Manolya Adan and Basil Mahfouz (both MSc Environmental Technology 2017) are co-founders of SynSapien, a startup developing an open innovation platform to help innovators worldwide co-invent technology, supporting researchers and scientists during the COVID-19 crisis.
We caught up with them to find out more about SynSapien and their plans for the future.
You recently launched SynSapien, a digital platform to help innovators worldwide co-invent technology. Could you please tell us more about the platform and how it supports researchers and scientists during the COVID-19 crisis?
Basil: Scientists need to collaborate. They are solving the world’s most complex problems, and constantly need fresh perspectives and critical knowledge from others, whether it is in academia or beyond. Of the 130 researchers we spoke to, 114 of them cited challenges in finding the right collaborators, and then managing groups with more than 13 members.
Our web platform’s artificial intelligence helps match scientists with the right collaborators and facilitates the innovation process in groups of up to 90 members. By providing these tools to innovators worldwide, we hope to accelerate the development of critical technologies that can help solve the coronavirus, climate change and beyond.
How does SynSapien work?
Manolya: Any researcher with a project, or an idea, can post it on SynSapien. Ideas are automatically logged on the Blockchain to ensure the protection of intellectual assets. Other scientists or members of the public can request to collaborate on the project to join a legally protected environment. Once accepted, the group collaborate using built-in ideation, validation, and decision-making tools to produce a co-invented technological blueprint.
How is COVID-19 impacting research and international collaboration?
Basil: There is a growing realisation among scientists, as well as members of the public, that the default, competitive modus operandi of R&D is no longer effective. Results can be achieved faster by working together, not against each other. We are also seeing a huge interest from the public to get involved and support research efforts. This has been very motivating for us.
Please tell us more about some of the live projects and technologies your members are currently working on.
Basil: We have a really exciting live project that was suggested to us by our researchers. It's an early detection device for COVID-induced pneumonia that aims to prevent COVID patients from needing ventilators. It's based on fairly intuitive oxi monitor sensors which, coupled with AI algorithms, perceive changes in vitals and blood oxygen levels and alert emergency contacts that a patient's health may be at risk.
What are your plans for the future?
Basil: We’ve just about finished up our testing phase. All the projects on the platform are now open-source, and primarily designed to help us learn from the experience of our members. Soon, we plan to apply all the lessons learned to build an even better platform that more effectively meets the needs of our members.
How has what you learnt at Imperial helped you in your career so far?
Basil: Our MSc in Environmental Technology has shown us that tackling complex challenges, such as climate change, requires an interdisciplinary approach. We are applying the principle of interdisciplinary collaboration to SynSapien, which is now enabling hundreds, and soon thousands, of innovators across the world to work together more effectively on solving global problems.
Why did you choose Imperial as the place to follow your interest in STEM subjects?
Basil: I wanted to contribute in a meaningful way to the fight against climate change. With a background in International Relations, I couldn’t jump straight into a pure engineering course. Rather, I needed an interdisciplinary programme that would bridge my policy background with an understanding of environmental science. This is why I chose the MSc in Environmental Technology at Imperial College London. It is a unique course that sits at the intersection of climate science, policy, and business and enables anyone from any background to leverage their knowledge and gain an accelerated understanding of climate change and how to solve it.
Manolya, how did you find life at Imperial as a woman and what advice would you give to girls who are thinking about studying STEM?
Manolya: I had never really considered that my experience of Imperial may have been different because I'm a woman. I was never made to feel as though the expectations of me were any different on the basis of my gender. I have always been mindful of my expectations of myself, to ensure that they're not watered down because of what institutions or society may expect of me.
To others who are considering STEM I would say that there are no fields more exciting and ever-evolving. It's an exciting adventure and the more you know, the more pathways are revealed for you to discover. STEM means being able to test, research, build, invent, discover whatever you want, and if you're missing a particular skill set, with a strong foundation in STEM you can teach yourself fairly quickly. It's massively empowering. If the future or the unknown excites you, do not hesitate, throw yourself in the deep.
What did you learn during your time at Imperial, in class or out?
Basil: If you are trying to solve a problem, speak to as many people from as many backgrounds as you can about it. You will be surprised how differently people perceive issues and how much you can learn from them.
Who did you find inspiring at Imperial and why?
Manolya: Professor Mustafa Djamgoz was my key to the world of interdisciplinary thinking. He's a physicist by training, but now a leader in the field of Oncology. Observing how his insights into electrical currents fueled his research on the electrical excitability of human cells was a revelation and opened my eyes to many other discoveries that had been made through the cross pollination of disciplines. This led me to researching paradigm shifts, and out-of-the-box thinking and how we can engineer this through tech. Concepts of interdisciplinary collaboration and engineering serendipity are key foundations in the principles that guide SynSapien.
What is your fondest memory of your time here?
Basil: The lunch breaks. After a thought-provoking lecture, classmates and I would grab our takeaway and head to the Queen’s Tower lawn. There we would have wonderful discussions about the content of the course. It led to deep, meaningful conversations with the world's most promising minds.
What have been your career highlights and lowlights?
Manolya: In summer 2019, we met with Peter Childs, Chair and Leader in Engineering Design at Imperial's Dyson School of Design Engineering. Upon hearing our pitch, he lit up with excitement and said that if we succeed we would have built the "golden chalice" of innovation. It gave us confidence that our mission can have a meaningful impact, and justified the sacrifices we made, and continue to make everyday.
However, it is very difficult to stay motivated when things go wrong, and things go wrong all the time. A rough meeting, a rejected funding application, or even conflict between members on a project all leads to some very "low weeks". What we have learned from our experience so far, however, is that when things are low, they are bound to spring back up soon!
Where do you see opportunities for other alumni to make a difference in these challenging times?
Manolya: On an individual level, it is challenging to make a real impact, but collectively alumni can play a huge role in contributing meaningfully towards overcoming COVID-19 and preparing for future disasters. By forming active specialist groups, on SynSapien and beyond, Imperial alumni can bring their highly valued ideas and knowledge to help develop better treatment, improve prevention, or inform policymaking. Graduates should not underestimate the value of their expertise and what they can bring to the table.
What makes you proud to be an Imperial alumn?
Basil: There is a real sense of community with Imperial alumni. We want to help each other succeed because we know how tough the curriculum was and the level of commitment it takes to succeed in an Imperial education. If I knock on an Imperial graduate's door, they will open.
What one word or phrase would you use to describe Imperial alumni?
Manolya: Polymath. They have a great deal of knowledge across multiple subjects, that they can draw upon to solve problems.
Do you have a favourite quote or saying?
Basil: My 8-year-old niece, Elena, wanted to go for a swim in the sea. She was concerned about the cold water, but said, "If I want to swim, I have to get wet" then jumped in.