From Beirut to Biosensors – Joanne Kanaan

By Nasos Papadopoulos, EF Head of Content

Article6 Minute Read

EF is proud to announce the $115 Million first close of its new Global Fund. This will allow us to continue funding even more incredible individuals from all over the world to build game changing companies. Joanne Kanaan is the Co-Founder of Omini, which develops portable blood tests that remove the delay in classical laboratory tests, helping doctors save lives by making faster and more accurate decisions.

Technology is a double edged sword. At its worst it has the power to disconnect us from each other and to end lives. But at its best it has the power to bring us together and to not only improve our lives but to save them at scale. At Entrepreneur First, we know that technology can have unforeseen consequences, but we believe that it is a net positive for the progress of the human race when the people who seek to use it do so with a positive mission. Joanne Kanaan is one such individual and we’re delighted our paths have crossed because she’s now one of the most exciting founders on our first Paris cohort.

Joanne grew up in an eastern suburb of Beirut and was part of a small close knit nuclear family made up of her two parents and her younger brother. Her father was a physicist who worked as an engineer in the plastics industry, while her mother was a biology lab technician. Together they helped form a cohesive family unit that would provide the platform for Joanne to go on and achieve great things in her education and career – but they came together in less than ideal circumstances, meeting when her mother had to move school to be closer to the hospital treating her for an injury suffered because of the violence during the Lebanese civil war.

Joanne as a baby
Joanne as a baby
Joanne with her mother, father and younger brother
Joanne with her mother, father and younger brother

And just as her parents’ meeting was a positive outcome that emerged from a bad situation, Joanne’s early life was shaped by her remarkable response to a disaster that came even closer to home. Her grandfather was a hugely influential figure in her life, encouraging her intellectual curiosity through conversations on space, the natural world, religion and philosophy. When she was around 12, he was diagnosed with stomach cancer – and while most children of that age wouldn’t have known what to do next, Joanne’s response was to learn about the problem and try to help solve it. “When I learned that he had cancer,” she says “the first thing I asked him was “Do you know they can do biopsies on you to understand what you have?” My reaction was to do a systematic analysis of the illness instead of thinking of death or sadness – I was thinking “OK, what is this and how do we cure it?”

Her grandfather’s illness, which he eventually survived, was the spark that inspired an insatiable curiosity in biology, a subject she’d previously found boring at school. Consistently coming top of her class in most subjects at school, Joanne was an outstanding academic performer and when it came to choosing what to study at university, she chose biology over engineering, driven by the interest in the field that she’d now cultivated over several years.

She thrived in her three year degree at Saint Joseph University in Beirut, throwing herself into a strong cocktail of work and extra curriculars and when the time came for her to apply for a Masters, she was awarded a full scholarship. At the end of the first year of the program, an offer arrived from the Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris providing full scholarships for students to do a Master’s there, with the possibility of receiving funding for a PhD. Joanne knew that in order to pursue her dreams of a career in the hard sciences, she’d need to leave Lebanon eventually due to the lack of funding at her university…but she hadn’t expected that time to come as soon as it did.

Aged 21, she’d never been out of the country before – and the prospect of leaving her home and family behind and rebuilding her life in a new country was a tough one. But Joanne knew this opportunity was too good to pass on – so when she was accepted onto the program at ENS she made the decision to leave Lebanon and move to Paris. As it turned out the decision proved to be a truly life changing one – and not just from a career standpoint – because shortly after arriving in France, she met her fiancé and future husband, who would later encourage her to follow her dreams and take the plunge to start her own company.

At ENS, Joanne studied systems biology, using big data and bioinformatic tools to understand biological systems. This in turn led her on to her PhD in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, studying helicases, the essential molecular machines responsible for a large spectrum of diseases. While she thrived in academia, it didn’t take Joanne long to figure out that she wanted more. Just as her learning curve had flattened out back in Lebanon, it started to do so in her PhD and she started to look for other options as early as 8 months into the 4 year program. “I began to think that just being a scientist wasn’t enough for me” she says remembering the sudden shift in her mindset.

In the third year of her PhD she entered an entrepreneurial program at the university that allowed her to create a spinoff to commercialise a technology built in the lab. That planted a seed for Joanne and just before she was scheduled to defend her thesis a few months later, she received an email from Clémence Bellanger on the EF Paris Team, informing her about the opening of EF Paris. After a meeting at the EF offices in Station F and several conversations with her close friends and family, Joanne was convinced and accepted an offer to join our first ever Paris cohort.

Along with her co founder Anna she’s working on Omini, which develops portable blood tests that remove the delay in classical laboratory tests, helping doctors save lives by making faster and more accurate decisions. Excitingly, the team has now passed the EF Investor Comittee and is preparing to pitch at our EUR11 Demo Day in March 2019.

Joanne’s life and career can be seen as a series of double-edged swords – of positive outcomes generated from challenging situations – from the sudden illness of her grandfather which sparked her interest in Biology, to leaving her family behind in Beirut which created the possibility of a new life and career in Paris. But if her progress with Omini, with its mission to save lives at scale, is anything to go by, we’re convinced that this particular sword will be cutting one way alone.

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