospitals.

You started out as a corporate lawyer. Was that where you saw yourself heading? I'm not sure I thought I would stay in law long term but I knew that it would be a great place to start after university and give me a very broad skillset.

So what prompted the leap into entrepreneurship? In 2016 I had just had twins and was on maternity leave from Citibank where I was senior in-house counsel. I decided to use my maternity leave to do an MPhil in Bioscience Enterprise.

Run that by me again? I know! Lots of people did tell me I was crazy. But I was living in Cambridge, surrounded by amazing people doing amazing things, particularly in healthcare. Plus, I'm someone who loves to learn. Prior to having my girls I was always taking courses and there are so many options on offer in Cambridge.

I spotted this programme which sounded as if it could be the perfect bridge from the world of banking and financial services to the world of life sciences and healthcare.

Actually, it was having kids that made me realise our time is so precious and that you have to use it well and wisely. It's also made me become incredibly efficient. I look back and wonder what on earth I was doing with my evenings before the kids came along.

What did you learn from the MPhil? It's a mix of MBA-type courses combined with an introduction to the life sciences, medical devices and therapeutics sector.

There were around 25 of us, all from different backgrounds: medics, investment bankers, scientists, management consultants - and I was the lawyer.

We were put to work in teams and asked to solve problems, come up with innovations and make presentations on potential business ideas.

When you're working for a large firm, you tend to be in a silo in which everyone around you is doing the same job in the same industry. Suddenly, I was working with a doctor, a scientist and a banker and we were all using our different skills to create something new.

Not only was I inspired by how other people think, I began to notice how I had been trained to think by my profession. It's a fascinating process which enables you to develop completely new ways to approach problem-solving.

"I began to notice how I had been trained to think by my profession. It's a fascinating process which enables you to develop completely new ways to approach problem-solving."

Umaima Ahmad outside ideaSpace

The course was intense and inspirational. I think everybody on it has ended up doing something dramatically different. It opened us all up to a new world of possibilities.

Did you come away with a fully-formed idea for a business? No, but some seeds were definitely sown. I spent a year asking anyone and everyone what problems they saw in healthcare. That included my partner, oncologist, Dr Saif Ahmad (and co-founder and Chief Scientific and Medical Officer of 52North).

One day, he turned around and said: "You know, there's this awful thing for chemotherapy patients which badly affects the quality of their life and is a huge issue."

When he told me about it, it seemed like a problem we might be able to solve.

What is the issue? Chemotherapy suppresses your immune system which means you have both a much greater risk of developing an infection and an impaired ability to fight that infection. This can lead to a condition called neutropenic sepsis, which can be fatal.

When you are being treated with chemotherapy you are advised that if you get a fever or feel 'generally unwell', you must head straight to A&E.

This can be both difficult and stressful. Not everyone has access to transport and it's not always easy to drop everything, particularly if you are looking after children, or have other caring responsibilities or work on a contract that doesn't give you paid sick leave.

Around half of patients, having rushed in to have full set of bloods taken, are fine and are sent home after a couple of hours.

However, those that aren't fine need to be given antibiotics really quickly: every hour’s delay increases the risk of death by about 8%. The guidance both in the US and the UK is that they should have antibiotics within one hour of the onset of symptoms.

But many of the patients who need them don't get their antibiotics within that first hour. One of the main reasons is that people delay calling in. They think: "I'm probably fine, I'll see if it gets worse, then I'll call."

As well as being a problem for patients, the current system is also a resourcing issue for hospitals. Trying to get people seen and tested within an hour also places a significant burden on an overstretched healthcare system.

How did you start to turn this challenge into a business? Having done the MPhil, I had the skillset to start thinking about how we could solve the problem, what it might look like as a business and what resources would we need to make it happen.

But it was only when we entered the Chris Abell Postdoc Business Plan Competition run by Cambridge Enterprise, that it began to feel properly do-able. Prior to that it had been more like an interesting project but when you enter the competition you spend a lot of time developing the business plan in a structured way and you work with a mentor.

We ended up winning £10,000 and didn't even have a business bank account to put it in. But after a few months we used that initial funding to develop a high level proof of concept.

The competition was a game-changer. It also spurred us on to apply to others, such as Pembroke College’s Parmee Prize, which also proved pivotal, through our meeting with its sponsor and successful entrepreneur, Richard Parmee.

Even though we didn’t win the prize, he turned out to be a very influential supporter. I'll never forget the moment we first met him. We had presented our idea and he was sitting at the back of the room and as we were walking out he said: "This is a really important thing you are trying to do. If you ever need help, just ask."

"You must take up those sort of offers if you get them. In my previous life, I would have been reluctant to do so, assuming the person was just 'being nice'. "

Umaima Ahmad with laptop

You must take up those sort of offers if you get them. In my previous life, I would have been reluctant to do so, assuming the person was just 'being nice'.

In spite of being an incredibly important and busy person, he made time to give us advice whenever we needed it. What was particularly helpful was that he would be able to signpost how much information we needed to go forward to the next stage.

Novice entrepreneurs often struggle with understanding how much they need to do before taking the next step.

When developing Neutrocheck, one of the things we spent a lot of time doing was talking to patients and healthcare professionals. Those conversations made us realise that whatever we came up with, it had to be portable so they could have it with them wherever they went.

What we've created is smaller than my hand, a finger-prick blood test that can be used anywhere.

It allows patients to test themselves anywhere and then give their doctor the results over the phone. The doctor can then assess if you're at risk or not.

"What we've created is smaller than my hand, a finger-prick blood test that can be used anywhere."

What stage are you at now? We are just about to go into clinical trials and we are hosting studies in the US as well as here so that we can submit for regulatory approval both there and in Europe at the same time.

We already have a huge amount of support from NHS Trusts who want to adopt it. We have oncologists across the UK reaching out to us, saying 'we would love to have this for our patients.' We've also been on accelerator programmes run by the Cedars Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles and the Texas Medical Center, which is helping us establish collaborations and build our footprint in the US while we go through all the approvals processes.

What are you most proud of? I'm incredibly proud of being the first company to receive investment from Macmillan Cancer Support. We've worked closely with them for a couple of years, collaborating on grants and things like that. But knowing that they really believe in what we are doing is a huge deal.

Have you had any setbacks along the way? Of course - the entrepreneurial journey is incredibly tumultuous. It's all about setbacks. You can have a huge high and a huge low in the same day.

How do you deal with that? By having the right mindset and remembering to celebrate all the positives. You have to believe things will get better and that there are always solutions to every problem.

To get the right mindset, you need the right team. One of the key things for me is having a great team around me. We are all from different backgrounds and we have different personalities but we all have enormous respect for each others' perspectives. I've learnt so much from all of them.

"To get the right mindset, you need the right team."

Has being in Cambridge been helpful? Without a shadow of doubt. I don't think it would have happened anywhere other than Cambridge. Winning that first funding from the postdoc business plan competition gave us access to early funding but more importantly it gave us the belief that setting up the business would work.

Being in Cambridge can give you three things. Firstly, access to a mix of formal scientific and business training, such as Saif’s PhD, my MPhil, and things like the Accelerate programme at the Business School. Secondly, opportunities for proof of concept funding and further investment, for example through Cambridge Enterprise and others, and thirdly, the more informal support you can get from experienced mentors such as Richard.

Do you have a piece of advice for someone who wants to set up their own business? Test it out with people and don't be shy. Don't start by building a product and then see if people want it. You don't need a prototype to do market research - you just need an idea on a piece of paper. You'll be surprised at how much people like to give feedback.

What do you do in your spare time, if you have any? I sit on a couple of boards as a non-exec which I really enjoy and find helpful. Again, it's all about meeting people with different perspectives.

Outside work, I like to read fiction and I paint with acrylics. There are no quality standards with painting, it's just about being creative and relaxing.

Quick fire

Optimist or pessimist? Optimist always.
People or ideas? People. Ideas are nothing without execution.
On time or running late? I always aim to be early. It's important to set stretch goals.
The journey or the destination? Both are equally important.
Team player or lone wolf? Team player.
Novelty or routine? In my world, both.
Risk taker or risk averse? Tricky. I'm going to say risk aware.
Lots of irons in the fire or all your eggs in one basket? Lots of irons in the fire. Always.
Do you need to be lucky or do you make your own luck? It's a mixture. People have different circumstances. And there's always an element of luck involved. Of course there is. But hard work comes first.
Work, work, work or work-life balance? We definitely have work-life balance within the company. But for certain people like me, it's always going to be work, work, work.

Enterprising Minds has been developed with the help of Bruno Cotta, Visiting Fellow & Honorary
Ambassador at the Cambridge Judge Business School.

Published 31 January 2024

All photography: StillVision

The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.