Meet Dr. Fathima J Benazir, Entrepreneur Who Created India’s First Food Grade Gel Stain

Posted: June 12, 2017

Dr. Fathima J Benazir, the Co-founder and CEO of Azooka life sciences made the tough transition from Scientist to Entrepreneur. Here’s her inspiring story!

While many talented scientists (in India) are content with their research and publishing their research papers, Dr. Fathima J Benazir has dived into entrepreneurship.  After announcing the discovery of tinto rangTM, a patent pending, food grade nucleic acid gel stain a little over a year ago, Dr. Fathima is busy working diligently in the lab to productise some of her other discoveries.

Here’s a heart-to-heart interview with Dr. Fathima, an entrepreneur, a scientist, and also a mother of two.

What motivated you to become an entrepreneur? What were the obstructions you had to overcome?

 My co-founder and childhood friend Alex D Paul, motivated me in the year 2013 while I was working as a postdoctoral research fellow at IISc. He was instrumental in making me realize the potential of my research and how it can create an impact in terms of products and benefit to the society. I was a researcher, content with the publishing of my research work. With his product management skills and global business experience, he helped me conceptualize products out of my research. Together we started to build the product from July 2013 onwards and incorporated Azooka Life Sciences in 2015 and released our first MVP tinto rangTM in March 2016.

Initially, my family dissuaded me from entrepreneurship as they felt it was a tough journey. They did not want me to take the risk and instead wanted me to pursue a secure career. While working on the product, fighting my family’s mindset was a major obstruction at that point of time.

What is your venture all about?

Azooka life sciences, a biotechnology company that aims to be a global leader in developing safe specialty fluorescent stains for applications in genomics research and molecular diagnostics. We are seed-funded and incubated by Society for Innovation and Development, IISc, Bangalore.

We are the first of its kind fluorescent stain company in India, while all the other such stains have been reported only from Germany or the USA. India is importing the stains currently at 30% import duty that makes Genomics Research and Diagnostics. Our mission is to make Molecular biology labs safer in a biohazard dominant environment.

What do you consider to be your greatest achievement?

I haven’t achieved anything yet! Although, the journey of being a first generation woman entrepreneur has been a very challenging and exciting one. I consider this to be just the beginning of a long road towards our destiny! However, we have successfully reported the first and only nucleic acid stain (DNA/RNA) stain from India (in fact Southeast Asia) and brought it to the market within one year.

What has been your most memorable experience as an entrepreneur as far?

We are the only Indian startup to be selected for startup Stadium in the breakthrough product category at Bio International, San Diego, June 2017. We are also representing India as part of the India Pavilion at the above conference.

Looking back, what’s one thing you would do differently?

If I have to look back, the only thing I would want to do differently is to design application based research that can be easily built into products, so that we could have built tinto rangTM and many more products much earlier! I would just want to go back in time to begin this journey a little early.

What aspects of entrepreneurship do you struggle with (you were a professional, a scientist at that)?

No eco-system for Women Entrepreneurs: There is no proper system to support women entrepreneurs, especially in Biotech. Banks and other financial institutions appreciate but are reluctant to invest. There is an unsaid bias that can only be experienced in person.

Hiring and retaining talent: It is very hard to find and retain the right talent in biotech as most of the students think that working abroad or working for a foreign company is more respectable.

What’s your greatest fear as an entrepreneur?

I hope to create an impact in the lives of researchers and students, and to the scientific community. I consider this as my unsaid promise, responsibility and a challenge at the same time. My greatest fear is, not delivering the very demanding expectations, and this is the one feeling that motivates me to push myself harder and harder in order to achieve the target.

What have been some of your failures, and what have you learned from them?

Receiving  BIRAC and other Government Grants: India does not have any Nucleic acid stains and it is being importing it at a huge cost. We assumed that the Indian Government would recognize us and adopt it in Hospital and Diagnostics centers. We applied for Biotechnology Ignition grant twice but were rejected stating silly reasons. All our applications and letters to biotech related bodies got no response or reaction.

We understood that fighting a bureaucratic system was futile. We chose to focus on the rest of the world, where our products are appreciated and adopted.

Recently, we got selected as a Breakthrough Finalist in Bio @2017, we are the only company from India to be selected. We hope that it will help us craft our own success story.

 What books or events have inspired you the most?

 Here are some good reads, I would recommend:

  • Business the Toyota way: The story of Toyota and Lexus
  • Rework by Jason Fried & DHH – Building products to engage your audience
  • Built to Last – How to build a company that will outlast founder’s lifetime
  • Pour your Heart into It by Howard Schultz, the story of how an Italian coffee drinking experience was adopted and globalized by Starbucks.

What advice would you have for aspiring entrepreneurs in general, and women entrepreneurs in particular?

Safe Bets Vs Impact and Disruption: Entrepreneurs should focus on solving a problem well and creating micro-impact rather than going with safe bets on copy-cat products that succeeded in developed markets. Although for product and impact takes time, it will bring its own rewards. Copy-cat products are usually meet dead end in 5-7 years.

Pivot, as there are many roads to success: Entrepreneurs need to pivot and try alternative strategies to engage their audience and turn them into customers. Some of them stick to one idea and expect the world to turn around. Timing is critical for product success, so be bold enough to put your main idea in the back burner until time is right.

Mothers as Entrepreneurs: A lot of women, including my students who had excelled in the colleges and had great ideas silently buried their ideas and enthusiasm after marriage and especially after kids.

Women bestowed with talents and skills should break stigma and turn their dream and ideas into reality. I consider wasting talent and time as the unforgivable sin!

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