Julian Koo, Co-founder of Jaga-Me — The Road Less Travelled
“Jaga-Me was founded because many of us have personally witnessed the stress and lostness caregivers face when providing long-term health care at home. And all of us wanted to do something about it.”
Student-to-startup isn’t the only path to becoming a social entrepreneur, as healthcare start-up Jaga-Me co-founder Julian Koo demonstrates. For the ex-public servant, it was his training at the Economic Development Board (EDB) that prepared him for his current work at Jaga-Me, an online platform for patients and their families to access professional home nursing and caregiving services on demand. Jaga-Me sought to minimise caregiver burnout, a trend in Singapore’s current healthcare model — through decentralised healthcare.
Public Service as a Training Ground
“It wasn’t a decision to join the public service for the sake of it,” Julian said, on accepting the role from EDB to build new industries after a short stint in the U.S. “My interest was in creating something new — which is not unlike being an entrepreneur.” In his department, he was tasked to build up next-generation biotechnology in Singapore to create jobs and competitive industries. Without previous infrastructure in this nascent field, it was the responsibility of Julian and his team to “go and make it happen”. “The opportunity to be an entrepreneur for a country is very rare,” said the Singaporean, who clearly has a heart to serve the public.
“It was important for me to understand how Singapore worked,” he shared. “And there’s no better place than getting a high-level overview from an organisation like EDB.” Working in the public service gave him exposure to how government leaders and corporate executives think, as well as the opportunity to influence policies and execute them. “These mechanics are things you would never typically see,” he explained.
Back in 2010, the idealistic student’s enthusiasm led him to ride the wave of localised and mobile content to start Surveylicious, a location-based market research smartphone application, with his NUS Overseas Colleges housemates in Silicon Valley — even before their project for New Venture Creation class had been assigned. “We were all very garang (courageous) when we first arrived, there is so much exuberance in Silicon Valley,” he said. Back in 2011, many things we take for granted were only beginning to emerge. “Uber hadn’t been popularised yet; and all the trending start-ups were focused on social, local, and mobile…we were very excited.”
Surveylicious created a lot of buzz at the time. It won a competition by Stanford’s Business Association of Stanford Entrepreneurial Students (BASES) and was backed by the NUS Innovation and Entrepreneurship Practicum Grant (which offers up to $10,000). His experience in Silicon Valley whet his appetite to make a difference back home, but he sought to gain more work experience by working at EDB.
“You don’t have the same business knowledge and acumen, being unpolished and right out of school. Working in an organisation with a strong focus on talent development is a good place to hone your skills.” His role allowed him to combine his learnings from Silicon Valley as part of the NUS Overseas Colleges with business trends in the biotechnology and chemicals industries. It also gave him the training to scout for new business opportunities, form hypotheses, and test them just as a start-up would.
Reflecting on the benefits of his training in a large organisation prior to stepping out as an entrepreneur, Julian said, “It’s necessary for entrepreneurs to have some sense of how to work in a conventional environment…Although entrepreneurs do not thrive in regulated environments, the world is still regulated.”
What is his secret to taking risk in a highly regulated environment like Singapore?
Setting A Precedent
“Sometimes you need to prove it to the rest — be they clients or partners,” said the bold founder. “Healthcare is risk-averse for a good reason.”
“The recipe to solve risk-aversion is to set a precedent,” he noted. People or corporations are risk-averse because of the internal culture, he observed. He encouraged entrepreneurs to “get into the head of the person at the other side of the table, and what matters to them”.
For example, healthcare is risk-averse for a good reason — to protect the safety of patients. Instead of waiting for hospitals to “give” them patients, Jaga-Me chose the internet marketing route to reach potential customers — and eventually succeeded.
Unconventional routes are not new to the entrepreneur. His passion to explore has led him to pursue new domains of knowledge.
“I never do whatever I study,” said Julian, a mechanical engineer by training. He admits to going into “strange pathways” and going into things that he is not good at. As a social entrepreneur, “you need that comfort with ambiguity and take it as a challenge,” he said. His venture into the healthcare sector began with a simple quest: a search for meaning. “I was looking for something meaningful to do, and I was initially thinking more in terms of medical devices,” he mused. This led him to a hackathon where he was presented with problem statements. One particular statement resonated with a personal experience:
“While volunteering, this particular gentleman I was supposed to help was locked inside his one-room flat, and I couldn’t get in. He was lying on the ground, and he looked like his skin was decolourised. Did he have a stroke? Did he need help?” recalls Julian, with clarity. “Even though there was a community clinic at the bottom of his block, it was closed.”
The helplessness he felt at that point spurred him on to action. “So these two principles stuck with me: first — we rely too much on hospitals, and second — people’s access to healthcare could be better.”
Having like-minded team members has been an asset for Julian’s projects. However, he shares that getting the right people on your team is no easy task. For co-founders, especially, he looks for commitment, competence, and culture.
For co-founders, commitment is an essential. Part-time commitments are “dilutive”, he said. “They need to be able to run the business with you guys. If any of the team is not 100% in, it’s not going to fly,” he said.
In addition, fellow founders must be competent in their craft. “If you are substandard in one area, adding another substandard person doesn’t make a competent person,” he said pointedly. A team also needs people who are “respected in their field”. For example, nursing co-founder Ling Ling’s professional experience in inpatient and outpatient care equips her for the job with Jaga-Me. Tech co-founder, Aaron, brings his diverse experience building a web software start-up, after spending his early technical career at multinational company, Oracle.
The founder is cautious in bringing people on board. “We don’t always hire immediately,” he said. “You need to give them some space to demonstrate their competency in some way and surface their competencies.”
In addition, you must like working with them. he said. “Even though someone may be a good and competent person, there may not be a culture or team fit,” he said. “If there’s no culture or chemistry fit, you can’t.”
Advice to Young Entrepreneurs
When Jaga-Me started, Julian was a full-time EDB staff and start-up founder. How did he keep all his balls in the air?
1. Give yourself structure — a schedule, a mentor, or an accelerator
“It takes a lot of discipline to push yourself on a schedule,” he advised. “Having advisors helps.” Accelerator programmes can help lay the foundations that help walk you through the process, and it “puts you through a training regimen to form the basis for trying out your idea and getting your feet wet.”
2. Start small, and let it grow
Taking risks is part of the start-up process — and one of gradual testing and iteration. “I didn’t start being an entrepreneur until last year (at 28),” said the entrepreneur who chose to wait before starting his company. However, he made small sacrifices all along the way. “I went on an accelerator programme, SG Innovate’s TAG.PASS, using my annual leave from when I was in EDB. I was using leave, using weekends, using my free time to work on the start-up,” he recalls.
“You get a shock if you jump into the pool,” he said, “but if you take small steps, you gradually become acclimatised to it, and you start to see if this is the pool you want to be in.”
3. Dare to embrace the difficult
To aspiring social entrepreneurs, Julian shares the words of U.S. President John F. Kennedy: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”
Social entrepreneurs should not shy away from doing a social enterprise just because it is difficult, he said. It is precisely “because it is difficult and no one has done it before that we should do it,” he reflected. “It is meaningful, that’s why we’re doing it.”
“This is the precedent that we’re setting as we move forward.”
How can you help?
Are you inspired by Jaga-Me and its mission? Are you a socially-conscious student interested to make an impact in healthcare? Take the opportunity to join Julian and Jaga-Me in their exclusive internship programmes this coming year!
Marketers apply here: https://goo.gl/forms/jDMofXE3UTwThzlH3
Techies apply here: https://goo.gl/forms/VWY82S5psegXMtUI2
(Part-time positions available.)
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Ready to develop your social enterprise idea?
If you are seeking support for your social enterprise idea, NUS Enterprise has a host of events and funding opportunities to equip you on your journey.
One such programme is the DBS-NUS Social Venture Challenge Asia — take part and stand a chance to grow your innovative, scalable solution with sustainable impact.
Another programme is the NUS Enterprise Startup Runway, which supports start-ups at any point of your entrepreneurial journey.
More information at the Social Venture Lab @ NUS is available on our website.