Published on 09 Mar 2022

Turning a personal loss into the catalyst for change

A family tragedy led NTU EEE alumna Ria Rustagi to become a health tech entrepreneur helping bedridden patients with speech difficulties to communicate with their families through wearable tech.

By Janis Zhang

Ria Rustagi

For NTU Electrical and Electronic Engineering graduate Ria Rustagi, the passing of her sister inspired her to become an entrepreneur so she could help others. The health tech company PankhTech that she co-founded with her fiancé in 2018 was named after her late sister, Pankhuri, who passed away a year earlier due to a rare brain infection. When Pankhuri was hospitalised, Ria and her family struggled to understand her sister after her condition left her unable to speak. "She had a tracheotomy tube in her neck, and she couldn’t speak because of this… So we would talk and communicate with her using physical expressions. We would also show her pictures and movies that she liked or play Bollywood songs… But we couldn’t do more than this," said Ria.

Having experienced the challenges of communicating with her sister, Ria was determined to find a solution to the problem. Today, her India-based company develops and manufactures Neuphony, a wearable headband device and mobile application that measures and interprets brain activities in real-time so bedridden patients can communicate with others when speech is not possible. "We have just passed the beta testing phase. With feedback from our initial customers, we are making small tweaks to the commercial release while keeping in mind the needs of the home psychotherapy and research industries," explained Ria.

Ria Rustagi and her siblings when they were youngerRia Rustagi (left) with her sister Pankhuri and brother when they were little.

Ria has many fond memories of her late sister. One was of them travelling to Singapore together for Ria’s enrolment to NTU Singapore in 2015. "It was a sisters' trip and she helped me settle down in a foreign land away from my family. As I was very shy and reserved, she helped me make friends in Singapore. She loved the NTU campus and wanted to pursue a degree here," recalled Ria.

Ria Rustagi and her sister PankhuriRia Rustagi (right) and her sister Pankhuri at Marina Bay Sands when they came to Singapore in 2015.

Ria credits her mum for being the pillar of strength that kept the family "strong and sane" while they were coming to terms with the loss of her sister. Ria said: "She made me go out for a meal, and encouraged me to go to Germany to continue with my thesis. She made my sister the strength rather than a cause of getting weak."

Ria Rustagi and familyA precious family photo of Ria Rustagi with her mother (left), sister Pankhuri (second from left), brother (middle) and father.

While embarking on her entrepreneurial stint, Ria was a senior engineer at Infineon Technologies where she made pitches to investors, and managed day-to-day operations such as finance, marketing and product timelines. She is currently based in Germany, where she is a member of the local NTU Alumni Association but intends to move back to India to focus on her business and "scale up" her company.

Ria encourages fellow alumni who hope to make an impact in society to "just go for it." She says: "You cannot have a comfortable life if you wish to make a change."