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Dr Emilia Molimpakis is the co-founder and CEO of Thymia, a mental health tech startup building AI-powered tools inspired by video games to help doctors spot and treat depression.

Molimpakis, who has a PhD in neuroscience and linguistics from UCL, founded Thymia alongside Dr Stefano Goria in 2020. In June last year, Thymia secured £780,000 in seed funding.

Thymia’s platform uses AI to analyse patients’ voices, eye movements and behaviour to help clinicians identify symptoms and measure progress in treating depression and and other cognitive conditions.

In this week’s Founder in Five Q&A, Molimpakis shares advice for female founders raising capital, reveals her tips for avoiding burnout at Thymia and explains why she believes AI is the most “hyped-up” and “misunderstood” technology.

1. What was the most important early hire you made?

Emilia Molimpakis: One of our best early hires was our chief science officer Dr Nicholas Cummins, the world’s leading expert on multi-modal signal processing for mood disorders and a lecturer in AI for speech analysis at King’s College London. Together with our co-founder and CTO, Dr Stefano Goria, he has played a pivotal role in developing our multi-modal AI and machine learning technology.

He is helping us ensure that our models are as effective as possible at ethically and conclusively detecting digital biomarkers associated with mental illness, focusing in particular on his strength, the acoustic properties of speech. He has also been carrying out in-depth analyses of the rich physiological data collected by the Thymia platform to better understand how cognitive and neurological disorders operate and manifest. He’s a real asset to the team.

2. What funding advice would you give to a first-time founder?

EM: Find a co-founder you can work well with through thick and thin. Founding and growing a company is really tough at the best of times. The highs are super high, but the lows are also super low, so going it alone can be frustrating and feel isolating.

With a co-founder you get someone to share the whole roller coaster experience with and it really does help to have someone who fully understands the whole picture; who can not only pick you up when you are low, but who you can also fully celebrate the wins with. A good co-founder will be an excellent sounding board for ideas and product iterations, amplify your potential several times over and help you continue to grow in ways you probably would not have thought of alone. It is a truly unique relationship.

My advice to female founders going out to fundraise: prepare yourselves for a frustrating experience, but be ready and willing to push forward anyway and treat every interaction as an opportunity to learn. It can be a challenge to overcome baked-in bias and push forward, whilst simultaneously refusing to accept the power imbalance and the emotions the inequality brings up.

But ultimately, we can only change the system if we have more successful female startups, more investors advocating for female founders, but also speaking out about and recognising these issues in the fundraising ecosystem. Persevere, because you will find investors who not only respect your product, but respect you as a founder, too.

3. What are the best and worst parts of your job?

EM: One of the best parts of my job is the intellectual challenge of developing Thymia’s clinical solution. It’s a technically and scientifically complex effort combining many scientific disciplines; not just neuroscience, psychology and linguistics but also computer vision, ethical AI and multi-modal machine learning.

The other thing I love is seeing how big of an impact this solution can have on the everyday lives of so many people. One of the worst things is seeing how unequal the investment landscape is for female vs. male founders.

4. How do you prevent burnout?

EM: Founder burnout is unbelievably common. Coming from the mental health space in academia, I was very much aware of that fact when I first co-founded Thymia. However, I made the mistake of thinking that simply being aware of it, I would somehow not suffer from it. I was very wrong! I did get close to burnout quite a few times in the early days and it crept up on me so quickly. As a result both myself and my co-founder, Stefano, decided to put in place very strict working rules that we have since held each other to. They are simple, but effective.

Number one is that you have to take at least one full day off work a week even under peak push times when going live with a new customer or fundraising. Ideally, you should take the full weekend off. When working remotely (particularly relevant since we founded Thymia right at the start of the pandemic), you only work within designated work zones in the house, you dress up as though you are going to work and when you are done, you change into relaxation clothes and all other house zones become no-work zones; that includes no checking Slack or emails on your phone!

If you work super late one night, make sure you take it a little easier for the next couple of days or take the afternoon off some day this or next week. Finally, one of the most important things is that you take the time for proper meals (ideally healthy ones!) and exercise several times a week. Even when you are super pressed for time and you think that could use that time better working, the reality is that the time you gain in efficiency if you take a proper break is much greater.

5. What’s the most misunderstood technology?

EM: I think that AI is probably simultaneously the most hyped-up and misunderstood technology of our time. When asking people their opinion on it, you seem to find both ends of the spectrum, where you have some people who exalt it as the miracle solution for every problem under the sun, particularly medical problems, and then there are those who are afraid of it and believe it is inherently bad or problematic.

How good, accurate and useful an AI model is relies on how well-defined the dataset it is exposed to is and how knowledgeable the AI engineers or researchers building the model are about that dataset and the target problem.

Founder in Five – a UKTN Q&A series with the entrepreneurs behind the UK’s innovative startups, scaleups, unicorns and public tech companies – is published every Friday.