Spotlight Series: Interview with Dr Naa-Dei Nikoi, CEO of I-Daruma Technologies

06 Aug 2021

Naa-Dei Spotlight blog

Who are you?

My first degree was in materials science with engineering, earned at Cornell University, but I spent a decade working as an analytical chemist before doing a Master’s in biomedical materials and then a PhD in nanomaterials at the University of Manchester. I’ve been working as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Birmingham since 2018 and formally spun out my company earlier this year.

I-Daruma Technologies is a company repurposing naturally-occurring compounds to deliver therapeutics as topicals rather than injections.  Our initial aim is to take away the treatment burden of Age-Related Macular Degeneration which is the third leading cause of vision loss in the world, with 170 million people globally affected with AMD.  Patients currently face injections into the eye up to once a month, potentially for years, but we are aiming to replace this  with an eye drop.

What inspired you to start I-Daruma Technologies?

 I was part of a research group looking at cell-penetrating peptides. While they were effective in delivering therapeutics to target cells, they were inefficient in transporting significant quantities of drugs. I investigated similar molecules for their capacity to transport, and found a family whose performance far exceeded the efficacy of cell-penetrating peptides. 

How does it work?

The molecules self-assemble around drug molecules to form temporary positively-charged nanoparticles that can be easily transported through cells.   

What makes working at I-Daruma Technologies so rewarding?

As we’ve spoken to potential future customers, we’ve been exposed to a mind-boggling number of possibilities which are really exciting to consider.  It’s never boring.  I have a great team around me as well who ask good questions.

What’s the biggest obstacle you’ve faced in your entrepreneurial journey so far?

Lawyers. The company is quite a complex one in that it is a UK/US firm and as such, licensing and shareholders’ agreements had to be negotiated carefully. That took much longer than anyone had expected.

What’s next in the pipeline for I-Daruma Technologies?

We are investigating the potential of our technology to improve drug delivery to solid tumours, which are good at resisting drug uptake. 

2020 was a challenging year for everyone. What's it like to run your business through a pandemic, and have you got any tips on how to keep things going?

One day at a time. For me it happened at the worst possible time and saw a couple of key partnerships hindered just when we were set to execute. However, it also opened the door to a bigger opportunity, so it has worked out quite well. 

Any words of wisdom you would like to share with budding engineering entrepreneurs?

Look into almost any kitchen cupboard and you will find at the back a nifty gadget that for all its cleverness, either did not solve the problems people had well enough, or did not add enough value to their lives to justify its frequent use.  It’s a humbling perspective.  It’s all about people. People buy into and invest in people. It’s people who have problems that need solving. If you can show that you are listening to people and  are bringing them something of value, then your enthusiasm will take you far. It’s inevitable that what you thought you were bringing to the world will change, that’s a good thing.

What impact has the Enterprise Fellowships programme had on your business? What are the most valuable lessons you’ve learnt?

The quality of the education received. The instructors have without exception been well-chosen, able to answer questions for both people starting out and those with some experience. I’ve found myself referring back to my notes as I go. The self-knowledge modules have been of particular value.  The cohort that I met has been an incredibly helpful and supportive group, well worth getting to know. It has been so good to not be alone in this journey.

And finally, have you got any tips for potential applicants? 

Do your homework on the commercial basis of your proposal carefully: you are going to need it to take full advantage of the opportunity.

Quick fire questions

Who is your role model?

Dolly Parton.  She’s a talented and accomplished singer who has managed to stay humane, using her wealth to help others.

Tell us a random fact not many people know about you

I speak Danish, although I read and write it better.

What’s your guilty pleasure?

Girls Aloud.

When I was a child, I wanted to be…

A vet. Engineering caught my imagination just as I was applying for university.

If I wasn’t an entrepreneur, I would be…

still a postdoctoral researcher, vaguely wondering if I should go back to industry.

I don’t understand why…

I always wake up five minutes before my alarm goes off in the morning.

What’s your biggest weakness?

I over-think everything.

Who would you invite to your dream dinner party?

Jane Goodall, Alfred Wight (better known as James Herriot), Irish President Michael D. Higgins, and the author Wole Soyinka. I’ve no idea what direction the conversation is likely to take, but it’s not going to be boring!

When I’m not working at I-Daruma Technologies, I am…

Most probably going to be found curled up with a good book. I’m also to be found getting snarled up in yarn – my crochet ambitions exceed my competence by far. I also love rambling, but the last year hasn’t been too kind for meeting up with friends to do so. Next year...

What are your top three desert island items?

A good knife, a wind-up radio that receives short-wave, and a closable stainless-steel container. 

Do you have any life regrets?

A few, all along the lines of turning down opportunities. I’m looking to make fewer of those!

If I could have a superpower, it would be…

Being able to pick up any object and tell what its purpose is.

If you could live a day in a life of another person, who would it be?

It would have been Mother Theresa.

Which fellow Hub Member are you most impressed by?

I know he isn't a Hub Member but I would have to say Senior Programme Manager Angus Baker.  For being both incredibly patient and incisive when needed.

And finally, if you could invent a new piece of tech, what would it be and what problem would it solve?

A thought-controlled third hand, just for the dexterity. 

The Enterprise Fellowships programme is currently open for applications until 31 August 2021. If you would like to learn more about the support we offer, please visit the programme page here.


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