Brad McCarty • September 27, 2018

One could argue that every physician is an entrepreneur at heart. They’re not afraid of risk, and they’re well aware of the potential rewards. It’s no surprise then to see so many physicians making the transition into the role of startup CEO. But the path to a successful company is not without its share of challenges. All too often, this leads to a physician saying “I have an idea…so now what?”

While every company’s journey is going to be different, there are some constants between them. We will cover these commonalities and discuss how to overcome those challenges. Along the way, Dr. Rajesh Dash will talk about his journey with HealthPals. HealthPals is a company that Dr. Dash founded in 2015. After shifting its market focus, HealthPals found success as a data and business partner with the American College of Cardiology.

Examine the Market

The first step in any successful company is to build something that somebody wants. While this definitely sounds simple, and even trite, it’s a challenge that often leads to failure. In the world of healthcare, the best advice is often to focus on innovating within your present field. You already know the challenges that you face, and the problems that you wish someone would solve. Staying inside of your own field gives you a competitive advantage over working elsewhere.

Dr. Dash had been working as a preventive cardiologist. He was on the staff at Stanford University, focusing on predictive imaging. The genesis of HealthPals came from a clinic that he started to identify and treat risk factors in young South Asians. His own work had showed him that many patients were not undertreated for their own risk factors, and he believed that a digital service could help give them more effective treatment.

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Once you know the problem that you want to solve, you need to determine the potential market size for your product. Is your solution’s target so precise that it ignores a larger potential? What competitive advantages can you bring that over the status quo or your competitors? What price is someone willing to pay for what you’re offering? Until you have a good idea about the answers to these questions, it’s not worth moving forward to the next step. So do your research, and tap into your personal network to help clear away confusion.

HealthPals found that there was a broader need for their idea than what a single clinic could provide. As Dr. Dash and the team continued their research, they found that many patients met all the clinical criteria for medications, but few had started them.

Further, the team found a gap in the use of evidence-based guidelines versus the current treatment plans. This gap showed the need for a solution that could reach a wider audience than what the team had been focusing on before.

Write the Plan

Now armed with the information from your market research, your next step is to put it into a business plan. Your plan should make it clear what your business does, how you intend to attract customers, and how you will structure the company.

In the startup world it’s also important to distil this business plan into a slide deck that you can use to tell your story. Investors, early employees, and even advisors will want to have this explanation available to them.

Build the MVP

The MVP, or minimum viable product, is the first iteration that shows what a company is able to do. For many entrepreneurs, the MVP or prototype becomes a stumbling block. Showing this incomplete work to anyone is embarrassing. But as LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman says, “if you’re not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late.”

Though the focus of the article is on technology, Free Code Camp has a great explanation of an MVP process:

1 – Start with a single, simple product solving a tiny subset of a Grand Problem

2 – Keep iterating, while constantly solving bigger, related problems en route to solving the Grand Problem

3 – Constantly communicate the vision of the Grand Problem that you are solving.

Sometimes the MVP isn’t designed as an MVP at all. In Dr. Dash’s case, the clinic was the MVP when it was first built as the end goal. It wasn’t until he started working in the clinic, focusing on one population group, that the grand problem came into the picture. By looking at the data that the clinic was using, Dr. Dash was able to see that there was a broader problem that he wanted to address.

Cardiologist Dr. Billy Cohn has developed numerous prototypes over the years, and now holds over 90 patents either granted or pending. In Dr. Cohn’s case, he built many of his prototypes from scrap materials, pieces that he acquired from home improvement stores, or even parts from a dollar store. His work is a perfect example of not overthinking an MVP. They only need enough function and refinement to get the job done. There is plenty of time to come back later and improve on the original idea.

Let the Data Decide

One of the toughest challenges that any entrepreneur can face is finding out that their original idea needs to change. Sometimes it’s a lack of customers, other times it’s a matter of finding new information once the MVP is out in the world. Regardless of the reasoning, it’s important to keep an open mind and not get overly-attached to the first idea.

HealthPals Screenshot

Dr. Dash’s experiences with data caused him to make a significant pivot. “We set out to build something quite different than what we are now,” he said. “The first iteration was a point-of-care solution. We showed automated, personalized, evidence-based lists of guideline-driven treatments. Physicians really liked the idea, but nobody was willing to pay for it.”

The concept of product-market fit is an area that often trips up entrepreneurs. The pitfall to avoid is that of being so in love with your original idea that you’re prevented from seeing a broader need or a bigger picture. For HealthPals, the shift was to move toward health systems rather than solo or other small practices.

Never Stop Exploring

We spoke earlier about looking for ways to innovate within your current field. The next step after finding the right idea is to explore ways that it can serve more people. Dr. Dash started by focusing on a specific problem that was part of a larger issue. His work took him from a single clinic, to a point-of-care startup, and eventually to health systems. As it stands today, HealthPals has developed a clinical intelligence system (CLINT, for short) that allows patient data to be mapped to the evidence-based criteria of the customer’s choosing.

CLINT has opened the door for HealthPals to become a data and business partner with the American College of Cardiology. Now, instead of a single clinic or a handful of offices, HealthPals can run virtual clinical trials against 200 million patient life-years of de-identified data. These trials can test whether recommended treatment actually works, or if it’s an ineffective status quo. Beyond these tests, HealthPals can now provide analytics back to the various health systems and companies that work with them. As Dr. Dash tells us, “the ACC is a tremendous channel partner, and working with them has been a huge turn of events for us.”

Read, Research, Repeat

No one article can ever encompass every step required to go from an idea to a successful product or company. So let this serve as a primer for you. As you’re dealing with the frustrations in your daily work, and thinking of ways that you could solve them, you now have a starting point for making a difference.

Along the way you might need technical help, investment dollars, or other assistance. While the grand problem may seem daunting, remember the MVP method of finding a solution. Start by fixing a small problem, look at the market to see if there are bigger opportunities, and don’t hesitate to find a partner to help you grow. You’re already an entrepreneur at heart; put that drive to use and change the future of healthcare.