Semira – who runs her own company, works as a researcher and is a mother of two – keeps so many plates spinning that we’re not quite sure how she does it. She tells us more about her work and shares some tips for scientists wanting to start their own company.
When did you decide you wanted to start your own company?
My husband and I were finishing our postdocs in San Francisco. Sébastien is a biologist and I was researching epigenetics. We were wondering what to do next. One day, we were on holiday with our two kids and Sébastien asked me, ‘If you could do anything, what would it be?’ I was very excited about my research in the field of epigenetics (the study of how behaviour and environment affect gene activity and expression). I believe epigenetics can revolutionise preventive medicine. So I suggested that we start a company to translate research results into a product. And that’s how Genknowme was born.
How did you come up with the idea behind Genknowme?
I was studying the effects of exposure to tobacco in utero on the epigenetic landmarks of babies and how this might be linked to childhood leukaemia. I was astonished at how significant the results were. Exposure to tobacco had altered the DNA of newborns. I wanted to try to understand more about how exposure to external factors affects our DNA and potentially develops into a disease. I was sure there must be a use for this in clinical medicine. That’s where the idea came from, although what Genknowme does is quite different.
What does Genknowme do?
We measure the impact of a person’s environment and lifestyle on their DNA. They are given insights on their epigenetics and told their epigenetic (or biological) age. Whereas your chronological age measures the number of years since your birth, your epigenetic age is a scientific estimate of your physiological state. Our ultimate aim is to help patients improve their lifestyle and health. If your epigenetic age is five or ten years older than it should be, it’s a wake-up call. Our partner clinics give patients advice on how to change their environment and lifestyle to lower this age.
I’m interested… Where can people take this test?
At the moment our epigenetic test is offered through clinics. For instance, we work with Clinique La Prairie, where doctors offer our test as part of the longevity and well-being programmes they run.
‘I was very excited about my research in the field of epigenetics. I believe epigenetics can revolutionise preventive medicine.
How did you come to work with Clinique La Prairie?
Biopôle and Innovaud helped us to put the partnership with Clinique La Prairie in place thanks to what is now called the Corporate Partner Programme. It was a wonderful opportunity; the fact that such a prestigious clinic placed their trust in us has helped us to form partnerships with other clients. We’re extremely grateful.
What are your top tips for those considering starting their own company?
‘Entrepreneurship is both a science and an art. You really need a lot of skills, so be prepared to keep learning.
What is it like to run a company with your husband?
There are lots of positives: we love working together and it’s easier to share a vision because we’re a couple. Our skills are different, so we complement each other: Sébastien is very good with planning, numbers, scientific processes, and I love project management and working with clients. He’s an optimist, whereas I see potential problems. But it can feel like work never stops. We really have to make an effort to separate work and family life as otherwise work can completely take over.
What five words best describe you?
Passionate, scientific, humane, caring… and I’m also a worrier!
When you get time for yourself, what do you do?
I sing. I started by singing jazz and pop songs and now I’m learning to sing classical music. My favourite at the moment is Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater. It really helps to destress. I’m focused entirely on the music and my breathing so it’s a meditative experience. And when I get a chance I make music in a group setting as it’s a wonderful way of connecting with others.
Semira is a medical doctor by training, specialising in public health and preventive medicine (FMH board certified in Switzerland) and a researcher in epigenetics (UNIL, UCSF, UCB). She is also a part-time executive (Senior Resident Physician) at Unisanté, an academic institution formerly attached to the CHUV (in the top 10 hospitals in the world).
In 2019 genknowme was founded by a team of passionate scientists. This innovative life sciences company dedicates itself to the transformation of cutting-edge research into epigenetic signatures that measure the impact of lifestyle on your biological age.