Like so many others around the world, Asma Mirza MS’16 saw the COVID-19 pandemic throw her well-laid plans into disarray. She and her business partners had created a hardware eyeglass device that was supposed to revolutionize eye care. They were getting ready to carry out pilot studies when the pandemic forced them to abandon testing.
Mirza’s startup company, Steradian Inc, had to pivot quickly, or lose the thousands of hours of testing and money they had invested in the project.
At the height of the company’s upheaval, Tra Tran ’15, MS’19, a fellow graduate of DGHI’s Master of Science in Global Health program, joined Steradian to help it pivot to new technology. With Tran as director of development and clinical affairs and Mirza as CEO, Steradian is now developing portable diagnostic tools for COVID-19 and other diseases, based on the technology it had already honed for the eyeglass device.
In this interview, Mirza and Tran shared the ups and downs of running a business, the lessons learnt along the way, and their hopes for the future.
How did the two of you start working together?
Tran: We met a while back when we took a class together. I was an undergrad and Asma was in graduate school. We reconnected when we volunteered on the Duke Global Health Institute’s Equity Task Force. She asked if I wanted to work together and I was in.
Mirza: I loved Tran’s passion and skill set and that she cared so much about equity. And we have similar values.
The pandemic disrupted many startups. How did Steradian sail through?
Mirza: We were all pondering our next step after plans for they eyeglass device stalled. We would brainstorm and try to come up with ideas when we realized that we could create a diagnostic device that was portable, incredibly accurate and non-invasive for COVID-19 and other diseases from the technology we already had.
What was the technology?
Mirza: Simply put, what we used to project something to the retina could be used to detect any pathogen using the speed of light. But we had our moment of self-doubt. We all knew that there were other very smart people out there. Why did we think we could be the ones who could create a device like this? But we bit the bullet. We called up all our old professors and anyone who would give us insights into this new plan. And my colleagues, who are engineers, began working on the device.
And this idea won you a grant…
Mirza: Yes, a really big one from X prize. It helped set off the research and development stage and begin the trials. We also started working with Johnson & Johnson and we just found out that we have won another grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
What is the most challenging aspect about what you do?
Tran: Convincing people that we know what we are doing and that we are qualified is one of the challenges I face. And this is a big part of the imposter syndrome. Yes, we know that we are the right people and we are qualified but we don’t look like the people who do these things.
Mirza: The hardest part of my job is balancing and managing people on the team while maintaining the big vision. Also, It is hard to mesh the business strategy and the social impact you want to make. Business decisions have to be made, but you also want to make maximum positive changes in the community.
What parts of your work do you enjoy?
Tran: Everyone on the team is great, and the applicability of this technology is exciting to me. Being Vietnamese and having studied a lot about tuberculosis, I see lots of potential for great application of our technology and I am happy to be a part of that.
Mirza: Going to the lab and seeing the incremental changes of the physical device makes me happy.
How do you deal with business setbacks?
Mirza. We have applied for some grants and not gotten them, and I follow up for some feedback. And sometimes it is as simple as we aren’t at the stage they wanted. The thing is not to allow setbacks to influence your opinion of your work. You can’t take in personally because there will always be setbacks. There could be something to learn from a rejection, and sometimes there isn’t
Tran: I think anyone who doesn’t like to deal with setbacks shouldn’t consider startups at all. Because you must learn how to quickly deal with them and then let them go.
What has been the best professional decision you have made since leaving Duke?
Tran: I would say leaving Duke (laughs). I was at Duke for my undergraduate studies and graduate studies and worked there too. I was at Duke for about 10 years. That I took the step to do that was brave. But all in all, the skills and the education I got from Duke is priceless. And the networks invaluable.
Mirza: Not going to medical school was probably the best decision I ever made. I had wanted to do that since I was nine. My parents were physicians in Pakistan and we emigrated here. All my sisters are physicians too and it felt like a natural trajectory for me. But I didn’t and I honestly don’t think I would have been able to innovate as much as I do now.
Finally, what advice do you have for current graduate students?
Mirza: After grad school, go and work and gain experience. Find out what environment you thrive in and how you like to work. And yes, set networking goals for yourself.
Tran: Don’t stress yourself out about the future. You will be alright. And pick your thesis committee wisely. It isn’t enough that they be knowledgeable -- you need people who will support you all the way.