FundingHero are creating a founder’s fundraising voices series with the aim to give a spotlight to founders who are raising early-stage funds or have done so in the past. The idea is to learn from other’s experiences, share challenges and grow together.
First in our series, we’re very honoured to bring you the interview with Sahar Jahanikia.
After seeing some viral LinkedIn posts made by the Founder and CEO of CognoTrain Sahar Jahanikia out of frustration with the fundraising process, we reached out to chat. She is currently looking to raise her first funding round.
CognoTrain’s mission is to solve an incredibly huge issue, to help provide a new way to help the care support needed for patients with Alzheimer and Dementia. This is a mission that can impact millions of peoples lives, so you will see why Sahar is so passionate about it, but equally as frustrated with the fundraising process to enable her to achieve her mission.
Hello Sahar, we’re FundingHero - A platform to help early-stage tech founders learn and navigate the tricky fundraising process.
Here is your chance to tell our readers all about you! Please tell us about your start-up CognoTrain?
Sahar: “I'm on a mission with Cognatrain. I would not consider it as a business because it is a mission which turned out to become a business.”
CognoTrain is a computerised cognitive training platform to help care for patients with Alzheimer and Dementia.
We use a very personalised concept, so it is unique for every user, based on the things they forget. We capture basic things like:
Where they can find items like their own glasses.
We remind them every day who they are.
What they have done in the past.
Who they love.
We remind & teach them because one of the things that Alzheimer's takes away is self identity. The patients start forgetting who they are, what they have done, when or who they married, when they graduated, what they like, what is their favourite food, what is their favourite restaurant.
The diseases strips away who they are over time as you start forgetting memory by memory who you are, who you love ,what you like. We don't want to give them generic training using random things, instead we are using their own data to preserve that personal bubble.
An analogy we use is if you consider their brains are like a flash drive that is slowly burning. The memory is burning and becoming lost. Do you want to add more memory or do you want to preserve the ones already there?
Common sense, right?”
FundingHero: Do you have a personal story that you feel really compelled to share for why you went into this start-up?
Sahar: “I used to work at the Stanford University School of Medicine department of psychiatry and behavioural sciences, and I was doing research there. One time, I was waiting for my participants.
I was in the lobby because the department of psychiatry and behavioural science both have a research centre as well as doctors there have patients.
I was waiting, and there was an elderly person sitting in a wheelchair screaming for his glasses. He was accompanied by a caregiver who was trying to convince him that these were his glasses. And he was denying that those were his glasses.
So from this experience, I was like, you know what?:
How can we help him to tell him that these are his glasses?
They don't need to learn anything new, but rather they need to be trained and reminded that these are your glasses. That's what takes the anxiety away from them. As I was going through my day, it took my attention that we needed a really personalised training method for these patients.
They need to know what they need at that moment, just like a caregiver can provide. We can provide the same information to them again and again. That will reduce their anxiety.
That was the idea that this entire system has to be changed. They have to get some personalised training to hand.
And then we all had Covid lockdowns to deal with. As I was silently watching the nightly news, they spoke on this very topic...
It started showing how the elderly had been affected as a result of Covid. They showed how they used to have visitors, people who would come up to talk to them, and that completely vanished from their life.
And then I was thinking, wow, they had a chance to get personalised training from their own caregiver before, and now it's gone too. And looking at things like, Zoom and online learning, I thought, why can't there be a technology that can work like that for these patients.
It was at that very moment, as I was making the salad one day, I made the entire platform in my mind, literally. I had decided, it's going to be like that & it's going to be like this.
And I thought, I'm not doing anything, so why not just give it a try? My message was that even if one patient by using this, will feel better, then it’s worth it.
I started working on the project as a side project and it just started like this, then gained momentum.
FundingHero: We’d love to hear what your funding experience has been to date. How have you funded your startup so far?
Sahar: “The reality is that I based it differently to traditional businesses since I was mission driven. I thought it's going to be supported by so many people from the start because of the benefit to peoples health.
“I started looking for accelerator programs that look for supporting people working with Alzheimer's.”
That way, we are on the same mission. I'm not going to name anyone, but I found one accelerator programme that is very well-known and they specifically mentioned on their website that they support women too.
They look for businesses geared towards Alzheimer's. They help those in the very early stages.
I sat there reading their criteria and I was doing a tick mark in my mind - I fit in perfectly against their criteria. So of course I applied and within less than 48 hours, I got a response to say: ‘Hey your pitch deck is very exciting.
They said: ‘We want to have the Founders meeting interview to see what is the story behind it. Whether it is mission driven.’
And I was like, yeah, sure, why not? Let's go. The founder's interview went very well. So they said, okay, you share your data room with us, all your legal documents, how much funds you have and how much money you could get.
So I gave them a data room, and told them that I have not got funding for anything yet. I did not have any money.
I gave them everything, and they got back to me that your idea is great and your mission is great.
However, we would like to see you getting funding from outside first and that was like a very hard moment for me.
Looking back at their website, I was filling in every check again. And came to the realisation that after all it's not about the mission, it's all about the money.
Since they are offering $20k in cash and $100k worth of educational resources for 3% of my company which is too much equity in my opinion, plus they want you to show earnings and show you have traction and income!
After all this, I think if you look like a walking cash-machine with a solid background of supporters from your inner-circle, then that’s all that matters.
It's not your mission that matters.
But I told them that I will continue without their support on our mission and I do not wish to come back to them. I wish they would have said on their website that you need to have already secured funding from outsiders before we get you into our program.
So my message is to just be transparent. You don't have to say that you are mission driven when you aren’t.
FundingHero: What other methods have you tried for fundraising?
Sahar: “The other experience is from reaching out to people on LinkedIn.
I can’t ask family and friends for $100 because that might be the monthly survival budget. I don’t wish to go through that process.
I am not privileged. I am not coming from a rich background. Yes, I have a good lifestyle just like any other people in the United States.
But that doesn't mean that I should keep other people suffering because I'm on a mission. Not everyone is privileged to find $100k to $500k from friends and family.
FundingHero: What’s the biggest challenge in fundraising for you now?
Sahar: “It's like a chicken and egg for some founders. I guess the Angel Investors say: “Have you been supported by any sort of programs?”
And I said no. Then the programmes ask, have you been supported by investors? Investors saying that first you should join those programmes and they are saying that first you need to have funds from investors or we need to see you are getting backed by outsiders.
Yeah, I mean, long story short, if you are not privileged, if you don't have anyone who you know in your close circle at a VC fund or with money to just donate, it is really impossible as of today. That’s how I feel.
No one is training me on how to do fundraising and telling me whether this is right or wrong!
FundingHero: Do you have a plan for how you want to tackle your fundraising next?
Sahar: I have a list of people I’m connected with that I’d like to speak to. People said that it's all about the relationship. But aren't you supposed to know me? Aren't you supposed to accept my connection request to talk to me, to know who I am and make that relationship happen?
It should initiate somewhere, right?
FundingHero: At this stage, are you looking for value over cash? Do you look for someone to open doors for you and provide skills that you don't already have? Or is the cash the biggest value for you at the moment in your business?
Sahar: “I can work it out without getting any cash. I am so mission driven that at this time I feel like I’ll work with a group of interns that have the same mission as me.
I feel like with the help of them, we can do whatever we want and get it into the hands of the public but again, you want to grow up as a startup.
Everything is about where you are standing in Techcrunch and how much you rate in public. They don't evaluate the company based on so many other important things, such as who is the founder? What’s their background? What’s the real mission?
FundingHero: Finally, we’d love your take on how you suggest the whole fundraising process could be improved?
Sahar: I am not sure because I don't fit in any box. Whoever I can connect with would definitely be welcome. Transparency is a key area for sure.
But I’m on a mission and I’ll make this work.
Founder & CEO of CognoTrain
If you would like to take a look at Sahar’s pitch deck, you may reach out to her directly on her LinkedIn profile.
The key takeaways for early stage founders:
- With no background in fundraising it's incredibly tough to know where to start!
- If you don’t have an immediate friends and family network, then getting going feels like a major uphill battle as you can feel several steps behind everyone else.
- It can feel a very lonely place when trying to figure it out from conflicting advice.
- Its not always clear what exact criteria you need to meet from various investors, incubators or accelerators.
- Despite a worthy mission helping millions, raising the cash is still a major struggle.
- What investors are right for you at that really early stage?
- How do you find them?
- How do you approach them?
- When do you approach them?
The list goes on, but it's a real minefield trying to learn when to begin and it's only for that entrepreneurial spirit and deep desire to achieve your missions that keeps founders like you going, ignoring the hundreds of rejections and ploughing on regardless.
Without that initial early knowledge of how the process works it canl be 100x harder.
If you do want to learn more, check out the rest of our blogs for free to get you started and help you to begin to unravel some of the huge amounts of questions you need answering before you start.
Sahar’s mission is unlike many others and one, that should be taken seriously given the health benefits it could bring to millions around the world and we sincerely wish her well in her journey and fundraising mission to help people with Alzheimers and dementia.
If you’re an early-stage tech founder with a fundraising story, challenge, insight or motivational story, we’d love to hear from you! We’d love to give you the chance to share your narrative via FundingHero's Founder Fundraising Voices series. Email us on email@example.com to participate.