Phd scholar and startup founder, Anis Fatema on breaking stereotypes and the walls of Science, and how it seems like she’s everything, everywhere all at once.
Two years ago, Anis Fatema made a splash in leading media publications with news of her “magic mat”. It was a low-cost flexible sensor that was labelled thus because it could intelligently sense the amount of pressure applied. With applications in diverse fields such as physiotherapy and the ergonomic furniture industry, it was not surprising that she was swamped with calls from manufacturers, doctors and others interested in the device. “I had folks asking if they could use it in mattresses or office chairs or if they could buy the ‘product’,” remarks Anis. Discerning a huge demand for what until then had just been a research paper and encouraged by their mentor, Prof. Aftab Hussain, PhD student Anis teamed up with a fellow colleague and formally incorporated a startup, PiStar Tech at the Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE), IIITH.
When the Falling Walls Lab, a global pitch competition made its South Indian debut at IIITH, Anis seized the opportunity to showcase her breakthrough idea of a smart chair that could reduce chronic back pain through posture recognition and correction. In 3 minutes, Anis walked through the audience on how her flexible mat on a chair could detect a slouch or a hunch, sounding an alert so it could be corrected. While the pitch didn’t win her the first prize – she came in second, bagging a 10,000 Amazon voucher – it gave her the confidence to face a diverse audience of interdisciplinary students, researchers, and entrepreneurs. The exposure came in handy later at the Grand Entrepreneurship Conclave, Aarambh 2022 organised by the Hartcourt Butler Technical University, Kanpur, and Start in Up where Anis went on to win the Best Idea Award with a cash prize of Rs 60,000. It seemed to unlock a series of awards that have since followed: The Best Women-owned Business Pitch and Best Overall Pitch Award at the WiSe-YP Big Idea Pitch Competition and prize money of $400 at the IEEE Applied Sensors Conference 2023 (IEEE APSCON) in Bengaluru.
The award that came as a pleasant surprise though was the one for ‘Augmented Writing Skills for Articulating Research (AWSAR) 2022’. Narrated in an informal style, her descriptive story, drawn from real-life conversations with her brother, of the evolution of the smart chair idea won Anis the second place as well as Rs 50,000 for popular Science story writing under the PhD category in the competition organised by DST. “My brother, who is a doctor, often has pertinent questions about my work that I incorporated into the story,” she reports. The mandate was to present research writing in layman terms for the general public. “Einstein’s famous quote of ‘You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother’ inspired me,” remarks Anis, adding that the award-winning submission when narrated to her own grandmother passed muster. On National Science day, 28th February, Anis was felicitated for the award at a ceremony in Vigyan Bhavan, New Delhi.
The latest feather in Anis’ cap has been her recognition as an ‘Elite of Asia’ by the Woman Leaders Forum. She will be officially awarded the “Young Woman Director Of The Year 2023” title at the WLF event in Dubai in May 2023. The note on the WLF site describes the achievement as a way to honour the accomplishments of Asian delegates through hard work, dedication, perseverance and discipline. “Anis is a very talented and dedicated PhD student who has deep understanding of the core subject, as well as the discipline to persevere in the face of failure,” corroborates her advisor, Prof. Aftab.
Grit and Glory
Her early immersion into scholastic pursuits was thanks to an instructional atmosphere at home. “My mother was a school teacher who went on to set up an coaching institute for various subjects,” narrates Anis, who even as an 8th grader often pitched in to assist her mother. Fuelled by dreams of donning the white coat as a doctor, Anis felt conflicted when she was advised to consider Engineering as an option, given her stellar performance in Maths. However, the Engineering stream emerged to be a turning point for her when in the first year itself, Anis was profoundly inspired by her professors and the Head of Department, Kaleem Fatima. “I wanted to be a professor too, and like my mentors, not someone who only teaches concepts of Science or Technology; I want to be an inspiration for other students and the reason for changing their lives,” she emphasises. With this in mind, she transitioned into an MTech programme on Digital Systems and Microcontrollers at JNTU with a stipend from AICTE. Matrimony happened along the way and soon she welcomed a baby girl. It didn’t distract Anis from her pedantic quest though. “For my MTech final, while I was defending my thesis, my parents were waiting outside with my 6 month-old child,” recalls Anis, terming it challenging albeit a memorable experience.
More trials were in store for Anis though. A year later, she walked out of an abusive marriage with baby in tow, picked herself up and returned to academia – her first love. The going was hard but she had her entire family backing her. The pursuit of a PhD led her to Prof. Aftab Hussain at IIITH, a well-known figure in the world of IoT and flexible electronics. “She started in my lab as an intern after her Masters from JNTUH, and immediately proved her skills by developing the prototype for the flexible pressure sensor array that is now her PhD topic,” says Prof. Aftab. “Essentially, it was a 4×4 pressure sensor array that works on a piece of assistive sensing technology. So, when it is pressed, the resistance changes according to the amount of pressure applied,” she says. The idea was well appreciated and led to her formal acceptance into the PhD program. With the work getting documented in a research paper, it was accepted in the IEEE Sensors Journal and emerged as one of the top ten finalists for the Best Paper Award at the IEEE International Conference on Flexible and Printable Sensors and Systems (FLEPS) 2022 in Vienna.
“Her project, based on studying the pressure sensing properties of flexible piezoresistive materials, has applications in a wide variety of fields including physiotherapy, athletics, sports science, preventative medicine, and so on,” remarks Prof. Aftab. As founders of the newly minted startup, Anis and her partner – who has since moved on – began with a focus on the physiotherapy market. “The larger target is the wearable sensing technology space but for starters, the pressure mat really helped physiotherapists in tracking progress of patients post surgery,” says Anis. A chance meeting with a diabetologist revealed prospects in another segment; diabetic footcare. “In the long run, people with diabetes lose sensation in their feet and are prone to neuropathic ulcers. The sensory mat serves as a medical image analysis of your feet much like an MRI for the brain by showing not just what kind of a foot you have, flat or arched, but also the pressure points,” shares Anis.
With several grants coming in from Meity Startup Tide 2.0, Nidhi Prayas, Pernod Ricard India Foundation, coupled with palpable excitement from the market, the patent-pending technology is poised to go places. “I still want to be a Professor and contribute to change in society,” clarifies Anis, while adding, ”’It’s like I’m married to the Professor role and the startup is my child.” As a single parent juggling the competing demands of work and home, Anis credits the immense support of her mother, Habeebunissa and brother, Dr. Md. Umar Farooqui for her achievements. “I dedicate all my awards to them,” she smiles. Besides the backing of her own kin, she is full of gratitude to her mentor, “Aftab sir for his constant motivation and belief in me”. For now, whenever daunted by burnout, Anis only has to remind herself of her daughter, Inaya, who symbolises the true meaning of her name in Arabic: ‘Gift of God’.