Ani Haykuni, graduate of the Oxford University Saïd Business School, is founder and CEO of VANN, an innovative digital health platform which provides cancer patients with the tools to self-monitor vital information, mental health states, and additional information in between treatments. The startup has developed in parallel to Ani’s cancer treatments, and benefits from being based on personal experience and those of other patients. The platform builds a communication bridge between patients and clinicians, helping patients self-monitor and report their experiences, which enables both better care, as well as the collection of highly valuable real-world information for cancer research and drug discovery. VANN was created in response to the lack of patient monitoring outside of the hospital environment, which makes it difficult for patients to self-advocate, and for clinicians to fully understand their patients’ status.
What is your background? What made you decide to become an entrepreneur?
My background is in mechanical engineering and environmental management and policy. I also studied international relations at Syracuse University in the United States, as well as studying environmental sciences and forestry at the State University of New York before moving to Oxford to do my MBA. Before starting VANN, I have experience working for international organisations such as the World Wildlife Fund, the United Nations and several international charities . I had always wanted to do an MBA because it offers skills useful to self-improvement as a professional. Furthermore, I had always had a passion for solving problems; a passion which I knew the MBA would help me develop and enable me to have the skills and experience to have a direct impact on others through entrepreneurship. Financial gain is of course important and necessary for success, but I was most driven by the things that money cannot buy, such as following your own direction in life and improving the lives of others directly through innovation. This vision also led me to found the Ani Haykuni Cancer Treatment Support Foundation, which supports cancer patients throughout their journey.
What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
I understand entrepreneurship as the process of finding solutions to problems, with the aim of positively impacting those affected by the problems. It is important to proceed in a unique and individual way; I find that a great analogy is that of an artist creating something unique and personal, showcasing their worldview in a way that differentiates them. I have a personal connection to VANN due to my own experiences as a patient, and therefore I feel that a personal drive towards the success of your product and its impact is a key component of entrepreneurship.
How and when did you know your idea was good enough to develop it?
I first considered the idea behind VANN in 2016 when I was undergoing chemotherapy. Bad side effects were common for myself and others during this treatment, but I noticed that it was difficult to fully articulate to clinicians the nature and frequency of the side effects, how they were affecting me and what other factors I should be aware of or report to my clinicians. There was a lack of communication and monitoring of patients during times away from treatment and face-to-face appointments. This means that patients are liable to suffer physical and mental health effects without a mechanism through which to communicate this clearly and directly with their clinicians. I saw there was a clear need for such a tool. I did not start VANN as a company until 2020 but prior to that I undertook lots of research into the idea. In 2019 when I was re-diagnosed, the conversations I had with my oncologist solidified the idea that a tool that could help patients like me manage tasks such as tracking vital information was needed and would be extremely beneficial. I would say that no one is ever 100% ready to start their entrepreneurial journey, but as long as you’ve put in the work to have adequate knowledge and confidence in yourself, then the idea is ready for development.
What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
Optimism – Entrepreneurship gives rise to many difficult and uncertain times. The journey is very much a battle between the entrepreneur and herself; you have to fight your fears and allay doubts, as well as convince others that your idea is worth working for. But prior to this, you must convince yourself. It can take entrepreneurs months or years before they develop enough confidence to proceed with their idea, and this is why having more than one founder can cause difficulty – when they each have their own hesitations to work through individually. Optimism means not just focusing on and working towards the ‘dream’, but also yourself and your own capabilities.
Listening to feedback – I find that listening to as many people as possible improves both your own skills and your idea. Feedback could cover a range of aspects of your project, such as the business plan, the idea itself, your management or team work. Being patient and trying to fully understand and consider the feedback enables you to develop your skills, and ultimately have a better impact on others as your idea or product improves.
Flexibility – Entrepreneurs always have some kind of plan, which may be very specific or very vague. You have to be aware that plans are always subject to change due to circumstances, either internal or external, and therefore having a flexible approach makes it easier to adapt and re-align goals. An entrepreneur must be flexible also in order to adapt to the changing demands of the market or clients, to continue to be able to have a positive effect despite the project perhaps taking a different route.
What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?
My favourite part about being an entrepreneur is the freedom I have in deciding how to go about achieving my end goal and changing people’s lives, and freedom to create something from scratch. The freedom I have enables me to approach tasks in a very individual way; this is something that static job roles do not allow for. Of course, this kind of freedom also imports so much responsibility. As a founder and CEO, I oversee many diverse aspects of the company, but it is great to be able to handle them on my own terms, as well as considering the views and objectives of other stakeholders. Other aspects I enjoy about being an entrepreneur are the connections I make, as well as the ability to constantly improve myself and learn from my experiences.
What individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?
Rather than anything specific , I appreciate companies or individuals who approach problems in a very unique way. I find inspiration in myself, also. Focusing on the deeper meaning of my role, who I would like to be and how I would want to be remembered as an entrepreneur and an individual is important to me. I am personally inspired by my own personal journey and the path I’ve taken; everyone will find their own role in this world, and mine has a lot of meaning.
What has been your most satisfying or successful moment in business?
Achieving my objectives and making a tangible impacts on the lives of others.
What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?
I think that my approach to ‘failure’ is different to its common conception. I accept setbacks as necessary experiences that I have learned, reflected on and improved from.
How have you funded your ideas?
There has been some self-funding of VANN, mainly for the early stages of research and development of the idea, as well as receiving a support grant from Oxford University Innovation Incubator as part of the Santander Universities Programme. I find that there are so many aspects of entrepreneurship that cannot be measured in monetary terms, such as the commitment and personal time spent on your project. I also would say that it is important to have a very clear idea of why you’re fundraising and what for; the timing, purpose and whether you really need external investment at that particular moment is important to consider.
Are there any sector-specific awards/grants/competitions that have helped you?
We received the Oxford University Innovation incubator support grant as part of the Santander Universities programme at the University of Oxford. We have also graduated from TheHill Accelerator, made it to Oxford University Innovation Phase 2, as well as forming part of several other programmes in Oxford, London and the United States.
What is good about being an entrepreneur in Oxfordshire? Bad?
Oxford is a great environment for entrepreneurship. There is an extensive entrepreneurial hub of alumni and organisations who are willing to share their experiences and knowledge. As a digital health company, VANN benefits from being located close to a large research hospital in Oxford. Being able to tap into such a great network of entrepreneurs in Oxford makes the process both more fun, as well as supportive.
If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them?
This would depend on the type of idea proposed. I would recommend that the best starting point is to talk with people already in that sector, and to receive feedback on your ideas. The Oxford University Innovation Incubator is a great resource; they support a range of aspects of setting up a company. The most valuable resource would be to talk with an entrepreneur, as they understand specifically what you may be feeling, any fears you have, and great resources to access specific to your idea.
Any last words of advice?
Never give up.
EnSpire Oxford is a University of Oxford initiative to help connect people to the entrepreneurship resources they need, and to promote entrepreneurship across Oxfordshire.
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