Becoming Austrian of the year 2020, Dr. Jama Nateqi
Dr. Jama Nateqi is one of the dynamos behind Symptoma: a world-leading artificial intelligence (AI) symptom checker with a +95% accuracy rate for over 20,000 diseases. We spoke to him to find out how he succeeded in realising a lifelong ambition to reduce misdiagnoses where so many other companies have failed.
Austrian of the year 2020
“Even the nomination came as a complete surprise. It was quite an honour.” Nateqi was awarded Austrian of the year 2020 in the research category in an impromptu lakeside ceremony during his daily swim (at 5°C). Taken by surprise, a boat crossed his path with a news broadcaster holding his trophy: “I was the first person to be awarded like that apparently… and I’m in a wetsuit!”
Nateqi, 37, is a German-born Austrian citizen with Afghan parentage (and a Cambodian name). He is co-founder and CEO of the world’s most accurate AI symptom checker and digital health assistant, Symptoma.
His success has a captivating story: from his motivations, medical background and natural business acumen to his long-term partnership with nanotechnologist and co-founder Thomas Lutz, Nateqi is committed to solving the universal healthcare challenge of finding accurate diagnoses.
Motivation behind finding healthcare solutions
Nateqi had decided on following a medical path by the age of five after his grandfather visited him from Afghanistan for the first and only time. His grandfather was suffering from a disease that would have been curable in Germany, but not in his war-torn homeland; this disparity gave Nateqi the long-term goal of making healthcare more accessible.
“When he died soon after, I had this feeling that he had died of something that could have been prevented – something curable. This didn’t make sense to me.” – Nateqi
Like many medical students, Nateqi considered following various disciplines (general practitioner, eye doctor, brain surgeon, etc.) before realising that all the healthcare problems he was encountering had a ubiquitous challenge: diagnosis.
When only in his third year of studying medicine in Austria, he and co-founder Lutz recognised their complementary skills and set about solving this major problem by establishing their AI digital healthcare assistant Symptoma in the wake of so many other online symptom checkers that had tried and failed.
An innovator at only 16
From an outsider’s perspective, Nateqi and Lutz were taking a huge risk in directing their focus away from otherwise stable careers to pursue a model that had never yet proven to be viable. But even at 23 and 21 years old, they already had years of successful business experience behind them.
In 1999, aged 16 and still at school, Nateqi began his first online business. In his first year, Nateqi was serving 30,000 daily users whilst still completing his high school studies. Following this success, he and Lutz founded a social enterprise, Matheboard, in 2002. Matheboard.de now employs 100 people, having survived various crises (like the dotcom bubble bursting and the 2008 financial crash), and serves two million German-speaking students online each month.
Nateqi has been able to continuously reinvest revenue into the business, and their first enterprise proved that these two ambitious students could take on another challenge by founding Symptoma.
Persevering for an accurate AI
“It dawned on us at some point why other companies who had tried to establish something like Symptoma since the 1970s had always failed.” – Nateqi
During a period researching and studying at Yale University, Nateqi was able to observe competitor online symptom checkers developed in the USA by big corporations. Generally, they didn’t expand their databases wide enough to include rare diseases, skewing probability rates and therefore the possibility of forming accurate diagnoses. Moreover, employees were conducting huge research on an industrial scale, with very little personal gratification to show for it. Large corporations quickly burnt through medical professionals and investor capital.
Whilst Nateqi attributes Symptoma’s success over these other companies to many factors (e.g. medical research rigour, advanced AI, an extensive database, public funding opportunities, international collaborations and a large medical network), a recurring theme is perseverance.
He jokingly says, “Thomas and I are the only crazy nuts in the world to have spent 15 years on this very specific topic without giving up,” but their personal investment has been invaluable. Nateqi and Lutz put their own energy and passion into Symptoma, extending as far as their wages for the first nine years; all profits went back into the business and the team.
“We have faced many challenges over the lifetime of Symptoma. So far, we have always come out on the better side.” – Nateqi
Of course, Symptoma has run into hurdles of its own. When Nateqi and Lutz first applied for six-figure funding, an expert consulted by the jury deemed that what they were setting out to achieve was impossible (in a strongly worded 20-page document). Amazingly, even though they were still students at the time, the jury overruled the expert’s opinion and voted to award the funding.
Symptoma has since received support for several other groundbreaking research projects that are enhancing the AI’s accuracy.
AI and business success
And now, 15 years on, Symptoma is expected to become Austria’s first unicorn, employs 70 people and has 10 million monthly users: more than any other online symptom checker. It is used by patients, doctors, hospitals, medtechs, pharmaceuticals, insurance companies and governments. In scientific publications and Pfizer studies comparing 107 symptom checkers, it ranks as the most accurate.
Nateqi winning Austrian of the year 2020 for his research is a great accolade to add to Symptoma’s collection, and many doubt it will be the culmination of the company’s upward climb. Nateqi is dedicated to conducting further state-of-the-art medical research with the team, managing Symptoma and speaking at events to increase the company’s exposure.
Advice for future researchers and entrepreneurs? Fail smart to succeed
“If you are afraid of failing, it’s not going to work.” – Nateqi
Nateqi’s success with Symptoma so far is a testament to his determination, and this is echoed in the message he gives to aspiring researchers and entrepreneurs. He encourages failures as a means of building self-confidence and eliminating fears that can hold you back.
He says that “living with COVID-19 has shown us a global failure, where we were still able to improvise and overcome many problems and collaborate across borders in order to fight this crisis.” Reminding us that we have all made sacrifices whilst COVID-19 spreads, Nateqi says it shouldn’t be an obstacle to taking calculated business and personal risks.