As a scientific researcher, Khaldi led a number of significant breakthrough discoveries. She was the first scientist to show gene transfer between multi-cellular species, which had occurred naturally millions of years ago – a finding that called into question many of the phylogenetic methods being used – and was also the first to demonstrate that fungal species could exchange chemicals to outcompete other species.
She decided to leave the lab and move into the business world as founder and CEO of Nuritas, although scientific research still has a prominent role in her professional work.
Nuritas uses technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and DNA analyses to discover novel functional ingredients in food that have therapeutic properties, and its ingredients undergo clinical trials to demonstrate their efficacy.
Khaldi is also a member of the World Economic Forum of Young Global Leaders and board member of the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT), an EU-funded innovation network.
With a research background in mathematics, molecular evolution, and bioinformatics, and an initial career in pharmaceutical drug discovery, what made you want to pivot to a career in the food industry?
“I came to the area of nutrition after my PhD because [I realised] that, literally, everyone eats and drinks every single day, multiple times a day. So, it is a very important part of our life and it has huge impact on how we live, how long we live, [and] how healthy we are.
“If you look at the problem in general today, a lot of the ingredients used in everyday products that we consume […] have been developed mainly for two purposes: taste and cost. Health is secondary to this, but health is a fundamental factor of food.
“The question is – and it's a conundrum – how would you create ingredients are both cost-effective, tasty, or at least neutral in taste, and also have a health benefit? How to bring back that nutrition part to the industrialisation of food?
“The realisation for me, coming from a mathematical-computational perspective, was that […] in order to solve this problem and to create ingredients that the industry can use, we need to bring in new technology. And that's where the AI part comes into it. We need to integrate technologies that have not been integrated before to be able to create ingredients in a faster and cheaper way that allows the industry to use them.
“We can't use the traditional ways of finding ingredients any more. They're too long, too expensive, and actually [have] very little chance of creating something, even when you spend the money and time.”
Have you ever felt discriminated against because you are a woman in the scientific world or business world?
“When I first started in pure mathematics, I was nearly the only lady, and when I did my PhD in bioinformatics and computational science, I remember my boss sending me an email before I started. He said, ‘Just so you know, you will be the only lady in the group. Is that okay with you?’ It absolutely was okay with me. […] I was brought up by my parents to think that […] there's no difference between myself and my brother, for example, and so I continued life that way.
“But I made it a mission at Nuritas to be half-half, to have a mixture of both women and men. It's a choice. And I surrounded myself by people that don't see me as a woman founder, but as a founder; they don't see me as a businesswoman, but as a businessperson; and not as a woman scientist, but as a scientist. I think science and business have no gender. They're generalists. That's the way I carried out my career.
“When creating the Nuritas team at the very beginning, we [hired] people that really hadn’t worked in one room together, ever. The reason we did that was to get a very different view of a problem and of how to solve it. You have to have diversity. The more innovative you [want to be], the more diverse you have to be. It's simple because you have to look at a problem from different angles. Nuritas has been built with the core of diversity from the beginning.”
Sometimes the biggest learning comes from our mistakes. Is there anything in your career you wish you had done differently?
“I'm not someone that looks back and dwells on decisions that have been made because every decision was made at that time for a reason – even if you look back and say, ‘Maybe this should have been different.’ At that time, it made sense.
“When you take a product to market there's so much learning, but these are not mistakes. They're just part of the growing-learning process.”
Do you have any advice for female scientists thinking of making the move into the business world?
“I think the main one is to believe in yourself as a scientist, not just as a female scientist, but believe in yourself. Basically, the combination is belief, hard work, and determination as the key to success. And I think we forget that, as women, we have a very good sense with our gut feeling. I think we need to use it a lot more.”
Do you manage to keep a work-life balance?
“It is a challenge but I think it's a challenge for everyone. It's not easy. You have to first realise […] that you have to balance your life in doing different things, not just constantly working. And then it's a planning thing: I like to work out. I like to do some community work. I like to obviously spend time with my family. You have to take a step back, and you have to plan it.”