The first time I heard about Thungdemo Ovung was in 2013, he (and his team 3D Life) had just won the “Most Innovative Idea Award” at the Global Graduate Entrepreneurs Festival held in Manchester, England, September 2013.
The award-winning project was on ‘Sustainable, Portable and Cost-Effective Water Purification Device for Developing Countries’. The Nagas were celebrating Thungdemo’s achievement.
Like any awed fan would behave, I stalked him for two years, first on Twitter (@thungdemocrazzy), then on Facebook (Thungdemo Ovung). In the course of my supposed ‘stalking‘, I learnt that post his 2013 award, he has been spearheading his company ‘DiagMole Ltd‘ into the road of success!
So, late this year, I finally got the chance to corner him and get him to talk about his entrepreneurial journey. His journey hasn’t been smooth to start with, but the dedication and perseverance throughout are nothing but inspirational.
Thungdemo Ovung’s Entrepreneurial Journey: Here is How it Began
Thungdemo’s lifelong dream since childhood had been to start a company of his own. A dream he finally achieved in 2013 when he co-founded his start-up company “DiagMole” with Zhedong Li (Chinese National) and Ammar Abitalib Mussaji (Tanzanian National).
Since this venture, Thungdemo states that his life has never been so exciting. He could see his aspirations taking to shape, even though it was by no means a smooth ride.
So, What is Diagmole All About?
DiagMole is a fully functional Research company working on Development of Rapid portable DNA test for pathogens in food, agriculture and horticulture products. They develop highly sensitive and specific tests that provide rapid results with the potential for on-site use.
What Motivated Thungdemo?
Development of Rapid portable DNA test? Now, does that not pique your interest of how he got into this field?
According to Thungdemo, it all began whilst he was in Bangalore pursuing his Bachelor’s final year in Biotechnology. “I was fascinated and felt a strong connection with the food industry from traditional farming to the cloning of crop plantlets, food processing, food safety and health care.”
In 2009, he moved to the United Kingdom to pursue further studies and get relevant experience in this field. He took up MSc. Industrial Biotechnology at Liverpool John Moores University. Following that, he started working into several projects, business ideas, conducting research, working with different team members, attending conferences, networking with people with similar interest vigorously.
However, things went downhill for a bit, as he adds on “but I never really got anything started. During this time of trials and tribulations, I had business ideas shattered; team member’s break apart and no means of secured job or income.”
Making Ends-meet in the UK
What did Thungdemo do when things were not working out exactly as he planned? Did he pack his bags and leave? No.
“It was particularly challenging to sustain life in the UK, so I worked part-time in restaurants to pay my bills for a year.”
“This was a good experience because it helped me build up confidence speaking to strangers, interacting with customers constantly and improved my communication skills. This was particularly very important part of my journey because I was trapped in a prism being an introvert and shy person.”
Apart from bettering his interaction skills, he adds on that it shaped up his personality too!
All this while, he never stopped looking for opportunities and platforms to build a strong foundation for his aspirations. However, having worked as research assistant previously, he realised that the industry he wanted to work at required high technical expertise to communicate effectively between the laboratories and the market.
One Step at a Time: DiagMole Bound
With this realization, he decided to pursue further studies in MSc. Crop Biotechnology and entrepreneurship at the University of Nottingham. He admits that this was when things began to take shape as he met people with similar background.
“During the course, I worked on a project on portable DNA test for detecting pathogens in plants with my course mates. This was the spark I needed!” Exclaims Thungdemo.
“Excited about the potential of the project to bring it to reality, we then went on to draft a business plan and pitch this business idea to a Bio-incubator that supports Life science business and got selected to develop the business idea.”
Since then, for Thungdemo and his team, it has been a constant roller coaster ride, pivoting on several occasions from business models, to potential customers, pitching for financial support- investors, fund and grants.
The Making and Growing of DiagMole
Over the years, DiagMole’s founders spent many sleepless nights working at- home, office, coffee shops, skipping meals, travelling and meeting potential clients, validating a business idea.
As Thungdemo explains, “We don’t have rich parents or uncles to fund our business idea so we constantly applied for funds/grants, approaching potential investors and societies simply to be rejected.”
But they did not lose hearts. To sustain the business development, they pitched their business idea in many competitions that won them many awards and cash prize which were invested in the business.
He recalls, “One particular competition was the China-UK Business Venture where we had to pitch the idea to the Bank of China to for a potential investment to set up business in China.”
He continues, “DiagMole went on pitching to investors in the final after several rounds of selection, knowing completely well that we were at a very early stage of the business for investors to step in. But the important thing here was that we got an opportunity to showcase our business idea, our ambition and believing in our idea.”
They, of course, won it big again by coming in third in the China-UK Entrepreneurship Competition.
Learning From Mistakes
Thungdemo recalls one of his ‘not-so-good’ pitching days, an event that taught him a hard lesson on pitching it right. “I was pitching DiagMole’s DNA test technology in a conference and it all went horribly wrong. I went on to pitch and I was literally booed off the stage as they were not expecting a sales pitch.”
“There were scholars and food manufacturers from around the world; this was the best opportunity we ever had to showcase our Idea and I blew it off!”
However, learning their lessons, they did not give up. Thungdemo disclosed that they faced many failures and barriers, but they always found a way to overcome the challenges.
Working it hard, pitching their ideas and winning awards, their effort finally paid off!
DiagMole had their first breakthrough when the European Regional Development Fund gave them a grand to develop their DNA test kit. Since then, they have received several other support from Scottish Funding Council and other Founding Councils.
After applying three different occasions with the UK Trade and Investment (UKTI), their Business idea was selected by UKTI to receive financial support for a year. Also, along with it, a placement in a world class business accelerator in Scotland to develop the business idea.
And now, DiagMole is a fully functional Research company based in Nottingham. They work closely with University of Nottingham and University of West Scotland to conduct their R&D.
From the CSO of DiagMole
From sharing his childhood dreams to narrating the story of moving to the United Kingdom and running DiagMole, Thungdemo saves his introduction for the last-
“I currently work as the Chief Scientific Officer (CSO) for DiagMole for more than a year now. And it has been an incredible journey thus far.”
Concluding his story, he considers all these constant travels, long work hours, etc.. an ‘electrifying‘ experience, a risk that is worth taking.
He adds, “At the end of the day, nothing beats working on your dreams, the pleasure, the freedom and the satisfaction you get out of it is just priceless. The best part is awarding yourselves for all the small wins over a pint across the local pub, dining out or at home with people around you is just brilliant.”
“Only time will tell where and how far DiagMole will take me, but it is a good start for an aspiring entrepreneur.”
And that, my friend, is Thungdemo Ovung, a contented entrepreneur who has been an inspiration to me and I hope he will be, to many other aspiring entrepreneurs.