This is the fifth in our new series “8 Questions” — in which we sit down with founders in the Playfair portfolio to share their entrepreneurial journey.
We invested in Matt Wilson in March 2019. We were inspired by his vision to enable any health provider and any patient to participate in research to bring new treatments to market and improve the fight against disease. Alongside his co-founder and CTO Chris Broderick, Matt is on a mission to build a technology platform that can shorten what is currently a multi-month or even multi-year slog to a matter of days or weeks.
Today, we sit down with co-founder and CEO, Matt to hear his story from deciding to take the plunge as an entrepreneur, the early days building uMed to where it is today and where he thinks they can go. We hope this can help other founders and aspirational entrepreneurs in their own ventures, from day one to wherever they are today.
1. What inspired you to be an entrepreneur?
As is often the case with these stories, there’s a background story and there’s a lightbulb moment.
“The biggest frustration was only being able to treat one patient at a time”
The background story comes from my years as a doctor with the Royal Marines. I loved my work, but the biggest frustration was only being able to treat one patient at a time. No matter how good I was or how hard I worked, I had a limited ability to affect change. I looked at friends in research and the impact they were having at scale and I realised I needed to create a company that could create systematic change in how we deliver research.
The lightbulb moment, meanwhile, came in the depths of Northern Norway while on a training camp with the Marines. I was reading a Wired magazine profile piece on the founder of Box, Aaron Levie, and was totally inspired by his story. He was self-effacing, yet incredibly driven and determined to build what is now a multi-billion dollar software company. I think it’s so important for any founder to know that the barriers to entry to pursue your passion and vision are never too high.
2. Can you take us back to the beginnings of uMed?
If you have any experience with the military, you’ll know that there are long periods of time that you need to fill. Instead of bingeing Netflix, I used one 6-week period while in Norway as an opportunity to put together the business plan for uMed 1.0.
The premise was: to make medical research more accessible to everyday doctors. I shared my business plan on the equivalent of Angel List and connected to Zack Feather — who is a board member today — among other angel investors and broader network. The long-story-short lessons learned were that this initial idea wasn’t a scalable business even if it was a good idea, but the network I built and the learnings from those that gave feedback fed into what uMed is today.
Going back to that lightbulb moment, there is no such thing; the best ideas germinate over time, becoming increasingly structured until one day you take the plunge, decide to commit yourself full-time and officially start the company.
3. What is the hardest lesson learned since day 1?
“Don’t take people’s CVs at face value”
Arguably the biggest challenge for any company is making sure you have the right founding team building it. If you’re building your startup with a co-founder, make sure they have the same core values. You should both bring your own skillsets to the table, but you should have the same work ethic, a shared vision, and your personalities need to work together, no matter how different.
It makes an unbelievable difference when you find that right person, so putting in the effort for that search is crucial. What you’re solving for in that search should, of course, include their relevant work experience, but never take someone’s CV at face value and make the so-called softer side as important as anything.
4. What has been your strangest day as a founder?
For first-time founders, when you’re first raising money, you often go through a learning process, especially when it comes to pitch events. Early on, I attended one speed-dating pitch event that turned out to be heavily consumer-facing, while there I was with a Deep Tech business disrupting Healthcare. I distinctly remember the entrepreneur in front of me carrying around a giant inflatable fuschia pink hammock and thinking, “How much easier would life be if I were just selling inflatable hammocks”.
5. What have you learned from your investors since you first fundraised?
I’ve learned two lessons:
- Have the right investor at the right stage with the right connections. There was a big difference between the angel round of funding and Playfair coming onboard as an institutional investor. Having that validation of a respected VC, their wider support network and the experience of seed-stage growth makes a huge difference to a company at our early stage.
- Under-promise and over-deliver. Founders tend to do the opposite and it’s dangerous because you always leave everyone with a feeling of underperformance. Ultimately, it all boils down to balancing aspiration with practicality, and this is also a key skill when pitching to your next round of investors.
6. As a founder, what is your proudest achievement to date?
The day we signed a contract with our first GP federation (group of GP practices) is undoubtedly my proudest moment to date. Asking people to give a startup access to extremely sensitive patient data and promising to deliver research is not an insignificant commitment. Even harder is when you’re faced with a chicken-and-egg dilemma and you can’t point to a previous use case where it’s already worked and proven.
When someone you don’t know takes such a big leap of faith with you and your company, it’s a moment you don’t forget.
7. Crystal Ball: What are your plans for the future?
We want there to be a global research network underpinned by uMed. Every health provider and every patient will be able to participate in research. As a result, we will be the enabler of new treatments fighting diseases that haven’t yet found a solution, and ultimately we’ll be helping save lives.
It may be cliche these days to quote Elon Musk, but he remains an inspirational entrepreneur nonetheless. He said years ago that if you can make it just that much easier to get things into orbit, you will open up a whole new market that didn’t even exist before. We’re talking healthcare, not space exploration, but the message is the same, and crucially, we want to make high-quality research accessible not just to the juggernauts like Pfizer, but the small town academic or university spin-out too.
8. #1 piece of advice to an aspirational founder?
“If your gut feeling says this isn’t right, you need to work hard to disprove it”
Gut feeling is widely misdefined as intangible, unexplainable opinion. In reality, it’s an incredibly intelligent balance of experience, ingeniously filtered down by your brain to a single point of truth: yes or no. If your gut, or in my view, your brain, is telling you something isn’t right, then you should listen because there will be an innumerable set of factors contributing to that decision. That doesn’t mean you should always take your gut feeling as wrote, but if you want to go against it, you should be able to justify your reasoning to disprove it.
I would also add:
“Think very carefully of the balance between listening to people and believing what they say.”
Advice is important, but as an entrepreneur, if you listened to everyone you’d never start anything. The key is to learn what to listen to and what to not. Ultimately that comes from trusting your advisers and knowing they’re helping for the right reasons, without an agenda. If you have people around you that you trust and who believe in you then anything is possible.