From Philosophy to Cancer: The Unusual Story of Khatija Ali and BioSapien

From Philosophy to Cancer: The Unusual Story of Khatija Ali and BioSapien 

From young entrepreneur in New York to semi-finalist in a globally famous TV show, Khatija Ali is on a mission: helping cancer patients have a better life. If all goes according to plan, her company BioSapien will do just that.

It took Khatija Ali a minute to realise that her name was being called by Tim Draper. Then, she started jumping for joy on Abu Dhabi Finance Week’s Falcon Square stage. Her company had  been selected for the semi-finals of acclaimed tv show, “Meet the Drapers” – a fitting recognition for BioSapien, a small business with a big heart. Ali tells us more about how her and her startup’s journey.

Why did you participate in “Meet the Drapers”?

I just got an invite from Hub71. From my understanding, 400 companies applied, and 40 were selected to do a two-minute pitch three weeks before the event. Then, they reached out to eight of us to pitch again. And they selected four to pitch in front of Tim [Draper].

How did you prepare for this intensive round of pitching?

I’ve been the CEO of this company for almost six years, and I’ve started it unofficially eight years ago. So, over eight years, you learn what works and what doesn’t. But for this, I had to bring my four-minute-long pitch down to the two minutes they needed. I got together with the Hub71 team, with Tech Stars, with some fellow founders. I would pitch to my mailman and to anyone who would listen, literally, asking, does this make sense to you? Am I clear? Is it simple enough? Is it impactful? Does it flow nicely?

What were you expecting to get out of this experience?

The Draper family has been around forever. Tim Draper’s dad actually created venture capitalism in the 1940s; they’ve built behemoth companies. So, for me, it was a way to get into that network, to get exposure and some validation that [BioSapien] is a good business, and to potentially have [Tim Draper] as an advisor, mentor, or even an investor – he tends to do a small investment into the semi-finalists. And if we win the final in September 2024, it’s a million dollars.

You often describe your product as a Band-Aid for cancer. How does it work?

Essentially, it’s an alternative way to deliver chemotherapy. You undergo a minimally invasive procedure to put a patch on top of the tumour, and the patch releases the chemotherapy directly onto the tumour without side effects. If you have cancer, you’re normally tied to a machine in a hospital room; with our product, you could be driving, working, sleeping and you would still get that cancer treated – and you get to keep your hair. We’ve had a lot of excitement around this because it provides another tool for physicians and it’s life altering for patients.

How did you get into this specific field?

This journey started in 2008. I was 18 years old, studying philosophy and physics in Canada. My dad and I had started an HR staffing company together, but life threw me a curveball. [My dad] got diagnosed with colon cancer and I spent almost two years being his caregiver. We tried everything under the sun but, unfortunately, he passed away in 2011. I decided to become a doctor, but life threw me another curveball; I fell madly in love with surgery. Then, my aunt was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and passed away. So, I started doing a lot of research and had a realisation. What if we used the same materials used in surgery sutures to deliver drugs? That was the last time I saw the OR. When I graduated from medical school, two of my attendings gave me $10,000 and a centrifuge, telling me to go start a company. My mom gave me another $10,000, a friend of mine gave me $5,000, and I moved to New York to start BioSapien six years ago.

Why did you come back to the Middle East?

I’m from the region at the end of the day, and it’s really nice to be back home. Also, we joined the Hub71 programme because we’re ready for clinical trials and, in Abu Dhabi, you can do that a lot faster than in the US where, unless you’re in AI, computational biology, or gene therapy, you’re not getting funded – and only 2% of female founders get funded to begin with. You have to be in this really sexy space to make it happen. Trying to find a different delivery mechanism for cancer treatment is sexy, but not enough.

I moved here two months ago and my team is still in the US, but we are thinking about moving everything to the UAE. It will all depend on the infrastructure; there isn’t yet a biotech ecosystem [here] but I’m increasingly leaning towards building that ecosystem in parallel to BioSapien. I’ve started speaking to some of the universities and clinical centres, putting together a very small community. I’m talking to a few VCs as well, that have shared their interest in supporting what we’re trying to build – because biotech is the future; you can have FinTech and all these other systems, but if you don’t have healthy people to use them, they’re meaningless.

What are the next steps for you and BioSapien?

We have closed $2.5 million to date, and we aim to close a $5 million pre–A in the next quarter to start clinical trials. These will take about a year and a half, and we can go to market shortly thereafter – we’ll raise a larger series A to commercialise. We are looking at manufacturing the product and selling it to hospital systems; we can also license it to pharma companies; and we can sell pieces of the IP we have no interest in at all –  for example, pain management – because we want to stay in cancer.

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