Dharmica Mistry discusses the distinction between deep tech startups and other startups
Dr Dharmica Mistry is Director of Diagnostics and Industry Engagement at MTP Connect, a not-for-profit organisation focused on growing the MedTech, BioTech and pharmaceutical sectors. Prior to this she was the Co-Founder and Chief Scientist of BCAL Diagnostics, where the team’s research discovered a potential new way to screen for breast cancer, which BCAL Diagnostics is working on developing into a scalable technology. Dharmica has also worked as Head of MedTech and BioTech at Cicada Innovations, a Sydney-based incubator with a focus on deep tech startups. In her conversation with guest host Will Tjo, Dharmica discusses the ways in which deep tech startups are distinct from other startups, as well as the role she believes government should play within the startup ecosystem.
Adam Spencer: Hi, I’m Adam Spencer. And Welcome to Day One, the podcast that spotlights Australian startups, founders, and the organizations that empower Australian entrepreneurship. We go back to the beginning to tell a story of Australia’s most inspiring founders and how they built their companies. You’re listening to a special interview series as part of a documentary W2D1 is producing. This episode was conducted by guest host, Will Tjo.
Will Tjo: Hi everyone, and welcome back to the Australian startup series. Our guest today is Dr. Dharmica Mistry. Welcome to the show.
Dharmica Mistry: Thank you very much for having me.
Will Tjo: So could you tell us a bit about yourself and what you’re currently working on?
Dharmica Mistry: Sure. So I’m currently director of diagnostics industry engagement at MTPConnect, which is an independent, not-for-profit organization focused on growing the med tech, biotech, and pharmaceutical sector. Here, I’m leading the development of a national diagnostics action plan for government, for building end-to-end sovereign manufacturing capability for diagnostic technology here in Australia. Previously, I was head of med tech and biotech at Sakata Innovations, a deep tech incubator in Sydney, where I was supporting the health sector through a number of startup and scale up programs. And providing mentorship and coaching for researchers and founding teams who were looking to commercialize their impactful ideas. And then prior to that, I was co-founder and ex-chief scientist of BCAL diagnostics, where I spent a decade commercializing a blood test for breast cancer detection, and also translating a research idea into reality.
Will Tjo: In laymen’s terms, what does it mean by deep technology?
Dharmica Mistry: Deep technology is something that is an idea or solution that’s derived from the STEM discipline. So, it’s a scientific or engineering solution that’s going to take a really long time and a lot of resources to actually become something of a commercial reality. And usually that involves red tape. And by that, I mean, things like approvals and regulation. But also intensive capital, and something that just takes a years and years. Over eight to 10 years to actually come to fruition.
Will Tjo: So I guess it differentiates from Hollywood startups in a sense that it’s not something that you can just start in your bedroom or garage.
Dharmica Mistry: Absolutely. It’s not a fast turnaround. Even if it’s a software, it’s going to be a really complicated algorithm-based piece of software that’s going to need a lot of approvals to get to some sort of reality. Or lots of backing and validation to get to where it needs to get to. So no fast turnarounds in deep tech, unfortunately.
Will Tjo: I see. So Dharmica, take us back. What interested you in science commercialization, and startups more broadly?
Dharmica Mistry: I guess it wasn’t startups when I started. I finished my undergraduate degree and started working for a small biotech firm, as it was called then. But if I look back in hindsight, it was actually a startup. A very small company based in Sydney, no more than of eight people or 10 people on the team. To develop a method, to detect breast cancer, using very complicated technology called a synchrotron. It’s a particle accelerator, the size of a football field. And back, then it was an interesting gig. I’ve always loved science. My undergraduate degree was a major in microbiology. Loved it to bits. Wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. Saw this company was doing something really interesting, which is where they were using this synchrotron technology to detect breast cancer in scalp hair of women with the disease. For me, that was an interesting space and I decided to join that as a lab technician. A lot of fun, but it didn’t feel like a startup. It just felt like a job at the time.
Dharmica Mistry: And it wasn’t until I’d come up with my own discoveries, whilst in that company, which then consequently… There were a bunch of things that happened, including the company going into administration and me trying to pull out some IP that I’d developed there… To then form a new company. Which is where probably my startup journey began in 2010. Now, the love for it, and the passion for it, and the motivation for it, all came from the fact that I’d been able to come up with something that I was now hellbent on trying to discover more about. And possibly bring to some sort of reality. A test for breast cancer.
Will Tjo: Yeah, I see. And what was it like back in 2010, creating your own startup? Were there infrastructure? Was it supportive? And so on?
Dharmica Mistry: To me, that word didn’t even exist. It was me freaking out because my IP had been taken away. And it was, “What do I do next?” All I knew as a scientist, a traditionally trained scientist, was… So, just to give you some context, I had with a co-founding scientist, or the chief scientists at the company at the time, we discovered the biological mechanism behind that technology of x-raying here and being able to detect breast cancer. So, we discovered that there was perhaps a biomarker that was able to create this change in a person with breast cancer. And this could be used to develop another type of test, such as a blood test for breast cancer detection. Now, as a scientist, that eureka moment was the most exciting part. It’s, “Hold on. I think we’ve found what is causing this. And perhaps we can elucidate some more interesting things from this, and develop something really impactful.”
Dharmica Mistry: And there was no startup. There was no bars. There was no incubation. Acceleration wasn’t a thing in Australia in 2010. Maybe it was, maybe I wasn’t aware because I was living in my little scientific bubble at the time. So, the support that I relied on was those that were around me. So, my chief scientist, the people that had sort of done some sort of research before me. “What do you do in this situation?” “What even is IP?” “Why are we putting in a patent?” “That’s important because of this and this.” All the things I learned were from the people around me. And I probably didn’t start feeling that, what we call now, the startup ecosystem impact or support, until about 2015, I would say.
Will Tjo: Yeah. It’s interesting, because a lot of people do point towards that sort of 2015 era when things started to ramp up. From your perspective, what were the catalysts for this?
Dharmica Mistry: I think there were just more people doing these sorts of things perhaps. But the bigger thing… So, at the time what had happened to me was, Sakata and New South Wales Health were running the medical device commercialization training program. The first year it was in 2014. I hadn’t even heard about it then. And that’s the pilot year. But 2015, the second year, someone had thrown that across my desk and said, “Hey, maybe you should think about doing this.” And it was for people that were really green, to be honest. So, clinicians and researchers that had just come up with an idea. I’d been doing BCAL for about five years by this point. But I still had lots of gaps in my skills. So for me, that was the the forcing function to come and apply for something like this, put myself out there and have a go.
Dharmica Mistry: And it was one of the most profound, wonderful experiences, to this day, I’ve ever had. Because it’s done a lot of things. It obviously filled some of my skills gaps. But also opened up my networks. And I think what happened around that time is that the ecosystem or stakeholders, whoever… Including government… Saw that we had gaps between academia and industry research commercialization. And those gaps came through skills gaps. People had ideas, excellent ideas, but we weren’t seeing that translation. What was stopping it was, there was no support mechanism for that. And so they started to build those out and it was obviously the right thing to do at the time.
Will Tjo: Yeah. What you said about having this academia and industry gap piqued my interest. Because I read a report recently, saying that Australia is still far behind in terms of science commercialization, compared to other OECD countries. Would you say that gap still exists today?
Dharmica Mistry: A hundred percent. Look, I say that with all respect. We have amazing ideas. And I see this day to day in my job. Lots of amazing research and technology being developed. And not just in an academic setting. I’ve met founders that have come from just personal experience, have had a hardship, and are just like, “I need to solve this problem. And I’m going to go and try.” So, we see a lot of that. One of the unpopular things, or unpopular opinions, is that “We collaborate really well.” Actually, I believe we don’t quite collaborate well enough and there’s room for improvement there. And that’s why we’re not seeing the translation of things. We don’t make it seamless. There are lots of groups, and support mechanisms, and incubators, and accelerators. But the actual bureaucracy, the logistics to take something from either an idea, to an academic research setting, and then across to a hospital for clinical testing, in my case, in the med tech and biotech space. And then across to commercial scalability. That whole thing is really siloed. And it’s not smooth and not easy to jump in and out of and make happen.
Dharmica Mistry: So I think that’s where I see a lot of the issues in this sort of space.
Will Tjo: In terms of solutions, then, what would you like to happen?
Dharmica Mistry: I think we need to put proper mechanisms in place for these collaborations to really succeed. And when I say that, for me as a scientist, I’ve had to try and take an idea into academia. And I say, as a scientist, outside of the academia. So, I had an idea at a company, and I wanted to bring it into academia to then work on it some more. It wasn’t easy. And one of the successes that I had was I went to… And I’m not going to name places, I’m just going to talk about it as “blank.” But I had a couple of universities that I approached, and it was all about the piece of the pie for them. So when I say that it’s all about getting a cut of whatever, and we were fighting about something that wasn’t even necessary to fight about.
Dharmica Mistry: We just wanted to collaborate with them, to do some research and validation. I did all the major universities, and I went to another university and I said, “Hey, I’ve got an idea. I’ve got the IP. I want to work on it in a research setting. I want to do my PhD. What do you guys think?” And they were like, “You know what? We want you to come and do that.” And so they didn’t ask for anything. They just wanted me to do that research, at their university, with them. And I think that attitude, at that point in time, was such a wonderful thing. And it allowed success for all of us because I could do that, and do it well. And it was an easy come-in. Everybody plays to their strengths, everybody wins, and then we keep moving. So, I think that’s the improvement needs to be kind of cultural in a way.
Dharmica Mistry: But also, what is the carrot that we’re giving everyone? And we know this, it’s a really common thing that everybody faces. Success is going to come when everybody works to their core mission. So, academics do the research part. Industry, corporate startups do the commercial part. And hospitals do the clinical part. Everybody’s filling each other’s skills gap, and solving that common goal. And we shouldn’t be arguing or argy-bargying over something that doesn’t need to be yours or mine. And I think the US does that really well, because it’s a culture for them. And it should be. Startups and people with ideas should be able to walk into a university and a research institute and just find those people who are not tied up in all of that bureaucracy. And just get the studies going here, and anywhere, statewide across the country. All of those things because that’s what’s going to make it successful.
Will Tjo: Yeah. It’s very interesting. Could you tell me more about this bureaucracy? I’m trying to wrap my head around it. So someone needs to just be able to go into university and say that they want to do this research. But it’s just not happening. And you mentioned that is just a cultural problem. Is it just, say, the university wants to protect itself from X, Y, Z? Or what is this bureaucracy? What’s stopping people from doing this?
Dharmica Mistry: I think it’s seamless partnerships. So, IP is always going to be that big piece. Everyone seems to put this magical thing on IP and be like, “If we all have a share of IP, this is what matters.” And it’s, “Okay, it matters to some degree.” But if somebody’s coming in with their own IP, to you, this is an opportunity for you to support that. And any new IP, yes, becomes something you create together. But there’s no point in trying to pull on something, get a piece of something that’s already been done and funded by somebody else. That, again, is a mindset thing, or an education or awareness thing. Or maybe it’s just etiquette, that not every… Because we all speak different languages from those different sectors… And I think it’s less about working together. And that’s what I mean about everybody’s motivation. So it’s saying, “What do you want to get out of it as university? Is it really the IP?” Because people forget that most of these ideas will take years and years to generate any financial win. And there’s a whole bunch of risk that you have to overcome first.
Dharmica Mistry: And what that does is it limits people like myself, who may have had an idea and want to bring it in. We don’t want to talk freely about what we’re doing, because we are just creating more silos that way. It should be more of a… How do I explain it? We just need to get past this notion of, “It’s mine or yours,” and more like, “It’s ours.”
Dharmica Mistry: All that paperwork as well. And I know that’s never going to change in some settings. That’s just the way it is. But you’ve got to free up your researchers to be able to do more than just fundamental research if you want them to diversify, and you want to generate more ideas that become commercial reality, if that makes sense. So, creating space for an academic, a certain part of their KPIs is to do that kind of collaboration. And making it easy for them to do that collaboration, without going through all the paperwork and bits and pieces that they need to do, is what might be easier.
Will Tjo: Yeah. Absolutely. Aside from this academia industry collaboration issue, is there any other gaps in our ecosystem, which you see?
Dharmica Mistry: I think skills gap will always be a thing. Lots of initiatives now though, build skills. There are loads of things out there in the ecosystem that are available to people. There are some that are specific to certain sectors. But we also have to be careful not to over saturate that whole area and reinvent the wheel. So collaborations, skill sets. Funding will always be an issue, I think, for now. Until we are more comfortable with the higher risk opportunities. I think that’s something that was prevalent when I was around. A lot of what we were doing at BCAL was from high net worth individuals. And getting a VC to jump ship and come on board with us, it was a bit of a challenge because it was a long term project. And I think a lot of deep tech and med tech and biotech projects find raising capital can be like that. It’s just the risk adversity is something that’s there. It can change. It slowly is changing, a little bit. But we still have a long way to go on that as well.
Will Tjo: Yeah, absolutely. It’s interesting that you mentioned about the risk tolerance of VCs. You’d think that they’d be open, just by nature of the industry of venture capital. But it seems that there is still a hesitancy towards deep technology.
Dharmica Mistry: Correct. And I think it’s also, just as a country. We’re a cautious country. We have cautious founders. We have cautious VCs. So, it’s not everyone’s fault, but it does mean that we move very slowly and we don’t quite believe that we’ll get anywhere sometimes, I think. It’s almost like a confidence thing. But I can see that when the VCs do invest in things, they’re very committed. And when founders do begin to generate something, they’re very committed. And we do have a goal at building innovative solutions with big potential. But yeah, I think we’re just very cautious. When that comes from the top down, as in, if a VC’s already feeling cautious, then a founder’s already going to feel like, “I don’t know, am I even going to raise this capital? Is this even something that’s going to happen?” And it just becomes this thing that keeps repeating itself, it’s like a cycle.
Will Tjo: Do you see any role for government to plug in some of these gaps?
Dharmica Mistry: Yes. Yes, of course. I think government are trying with some of the things that they do. So there is a lot more funding than ever before towards… And I’m talking about things like the physical sciences fund, the medical devices fund… There are now pockets of funding that are available for these sorts of early stage ideas that need that support. We can continue to do that. We’ve seen some of the patent box stuff that’s come out. There’s the R&D tax incentive. All of these things really do help everybody that’s trying to do something in this space. I think there’s always room to improve when it comes to government support. There are areas… Especially when we think about things from a global perspective… Helping us to marry those bridges across to Asia, to America, to Europe. I know there’s some work being done. Just helping to get our ideas over there and create that reverse landing pad will always be a work in progress. And there’ll always be things to do to make sure that we create an area, or a place where our founders don’t run away, A. But also a place where we bring in talent, and people are coming here because it’s a good place to come and work for our startups. And they see that value.
Will Tjo: Yeah. Absolutely. So far, we’ve talked about the past, we’ve talked about the present. How about the future? Next five to 10 years, anything exciting in your horizon?
Dharmica Mistry: What I find exciting at the moment is that there is a lot more support around all of this. And we now see the fruition of all of the things that have happened in the last decade. So, we’re seeing a lot of startups or people, or even people that I met when they had just a tiny idea and they were like, “Don’t even know what I’m doing right now,” have now raised funding, built companies. And we’re starting to see that next wave of companies. Because don’t forget a lot of these deep tech companies in my case, or med tech and biotech take about a decade to come to life. And they’re all coming to life now. And that means we’re seeing the community forming and the culture will keep on forming and developing. And I think the next decade’s going to be really exciting because of that.
Dharmica Mistry: We always talk about ResMed and Cochlear in the med tech and biotech world. And yeah, that happened a long time ago. And now all of these people are becoming the “long time ago”s. And that means we’re going to have more talent being built up lots more experienced founders walking around and building that story of success. But also the story of failure, to make sure people understand that it’s okay to fail and keep on trying. We’re going to see more serial entrepreneurs. We’re going to see more advisors and mentors and people that have been through the battles with everybody, more than ever. And I think that’s a really exciting thing. Because yeah, it’s going to do exactly what I said in the last section, which is bring people here and build that community. And for me, I see a lot of really cool young people going out there and having a go.
Dharmica Mistry: And that was very far cry from what I was doing in 2010. Yes, I was having a go. But I was really daunted by the idea of not being a scientist anymore and doing something so commercially, so early in my career. And I didn’t know what it all meant. But I can see now that people aren’t scared and they’re just like, “Yeah, I can be both. I can try and be both and I can use my technical skills to do something really cool. And I’m going to now travel this journey and see where it takes me and I’m not afraid.” And I love that. I think that’s really exciting.
Will Tjo: Yeah. That’s amazing. Do you have any unpopular opinions about our startup ecosystems? Something that you believe is true, but no one seems to be on the same page as you?
Dharmica Mistry: I think some people are on the same page as me. But I think tall poppy syndrome continues to exist, as much as we like to put that away and say, “No, we all put everybody on a pedestal.” But behind the scenes, there’s still some of that “Don’t get too big for your boots.” I think it’s a real thing. For me, it’s the pigeonholing that I find really continues to exist. And this goes back to my last point about younger people coming out today and being like, “I’m so confident about who I am.” But I’m as strongly academic as I am commercial in my skillset. And you would think that is more commonplace, or was more commonplace, towards the second half of my decade, in the decade that we’re talking about. But it isn’t. I hadn’t met a lot of people that had done as much as I’d done in both of those spaces.
Dharmica Mistry: And I was still being subjected to some of that, “Oh, you’re a scientist,” or “You don’t have an MBA. So you don’t really know how to do business” and being subjected to that boxing. And I’m self aware enough to know where my gaps are in my skills. And I know my limitations, and what I’m capable of and what I’m not capable of, but I am multifaceted. And I can be both, and I can excel at both. And I just wish we had more open minds in some of the senior roles in the space about this. I was a scientist. I moved into industry at a young age. I understand I had a lot to learn. Startups were not cool then. And I was pretty scared of, like I said earlier of taking that step. But I feel like I’ve done enough to be able to have some experience in both of those things. And I shouldn’t be pigeonholed, and I hope as we move forward, we see less of that.
Will Tjo: I completely understand what you mean. I had a conversation with an early venture capital the other day who was in the space since the two thousands. And when he went to the US, he found that everyone respected and heralded young people, because everyone was afraid to laugh at someone who could be the next big thing. But it’s a shame to hear that here in Australia, we almost… Not even almost. We underestimate each other. And try to cut each other down. Which is a shame.
Dharmica Mistry: It is. It’s a hundred percent a shame. And it just means we could be working together so much better, instead of competing with each other and feeling threatened. In saying that, we have a lot of good people paying it forward, and a lot of pro bono work that does go on from people that have been there and done that. But they’re the ones that have really had lots of experience and success in a way. And they’re happy to be like, “Here’s what you shouldn’t do.” And I think that’s a wonderful thing that we do have, but yeah, I do think that tall poppy syndrome does exist.
Will Tjo: Absolutely. So what we’re trying to do here in this podcast, is document as accurately as possible, the history of our startup ecosystem in Australia. And we’re aiming to reach all the corners of the ecosystem, from policy makers, academics, students, founders. If you had to say one thing, what would be the one thing that all of those need to hear from you, Dharmica?
Dharmica Mistry: Need to hear from me…. If I had to give advice to everybody across all the sectors… And I know this is going to sound really like, “Really? Whatever.” But, I underestimated building a diverse network and building my networks at all. I didn’t think that was important, especially as a scientist. And I’m speaking from the technical lens, the scientific lens, because I was trained as a scientist. I completely underestimated that when I was young. And it is so important to build those networks, especially as an academic, or a clinician who’s got a really cool idea. But also have diverse networks. And I think we need to not judge each other. So, you don’t know who else is in somebody else’s networks, and what their motivations are, and how they can help you. And I think that’s one thing that would… Not everybody does it, but lots of people do sit in their little bubbles and silos… And we need to just break down those barriers.
Dharmica Mistry: And there is a lot of eventing that goes on to make people mix. But we need to continue that effort to connect each other. We’re a small country. It’s an easy thing to do. To be honest, the six degrees of separation are so crazy across disciplines as well. But it doesn’t cost much to do these kinds of things. If anything, it’s free to yourself, if that’s the one thing you do for yourself. But connecting these people, they become your future co-founders, mentors, sounding boards, funders, advocates, friends. That is what this is all about. And for me, that’s the biggest thing that I hope we can do, but continue to do better, and do for each of ourselves as well.
Will Tjo: Yeah. I love that. Creating a more connected ecosystem.
Dharmica Mistry: Correct.
Will Tjo: And lastly… You probably already covered this with the network aspect… But, anything different if a new entrepreneur and founder came to you, given all your experience, mistakes, and wins, what would you tell them?
Dharmica Mistry: That would be my first piece, on the network piece. But also to understand that this journey, a lot of the time is going to be… It’s not a fancy, shiny, cool thing to be an entrepreneur. It’s actually a lot of hard work. And you have to be self-motivated to some degree, and really loving what you’re doing. It’s a long game, especially in med tech and biotech. So you need to make sure that this is something you have the stamina for. You need to really be self-aware of your limitations, and your skill set, and understand when you can’t do something properly. And that’s going to save you a lot of time and money, if you know that. If you know that you cannot do… I don’t know… The CEO role, or some sort of role that requires you to have a specific set of skills that A, maybe you could learn them, but maybe you just aren’t the person for that job, and there is somebody else that can do it…
Dharmica Mistry: Hiring amazing talent, it’s only going to make you look better and help you get to where you need to be. I think that self-awareness and resilience is the key. It’s not as cool as all the internet articles and things that come on. Because it’s hard work. It’s genuinely hard work.
Will Tjo: Yeah, absolutely. Goes towards the point of. Thank you so much for being a guest today, Dharmica.
Dharmica Mistry: I really appreciate it. Thanks for having me. And I look forward to hearing what everybody else has to say. There’s heaps of history behind all of this. And I know that every single perspective will help not only tell us the story of the history, but also shape the future. So, thanks for having me.
Adam Spencer: I hope you enjoyed that interview. More interviews are on the way, follow the podcast wherever you’re listening right now. Stay tuned for more interviews with many, many more amazing people from the Australian startup ecosystem. Thanks for listening and see you next time.