The female-led Tunisian company InstaDeep is a true success story. Recently bought by the global biotechnology company BioNTech, the deal made history as the largest move in the African Artificial Intelligence sector, for a record amount of €408M
Zohra Slim had the courage to start in a field she was not experienced in, and she excelled at it. Zohra is the co-founder and Chief Web Officer of InstaDeep, an enterprise specialising in artificial intelligence. Even before the start-up made history within the AI sector, InstaDeep was already disrupting the deep-tech community in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. While most of us found ourselves juggling with restrictions that followed the rhythm of each new COVID-19 variant, InstaDeep and BioNTech were partnering to build an early warning system for dangerous variants.
Three days before the World Health Organization warned the world about an emerging, highly contagious COVID variant called Omicron, InstaDeep’s AI red-flagged the mutation. At the time, more than 10,000 novel variant sequences were being discovered every week and human experts simply could not cope with complex data on this scale. But together, the two companies identified more than 90% of variants far before they were designated as potentially dangerous, on average two months in advance – saving precious time to alert the world.
Going back in time, InstaDeep’s inception story seems to be taken right out of an American-dream inspired movie. Zohra Slim is completely self-taught with in-depth knowledge of software and system integrations. After leading a team of developers in India, Zohra created InstaDeep in 2014, together with Karim Beguir – a polytechnician specialising in social impacts in Tunisia.
Zohra and Karim were not supposed to meet, but as is often the case, destiny decided otherwise. Back in the 2010s, Karim was looking for a web developer to help him promote the association he had founded in Tataouine, Tunisia, which mixed sports and computer coding for young people. That’s when Zohra and Karim were introduced by a mutual friend, and the story began.
Karim and Zohra like to tell how their company started with two laptops, $2000 and a lot of enthusiasm to help the world. But soon, InstaDeep grew from a scrappy startup in the desert city of Tataouine – the Tunisian city that served as the set (and inspiration) for Luke Skywalker’s home planet Tatooine in Star Wars – to a force to be reckoned with in the AI community.
Back in 2014, Zohra and her co-founder were pitching clients on building websites, designing flyers, and developing apps. “We were just trying to survive”, she says. Today, as artificial intelligence is taking exponential importance in our lives, InstaDeep’s mission is to make sure it benefits everyone. Through their work, Zohra and Karim create decision-making systems to solve real-life problems: they can range from a large shipping company finding ways to efficiently transport thousands of containers to a railway station, to the design of advanced therapeutics with silicon and routing components on a printed circuit board.
Zohra is an impressive multi-linguist – she can communicate with her multicultural team in Arabic, French, English, Spanish and Italian – and had lived in 4 countries before she turned 18, which has given her unique insight into different people and cultures. Is it a coincidence that InstaDeep’s co-founders today assure that their team’s diversity is their biggest strength? With colleagues spanning from South Africa and Nigeria to Paris, London and Dubai, Karim believes that “[diversity] was really key to our story”.
The world may be big, but promoting African and Mediterranean talent in tech is a mission very close to Zohra’s heart. For instance, she is very proud to say that 55% of scientific researchers in Tunisia are women, a rate that remains to be seen in European countries. She is also a firm believer in the creative potential of the Mediterranean region and its people: “We have so many young people that are passionate and full of dreams [in the Mediterranean]. And these same young people will, in 10 years, be the ones who will lead the path of technology, innovation and creativity. This is why, in our region that gave the world wine and olive oil, creativity should be protected and enabled”.
Zohra says it really bugs her when someone does the work, and then someone from another country gets credit for it. As the leading AI company in Africa, driven by African founders, InstaDeep knows first-hand what African and Mediterranean talent is truly capable of. Through their mentoring program, they provide training and access to some of the best professionals in the field, allowing future AI leaders and experts the opportunity to advance in line with the rapidly developing industry, ensuring talent retention and full in-house expertise. Zohra also actively advocates for the need to encourage women to break free from society-imposed barriers and to keep pushing for equal rights:
“The most important thing is to give women the confidence that they can do it. I mentor a lot of start-ups. I always tell them you can do this if you put your head to ignore what everyone else is telling you. I came from a traditional background that wanted me to be a lawyer, engineer, doctor.”
Today, InstaDeep is a true success story. Recently bought by the BioNTech company, the deal that made history as the largest move in the African AI sector, for a record amount of €408M. When Karim recalls their beginnings, he admits with a laugh that, at the time, their ambition was akin to science-fiction for most people. Starting with the goal to create a successful deep-tech company based on African talent, Karim often heard from friends and former colleagues that his dream was impossible to achieve. Despite the immense success found later, both Zohra and Karim keep their feet on the ground. They are acutely aware that uncertainty is a core component of the start-up world and insist again on the importance of innovation and creativity to overcome challenges. When asked what advice they would give to young entrepreneurs, both have different but complementary approaches: “be passionate and believe in yourself” says Karim, and “be patient and resilient” concludes Zohra.
Zohra Slim took part in the UfM-supported initiative “Womenpreneur” and was specifically involved in the Mediterranean Tech Women Network chapter of the initiative. Based in Brussels, the “Womenpreneur” initiative has ran since 2016 and has reached and supported more than 19,000 women in Belgium and across the MENA region. Aiming to advance women’s place in the entrepreneurial scene, technology, innovation and society, Womenpreneur blends a mix of mentorship sessions, leadership programmes, networking opportunities and technology-focused education to reach its mission.
More on the UfM and the fight for women’s participation in economic and public life
- Discover the work carried out by the Social & Civil Affairs division.
- Learn more about groundbreaking data on this topic, through the first-ever Intergovernmental Monitoring Mechanism on Gender Equality in the Euro-Mediterranean Region.