Born in Wimbledon, South West London, and brought up in a Pakistani Christian household, Azeem describes his upbringing as “amazing.” His father worked as a surgeon and his mother worked in the pharmaceutical industry, so science and medicine were all around him. “Christians are a tiny minority in Pakistan, who have and continue to experience a lot of persecution. That instilled in me, from a young age, the importance of standing up for what you believe in.”
Over the years, Azeem has done just that. With parents who always encouraged him to chase his dreams, he pursued music which was his first love. After his foundation years, he actually moved to Los Angeles on a song writing contract to spend time writing music and recording with various major labels and artists. It opened his eyes to his love for expressing himself creatively and using words and emotions to impact the lives of others.
That passion for music taught Azeem some invaluable skills that have helped him as an entrepreneur. After his foundation years, he stepped out of his comfort zone and co-founded BiteMedicine, an education technology (EdTech) company.
Over the years, I’ve learnt the importance of resilience and perseverance. When I first got into music at 15 years old, there was a lot of cold e-mailing people and networking. That taught me a lot about believing in myself and not taking rejection personally – lessons which have been valuable in my journey within EdTech and HealthTech.
BiteMedicine launched at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Azeem and his co-founders recruited a bunch of friends – medics, clinicians, programmers, and designers – to provide support and mentoring to medical students across the globe via the web. He says, “A lot of students were at home feeling hopeless and anxious. So, we used our connections and skillsets to create a platform to try and provide support for students.”
It was two months in when Azeem realised that they had created something significant.
We were holding daily webinars with over 1,000 students from around the world attending. Some were joining at 4am in their local time and I just thought, ‘wow!’
The word spread completely organically. The team also got in touch with medical schools such as Imperial and King’s College who were very supportive.
“A lot of consultants, professors, GPs, and academics helped to deliver teaching and spread the word,” he says. Azeem was included in the Queen’s New Year’s 2021 Honours List for services to medical education during COVID-19.
My mentors at Imperial essentially paved the way for my career thus far. All the academic publications that I’ve written, the research work that I’ve done, and the jobs that I’ve had, have been made possible through their help and guidance. They’ve opened many doors for me and just getting to know them and their team has been so invaluable.
A secondary outcome of the course was to encourage entrepreneurial mindsets in clinicians. “For example, you learnt about the theory behind surgery, the theoretical basis behind anaesthesia. Our project asked, ‘how would you design a novel device and try and bring it to market?’” This challenged the clinician in us to think like an entrepreneur”.
Azeem and his team decided on a novel orthopaedic surgical device. “We thought about the target market, how we were going to price the device, what problem we were trying to solve and who the relevant stakeholders were,” he says. Then they reached out to designers all over the internet for help with how to create it. That was a huge stepping-stone because it showed how you can take an idea in your mind, put it on paper, and make something from it.”
Outside of the course, Azeem fondly remembers spending lots of time with friends in cafes and pubs in South Kensington, walking down Exhibition Road (one of his favourite roads London, which always felt “magical” late at night), enjoying Hyde Park, and time at his local church Holy Trinity Brompton.
Running BiteMedicine has taught Azeem some important lessons in leadership.
I had to learn to recognise my own limitations. I’m not a programmer, I don’t know AI, but I know people who do. Being a good leader requires you to put aside ego. Insisting on holding 100% equity in what you’re creating will not allow you to build something at scale.
So far, BiteMedicine has been a bootstrapped start up, but are looking to expand. So, what’s their long-term strategy?
He says, “It’s two-pronged with a focus on education and technology. BiteMedicine will continue to provide content to undergraduate medical students and other markets.”
He continues, “The tech side involves trying to tackle the biggest issues in education, in terms of challenges with the provision and accessibility to education and its associated psychological challenges.
On this, the BiteMedicine team are working with leading data scientists and AI experts to explore how they can use the lessons that they have learned and data that they have collected to create a new tech-enhanced learning experience for students globally.
Having impact at scale
For Azeem, positively impacting society at scale is a core value. “How can we socialise education for students and widen access to education in general?” he asks rhetorically. Part of that dream is to tackle some major mental health issues that affect medical students. And for him, it’s personal too.
To balance the different demands on my plate, I’m learning to be a bit more self-aware about how I’m feeling. I’m also being very careful about what I dedicate my time to. Music, for me, is cathartic. I want to make the time to read more and get into journaling. Travelling has got to be high up on the list too.
From a career perspective, he’s also determined to do things differently. “I’ve always been keen to explore beyond the realms of the traditional medical training pathway,” he says. “I’ve actually taken several years out to enjoy things I love like music, and, thankfully, that’s paid off. But finding the right balance has still been a big challenge.”
The award and the future
Azeem is moved by this award. “Looking back at the inspirational past alumni who have won this award, it makes me quite emotional to think that I’m on the same playing field with people like that. It’s an absolute honour and means so much to me. It also gives me a little more validation, that the things I’m doing hopefully will be able to inspire the younger generation.”
Where does he see himself in ten years’ time? “Honestly, I’m still unsure. If I can say that I’ve built things which have positively impacted people’s lives at scale in education and healthcare – improving lives, reducing hospitalisations, improving their physical and mental health, in the UK and further afield – I’ll be happy.”
Azeem has stepped away from surgical training for now. He’s entered the private sector to work for a healthtech company called Cera as a Digital Health Clinician. He says, “The business focuses on domiciliary care and how you can use healthtech to empower people to live longer, better lives in their own homes and reduce hospitalisations in elderly people who are being cared for at home.”
Azeem believes that the most important and rapidly growing areas in healthcare technology are in primary care, radiology, mental health, and oncology. “It is important that we continue to leverage our increasing understanding of the importance of a personalised approach to both physical and mental healthcare.” he says.
“I believe that primary care is a broken system that requires addressing of, not only clinician recruitment and retention, but also of how we can use technology to ameliorate some of the socioeconomic and structural challenges surrounding the triage and delivery of primary care services. Additionally, rapid advances in domiciliary care are taking place right now with a shift to ‘hospital at home’, remote patient monitoring, and efforts to reduce institutionalisation within a care home or hospital.”
Azeem shares his tips for those coming up behind him:
- Be comfortable with failure!
- Your medical degree doesn’t define you. There’s more to life than your career, and if you can, grab the opportunities to do what you love and learn new skills.
- Show initiative and forge relationships with your peers and seniors. Those relationships are invaluable.
- Medicine is a profession to be proud of – a beautiful profession. The skills you learn are invaluable, giving you the wonderful opportunity to impact, not just the patient in front of you, but whole societies too.
And he ends with his favourite quote:
“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I'll meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about”. (Rumi)
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