Hayat Sindi interview: A passion for science

Hayat Sindi believes the healthcare industry has made too much money out of the suffering of others. In an exclusive interview, the Saudi inventor and entrepreneur explains how her products could make a world of difference for impoverished families
Hayat Sindi interview: A passion for science
By Elizabeth Broomhall
Sun 15 Apr 2012 10:08 AM

Dropped off at a Danish youth hostel in central London without speaking a word of English, sixteen-year-old Hayat Sindi began to think she had made a huge mistake. The Saudi-born teenager, whose passion for science overrode her logic and common sense, had not realised how difficult her journey to being a great inventor would be.

“When I got to England it was the shock of my life,” she explains, recalling that first day. “My sister’s husband collected me from the airport but he didn’t speak Arabic, and I didn’t speak English, so there was no communication, and he put me in a Danish hostel.

“I thought, very naively, that because I was a straight-A student, it would be easy. I told my father I knew what I was doing, but I didn’t.”

Born in Makkah in 1967, Hayat Sindi is today one of the best known medical scholars in the region. Her research into diagnostics and biotechnology, which is internationally recognised, has earned her a positive reputation both as an advocate of affordable medicine and an ambitious humanitarian. In addition to her scientific work, she has also participated in numerous events aimed at raising the awareness of science amongst women, particularly in Saudi Arabia and the Muslim world in general. Thanks to her ongoing efforts, this year, she was ranked number nine on the CEO Middle East list of most powerful Arab women.

It all started for Sindi when she moved to London. Contrary to some reports, she did not lie to her parents about going to England, but persuaded them it was a good idea. Even at such a young age, her desire to study pharmacology and help the sick was extremely strong, but it was a dream she could never have fulfilled in Saudi Arabia at the time.

“When I reached high school I really wanted to study pharmacology, but it wasn’t common practice in Saudi Arabia to study a single subject — you needed to do it as part of medicine,” she explains. “I did one year of medicine but I didn’t like it; I wanted to be a scientist. So I had to convince my family to send me to England. Initially they said no way, but I persuaded them. My father was very supportive, but he was worried because I didn’t know English.”

As it happened, Sindi managed to pick up the language fairly quickly, primarily by listening to the media. Unable to give up on her dreams, she made a habit of watching BBC news programmes every day, adamant that she would eventually get the hang of the language.

“My friend told me the key to learning the language was to watch the BBC. I told her I could not understand a word, and I was crying. She said it didn’t matter, and that one day I was going to understand. So every day for two weeks I watched the BBC and I understood nothing. And then one day, it clicked.”

Equally difficult was the road to university. Despite Sindi’s obvious intelligence, upon applying to colleges she received a flurry of rejection letters, and was told her qualifications weren’t enough to study in the UK.

“All the universities I applied to rejected me,” she says. “My qualifications from Saudi were like GCSEs, not A-levels, so I couldn’t go. They asked me to do my A-levels again, and that was hard because I had to do it in one year, and I still couldn’t speak English very well.”

In the end of course, after a gruelling twelve months of crammed study, Sindi did achieve her goals of going to university in the UK, and - even better - was accepted into two of the best institutions in England. After first completing her Bachelor of Science in Pharmacology at Kings College in London, she was offered a scholarship to do a PhD in Biotechnology at the University of Cambridge, making her the first female in the Gulf to gain such qualifications. During her time at King’s College, she also received the Princess Anne Award for her undergraduate work on allergies. All this, whilst simultaneously juggling an English-teaching job to help fund her studies.

When asked how she did it, Sindi says humbly that she was driven by her passion. “When I was very little I wanted to do something for humanity. I was inspired by the great scholars, Arabic and Western, and I wanted to be like them. That was the only thing in my head — I wanted to be a scientist. I loved school very much.”

She adds that she got the job teaching English because she didn’t want to burden her parents, and because she wanted to remain mostly independent. “I had to find another way to make an income as I didn’t want to rely on my family 100 percent. So I worked in the university teaching English. I used to get good money for that.”

She admits, however, that none of it was easy. Biotechnology in particular, was very tough for a Saudi girl, especially since it was considered “a gentleman’s subject”, and because it was complicated. It was also new for Sindi, given that she hadn’t studied physics or electronics before. “I had to teach myself,” she says. “It was very hard.”

Adding to her problems, according to a recent interview that Sindi undertook with Arab News, was the fact that when she first started at Cambridge, a well-known scientist told her she would fail unless she “let go of her hijab” and changed her ways. He gave her three months to fail. “But I managed,” she explains modestly. “I graduated and eventually I started to come up with inventions. I wanted to look at how to make science affordable and accessible. That’s what I do.”

Sindi’s first invention, which she began when she left university, was spawned after she founded the company Sonoptix with Saudi seed funding. The diagnostic tool combined a machine and a small piece of glass which used the effects of light and ultra-sound to detect diseases. But it was its ability to detect single molecules in particular which made it so special. This meant it could be widely used to discover life-threatening illnesses in their very early stages.

Sindi says she was determined to help women with breast cancer, and to make quick detection accessible to women with a variety of incomes. In addition, she wanted to improve the sophistication of diagnostic tools.

“You can detect small molecules, like at the atomic level, and that is the key thing,” she explains. “Most of the diagnostic tools around us are unable to detect single molecules, and in the clinical industry, we need something which is sensitive to this. It can apply to the whole industry, of course, but I wanted to benefit women around the world because I understand that if you screen a disease like this early then it can save millions of lives. We should be screening women once a year, it should not cost much and it should give them a chance to live.”

Unfortunately, her research was temporarily interrupted when investors withdrew their funding, but is back on track today. In a bid to fund herself, Sindi says she has continued with consultancy work and used her savings.

“Saudi investors only invested for the first year and then it was cut off. From there, I worked in industry for a while, for Schlumberger, but after two and a half years I decided I wanted to go back to my science and inventions. At the moment, the technology is still in the research and development phase, but it should be ready in around three years.”

A separate achievement, albeit equally commendable, is the invention developed by Sindi and a group of other scientists at Harvard University through the self-funded, not-for-profit organisation: Diagnostics For All (DFA). Another diagnostic tool, the technology developed by the team is based on a very cheap paper-based product that is designed to change colour upon detection of certain illnesses and medical problems, such as liver failure. This next phase of Sindi’s life started when she met the university professor, George Whiteside.

“I actually met him in 2002 at a conference in Japan. We had a conversation and he was interested in my work and what I did atCambridge. After that, in 2006, I went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for a summer course, and I called him because I knew he was there. I told him about the company, and he was impressed, and he asked me to go and work for him. He said he thought I should learn about putting business and science together. I was so happy because his was the number-one lab in the world for nanotechnology and biotechnology.”

Never one to turn down a great offer, Sindi jumped at the opportunity to go to Boston as a visiting scholar, and shortly afterwards, embarked on a two-year course that taught students about the commercialisation of science and technology. Still doing her ad-hoc consultancy, she remained self-funded, and at the same time began her work with her colleagues at the Harvard lab to develop the new invention through DFA.

Unexpectedly, DFA won two high-profile university competitions. “We entered the Harvard Professional Enterprise Competition and the same year we entered the MIT 100k Competition. We won both competitions, and that had never happened before. It was also the first time in nineteen years that MIT gave the first prize to a non-profit organisation, and the first time in twelve years they gave the first prize to a Harvard invention.”

Now, she explains, DFA is focused on rolling out its new technology across third world countries, and is aiming for the product to go on the market very soon. “We are targeting developing countries first, and countries where patients have suffered from drugs taken for HIV and tuberculosis. That’s where you are going to make a difference, because they often suffer with liver failure.

Speaking about the idea behind the product, Sindi reiterates the need for cost-effective medicine across the globe. She argues that many within the scientific community are currently charging unreasonable prices for medical products, which is unnecessary given the low cost of production.

“You can still make profit without charging so much, why do we have to be greedy? Science has become selfish. The point is — we can shrink the costs by looking at the material and changing it to a cheaper one. That should be the priority for science from now on. For me, the true scientists are the ones who can make science affordable, simple and accessible so that anybody can benefit. You can do that, there’s no problem.”

Going even further, Sindi has also now established another company known as the Institution for Imagination and Ingenuity, in a bid to boost the number of Arab scholars like herself and increase the amount of medical research helping the community. The idea, she explains, is not simply to help Arabs make money and push them into the limelight, but to help individuals pursue their personal objectives, whilst also aiding society. In the Middle East, she says, it is often difficult for young scientists to get the funding they need, because investors perceive science as risky.

“It’s an institute to create an equal system for entrepreneurship and social immigration for scientists and engineers and technology experts in the Middle East,” she explains. “I am trying to create a new market and opportunities for youth. I’m trying to bring innovation to the region and give them a chance. It is not to make them rich but to benefit society. All the ideas we adopt have to feed society.”

Providing inspiration and role models will also be important, she says. Despite her wealth of single-handed achievements, self-funding and independent success, at the end of the day it is Sindi’s belief that we all need a role model. Right now, that’s a position she seems to filling more than adequately by herself.

Sindi’s next big invention: The portable MRI scanner

With a wealth of experience in diagnostics, Sindi’s next project is to develop a portable MRI scanner in a bid to ease the process of detecting organ, bone and tissue diseases for people in the Arab world. Speaking exclusively to Arabian Business, she says she wants to make MRI scanning simple and cheap, particularly for older patients and those who have joint disorders.

“I am writing the pattern at the moment,” she says. “There are so many people with arthritis and older people who struggle to get up on to the bed to be scanned, and they are in a lot of pain. Especially if they don’t speak English. It can be very uncomfortable.”

Most MRI scans take around fifteen to 20 minutes to complete, and can be expensive. Sindi says her product aims to make the process more efficient, and should be available within three years.

“MRI scanning also takes a long time. This one is very quick. And it will be very cheap. Usually it takes an average of four-five years to develop, or six if it’s complicated. But something like this it should take around three years.”

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