Interview: Isabella Degen, the robotics engineer using tech to help people with diabetes

"Girls are as much into science, engineering and building as boys – it’s often us adults who are surprised by that"

The latest in our series of interviews with amazing women doing brilliant things in the worlds of tech, business and building the future saw us chat to the awesome Isabella Degen. Formerly of ThoughtWorks, engineer Isabella is now working full-time on her startup to help people with diabetes live easier and happier lives through technology.

Here’s what happened when we caught up.

Hi Isabella, please introduce yourself!

Hi, I’m an ETH Zürich alumna and robotics engineer specialising in machine learning and artificial intelligence. I have eight years’ experience leading teams to deliver bespoke technology solutions in media, telecom, finance, energy, and government with the global software consultancy, ThoughtWorks.

One year ago, I founded Ayuda Heuristics, together with the incredible technology business leader Cyndi Mitchell. We are creating a place where science and engineering meets people, and where lives spent anxiously managing diabetes are, finally, set free.

I’m passionate about using technology to make people’s lives simpler.

Can you tell us more about Ayuda Heuristics and how it helps people with diabetes?

387 million people are living with diabetes today. Each one of them has their own story about first learning of their inability to break down glucose into energy. Each one has their own approach to self-care using various drugs, devices and tools to manage their glucose levels, amounting to $612 billion spent on treating diabetes annually. And each passes their day monitoring, tracking, estimating and anticipating the impact that every meal, activity and emotion will have on their body.

We believe that life doesn’t have to be like that. We challenge fundamental beliefs about the definition, diagnosis and management of diabetes. In fact, we challenge the existence of diabetes as a disease, period. Our mobile app-centred system goes beyond monitoring blood glucose. It uses multiple sensors to understand each individual’s situation and continuously observes signals that lead up to changes in blood glucose. Drawing heuristics from these signals, the system learns the person and offers dedicated self-care guidance in the moment.

We’ve been working with a lot of different people with diabetes to build our initial prototype. After generating and throwing away many ideas, we’ve arrived at something we believe will be approved by the medical device regulators and eventually change lives.

What are the challenges of founding a startup? Can anyone do it?

Creating something from scratch takes endurance. You need to be able to deal with setbacks and people not seeing your vision. I believe that anyone can do it, and any time can be the right time – it takes passion for your idea and the conviction that you can do it.

The first step is be honest and clear with yourself about what you want to achieve and why. You will need help, and you need to know when to change, adapt, and when to power through. Speak to potential customers as early as possible to get feedback. Find people you can partner with who complement your skills and experiences. If still in doubt, ask yourself, why not now, why not me?

What are the ups and downs of running your own company?

It’s super motivating to be working on something that can make a huge and positive impact on so many people’s lives. This is the problem I’ve been looking to solve all my life. Each day is different and exciting.

There are no downs, but there are challenges! It takes a lot of energy and discipline. Creating a future that doesn’t yet exist takes perseverance and an absolute belief that it can be done.

What other careers did you consider? Or were you born an engineer?

I’ve always created things (DIY, gardening, Lego, crafts and painting) and I always wanted my work to help people, but engineering was never on the roadmap for me. I considered many careers and settled on medicine. Three months before my final exams, a friend and I went to an open day at ETH Zurich, and looked at a course we knew nothing about: Information Technology and Electrical Engineering. What a lucky choice – I was so fascinated by the possibilities that I ended up studying Information Technology and Electrical Engineering and achieved a Masters’ degree in it.

What kinds of people make great engineers? Why do you think more women aren’t considering it as a career?

Engineering is for creative problem solvers, people who like to create and build things, and those who can’t stop questioning how things work and love to ponder over how they can be improved. I think many women don’t see themselves as engineers as society generally has a pre-conceived opinion about what engineers look like.

Last week on the tube I sat opposite a father with two young girls (aged around 6-8). The younger took out her school craft work and presented it to her sister. It was an airplane made out of a cracker box. She’d added wings, a cockpit, and flaps where people can see out into the sky. Her sister loved it and wondered how many of them they could build, and whether they could add a propeller and make the planes fly for real. I thought to myself – “Oh look – two engineers!” It made me incredibly happy.

Girls are as much into science, engineering and building as boys – it’s often us adults who are surprised by that. It seems not to fit with society’s opinion, and this can affect children’s choices very early on. In this case their father was brilliant, he was totally into their plane creation manufacturing line and encouraged them!

Can you tell us a bit more about what your job at ThoughtWorks involved, and how it prepared you for running your own business?

Isabella and the Women in Leadership Development team

I joined ThoughtWorks as a graduate developer and spent eight years mostly as a technical lead consultant and the last year in a global strategy role. I worked on multiple projects, constantly getting to know new industries, teams, places and technologies.

Being a tech lead at ThoughtWorks is an incredibly rewarding and diverse job. There’s a lot of interaction with customers on the business and tech side and working with motivated, collaborative and engaging teams. It sets you up for life.

There’s also a huge mentoring and coaching culture. Mentoring colleagues has been very rewarding and has helped me grow myself.

ThoughtWorks is unusual in that they’re maintaining a good gender balance both in tech and leadership roles – how are they achieving that? How does it improve the workplace environment?

They always intentionally bring as many perspectives to the table as possible. You can’t solve the kinds of problems they’re tackling without that. It’s also what makes it such a brilliant place to be, whether you’re a man or a woman. It’s the only place where people who don’t already know me start with the assumption that I’m a developer, instead of pigeonholing me into a more traditional “female role”. That kind of attitude feeds itself. Both women and men who want to go beyond gender, race, sexuality, etc. can feel the vibe. They want to join in and keep it going.

Out of all your experiences, what’s furthered your career the most?

Growing up in Switzerland, I was very lucky to have had access to excellent free education which enabled me to attend a world class university.

In my professional life, the Women in Leadership Development Programme at ThoughtWorks was the best coaching and training I have received. I was part of an incredible group of women from senior executive management to junior consultants from all over the world. As part of the program we spent a week with Barbara Fittipaldi from the Centre for New Futures. That experience has changed my approach to life forever. Barbara helped me to become aware of and get rid of facts and truths I had built up over the years. Many of them were hindering me more than helping me move forward. I was incredibly lucky to take part in the programme and I’m eternally grateful to Jackie Kinsey and everyone else at ThoughtWorks who made it possible.

If you could give your younger self some advice, what would you say?

Believe that you are worth it – you’ll be surprised at what you can pull off if you do. I focused an incredible amount of time on science and engineering, but it may have made my professional life easier if I focused on expressing myself that little bit more too. Communication skills are so important, and they can actually be learned too.

What are you most excited about at the moment?

With my life experience and my work at ETH and ThoughtWorks, I feel like I have been building the skills to build Ayuda for most of my life. The advances in mobile and wearable technology combined with the possibilities of artificial intelligence have opened up a whole new world. I’m really excited about breaking new ground and building a company to start a new era in the definition, diagnosis, and management of diabetes.

Want to learn more about how Isabella is helping diabetics with her startup? Take a look at Ayuda Heuristics’ website.

All images via Isabella Degen.

Holly Brockwell
About Holly Brockwell 291 Articles
Tech addict Holly founded Gadgette in 2015, and won Woman of the Year for it. She's firmly #TeamAndroid, has ambitions to become a robot, and beat all other Hollies to her awesome Twitter handle.