NIZWA, NOV 2
The recent public introduction to SHAFRA, a home genetic testing service for Arab societies everywhere, in equal measure awed and excited local investors recently as Chief Executive Officer Mariya al Hinai, and Chief Scientific Officer, Dr Rayya al Maskri, launched their fledgeling enterprise.
Understanding the concept, the individual and societal implications, and having respect for the profound level of scientific and societal knowledge behind the project has engendered wide-spread interest and excitement in almost every corner of the Sultanate from commerce to health care.
So, was there a ‘lightbulb moment,’ in respect of the concept? Al Hinai responded, “As a genetics student doing my undergraduate degree, I noticed a developing market for related products, but nothing that catered to the linguistic and cultural requirements of the regional Arabic/Islamic population.”
Then, during 2018 the opportunity to work in the National Youth Program for Skills Development, as part of the Omani Youth Tech Ideathon, saw SHAFRA became more than just a concept.
“We are grateful for the opportunities we have received, getting our first investment from the Oman Technology Fund that provided financial, mentoring, and support through their advisory program.me” Said an earnest Al Hinai, “Then we also recently got to be part of the Sas Accelerator Programme, with Hamood al Hamadan and Emmee Haun, powered by Google for Startups, that has taken us to a different level.”
Here, Al Hinai pauses briefly to acknowledge that without Chief Scientific Officer, Dr Raya al Maskri, SHAFRA wouldn’t be here. “She plays a core role in delivering the company’s concept of empowering people to make informed lifestyle changes based on their DNA. She ensures that results we deliver are backed up by the latest, most relevant scientific research, and she will continue to drive high-performance within the SHAFRA environment, evidence-based results for our clients, and providing new information and insights to benefit the wider scientific community.
Questioned as to whether that implied that diversification was part of their entrepreneurial thinking, Al Hinai explained that, “Before being entrepreneurs, we are scientists at heart. We are simply following our passion for empowering people to understand their DNA. Science, technology, and the business perspectives are merely a means to an end. Developing SHAFRA has been, and continues to be, a massive learning curve for us both and it will make a good story one day,” she laughed, “as no journey comes without challenges. Legal and regulatory compliance, supplier negotiations, and fiscal aspects challenged us no end, but I must say, one of the greatest difficulties has beenin adopting a more entrepreneurial mindset. That said, seeing how SHAFRA is accepted, it’s all worth it now.”
So, what is home-based DNA testing?
Using a simple saliva sample, SHAFRA aims to empower their clients to understand their unique genetic data, or DNA, which will be analysed using cutting edge technology, scientific research and insights, and the results produced in an easy to understand Arabic language format. “The key objective,” they say, “is for our clients to know themselves as completely as possible, to make informed lifestyle choices affecting their nutrition and fitness, for improved wellness.”
So what of the young medical/ scientific entrepreneur Al Hinai herself?
“I grew up in a family that placed significant importance in knowledge and education,” said Al Hinai. “If I wasn’t studying, then you would probably find me reading, as we shared a mutual curiosity about the world, its cultures, and history. We have traveled often, and our itinerary has always included museums, bookshops, and unique and interesting places. I don’t leave the house without a pen and a notebook as I often best express myself in writing. My interest in the stories and details behind things is the reason why I studied the details behind our existence that have brought us to this point.
I did my Bachelor’s in Genetics at the University of Leeds, and a Master’s in Human Molecular Genetics at Imperial College London. I see myself as a lifelong learner, and I’m currently doing my second master’s degree in Genetics and Genomic Counselling at Cardiff University. I’m easily inspired by anyone with a passion for what they do, particularly by those who create a unique experiences, like my sister Omaima, who inspires me with her ability to articulate thoughts through art.
Feeling the positive implications for SHAFRA in a population faced with significant diabetes, obesity, and other genetic health issues, I broached whether Al Hinai felt any additional pressure to contribute to her society? “I have always felt content helping the people around me. I believe that the knowledge and education I have had, will prove the most rewarding contributing positively to people’s wellbeing. I would not say I have a personal need to contribute to society, but more widely to humanity. I believe too, that good ideas are abundant, and if I continue to read, explore and surround myself with the right people like Dr Al Maskri, good ideas will continue to emerge, and whether SHAFRA brings us wealth or not, we will continue to be enriched by its experiences.”
Mariya al Hinai then, with Dr Raya al Maskri, forms a powerhouse under the name of SHAFRA. She is a young woman, dynamic, confident, self-aware, and epitomizing the depth and potential of the distaff line of the Sultanate, it’s true strength.