Over the past six months, I've had the opportunity to do a fellowship at Startup Health to grow their mission of improving the health and wellbeing of everyone in the world. Through a triad of coaching, media, and capital, the team is investing in and collaborating with 400+ transformative entrepreneurs from 250+ companies, spanning 5 continents, 20 countries and 65+ cities.
Initially, I wrote this for a personal record, but I decided to share what I've learned from my time at StartUp Health with the team and everyone here, and perhaps, I can encourage some prospective fellows to become Health Transformers too. From what it takes to be an entrepreneur to getting my foot in the door with the digital health industry, here’s my take on it all.
[Disclosure: I wrote this after completing my fellowship in December 2018. Besides the references cited, all views are my own.]
Part I: Industry Insights
1. What it takes to be an entrepreneur
Although domain expertise and leadership are quintessential to creating a startup, what I’ve gathered from listening in on calls with founders in the portfolio and through interviewing them is that mindset is everything. If a founder’s 3-year goal is to get acquired as quickly as possible, then he/she may have already mentally checked out. To prevent this, founders should set quarterly recalibrations for themselves (both professional and personal) so that they don't burn out. To pinpoint when one goes from peak productivity to exerting efforts with a diminishing return takes high social and cognitive awareness. It takes humility and grit to recognize when we need to reach out for external support, and kindness to keep that support system strong.
The entrepreneurial journey can be a lonely one, but it shouldn’t be that way. The ones that end up succeeding tend to surround themselves with supportive relationships. From having a dependable co-founder to getting coached by experts like StartUp Health, founders need mentors they can turn to when the odds seem stacked against them. This life strategy is applicable to everyone, as we all should strive to surround ourselves with people who can keep us in check and help us average up.
2. What it takes to survive the early stages
As an early-stage entrepreneur, most of your energy should be exerted on finding product-market fit, not sales and marketing. But having a strong media presence early in the game doesn’t hurt either. When I helped bring the Startup Health's Magazine Issue 2 to print, I've seen non-stop traction from readers — mainly investors, consumers, entrepreneurs, — expressing interest in investing/ partnering with the featured founders of the portfolio companies (i.e. Health Transformers) in testing out the digital health solutions they've created.
But, of course, capital is often necessary to make a scalable impact on the world. Receiving capital from third-party sources — whether it be from VCs, grants, friends & family, or angel investors — provides risk and reward dynamic that both fuels the entrepreneur and holds them accountable for such investment. Sometimes the source of capital is equally important as the network you have because the two are interconnected, where the investor offers brand association and access to a new pool of industry experts. This supports the value of building supportive relationships.
3. Digital health is its own game
The “move fast and break things” approach that works in tech doesn’t translate well to healthcare.
While startups in other industries are expected to get a minimum viable product out to market as quickly as possible and to iterate subsequently based on customer responses, healthcare holds its own myriad of complexities and stakeholders (doctors, insurers, patients, regulators, etc.). There’s a reason why this market is so heavily regulated. The cost of bypassing clinical trials and regulatory approvals mean patients could be mistreated or misdiagnosed. So, while the lean startup approach may be effective for building food-delivery services or the latest dating app, simply following this course seems inadequate for digital health.
Through providing both media and capital, StartUp Health proves to address the pain points of early-stage digital health startups (i.e. pre-third party capital, building MVP, etc.). For instance, StartUp Health companies average a 3-year survival rate of 84%, compared to the industry average of 50%. Health Transformer and VC, Dave Chase, goes further to explain why 98% of digital health startups are operating on fumes, or what he calls, “the walking dead.”
This could mean digital health startups are compelled by circumstances to grow slowly.
Although funding continues to pour into the industry — with 2018 Q3 hitting double digits of $11.1B (total funding in 2010 was only $1.2B), only a few companies have cracked the code for delivering solutions that truly transform healthcare on a global scale. This applies especially in digital health where a good portion of capital (and time) should go into conducting clinical trials and case studies for product validation.
4. Leverage tech devices for population health data
Everyday smartphones and emerging new health tracking sensors (think Fitbit, Oura, PowerDot, etc.) are creating new consumer health data that sheds light into the health of billions of users. Health tech companies are leveraging people’s mobile phones to increase engagement, while health organizations are incorporating digital health solutions to bring innovation to the age-old system.
In September 2018, StartUp Health closed its Fund II of $31M from investors like Novartis, Ping An, Chiesi Group, and others. Not only would partnerships with these giants help the portfolio companies scale to new regions and populations, but as seen with working with Ping An — China-based #1 insurance group worldwide — they could leverage their Good Doctor platform (the largest telemedicine platform in the world with over 140M users)to create a new baseline for new technologies to leverage.
Part II: Workplace Insights
1. ROWE works
The company embraces a Results Only Work Environment, also known as ROWE. Unlike the culture at the corporations I've worked for, I’ve learned that embracing this one is highly effective, as it puts the role of working directly into the employees’ hands. It incentives and empowers the team to contribute to the greater company mission, while reduces stress and exhaustion (I emphasize this need frequently because burnout is often embraced and the norm in small startups, but doesn't work for the longevity of the company). Of course, there will always be a few slackers in any pool, but it will be to the benefit of the company to identify them early on instead of dragging out meager results.
2. Create your squad
I’ve been fortunate to have worked on projects with several members of the StartUp Health team, from marketing to onboarding prospective companies. As an introvert, it wasn’t easy to get to know each member of the team (+10 more fellows over the Summer)so I scheduled as many 1:1 coffee chats as possible. I got to pick their brains to my heart’s content and I was able to learn that much more because of it.
I believe that we are the sum of the five people closest to us, so I try to make a conscious effort to choose wisely who I wanted to spend most of my time with. More importantly, I try to always show gratitude for those who have helped me get to where I am today. From founders to co-fellows to new friends, we never know where the people in our lives will take us, so the least we could do is thank them along the way.
3. Medicine remains a male-dominated industry
As a Sociology student, many theories and explanations come to mind, but many of them that I've been taught in university involve gender politics, and I think diving into this space is dangerous. Even so, we can't ignore the fact that gender discrimination still exists.
When it comes down to it we have to ask ourselves, how do we put systems in place to ensure that the voice of equally deserving women is heard? What role should organizations like StartUp Health play in encouraging diversity of thought and equality of opportunity? (A third of the company’s network are women and I’d say that’s an impressive starting off point)
I started this fellowship with no particular health focus, but as I gained a wide-ranging understanding of the space, I've found that there are great opportunities in two relatively untapped areas: women's health and elderly care. Today, I'm focused on the former.
Though funding trends are showing rising interest in FemTech (estimated to be worth over $50B by 2025 globally), the women’s health market is still a relatively young industry. With women’s sexual health still a taboo topic, especially in Asia, and rates of STDs are at an all-time high in the U.S, there's still much to be done here and I’m excited to dedicate my next years to this space. When Investor and Health Transformer, Ester Dyson, gave the fellows a coffee chat over the summer, she told us, "the best way to learn is the show up", and I'm all ears.
I hope you enjoyed reading this article! if you have any questions, comments or would just like to chat feel free to reach out to me at email@example.com