The Startup Interview: snap40

Photo: Chris McCann, Founder of snap40

“Everyone thinks we’re a wearables company, but we really aren’t.” In fact, Christopher McCann’s fledging startup snap40 couldn’t be any less to do with Apple Watches and Fitbits if he tried. Instead, snap40 are setting out to disrupt the healthcare industry through revolutionary technology that tracks patients’ health indicators and interprets the data and patterns, allowing healthcare professionals to take preventative action before it’s too late. We met for a chat to discuss his startup, the problems faced in healthcare today, and the important lessons he’s learnt in entrepreneurship.

Chris has agreed to meet me in Starbucks on the Quartermile — he’s found time between winning an award earlier in the afternoon and a meeting in Skyscanner’s offices a few hundred yards away to fit in what is a long awaited chat for his Startup Interview. He buys a coffee, takes a seat and I switch on my recorder, hoping that I’ll be able to hear what we’re saying amidst the voices of everyone else who has decided to meet here on this sunny May afternoon. I ask Chris to tell me a little bit about himself and his background. “I did my first degree in Computer Science at the University of Strathclyde. I had a job offer to go and work for Morgan Stanley but decided that it wasn’t really what I wanted to do with my career so I decided instead to set my own thing up,” he tells me. ‘His own thing’ took the form of a social network for children which he ran for a year before giving up and freelancing for a few months. “I thought, no, this isn’t for me so I’ll go and do Medicine. So, I was, until what, three weeks ago, a Medicine student at the University of Dundee.” Studying Medicine is similar to studying Computer Science, Chris claims, given that both require the retention of a large volume of information and its application to certain problems.

Perhaps unusually, however, Chris has not graduated in Medicine; rather, he has decided to take a leave of absence from his studies to focus on his startup, snap40 full time. “We’ve got an enormous opportunity and need to raise a significant amount of money and you can’t do that and be a Med student at the same time. And if you want to go for it, you might as well go full at it,” he says. It wasn’t a decision he took lightly. “I’d encourage everyone to start a business but whether or not people should leave jobs, leave university of whatever is going to be a personal decision and has to depend on your circumstances,” Chris tells me. “You have to make sure that you have support to do it, the financial ability to do it, make sure that you’ve thoroughly checked that your proposition is right, make sure that you’re doing the right thing before making any big decisions like that but, if you do make that decision, then go for it and don’t regret it.”

“We’ve got an enormous opportunity and need to raise a significant amount of money and you can’t do that and be a Med student at the same time. And if you want to go for it, you might as well go full at it.”

“So where did the idea for snap40 come from?” I ask Chris. “The idea to do it came through clinical experiences of working on the wards. Working in intensive care. I realised that there were patients coming to us on a daily basis who had deteriorated on the general wards and, through no fault at all of the medical staff, had been missed and we had to deal with the consequences of it.” Chris explains that, with some hospitals housing more than a thousand patients on the general wards, it is impossible to monitor them at all times and, when monitoring only occurs every four to eight hours, early warning signs of deterioration are easily missed. “So what we’re developing is a wearable that will sit on the patient, monitor them all the time, transmit it all wirelessly and then, rather than put it on a screen for the clinician to see, we’ll do real-time analysis of the data we’re collecting and if there are patterns for a particular patient that suggest deterioration, we’ll let healthcare staff know to then go and take action early.” It is the collection, analysis and communication of data which, Chris claims, makes the company stand out in the current marketplace.

As with any organisation looking to disrupt a market, Chris’s largest challenge is persuading health care services and professionals to embrace the change his startup is offering. “Affecting change in behaviour is one of the hardest things to do, particularly in a busy environment like a hospital ward,” Chris notes. “So we’re trying to do something that fits alongside existing behaviour rather than trying to overhaul it. It is about making the service for the front line, rather than it being something that’s mandated.” In order to do so, he plans to integrate snap40’s software with existing technologies and notification systems like hospital pagers, etc. it’s about taking existing technologies “a step forward,” he tells me.

“Affecting change in behaviour is one of the hardest things to do, particularly in a busy environment like a hospital ward.”

With the devices currently in the ‘development and clinical evaluation stage’, you cannot expect to be fitted with one of snap40’s devices if you visit a hospital next week. Nevertheless, Chris believes that the company are on track for the first pilot-patient studies in March next year, with general sales expected a few months thereafter. Before then, however, the company must clear a number of regulatory checks — which, Chris tells me, are one of the main reasons we have not seen other, consumer wearables like the Apple Watch or FitBit, used to monitor patients so far — and prove the safety of the device through a healthy volunteer study and non-evasive animal testing.

“So who is your target market? Is it the NHS?” I ask. “We’ve got a global outlook,” Chris tells me confidently. “We don’t want to just stay in the UK, but it would be health services that are first on on our list.” The company then plans, however, to expand into the community healthcare market, citing evidence that patients recover best within their own homes and in the hope that doing so could relieve hospital services of their current overcrowding. “In this case, we’d let ambulances or care services know when patients need care,” Chris says.

His global outlook may be aided by the company’s name and Chris’s determination to maintain a startup, small business mentality at snap40. Asked on the origins on the name ‘snap40’, Chris tells me that the name “doesn’t mean anything at all,” and that it was picked because he could register the dot com domain. He notes, however, that “it’s easy for people to remember and it’s a bit different. A lot of medical companies end up being called ‘something clinical’ or ‘something medical’ or whatever, and I was quite keen to avoid that.” Being a startup is beneficial, Chris argues, saying “people want to help small companies, and they should. Small companies are, absolutely, the lifeline of our economy in this country.” He adds that thinking you’re a larger company can also be risky in that one starts to spend as if one had lots of money. “So even though we’re now getting to the point that we’re funded [he is currently completing a £50k-£300k seed round with plans for a £4 million Series A funding round over the next two years], I’d still prefer us to believe that we’re not funded, if that makes sense,” he says cautiously.

“People want to help small companies, and they should. Small companies are, absolutely, the lifeline of our economy in this country.”

As is often the case with entrepreneurs though, Chris is keen to poinwt out his mistakes and problems, as well as his successes. He highlights the common misunderstanding that snap40 are a wearables company, — “we need to fix the way that we’re branding ourselves because more and more people think we’re a wearables company when we’re not,” he says — his failure to bring on a co-founder and, most interestingly, the difficulty in attracting technical talent to join the business.

“What were the major challenges you faced when hiring technical talent?” I ask. “It’s hard to find very highly skilled software engineers for very early stage startups,” Chris tells me. “Edinburgh’s good, Edinburgh’s great — if there’s anywhere to find people, it’s Edinburgh. But the problem is that the people who are fantastic ar generally already employed so a lot of it is down to luck.” Fortunately, Chris has been successful in recruiting a data scientist, Stuart, who he cannot praise highly enough. He points out, however, that Stuart found Chris, not the other way round. “A lot of the time, it’s about raising your profile enough so that people start reaching out to you. At an early stage, it’s not about us employing people, it’s more about finding people who share the vision we have who want to build the technology with us.,” he says.

I’m interested in what Chris can tell me about his first startup, the aforementioned social network for children. Once again, Chris is more than open about his failures and credits them as the reasons for much of his success this time around. He identifies three key failings: our failure to understand the value of sales and revenue, the importance of getting one’s product calculation right, and the need for resilience. On the first, he notes that, “there’s a bit of a Silicon Valley mentality out there and we’ve kind of lost it somewhere. A company has to make sales or you’re not alive. And, somehow, we’ve come to believe that you can go on for ages and ages and ages not being profitable. That might work for Twitter, but it isn’t going to work for most people.” The social network, he explains, didn’t generate enough revenue to justify its costs. On the second, he tells me of how he got their product calculation wrong; “we were doing a social network for kids and there’s no inherent value in our product unless all their pals are on it. So, for it to work, you have to bring the kid and their real life social network at ten same time.” And finally, he admits that he shouldn’t have given up quite as soon as he did. “You just have to keep going,” he exclaims.

“But the one thing that tops all of those,” he says suddenly, “is the importance of relationships, as well as sales.” Although he notes that understanding the end customer is of paramount importance, it is also crucial to leverage the networks of those you know. In Chris’ case, his network extends across a number of groups in Scotland, including universities, healthcare services, the Scottish Institute for Enterprise, Converge Challenge, Young Innovators Challenge and the Scottish EDGE. “We’ve got very, very good relationships with a huge number of people who help us and, hopefully, once were a much bigger, successful company, we can help them in return,” he says with a smile.

“We’ve got very, very good relationships with a huge number of people who help us and, hopefully, once were a much bigger, successful company, we can help them in return.”

I assume that, having now run two startup businesses, Chris would call himself an ‘entrepreneur,’ but I’m wrong. Instead, he believes that “an entrepreneur is something that somebody else has to call you.” For him, however, entrepreneurship is about seeing problems, deciding to fix them and not taking ‘no’ for an answer. “You cannot be disheartened if people say no because people will always say no. If you’re trying to effect change in anything, people will resist that normally,” he says.

Finally, I ask Chris who inspires him on a daily basis. “I suppose I could go for the stereotypical answer and say someon like Elon Musk because he’s disrupted some huge industries with no prior experience in them,” he says. But instead, he chooses others. For him, his biggest source of inspiration are the doctors and nurses on the wards who go to work on a daily pressure, face enormous pressure, and are often “trashed in the press while doing it.” Hopefully then, Chris and snap40 can play a part in relieving that pressure and improving the services’ reputation in the eyes of the media, as well as improving the lives of patients around the world.