By Hailey Eisen
Gender inequality wasn’t on Mahshid Yassaei’s radar — that is, until she came to Canada at 22 to do a Master’s degree in computer science. “I grew up in Iran, went to an all-girls high school, and always loved engineering, math, and logical thinking,” Mahshid recalls. “I studied computer engineering in undergrad, and while there were more boys in the program than girls, it wasn’t a big thing in my mind. I always knew girls were equally competent.”
As an entrepreneur in the field of medical technology, Mahshid has since experienced her share of gender inequality. But if anything, it has propelled her forward. “In high school, I had this image of myself having an impact — creating something from scratch,” she says. “Later in life, I’ve had to fight against how successful entrepreneurs are portrayed in the media — it’s not usually a woman of colour. To imagine yourself in the role you want is a mind game.”
But, it’s a game that Mahshid, for all intents and purposes, is winning. In 2015, after working for a variety of technology companies, including Blackberry, in data security, Mahshid co-founded Evenset, a software company specializing in healthcare and medical industries. “In every job I had prior to starting my own business, I felt like I was reinventing the wheel for that company,” she says. “I was always repeating myself, and I thought, this could be a service I could provide.”
Mahshid says she and her co-founder, Hesam Dadafarin, a PHD in biomedical engineering, were the perfect fit and his background helped bridge the gap between technology and medicine.
“As a woman starting my own tech business, I was a bit of an outlier, but my super star partner is amazing, he always looks at me as an equal.”
Through Evenset, Mahshid and Hesam have consulted for a wide range of companies from small start-ups to large multi-billion-dollar organizations and government agencies such as Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC). In 2019, they were hired by PHAC to conduct research on a problem this national health agency was experiencing.
“They were spending time and resources developing hundreds of pages of evidence-based content for physicians and patients, and they weren’t seeing engagement with the content,” Mahshid explains. “Because it was time consuming to search through all of these documents, doctors were often turning to Google or other physicians when they came up against something they didn’t know — rather than referencing PHAC’s resources.”
For six months, Evenset worked with the agency to determine if they could leverage AI and Natural Language Processing (NLP) to take passive content and turn it into intelligent content. In doing so, the idea for Tali was born.
It just so happened that the launch of Tali coincided with the start of the COVID pandemic, a time when a great deal of information was being released — along with a great deal of misinformation. “We quickly built out a library of government guidelines, medical resources, and journal articles, and set up a mobile app to be trialed by a medical clinic in Alberta,” Mahshid explains. “The doctors’ feedback was positive and Tali allowed them to save a lot of time searching for answers.”
“This is a very exciting time and I think COVID has dramatically accelerated innovation in healthcare, opening doors instantly that once took years to open.”
Tali is described as an information retrieval chatbot, trained on an organization’s knowledge base or internal documents that can answer users’ questions in natural language. Mahshid explains it like this: “If a doctor asks Tali, ‘Can I give the MMR vaccine to a patient with a history of cancer?’ the bot will understand that cancer patients are often immune compromised and patients who are immune deficient can’t be given MMR.” It will then provide a summarized response, allowing medical providers to navigate lengthy articles and guidelines quickly at point of care.
Tali can also be used by patients, something Mahshid is excited about. “We have started partnerships with patient education platforms so that eventually a patient could see his/her doctor and then turn to Tali with questions after their visit,” she explains. “The doctor would have access to the questions that were asked and could follow up on those as well.”
Mahshid sees this as part of an on-going transition — or revolution — in healthcare. “We are seeing a shift from doctors and hospitals being the centre of the healthcare system to a mindset where patients are the centre and they’re empowered to take responsibility and accountability for care,” she explains. In doing so, knowledge and information becomes invaluable to patients.
“This is a very exciting time and I think COVID has dramatically accelerated innovation in healthcare, opening doors instantly that once took years to open,” Mahshid says.
But all of this change doesn’t come without its challenges. Navigating a field like medicine isn’t easy to do on your own — especially as a fairly young start-up. “We’ve been really lucky to have had the support of ventureLAB, and through them, access to amazing advisors and mentors in the healthcare space.” Mahshid attended a pitch night at a venue where, coincidentally, the Director of Venture Growth from ventureLAB — a technology hub located in York Region — was also in attendance. She was approached by the Director who encouraged her to join the Tech Undivided program. The program, created to help women-led tech companies access resources to grow and scale, seemed like a perfect opportunity for Mahshid. “Beyond the access to an experienced healthcare advisor who’s been invaluable in providing support around client growth, partnerships, and business development, the best part of this program has been connecting with other like-minded women founders and meeting regularly to support one another’s growth.” With women founders often being underrepresented in the tech sector, Tech Undivided aims to bridge those gender and diversity gaps.
When it comes to navigating the healthcare space, Mahshid says she’s learned a lot. “It takes patience and respect for a system that’s been around for hundreds of years. To navigate a culture like this you need to wear the glasses of an observer and engineer and develop products with user understanding in mind.”
In terms of her personal growth, Mahshid says there has been alot as of late. “I love where I’m at, at the intersection of tech and healthcare, building more and more impactful products in this space,” she says. “As a friend once said to me, if you dream about starting your own company or building an interesting product, but are holding yourself back for whatever reason, ask yourself, if not now, then when?” That same friend encouraged Mahshid to take action and do what she was passionate about — and she hasn’t looked back since.