Health Tech: Kourosh Davarpanah On How Inato’s Technology Can Make An Important Impact On Our Overall Wellness

An Interview With Dave Philistin

Dave Philistin, CEO of Candor
Authority Magazine

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To be crystal clear on what your mission is and sticking to it. For us, this has always been expanding patient access to trials. Once we realized that the first product was not really helping us get closer to our mission, it made it very easy to make the decision to pivot, even though that decision had a massive impact.

In recent years, Big Tech has gotten a bad rep. But, of course, many tech companies are doing important work making monumental positive changes to society, health, and the environment. To highlight these, we started a new interview series about “Technology Making An Important Positive Social Impact.” We are interviewing leaders of tech companies who are creating or have created a tech product that is helping to make a positive change in people’s lives or the environment. As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kourosh Davarpanah.

Kourosh Davarpanah is co-founder and CEO of Inato, which improves patient access to clinical research by connecting community-based sites with the right trials for their patients. Davarpanah holds two Masters of Science degrees, one from Ecole Polytechnique and the second from Columbia University. A successful entrepreneur, Davarpanah co-founded Inato in 2016 and has grown it into the leading clinical trial platform for community sites.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory and how you grew up?

I come from a family of doctors, pharmacists, and dentists. My grandfather was a pharmacist and had a bio lab in Tehran through the 1960s and 70s. My father is a doctor, and my brother and sisters are dentists, so the family business has always been a mix of healthcare and entrepreneurship. I was passionate about healthcare and biology, but I didn’t see myself becoming a doctor; I instead became an engineer. The first company I co-founded was in trucking logistics. I soon realized it wasn’t something I was truly passionate about, so I ended up merging engineering and technology with my first passion, healthcare. Inato was the result.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

That would be Inato’s founding story. It took us a long time to find a truly unique approach. Virtually the first four years of the company were spent diving deep into the industry to really understand the issues of the research sites, the doctors, and the pharmaceutical companies; understanding that even though these people work together, they struggle to understand each other to the extent that we were only able to see one part of the big picture. Four years in, we ended up pivoting toward where we are now.

So Inato ended up having this tremendously long founding story before finding its footing. Since then, market response has been night and day; it resonates with sites and sponsors.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Similar to how Inato helps pharmaceutical companies and doctors understand each other, being mentored by my co-founders, Jean-David Zeitoun, MD, Ph.D., and Philippe Ravaud, helped me understand the academic and medical sides of the story, and Liz Beatty brought in the pharma industry side. Having these people around the table got me up to speed, and we wouldn’t be where we are without them.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

The quote I like is “Only the Paranoid Survive,” which is actually the title of a book by former Intel CEO Andy Grove, who led the company through some major industry paradigm shifts. His belief is that if you’re not able to constantly reinvent yourself, then your business can’t survive. This is very much how we think about our business and how I think about Inato and the impact we can have on our community trial sites. We have community sites that have been working pretty much the same way for a very long time, but the industry is shifting based on demands from patients, for example, to be treated at home. We want to help the sites adapt to these new paradigms.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

These traits really align with our company values, beginning with being bold. The hard part is not starting a company; it is staying ambitious when it means betting everything again. This is something that we did four years into the company that was quite difficult; we decided to completely pivot away from our initial model, go back to zero revenue and no product, and tell our existing customers that we’re doing something different. We had to lay off half of the team, which was heartbreaking. But, we had no doubt that this was the thing to do if we wanted to have a massive impact on patients’ lives.

The second one is resilience. Starting a company comes with a lot of trial and error; you have to be able to learn and get back on your feet when you fall. The last one is caring, which is at the core of our company culture. It’s easy in a fast-growth company to focus on the impact and think that the end justifies the means. We’ve always been very focused on making sure that we have a company culture where everyone is invested in each other’s success. With it being at the forefront of how we operate, that focus extends towards the patients, community sites, and pharma companies we work with, allowing us to really be committed to our customers’ success. This is something that really compounds over time with people really invested in the company. At the end of the day, it’s also the only enjoyable way for me to work.

Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about the tech tools that you are helping to create that can make a positive impact on our wellness. To begin, which particular problems are you aiming to solve?

The primary insight I referred to earlier that took us a while to identify is this idea that you have 5% of sites that are running 70% of clinical research, and this long tail of, typically, non-academic sites actually have a lot to bring to the research table. While you might see them as low hanging fruit, but because it’s so difficult to establish the necessary trust for sponsors to look beyond the 500 or 1,000 sites that they know really well, the reality is that these other sites end up being completely underutilized. This is the core of why you have only a small percentage of patients with access to research.

So the core problem we’re tackling is that if you go one level below academic hospitals, you can already touch the vast majority of the population. You don’t necessarily have to go fully digital to bring trials to the patient’s home. By bringing research to community-based sites, you offer them the chance to receive treatment in a familiar setting with a physician and research team they know they can trust. Adding these components of familiarity to the experience really allows the community sites to recruit and retain patients at a rate you wouldn’t see in larger sites.

How do you think your technology can address this?

We have created a platform where clinical trial sponsors and community sites can meet, and where those sites can get the support they need to be successful. It creates a kind of virtual circle of trust. Concretely, what this means is as a site, I can have access to and identify all the upcoming trials that could be a good fit for my patients. I can then prove to the pharma company that I’m going to be able to meaningfully contribute patients to their studies. Then, by getting the support I need to reliably deliver the number of patients to which I committed, I can create a reputation that grows and is transferable from one sponsor to the next.

Therein lies the beauty of the platform. If I, as a community site, do really well because I got the support I needed, I can then grow my reputation and get access to more sponsors and more trials. You also have to think about the fact that today things are very siloed. If you do poorly, no one will really know if it was your fault or not. If you do well, no one really knows that, either. So, at the end of the day, it’s this weird situation where no matter the effort you put in, growth and recognition can be very difficult to achieve.

These are the realities that the Inato Marketplace platform addresses.

Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

It really is all about the doctor, the patient, and the relationship between the two. What has always been fascinating to me is this idea that you have doctors who are passionate about care and who are proficient caregivers, and you have scientists on the pharma side who are working at the highest level of complexity, but it’s the simple collaboration that is broken. How can Doctor A meet Pharma B so they can work together? That is the broken part. What is inspiring to me is the level of impact you can have by just handling the nuts and bolts and making the operational complexity better.

One thing that was striking to me was what happened with COVID. The tools didn’t get better. But because you had this urgency, everything went 10 times faster. The urgency enabled people to collaborate more efficiently, and when collaboration is improved, the impact is massive.

It’s not an idea that is completely out there or completely unrealistic. Look at what Airbnb has done — they have been able to really improve how complete strangers can collaborate. That’s what we do.

How do you think this might change the world?

Inato is really about patient access in more ways than one. First, it changes the world in terms of access to the best care you can imagine, because this is basically what clinical research is. If we can bring research to those 100,000 underutilized sites, it will mean going from 3% or 4% of patients with access to research to 90%. The second order of magnitude in terms of impact is running more trials, which, in turn, leads to bringing more innovative drugs to market. The third order — and this is where it gets a bit complex — is if you are able to test new drugs on all populations, on ethnically diverse populations, you’ll have drugs that work better. You’ll have drugs that are not biased towards working really well on white populations but not as well on African American populations. This is the part I’m passionate about, because it’s inclusion on so many different levels.

Keeping “Black Mirror” and the “Law of Unintended Consequences” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?

If you talk about the technology to expand patient access more broadly, the potential drawbacks are linked to going too far in the direction of fully digital. Imagine if we go down a path where the pharma companies and vendors get direct access to the patients. Doctors are bypassed entirely, and, instead, you have wearables to track all the data coming from patients. You’ll end up in a very strange Black Mirror-ish situation where research is conducted without caregivers and physicians. It’s very much “out there,” in the sense that it’s so far from where we are today that it doesn’t seem realistic. But in some cases, it’s what people are — strangely enough — pushing for with things like Amazon going into healthcare. At the end of the day, I think no patient is excited about this; no one is excited about having Amazon as their caregiver and completely bypassing the doctors, nurses, and all the other people who bring human compassion to healthcare.

Here is the main question for our discussion. Based on your experience and success, can you please share “Four things you need to know to successfully create technology that can make a positive social impact”?

The first one is to be crystal clear on what your mission is and sticking to it. For us, this has always been expanding patient access to trials. Once we realized that the first product was not really helping us get closer to our mission, it made it very easy to make the decision to pivot, even though that decision had a massive impact.

Number two is starting with a very narrow and clear focus, especially when you’re in such a complex industry like clinical research with so many actors. If you’re not able to clearly convey who you are and what is unique about you, you can very rapidly get lost in becoming a service company and having clients and sponsors not knowing what you stand for, which to me is a recipe for disaster. So even if what you want is to go big, you should still start very narrow.

The third is thinking about adoption and usability from day one. This is a lesson we learned the hard way. When we started initially, we were very excited about being data-driven. We wanted to interface with all our clients’ databases and, by doing so, create a massive complexity for adoption. After we pivoted, we were laser-focused on making adoption as seamless as possible. No matter the client’s processes, we could be adopted in two weeks versus a year. This absolutely makes all the difference in the world.

The last one is to build a passionate team. It is a massive advantage when you have a positive mission to be able to attract really ambitious people who are not just in it for the money. This is the biggest asset you can build.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

Again, coming back to the mission, I think with so many ups and downs that necessarily come with building a company, you can’t be driven by money. When things get hard, money is not a sufficient incentive. Being primarily driven by a mission around the social impact you want to have keeps you going when things are hard — and they will get hard.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)

Lunch with Larry David. The idea of sitting and just listening to him ramble is my idea of an exciting lunch.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

You can follow me on LinkedIn.

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success in your important work.

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Dave Philistin, CEO of Candor
Authority Magazine

Dave Philistin Played Professional Football in the NFL for 3 years. Dave is currently the CEO of the cloud solutions provider Candor