Meet: Dr Loubna Bouarfa, Founder of OKRA Technologies

Hannah Brice Written by
Hannah Brice
Read on to hear about how a startup is transitioning to scale-up thanks to good hires, creativity and a life-saving proposition.

Meet Dr Loubna Bouarfa

The application of artificial intelligence is cropping up a lot in startups these days but when Dr Loubna Bouarfa announced to prospects and investors how she was using it to revolutionise healthcare and save lives, people certainly took notice. Here’s her story.

1. Why did you start OKRA Technologies and what were you doing before?

I have a PhD in machine learning from Delft University of Technology, where I did research on how artificial intelligence could predict surgical workflows and detect anomalies. This research was validated directly in the operating room, preventing surgical error in real time, and making suggestions for improvements.

It was impactful work in theory, but I was frustrated with academia, because it didn’t allow for my research to translate into scalable and applicable solutions.

In 2015 I founded OKRA Technologies – an artificial intelligence analytics company, which was designed to apply this power of prediction on a wider scale to save and improve human lives in healthcare. I now work as the CEO of OKRA.

2. What were the biggest sources of inspiration and support when you were starting out?

I’ve had many sources of inspiration, particularly some of my close friends who spent time challenging my ideas and shifting my mindset. In general, it was difficult to move from academia into business, and many didn’t take me seriously in the beginning. The few who did and who listened to my ideas gave me the inspiration to push through.

In the end, I must say it was the business idea itself that kept me inspired. OKRA Technologies was founded to save and improve human lives with the use of artificial intelligence, in healthcare and beyond. That mission is very close to my heart, and I never wanted to give up on it.

3. What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned since starting the business?

From a client perspective, as the CEO of an artificial intelligence tech company, I’ve learnt a lot about bringing technology down to the client’s language. Clients often want a tiny little everyday problem to be solved – not the big, societal issues. I’ve learnt to rein in my thinking, step back and actually deliver.

In the process I’ve also realised the power of stepping outside of your comfort zone, specifically moving from science and academia to becoming a business leader. When I first started asking business prospects and investors to meet for coffee, I found it strange and difficult, like I was imposing and kept being rejected. But I learnt to stick with it and take the risks I needed to make my business succeed. The right people did come along.

4. What has been your proudest moment/biggest achievement so far?

I get a deep sense of pride every time I see the team interact in the office. It’s been a challenge to find the best possible people, but it’s so rewarding seeing how well they work together now. Successfully growing the team is probably my biggest achievement at OKRA to date.

5. What piece of advice would you give to anyone starting out?

Get some experience first, and make sure to learn about your clients. As you may know, 99% of startups fail because there is no market need for their product. So you should have deep knowledge of the clients and the market – not only what the direct need is, but also whether they are receptive to new products, and in what way. In my case, I work closely with the pharmaceutical industry, which is a slow-moving and heavily regulated space (rightly so when there are human lives at stake). This has required patience, creative sales tactics and a new narrative for what artificial intelligence can do.

Also, you must really believe in the problem you’re solving, otherwise it will be incredibly tough to stick with it when things get more challenging. My passion for improving human lives has always kept me going.

6. What piece of investment did you make in the business that was worth every penny?

Great people are worth every penny. We look for the best possible fit, and have hand-picked every hire. This is paying off in the form of a creative, efficient and motivated team.

7. Which element of marketing has made the biggest impact on your business?

Hiring a full-time marketeer. Marketing can mean so many things – having Ida as one devoted source has made all the difference.

8. What do the next 12 months look like for you?

Our next 12 months at OKRA Technologies will be a great growth journey. We are moving from a start-up to a scale-up, with new clients and hires. Our forecasted revenue is at 8x for 2018 – I look forward to seeing our clients adopt our AI with all the positive impact this entails, not just for their businesses, but for the human lives touched by healthcare. We aim above and beyond for 2019.

Do you have an interesting story to tell about how your business got started? Tell us about it.