We caught up with Sonia Dembowska, a member of the 2023 PARSE cohort, to find out more about her journey as a tech founder.
Tell us a bit about your company, and your role, in your own words.
Theia AI is an early stage MedTech startup that uses AI to support clinical decision-making with relation to neurological diseases. I am co-founder and CEO of the company, but in the current state the roles are very fluid. The key mission for us is to help reduce human error in medicine and to improve health outcomes for patients suffering with MS.
We want to do this by modelling disease progression in patients and using this to predict when they are likely to worsen or to have a relapse. This is with the goal of allowing neurologists and patients to make more informed decisions about earlier interventions such as changing treatments to reduce the chances of relapse or worsening symptoms. In short, we aim to predict when a patient is going to worsen so that treatment can be given earlier resulting in a lower chance of seeing worsening over time.
What was the inspiration behind setting up your business?
Both myself and my co-founder are PhD in medical AI at the University of Leeds, and we both wanted to build something that helps people but also that we can call our own – having chosen our PhD projects for that reason.
I have experienced a close family member hospitalised because a doctor didn’t check if a prescribed medication would interfere with other existing conditions, whilst Joe (co-founder) also had multiple family members deal with illnesses over the course of their lifetime. Both Joe and I have dealt with close family members suffering from dementia, and hence we decided to follow the path of neurological disorders, which was ideal because it happened to align with my own personal research.
Medicine is so personal to all and we wanted to help at least a little bit with the tools that we know – technology. We also found that we really enjoyed the role of founders as it was the type of job where you did a little bit of everything and that somehow we found very satisfying.
Why did you decide to take part in PARSE, and what are you hoping to achieve from the experience?
This relates a bit to the next question, but from living in Leeds, I really felt like the community is its stellar quality. People are incredibly welcoming and warm, so I really enjoyed meeting everyone. PARSE is quite unique in the sense that people can come with their own specific problems and we can discuss them openly and learn from each other’s experience. And coming from an academic background, I really wanted to engage with different types of founders to understand the variety of challenges people face while growing their company. I also have to commend Stuart greatly for always making sure everyone gets to speak and is included in the conversation.
From your experience so far, what has been the most valuable thing you have found within the Leeds tech community?
Community, hands down. Leeds is small enough that everyone knows each other very quickly, and I appreciate the fact that people are honest and genuine. There seems to be a big focus on helping people build the local tech sector up.
What’s the biggest challenge you face as a Startup currently?
Networking, we are very young and still new to the medical industry where experience and connections are incredibly important. So getting in front of the right people is incredibly difficult.
Looking forward, what are your hopes and ambitions as a company over the next 12 months?
We really want to bring a clinical supervisor, a neurologist on board to make sure our product aligns with their needs. We are currently building a prototype and we are hoping this process is done within the year.
How do you personally define success?
Being happy with myself as a person – taking into account my personality, my knowledge, hobbies and work does come into it. I want to be a well-rounded individual and I also want to enjoy my work. This is why we founded a startup, because the line of work was exciting but we also got to keep research at its core.
Who, or what, has been the single biggest influence on your working life?
This would be a big list, but personally my mom, since she always pushed me to do anything and has provided me with a big safety net to fail. In Leeds specifically, I have to say Zandra Moore. She opened more doors than I could ever imagine and most importantly, believed in me.
And finally, chance, because if you really think about it, everything that occurs is just a sequence of events that sometimes happen in perfect alignment for it to work out.