Martina Hadrovic Sinthalapadi, Programme Lead, Panacea Stars

Photo of Martina Hadrovic Sinthalapadi

Martina is the Programme Lead at Panacea Stars, an arm of Panacea Innovation which accommodates a number of subsidiaries. Panacea Stars is an innovative translation platform that helps sci-entreprenuers to transform their research findings into thriving companies in order to accelerate the impact science has on people’s lives. Deep-tech agnostic, Panacea Stars operates in the space of health-tech and med-tech and supports startups in de-risking their venture to attract investment through their technology translation programmes. More than 200 startups went on to do exciting things afterwards such as joining other advanced accelerators or raising a significant amount of venture capital. Panacea Innovation are a startup themselves, mainly funded by top quartile investment firms, along with major research funding stakeholders including Innovate UK, Cancer Research UK and others.

What is your background? What made you decide to become an entrepreneur?
I finished my Master’s in Croatia and worked in diagnostics of HIV. Upon moving to UK, I joined National Institute of Biological Standards and Control (NIBSC), specifically their Centre for AIDS Reagents. Two years later, I moved to the Influenza Resource Centre where I learned about vaccine batch release and interacted with vaccine manufacturers and other stakeholders on generation of Candidate Vaccine Viruses, used in production of the Influenza vaccine. NIBSC are one of the 4 regulatory laboratories in the global network of stakeholders that decide on the strain of influenza that goes into the vaccine every year. There I became acutely aware of the time pressures influenza vaccine manufacturers are under, due to yearly issue of the vaccine.
It was a really important experience for me; the first practical exposure that made me consider how science directly relates to industry. This experience led me to my DPhil project at the Zoology Department where I use gene editing on cell lines for cell-line based vaccine manufacture. The goal of my project is to find a way to increase the yield so we could make more vaccine doses faster. Current pandemic proved we still have a lot of space for improvement, in terms of development or optimisation of vaccine production platforms. This whole experience ignited my desire to support young scientists coming up with new technologies and when I spotted the call to join Panacea Stars I did not hesitate! Working directly in the entrepreneurship space enables me to learn about many more cutting-edge technologies, which scientists are developing in many other disease areas. It’s like a peek into the future!

What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
Panacea Stars Logo

I am not sure I have a definition, but I definitely associate action with the term entrepreneurship. Action and maybe impatience, impatience to make a difference. Speaking personally, I’ve always been an impatient person – I want things to happen instantly. That desire to drive something forwards and make a difference is absolutely central to my understanding of entrepreneurship. Specific to health tech the strongest drive is to make an impact on patient’s lives. That is a powerful motivator because we all empathise with people when their health is jeopardized and they’re at their most vulnerable. I also think of entrepreneurship as inability to do nothing when you know you can contribute in a positive way. To be an entrepreneur, regardless of industry, you are eager to see impact and change and you are ready to sacrifice a lot for it in terms of job security, free time, mental bandwidth you could otherwise dedicate to other things, friends and family, lots of things, you know? It takes a lot, which is why it’s crucial the founder believes in their idea unquestionably.

What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
Firstly I would say foresight – to see the trends, to connect the dots, spot the gaps you can fill. You want to identify a problem you feel you can solve in the area you know well. It is also important it causes enough friction for users to want to pay for its solution. Otherwise you don’t have a business.
Secondly, pragmatism. Scientists sometimes fall in love with their technologies, and don’t stop to ask themselves whether it’s the simplest way of doing something. There is definitely room for purely academic curiosity and discovering new things, but to have a successful business the product actually has to be useful and conducive to implementation by the customers.
Thirdly, resilience. This is something that I’m sure everyone’s heard so many times, but there’s value in reiterating it. In being an entrepreneur, you are introducing change into how things are done and people are creatures of habit who will inherently resist this change. So you need to be able to convince people that introducing that change is worth it. And this obviously comes with a lot of rejection and resistance, which is where resilience comes in.

What is your favourite part of supporting entrepreneurs?
Hustle and bustle -every day something new is happening, even if it is negative and for example you get rejected, you don’t have time to wallow, that helps me to learn not to overthink things. In the startup world things happen on a much shorter time scale so I can see the results of my work quicker. And the teams we work with are so proactive. The impetus they have and drive to see things happen is contagious. You cannot not join the wave. Being on a mission gives one a purpose, whatever that mission is. And this happens to be mine.

What entrepreneurial individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?
Cliché as it sounds – Panacea Stars. I believe we don’t need to aspire to faraway idols, heroes are all around us. So if you look closely you’ll find so many stories of people fighting for better lives for those around them and I am a practical person so I find that inspiring. To give a personal example, the vision and leadership style of Panacea Innovation CEO is so inspiring to me. I have worked in various countries and environments but I’ve never worked under a leader who has managed to cultivate such a strong sense of teamwork. Everyone is valued by the whole team for their contribution. Of course, it depends on the dynamic of characters in a team but generally the top management sets the culture in a company. And so a lot of that is attributable to him and the way he translates the vision of Panacea Innovation to projects and programmes of work that the Panacea Stars team can execute. When I get to manage people one day – I am hoping to be able to replicate the atmosphere we have in Panacea Stars.

If you had 5 minutes with the above individual/ company/organization, what would you want to ask or discuss?
I have more than 5min every day, hahaha…. and we do discuss anything I have on my mind. We discuss vision, strategy, how to think critically in the commercial context… I am learning a lot about effective leadership which I think comes from being generous with knowledge and supporting the growth of people who work for you. It is an art to be able to incite people to deliver beyond their perceived abilities, allowing the leaders in the team to shine and tactfully somewhat sideline those who slack so they don’t “contaminate” the team spirit. it is a very rich experience for a student in terms of learning.

What has been your most satisfying or successful moment while supporting entrepreneurs?
Their feedback, when they tell us how much our programme helped them to progress – either by developing their business strategy in a more productive direction or via contacts we introduced them to that got them to the next milestone in their startup journey. It is that immediate impact of one’s work that energises you for tomorrow. Also, I once gave a career talk to undergraduates to promote Panacea Stars and talk about entrepreneurship and afterwards one of them messaged me on LinkedIn saying that I had really improved their confidence and allayed some of their fears for the future. That was an amazing feeling, because I could see the work I do can be really valuable to individuals.

What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned while supporting entrepreneurs?
There is probably not one key ‘mistake’. And I never think of anything as a failure; the only failure would be giving up! But working in such a fluid team environment means that we all work around each other’s abilities. If we know that someone is going to be really busy in the lab one day, others step in. It’s important to know people are
doing their best.

If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them?
If they came to us, I’d say they need not go any further – that is exactly what we do. Because we work with very early startups, our activities cover everything from the ideation stage to investment stage. We recognise that scientists need this type of support as they are not knowledgeable about the process of taking an asset from the bench to the clinic. That toolkit is what we provide with our programme and activities which include training and mentorship, now even the capital through Panacea Ventures.
But outside of health-tech space – I believe OxLEP will have a lot of useful information, Oxford Foundry if you are connected to University in any way. City libraries may have interesting resources in terms of upskilling in IT for example. I would definitely recommend on-line meeting groups like MeetUp. Peers in your industry, digital, food, creative, education or any other will know best the resources available in the area. If you can locate a hub specific to your industry, that’s a great asset too that could facilitate much of the early progress of your startup.

Have you faced any challenges as a woman supporting entrepreneurs? If so, how have you overcome them?
I’ve never founded anything myself, which I think must be putting yourself out there in a whole new way. I have worked with some fearless women who went through Panacea Stars Programme. That being said, my experience is that men act differently when they are around other men as opposed to in a mixed environment, so things still aren’t equal. You know? Like when you hear those comments that you “can’t say XY in the presence of a lady”. Even though potentially well intentioned, I see it as double standards. That however is a wider
societal issue beyond just entrepreneurship. The way I’d say to deal with discrimination of this type is to lead by example. It’s a really hard thing to do, but if women can educate men about their equal capabilities, with time men will not be able to ignore the results, because everyone is after the results at the end of the day. Another thing that may help is humour- package the lesson you want to teach in wit. And if men ever do say insensitive things, we shouldn’t get insulted – one can only really get insulted by someone they respect, and it’s impossible to respect someone who says insensitive things, regardless of gender. So women can just deprive men that try to bring them down of any legitimacy.

What resources would you recommend for other women interested in doing this?
Networking with women in order to build a group of strong female mentors as a big resource pool is something that I’d recommend. I attend lunches for female entrepreneurs where women share stories about their experiences, and it’s always really fun. I believe really strongly in support, no matter the shape or form, and I don’t believe in hiding things. I myself am an open book, so I’m always happy to share my experiences, and hearing other women do the same is really important to me. So I’d recommend trying to find meet-ups of women around where you work or live. Women who succeed can open doors for other women, so it is important to make yourself visible to the community and to voice your intentions so they can help you should the opportunity arise.

How do you think institutions such as the University of Oxford could better support women entrepreneurs?
What needs to be weeded out is self-doubt, so any initiatives in that direction I would endorse – leadership courses, fireside chats, podcasts, interest groups anything that encourages sharing of resources, information and provides visibility. We emulate what we see. On a practical level, any solution similar to the blinding processes in hiring is good for example; Because this is all that women want – equal rights, not special rights.
Lastly, I think there needs to be a shift in thinking about employees – they are people with a private life beyond just what they deliver at work. If we manage to welcome the whole person at work with all their facets, the employers will see great benefits. A valued employee always over-delivers. Something I hope pandemic has brought to the fore also, are caring responsibilities employees have, women and men. We need to start accommodating those in order to harness the full potential of the workforce. People usually considered this a women’s problem, but I think now a lot of men saw this first hand while working from home and home-schooling the children at the same time. I hope there will be more openness now towards initiatives and programmes concerning taking breaks to take care of one’s family. That would ostensibly lead to less asynchronicity between the “biological clock” and the “career clock” that women deal with currently.

Do you have any advice specifically for other women who want to be entrepreneurs?
Drop the imposter syndrome! Life is too short, and it’s not worth it. People regret the things they didn’t do, rather than the things they did do. I can see this within my own life: if someone had told me ten years ago that I would be doing a PhD in Oxford, I never would have believed them. Which is tricky, sometimes, because I constantly have to remind myself that I do belong here. So I should take my own advice. But everyone has self-doubt, don’t let that stop you. As I was saying earlier about heroes all around us, everyone should be the hero – or heroine – of their own story. And heroines experience self-doubt too, their own ‘dark night of the soul’. So everyone needs to remind themselves that although things might not be easy, they aren’t impossible. Actually, if you convince yourself that things aren’t impossible, then they won’t be. To insert some humour into the matter – after Trump became President, what other proof that you can do it do you need? We can safely say that we’re all about a million times more qualified for our jobs than he was for his…

Any last words of advice?
Drop the impostor syndrome and forge on. Leave some space for self-criticism, as much as is necessary for critical evaluation of your actions, but no more. Life is short and it is not worth having any regrets. When your intentions are honest and propositions beneficial to society, things find their way somehow to work out, maybe not in the way you envisaged, but it does not make your efforts less valuable. You will have learned something that you can take with you to your next endeavour