Revolutionising scientific research: An interview with Nawah Scientific's CEO, Omar Sakr

Nawah Scientific, the Egypt-based Healthtech startup that aims to empower scientific research and scientists in the region, earlier this month closed a second Pre-Series A fundraise of $1M. The round was funded primarily by Egypt Ventures and joined by the Alexandria Fund, Cairo AngelsAlex Angels, HULT Alumni Angels, and several international angel investors.

We took the opportunity to catch up with the scientific research-focused startup to find out more about how exactly such a platform works. Founder and CEO, Omar Sakr discusses how he thought of the concept, how the pandemic impacted their plans, what we can expect to see from the Healthtech space in the future, and more.

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How does the Nawah Scientific platform work?

Nawah ('the nucleus' in Arabic) is a core hub of advanced research equipment specialized in natural and medical sciences that offers its services online and on-demand. The online platform receives experiments requests and Nawah's scientists carry them out and return results online. We serve industries in need of product development and analysis (pharmaceuticals, petro/oil, chemicals, agriculture etc.) as well as academics at universities in disciplines of life sciences (biology, chem, pharma, etc.).

When and how did you realise that this was a solution that needed to be implemented in Egypt?

I’m an academic myself and I have witnessed firsthand how hard is it to carry out scientific research in Egypt despite the abundance of brilliant minds and young ambitious scholars. I then spent half of my career in research institutions in Berlin and Geneva during my PhD, and saw that lack of access to advanced research equipment is truly what was holding us back. Naturally, I thought that Egypt needed a “core lab facility” with everything in one place to help take the scientific research to the next level. Following this, I realized that this model was not scalable enough because I would have needed to open a new core hub in every city I want to cover, however, as you can imagine, this would have been incredibly expensive.

Here, the online platform idea kicked in and we thought that one central hub in Cairo could serve the whole of Egypt (and beyond) based on the logistics coverage of our courier partners, and this is what caused our business to boom. Now, our clients only have to take out their smartphones, place the order and we take care of everything else until the results are delivered.

How did the quick onset of COVID-19 impact Nawah? Were you forced to immediately shift your focus?

In the beginning, COVID-19 caused us to lose too much business as universities closed, losing most of our B2C clients (scientists and scholars at universities). Many companies also had cuts on their R&D budgets leading to more losses on our B2B sales. Then, we noticed some hidden opportunities. Our formulation team developed an enhanced hand sanitizer formulation that reduces skin dehydration, a common side effect due to continuous alcohol use.

We developed several tests to analyze the quality of sold alcohol sanitizers in the market and we were very active in fighting low-quality products using a low percentage of ethanol, or even worse, containing harmful organic compounds. We also inaugurated a high-tech virology lab and engaged in several projects on COVID-19 and on other viruses as well. We were able to maintain the company running and eventually benefit from the disaster to come out stronger.2020 Saudi Arabia Venture Capital Report

Do you think the crisis has caused a permanent shift in how scientific research is conducted?

I cannot say the way scientific research is done has changed, but I can confidently say that humanity learned that scientific research is not a luxury and we are all in debt to scientists who spent their lives buried in their labs. Their lifetime research has become the base for novel vaccines that are saving us all.  

What were you looking for from your investors besides capital?

At our current stage, we need investors who have helped other startups scale into new regions. Expanding into new markets comes with a very different set of challenges and hurdles and definitely needs investors who can provide guidance besides money.

Nawah has future plans of expanding beyond pharmaceuticals. Can you share some of your expansion plans with us?

Our expansion plan runs both vertically and horizontally. Vertically, we plan to grow our current lab hub in Egypt to serve more industries other than pharmaceuticals, in particular food and agriculture industries. Horizontally, we plan to expand to Saudi Arabia later in 2021 and we are currently carrying feasibility studies on which industries are in need of our services.

What do you believe are some of the most exciting things happening in the Healthtech/scientific research world right now?

We are starting to understand more about our genes and how they actually work. Genetics and molecular biology will evolve very much; the new COVID-19 vaccines are actually based on molecular genetic techniques rather than old vaccine technologies. 3D printing of organs is moving fast and may revolutionize organ transplantation as we know it. Telemedicine is also booming as smartphone penetration boomed during COVID-19 and the general population became more adapted to online communications.

What are your hopes and vision for the future of Nawah?

Nawah plans to revolutionize scientific research in the Middle East and Africa. We plan to open a series of well-connected state-of-the-art lab hubs in 6 strategically located spots in MENA/Africa, to empower the whole scientific community. MENA/African scientists are more than capable of solving MENA/Africa problems and the potential is unlimited. In addition, we see Nawah acting as an enabler for a generation of life-science startups to emerge and leverage our lab capabilities instead of building their own labs. We hope that Nawah will become the region’s first life science unicorn.

What advice would you give to yourself five years ago? :)

Go to a business incubator as early as possible! I made many mistakes at the beginning that I could have dodged if I had gone to a good business incubator rather than learning the hard way by trial and error.

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