Julia Hoxha is a former postdoctoral research scientist in Medical Informatics at Columbia University working at the intersection of machine learning, recommender systems, and semantic technologies. She took part in our WE Health program in Module 2-2017 in Munich and was now awarded a winner of the Noah conference in Berlin with her startup Zana. Learn more about her experience as an entrepreneur.
What motivated and inspired you to start your business?
As many others, I have the need to look up medical information on the internet. This became especially prevalent after my children were born. You often have medical concerns and even after a doctor’s appointment, you may have concerns that you want to look up. However, my co-founder and I noticed that the information you find online is often overwhelming and the way it is provided does not keep up with the technological advancements of our time. So, we had the vision for Zana and we also possess the skills to tackle this challenge due to our technical background and previous entrepreneurial experience. We started to let our vision become reality and built an intelligent companion that answers to people’s health questions in a human-like interaction without overwhelming them. We were able to bring in our technological expertise from years of research and transport that to a practical tool that addresses a real need.
Tell us about your business…
The core of Zana is an artificial intelligence system, that we call ‘Zana Brain’. It learns about the concerns and information needs of the patients over time and interacts with the patients through voice or text. Thereby we are addressing the field of patient education and engagement. Based on the customer health profile we are also able to recommend new innovative products to them.
In the meantime, while talking to healthcare providers we have also identified the problem of patients losing a direct connection to the doctor after they leave the hospital or the doctor´s office. So, we are using the core technology of Zana to shape our solution into an interactive assistant that accompanies patients post-operation or during treatment of chronic diseases. For this we are creating a dashboard for doctors, where they can access aggregated data from their patients that is collected via wearables.
What have been your biggest challenges so far with running your business? And how did you overcome these challenges?
One of our main challenges so far has been to secure the funding to get Zana running and finance our small team. Luckily we were able to obtain the EXIST startup grant from the German government and were awarded a funding from the EU INNOLABS program for innovative projects in healthcare.
Additionally, it remains a constant struggle to handle all the tasks of a founder and managing director, which go way beyond what I learned in my time as a researcher – be it marketing or the medical expertise. What comes along with this is the challenge of prioritization. You have this big vision, but not enough time to do all at the same time.
What helps me here a lot is that I like to solve problems and tackle challenges. I find that on the one hand, it is highly important to let yourself be guided by your vision and keep the general picture in mind, but at the same time break down everything in manageable tasks, so that it is not too overwhelming.
What was your biggest success as an entrepreneur so far?
There are some successes I am really proud of. The first thing is, that we achieved to establish a team of nine people that supports our vision. This gives me a high motivation to find the resources needed to keep this team on track.
Another one is, that we were able to secure our initial funding. Without this, we would have not been able to have the time to focus on our vision of Zana.
Last year you took part in the WE Health programme. What impact did the workshop have on you?
I recall several things that I took away from the workshop. The probably most striking was to be surrounded by such a community of women with very different profiles and to witness their drive and interest to innovate in healthcare. This gave me a lot of motivation to follow my path as an entrepreneur.
In one of the sessions, we also talked about being mindful of your own resources. First, go within yourself and find out where you want to go. In combination with the reflection of our own leadership styles, that we did, I am now more aware of my goals, my strengths and that I have to find other people that complement myself.
What advice would you give to other female entrepreneurs?
From an entrepreneurial perspective, I would advise everyone to jump in. One of my favorite sayings is „The comfort zone will kill you”. We shouldn’t be shy to take risks. Especially when I feel there is stagnancy, I like to challenge myself and try something new.
Moreover, I believe that for all careers, not only as an entrepreneur, we should all choose to work on something that we really love. This way we do not struggle with the motivation. Be it as an entrepreneur, PhD-student or in any other career, there will be nobody who constantly pushes you. You are in the driver's seat and need to take the responsibility.