A Startup From Saudi Arabia Could Help End The Mammogram

I cover entrepreneurs in the Middle East and North Africa.  
Nermin Sa’d was running a successful online engineering services firm, based in Saudi Arabia, when she got a piece of devastating news: One of her close friends had advanced breast cancer, which required a double mastectomy.

Then, even more devastating: “After 20 years of marriage, four adorable children, (her husband) chose to divorce her,” said Sa’d.

The news led her to launch a company to create bras for breast cancer detection, which she is now seeking to fund with $3 million. Sa’d is an example of the quiet, hard-to-quantify rise of women entrepreneurs in Saudi Arabia. Entrepreneurial activists and others remark on the trend: technology has made it easier and cheaper to launch companies, which can be one way for Saudi women to earn money or have a career.

“It’s a way up and over barriers,” said Elizabeth Close, managing director of consultancy Quincy Group, who said she has seen a rising interest in promoting entrepreneurship at universities in the country.

Sa’d’s story also raises an interesting question about the role of emerging markets women in innovation. What problems would they tackle, and what opportunities, overlooked by men, would they see? Worldwide, women’s entrepreneurship is thought to be one of the greatest untapped sources of economic growth. Closing the credit gap for women in emerging economies could raise the world’s GDP by 12%, Goldman Sachs concluded.

I think they are a huge and unrecognized source of innovation, too.

In Saudi Arabia, tor reasons mostly related to reluctance to reveal themselves to doctors, many women don’t report symptoms or get regular mammograms, Sa’d said. Saudi Princess Reema Bint Bandar Al-Saud launched a giant breast cancer awareness campaign last year to counter some of the stigma. About 500,000 women die every year from breast cancer, and although there are higher rates of breast cancer in the developed world, 70% of the deaths are in the developing world. “I thought, I’m building houses, when inside these houses families are being destroyed by this disease.”

After she put her engineering firm, Handasiyat.net, in the hands of her co-founder, she founded a company, SDB: Smart Detection Bra, and spent $15,000 to develop a prototype of a bra that detects changes in breast tissue across five different criteria. The bra would be worn one day a month.

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