Nora Khaldi: ‘Anyone who tells you a scientist can’t be an entrepreneur is off their head’

27 Oct 2016

Dr Nora Khaldi, founder and chief scientific officer of Nuritas. Image: Conor McCabe Photography

Dr Nora Khaldi, founder and chief scientific officer of Nuritas, spoke at Inspirefest 2016 of her amazement at being told that a scientist can’t be an entrepreneur and vice versa, when this couldn’t be further from the truth.

Despite the fact that Ireland is home to a number of successful biopharma start-ups led by some very bright entrepreneurs, investors are apparently sceptical about their ability to both run a business and be a dedicated scientist.

At least, that was according to Dr Nora Khaldi, founder and chief scientific officer of Nuritas, who took to the Inspirefest 2016 stage as part of the Founders session last July.

From the smallest seed…

Rather than focusing on either the life sciences or IT and data analytics, Dublin-based Nuritas combines the two, to create advanced algorithms that mine DNA and protein data from plant material.

In doing so, the results could lead to the discovery of new food components to help prevent, manage and even cure deadly diseases.

To put this into numbers, Nuritas’ AI program could break down a food source – such as an apple – into more than 30bn molecules, 100 of which could become feasible molecules for scientific research.

Khaldi’s and Nuritas’ efforts have not gone unnoticed internationally, with news coming last May that the company received €2m in funding from none other than Salesforce founder Marc Benioff.

Just like the combining of two different fields to create Nuritas, Khaldi combines both entrepreneurial spirit and scientific curiosity, which she herself refers to as an idea that investors have trouble getting their heads around.

Deflecting negativity

“Anyone that comes and tells you a scientist is not an entrepreneur is off their head,” Khaldi said on stage.

She went on to say that when she was first starting to pitch the idea of Nuritas to investors, it led to conversations where she was told to “not waste her time” trying to use AI to solve such problems.

Likewise, when she set out with a potential valuation of the company, she was told she would “absolutely never get it”, while the quality of staff she wanted was too advanced for a start-up.

“We have proven all this wrong many, many, many times,” Khaldi said, “so if anyone comes and tells you something is impossible, and you’re sane, then I think you’re doing something right”.

The challenge becomes even greater for women founders who – Khaldi said from experience – often find themselves in male-dominated labs or businesses, but this can change with a little cooperation.

While Nuritas now has close to an even split between male and female employees, she said that it is up to women to help each other, otherwise no one else will.

Inspirefest is Silicon Republic’s international event connecting sci-tech professionals passionate about the future of STEM. Book now to get half-price Super Early Bird tickets before prices go up on 15 December.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic