Life in a Digital Health Start-Up

For the last year and a half, I have been part of a team building a digital health start-up. In this time, we have launched our first product (ONCOassist), become one of the first companies in the world to get a mobile app classified as a medical device, moved from our home in Ireland to London and were part of the inaugural Healthbox London class. Along the way, I have learned a lot about healthcare and have the privilege of comparing this to life in my previous start-up in the travel industry. Healthcare is very different from traditional tech, hence the reason for the current popularity of healthcare accelerator programmes. For those of you who are outside this sector, here is a run down of my experiences and some of the advantages and disadvantages of life in a digital health start-up.

HIPAA compliance, FDA approval, ISO and CE approval. These are terms that are commonly used in digital health. At first it can be daunting to speak about these terms and complying with standards set by government agencies. However, I have learned it is not something to be feared or avoided, what the regulators are asking for isn’t unreasonable. Clinical tools, whether they are digital or otherwise, need to be controlled. They are used to make life or death decisions, so errors are not an option. Would you want an unregulated clinical tool used on one of your family members?

I have a lot of respect for the guys in Stripe, as I understand the payments industry has the same complications. I previously spent some time trying to find a way of implementing 3rd party payments. Healthcare has similar complications and bureaucracy that needs to be overcome before a product can be put on the market.

Abundance of Opportunities
With an aging population and a crippling healthcare system, the industry wants and needs technical solutions to ease the burden.  There are a lot of opportunities for innovation. If you speak to doctors or hospital administrators and ask them what problems they are having,you are sure to get a notebook full of ideas. I feel this abundance of opportunities can be a little distracting at times; you can find yourself unable to focus on the problem at hand and can get a little sidetracked looking at other potential products.

I can only speak from a London perspective, but it seems like there aren’t investors interested in this space.  Digital healthcare falls in between life sciences and tech VC’s and it therefore can be difficult to find investors who are interested in getting involved. Understandably from their point of view, they need to understand the space to add real value. Unfortunately, most of them don’t understand the space. Our product ONCOassist is an app that is a medical device. How many VC’s have experience with medical devices and mobile technology? This article(Why digital Health is no bubble) gives a good insight into the current challenges we face.

Interested in investing? Check out our Angel list profile.

Feel good factor
The fact that you are working in healthcare in an area that matters to people and governments gives a certain feel good factor. My previous start-up helped people get a better price for group travel. While this was a lot of fun, it’s great to be a part of something that will help people on a larger scale.

Working with really really bright people
Healthcare seems to attract some really bright people. I am not sure how it works elsewhere in the world, but in the UK and Ireland those with the best grades usually train as doctors. As an entrepreneur in digital health you are working with people pushing the boundaries of healthcare research. This can have positive and negative consequences, these people sometimes forget how much they actually know about a complex topic and don’t slow down to let those from business and IT work out what is going on. On the upside they are generally very tech savvy and appreciate a good digital product when they see one.

There is a steep learning curve in healthcare; there are new routes to new markets to be navigated and large established institutions to be convinced. However, I have to say that I am happy to be here and plan to stay in the space.  There is certainly a feeling of excitement and change right now, “innovation” is the word on everyone’s lips.

If you are in between start-ups and are looking for a fresh new challenge in a space that needs help, I would recommend healthcare. It wants and needs innovators to help it move forward. I can also vouch for Healthbox, they have played a huge part in helping us progress.

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