If I could go back in time, I would start my entrepreneurial journey earlier.
Monika surprised us straight from the bat. We knew she had almost done the impossible, but we would never have imagined the challenges she had to go through to achieve her goals. Nevertheless, her smile and laugh felt like a blossom. Trust us when we say this: Monika will change the world for the better - and not surprisingly, she is already well on her way. Incredible!
Monika is the Co-Founder and CEO of Zealth-AI, a Singapore and India-based startup building hyper-personalized digital therapeutics for cancer. Monika founded the company after two years of finishing PhD at the National University of Singapore. In mid-2020, She joined Antler and raised the first cheque for Zealth, scaled it during Y-combinator in 2021 and is now working on making it into a rocketship. Monika had a struggling upbringing and met strong headwinds. Her journey is truly one of believing that anything is possible.
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This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
What did you dream of when you were a kid?
I always dreamed about setting a good example for other women. I grew up in a tiny city in Haryana, India. It is a place where women were not pushed to dream and achieve their fullest potential. I wanted to break this spell and show millions of women that it is possible to make something out of themselves, wherever they are from.
How did your upbringings form you as a person?
A story that I remember particularly well was when I suffered from several fractures. I spent over 13 months in bed, and every time we got visitors, my mum was told that she should be happy that it wasn’t her sons who got injured. For them, a daughter who lost a year of studies was not a big deal, as I was expected to marry early and settle. That was my path!
Life can either break you or motivate you. I chose to turn all these adverse occurrences into something good.
I worked incredibly hard in school, and I was one of the best-performing students. However, I never received any recognition. I always had to keep reminding myself about the importance of looking ahead and trusting the process.
My upbringing taught me kindness and the power of being determined.
Where did your passion for medicine come from?
My family is made out of engineers, so I was an outlier. I've always loved reading, and at age nine, I got my hands on books about biology. I grew fascinated with the topic and couldn't stop reading about it. I remember a particular time during the summer of 1996 when my dad got furious since I didn’t want to take my medications. I was crying the entire night, as I hated the taste of it.
However, as I grew up and studied science, I started wondering, How is this drug made, and how can they make us feel better? All these questions eventually drove me to study this subject profoundly. I ended up doing a Ph.D. in this field.
What were your reasons to dive into research and pursue a PhD?
During my master's degree, when I was in my 1st semester, the Dean of NUS came to our University to meet some students. Luckily I got the chance to speak to him, and he offered me a scholarship to join their PhD program on the spot. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity, and it was the right time for me to explore the world. So I went ahead with my PhD.
In Singapore, the exposure I would get was unparalleled to anything I ever dreamed of.
Were you part of any breakthroughs?
I researched a new type of protein that could regulate the immune system as a whole. It could potentially change autoimmune diseases as we know them. However, we still need to measure how active or inactive the drug is. I developed the essay and the techniques, and now they are doing the clinical trials. I worked on it for four years, yet the whole process can take up to 15 years.
Where did you get the inner drive to start your own venture?
During my time working in the lab, I did something uncommon as a typical PhD student. I participated in countless hackathons. They were all super exciting and helped me get accused of the language of entrepreneurship, ranging from fundraising, pitching and product-market fit.
As I entered this new and exciting world, the time spent in the lab felt more monotone. Don't get me wrong, I loved every minute of it. However, I grew frustrated not seeing an immediate impact of what I was working on. I also didn't want to sacrifice 10-20 years of my life trying to figure out the bits and pieces. I tried my hands on two jobs post PhD, but I never got the satisfaction I was looking for.
This was the time that I decided to pursue entrepreneurship. My parents were unhappy about my decision and told me that I didn't have enough experience to start something on my own. But, every day, I kept thinking: There are so many great companies being founded, why can't I do it too?.
How did you start Zealth-AI?
It all began in 2019 after losing a close family member, and the doctor told us that if she had been treated timely, she would have easily survived for years. I realized that healthcare needed a lot of improvement. I wasn't sure how exactly we could solve this, but I was clear that I could make an impact. I believe that we pivoted 3-4 times with our first idea, which was predicting response to immunotherapy. Another was using AI for better diagnosis for detecting cancer. For that idea, we got funding from Antler in 2020.
After six months, we had to step back with our business idea. We went back to the whiteboard and began talking with hospitals. Covid hit that time, and a doctor told us that patients call in every day to ask about their symptoms, and it was beyond their capacity to provide help. We decided to tackle this problem, and together we ran a pilot and monitored the symptoms of 1500 covid patients.
What is the grand vision of Zealth-AI?
We want to disrupt healthcare. We want to create an ecosystem where one can input symptoms, and based on health type, family history, energy level, is eventually provided with a virtual doctor. Ultimately, we want to ensure that everyone gets timely health interventions just at a click without even wasting a single minute.
How was your experience at Y-Combinator?
It was terrific, and we met tons of incredible and inspiring people. Unfortunately, the batch was entirely remote. It was a bit hard to get into the atmosphere, and we would have loved to interact more with the partners. I also found Antler extremely helpful, and they gave us a lot of mentoring from day one. Ultimately, YC helps a company to establish a winning culture.
If you could change one thing in your journey, what would it be?
I don’t hold any regrets. But if I could go back in time and change something, I would start my entrepreneurial journey earlier. I learned more over the last years as an entrepreneur than in 20 years of studying.
Just do something, even if it is a small thing, it doesn’t really matter!
When was the time you felt the most vulnerable?
It was when I left my job to start my entrepreneurial journey. I come from a conservative middle-class family, and nobody has ever been an entrepreneur. I got little to no support, and I didn’t speak with my family for almost six months.
I knew that I wouldn’t be able to go back to a normal job.
My parents told me that I needed to make my company work within months or else I’d need to find a job. It was a crazy time.
I had one chance left, and I decided to apply to Antler. However, we were not eligible for the program, as they don’t invest in pre-existing ideas. I refused to give up, so I kept mailing. After some time, I met one of the partners, who decided to give us a shoot.
In February, I needed my visa by April, but Antler couldn’t invest before June. I spoke to my parents, and they told me to find a job as soon as possible in case I wouldn’t get funding within the deadline. I ended up receiving a full-time job offer starting the 1st of April, just in case. However, I tried to delay the signing of the contract as much as I could.
I spoke once again with Antler and told them about my situation. They gave us two weeks to prove that we were ready for funding. These were the most intense days of my life, and we spent all our time working on our pitch deck and bullet proving our business plan. In the end, they decided to fund us, and it was one of the happiest moments of my life.
What would you do if you only had 30 days to live?
This is a fascinating question (laughs). I would call all my close ones and tell them how much I love them. I would also write all my life lessons and learnings and share them with the world.
Do you have an inspiring figure?
My dad. He was in the army and inspired me to do whatever I wanted. I learned to work hard, be resilient, and stay positive from him.
One Twitter handle?
@ Naval Ravikant
The Secret by Rhonda Byrne
What would be your one-billion-dollar idea if you were to start another company today?
I had an amusing first business idea a couple of years ago. It wanted to create a system that could tell if you are fit to go to space and tailor the training program around your capabilities. I would also do something within the world of deep-tech, as I find it very fascinating.
Inspiring story Monika, thank you very much.
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