In this episode of STEM revolution – entrepreneurs and leaders, Philippa Lewis talks with Chief Scientist of BCAL Diagnostics, Dr Dharmica Mistry about her experience as being a leader in the area of Science Technology Engineering and Maths, or STEM.  

Dharmica Mistry has an inspiring story to share.  From a young age, she was interested in how things worked.  She tells Philippa in this interview, “Ever since I was young and growing up, I was always very curious and inquisitive. Problem solving was my life.  I enjoyed trying to understand how things worked.”

She had a biology teacher early on who fostered Dharmica’s love of science and maths and “fanned the flame”, encouraging her to pursue her growing love of science further.

Dharmica says “…the biggest thing with STEM and what’s underestimated is that you have the potential to impact and make change, to make a difference in the world. And I think that’s very underestimated. The more role models we have out there, showing all the wonderful people doing incredible things in all of those (STEM) disciplines, the more traction we’re going to see.”

She goes onto say that encouraging kids into related disciplines is “also about breaking the mold. I think we don’t see enough non-stereotypical “nerdy” scientists at the forefront.” It is important to “engage younger generations to make a difference as well.”

She talks about the “push for innovation in Australia” that she has seen since entering the industry in 2010 and how it motivated her to start up BCAL Diagnostics, with the aim of bringing a test to life that can change the lives of millions of people.  The blood test is a new, non-invasive way of screening for breast cancer, which if approved, is expected to be made available to women of all ages.

Of the breast cancer screening landscape, Dharmica says, “At the moment, the only way to beat breast cancer is through early detection and treatment options.  Right now, the current gold standard for women in both brackets – or all ages, is either physical examination or ultrasound and mammogram.  So these technologies are there to detect the physical presence of the cancer.  But if we had a tool that could detect the disease earlier and more accurately, then we would be saving more lives through more effective treatment.  That’s what we’re doing at BCAL diagnostics.”

Like a PSA test, which checks for prostate cancer in men, Dharmica hopes that the BCAL breast cancer diagnostic would be added to the annual womens-health check-up regime, along with pap smears and breast checks. 

Dharmica tells Philippa Lewis that the most important decision she’s made during her STEM career was right at the beginning, when she was quite young and came up with the initial discovery with a colleague at the time.  She says “It was all about taking the risk on such a small discovery, which could have the potential to change the lives of people around the world.” She says, “It’s a really tough slog ahead, and I think that getting that initial research discovery is actually the fun part.  Commercialising something like that, it has so many hoops to jump through, in order to get it to the end goal, to get it to the people who matter.”

When asked what keeps her up at night, Dr Mistry says that her focus is firmly planted on getting the test into the hands of people that need it, and perhaps not just for breast cancer detection. The test may have broader applicability.  Her two major challenges are funding to get through the “valley of death” and navigating the regulatory pathway.  

Lewis and Mistry first met in 2017, when Lewis mentored Dr Mistry on the through a process run by the Australian Technology Competition.  Dr Mistry went onto win the People’s Choice award.  When asked what that meant for her, she says “Well, I was absolutely chuffed.  The first thing I said to myself was ‘at least I can communicate my science well.’ But the entire Australian Technology Competition was such a great experience.  It started with an application and then …essentially – you have to write a business plan.  This was a concise business plan, so you had to get to the point quickly, you had to get your message across efficiently and be investible. So all of those things were really good practice. There were a couple of workshops involved and then a big pitch at the end. That whole experience really helped me to learn and continue to grow. It’s been great for me, as I can apply all of the learnings as I move forward.”

For more information on BCAL Diagnostics, see www.bcaldiagnostics.com and for information on Elementum Advisory, a consultancy which acts as a springboard to start-ups and innovators, see www.elemadvisory.com