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  • Sonali Quantius

Leaving a corporate job to create a perinatal mental health platform - my journey so far

taken on the Zürich lake, 12th of February 2022

Two years back on this day (12th of February, 2020), I landed in Switzerland with my family. While taking a walk with the family in the gorgeous Swiss weather today, I thought back to that day, two years back when I had no idea of how it was going to turn out and whether I will succeed or go back to a full-time job. Today, in a bend of the road, suddenly, I saw this sculpture and I thought to myself: this is exactly how I feel now!

A bit of a back story: after my Ph.D. and a Postdoctoral stint, I joined the Pharmaceutical industry that took me to four different countries and saw me rise through the ranks quite rapidly. I met brilliant people doing brilliant science and achieving great things. It opened my eyes to how frustratingly difficult it is to create a medicine that works with little or no side effects to benefit the right people at the right time. I never took medicines for granted again and have come to laugh at the lazy rhetoric that pharmaceutical companies only care about profits. I also realized that I love being a leader and the biggest high that I could experience was seeing 'my people' succeed. I learned and unlearned a lot of things and being in the corporate world taught me how to see things differently from academia. I learned to understand 'value' in the truest meaning of the word. I understood boundaries and I understood politics.

However, while I was enjoying it intellectually and professionally, something inside me wanted more. I realized that I need to make an impact that meant something to me. Ever since I can remember, I have only competed with myself (which is why others' opinions and competitors don't bother me). I wanted to do something that means something to me, but also challenges me and takes me so far out of my comfort zone that I dare not dream about it.

So, I quit a well-paying, comfortable and enjoyable job with a fancy title to start something that was just vaguely taking form in my mind. Two months before the world declared that we have a pandemic in our hands and we cannot leave the house, we sold our house in the UK, uprooted the family, and moved to Switzerland. With a dream and a temporary job that would help us settle down. I joined Prof. Ernst Hafen for around a year at ETH Zürich to work on my idea and also make his dream of decentralized data governance ('data to the people') come true. Ernst and I shared the same vision: let people, and not big companies control their own data. Web3, defi, NFTs are all the craze now, but Ernst, who was always ahead of his time, had this vision >10 years back. Anyway, I spent the better part of the year writing three different grants to make this idea work, along with pitching creating a product that makes people control their data.

Coming back to the product - being a molecular biologist and a huge believer of precision medicine, I wanted to create a product that helps find the right drug at the right time, using gene-drug, drug-drug, and drug-condition interactions and machine learning and create a platform where people have access and control their medication data. It was a great idea but I was falling into the same trap again - it was hugely satisfying intellectually and was definitely a challenge, but it didn't mean much to me personally.

And then, one day, on an early morning run, I saw a runner with a stroller. She was running effortlessly with a 'twin stroller' while talking on the phone, smiling and not even out of breath. Not being the most 'elegant' runner myself, such people amaze me - who are not out of breath, who don't break out a sweat, and who make running seem like a dream. But this time, it was the twin stroller that caught my attention. As I went on my path, I thought to myself - why didn't I ever run with the twins? We did have a twin stroller (a fancy 'off road' one, no less). And then it struck me - I never ran with the twins, because I didn't want to be around them. And the realization took my breath away. I sat down on the bench, on the hill looking down at Zürich. I thought back to those 'dark' years and it made me sad but also very angry. At the healthcare system for not screening me for postpartum depression and at myself for not seeking that help.

I realized that it took me four years and running a marathon to get out of this deep, dark depression that I was ashamed to get help for. And I realized that it was time with my children that I will never get back.

As I ran back home, I knew this is what I needed to do. To create a platform for women (and men) to take care of their mental health, where they can inform themselves, reach out to a community that has their back, and where they would feel safe to speak out and speak up and easy access to health care professionals if things go down south. And also create (in the same platform or a different one) accurate, evidence-based methods for diagnosis and treatment, using biomarkers so that they accurately diagnose and treat perinatal depression.

Easier said than done. All our grants got rejected. What was frustrating was that all of them thought the idea was technically sound and had all the right partners, but they weren't sure it will be a 'business with good ROI'. It was a dilemma that made me think twice about the whole thing. How can I build a product when I wasn't a developer and recent personal tragedies in the family meant that I didn't have many funds to spare to pay developers to create it either. It was the same story with investors. Even the ones who write that they invest in 'overlooked', ' femtech', 'women founders' etc. The market size was just not big enough for them (here's a newsflash: pregnancy is not going to go out of fashion anytime soon, so I don't know what they were talking about).

This was the middle of last year. I had been in the country for a year and had nothing to show, except decreasing savings. Things looked dark and bleak and no one would give us a break, however hard I tried. My ego and self-worth took a massive beating. After many dark days and wrong turns, I told myself, in September of this year: to "&%@' with that. I haven't come this far to come this far. I asked myself, how difficult can this be? If I am up for this challenge, why not take it all the way? So I decided that I will learn how to create a platform and do it myself. At least create the MVP, the beta version, and then let the end-users decide whether it is useful for them and we can take it from there. I wanted to create a platform that not only takes care of perinatal mental health but also has a decentralized database with user access and control so that we start building real-world evidence for the lack of gender-specific data that makes diagnosis and treatment of depression so difficult at this time. And even if one woman screens herself and finds solutions that take care of her mental health and in turn, her children and families (there are many studies that show that maternal mental illness has a direct impact on children's developmental stages, including themselves suffering from depression later on), it is worth it. And then I will figure out a way to make it profitable so that I can create a sustainable business and reach many, many more women in the farthest corners of the world.

So, here we are, two years later, and: the beta version is ready. After spending many nights and early mornings (after the children went to bed and before they woke up and sometimes putting in all-nighters), I have created a responsive web app that is ready for beta testing. With a lot of help along the way, from people who believed in the vision and the mission.

This is why I feel like the girl with her head high and her hands up in the air. With the beta-version out, I am the woman with the twin stroller - achieving something that I never thought was possible. And on the way to making perinatal mental health as normal as perinatal physical health.

And it is only the beginning.

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