Chapter 1: Into the mouth of the digital health wolf
Aka My Digital Health Story
It is easy to talk about the digital health industry, but it is hard to talk about the emotions that grow inside a digital health entrepreneur.
It is easy to build an event or a competition for digital health companies, but it is really damn hard to build a digital health company.
My name is Omar Shaker, and many of you know me as the Health 2.0 | Egypt guy. I am here to talk about the tough feelings that come with being involved in digital health. Don’t worry, I’ll keep it light and fresh with popular idioms to help make it all digestible. This first post is about my own story to help contextualize what is to come, and what my posts have to offer you as a digital health entrepreneur in the Middle East.
And for that, I choose an Italian Idiom today: “Into the mouth of a wolf.” which is told to someone who is about to face a difficult task such as an exam…or building a digital health company while you have a full-time job.
In my journey, I started out as a doctor in Egypt, then moved to San Francisco in 2013 to get immersed in digital health and started writing for Health 2.0 News. I loved being a journalist, mainly for the free coffee and conference press passes, but also for the massive exposure I got while interviewing top global digital health innovators.
I took two stints at building a digital health company one in 2010 (telemedicine) and one in 2013 (diabetes management) but neither took off as I would’ve liked (more about why in later posts). I went to get a “Real Job” in 2015 with the biggest boutique consulting firm in the US that was focused purely on data analytics. I learned about data visualization and data science and loved building dashboards that helped shape the vision of top executives in firms like Kaiser, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Health Alliance Plan, San Mateo Medical Center, and others. I quickly rose in the ranks of both the company and of travel reward programs.
As I traveled all across the US, making my way through the terrible US airline system and gobbling up weak coffee and soggy scrambled eggs from one mediocre Marriot breakfast buffet to the other, I felt a gaping hole deep inside of me.
I realized there was something that had to be expressed, and as I continued to attend Health 2.0 events in Santa Clara California, I finally found it: Health 2.0 Chapters. There were about 100 around the world (I think less than 30 are left now after the HIMSS acquisition), but I decided I would become the founder of one: Health 2.0 | Egypt (previously Health 2.0 | Cairo).
On my first trip back, I gathered my Egyptian doctorpreneurs (is that really a word? I am ashamed at using it) in a room and we asked ourselves: Is there any innovation in Egypt? We were very pleasantly surprised. The answer was a resounding yes! The next question was: Why don’t we hear about them?
After the hard work of choosing a logo and making a Facebook page, we started our activities in 2014 with 12 founding members who were launching their own companies. Our first event in 2015 was a hit, and people didn’t want to leave the venue. Our goal was to give innovators a podium and a stage. I kept finding sponsors thanks to my growing digital health network in San Francisco, and our events grew significantly in size between 2015 and 2018. I also started finding more and more interesting speakers, and most of the events were organized by local entrepreneurs (I didn’t attend most of them because I was in the US).
In March of 2018, we organized Egypt’s first Digital Health Hackathon, attracting 10 companies, over $16k in sponsorships and cash prizes, and a lot of press. This opened up a new path for us in organizing healthcare competitions which attracted funding from big NGOs in Egypt. Our team changed at this point, and we brought in about $35k in funding for these competitions from massive organizations such as UNFPA, UNESCO, and the ITU. We tackled big issues such as sexual and reproductive health and chronic disease management, and we mentored over 16 startups for months on end.
Mind you, I still had a full-time job in the US and was still heavily involved in these fairly large and demanding programs in Egypt. I had also started dating my now wife, who lived between Amsterdam and Cairo. In 2018 and 2019, I used all my reward points to come and see her and work on the Health 2.0 stuff.
Naturally, tension rose with my employer. After a few trips to Egypt, and especially when I posted about our Egypt activities on LinkedIn, I started getting some indirect warnings. After an impromptu trip for Memorial Day weekend of 2019, I got laid off from my job. It was still shocking, and I wrote about the whole emotional spectrum of being fired on LinkedIn, but to be honest, part of me also felt like this:
I immediately moved out of my San Francisco apartment and went on a grand tour of the United States wilderness. I drove up to Oregon and Washington, across to Montana, down through Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, and back to California. While on this trip I decided to go back to Egypt, to enter the mouth of that wolf that is Egypt’s digital health ecosystem.
The story gets much less glorious here. Being back in Cairo for the last 6 months of 2019, I did every single event I can do, we organized the whole global health track for Techne Summit, we built a bigger and more global version of the Meiosis event which is the brand I created in 2018 to help Egyptian startups find potential investors and buyers. We wrapped up our competitions and graduated startups with $10k cash prizes. We were part of big medical conferences. We did it all.
But then towards the end of 2019, I started feeling terribly burned out. I wasn’t taking good care of myself at all (more about that in later posts) but what was deeper was that I honestly did not think that we were doing a good job of giving people the right opportunities.
When I look back at all our program graduates, I feel more sad than proud. I thought they would be so further along by now. These are people that have done some very cutting edge stuff. These are people like you reading this post, who had the knowledge and the oomph to change healthcare. I look at them now and I see many of them have diverged completely from their exciting ideas, just to make ends meet.
I look at the major players like hospitals who care about nothing but buying beds to give the same questionable treatment, clinics that will leverage telemedicine only to sell visits to people that don’t need it, Multi-national pharma companies who care about what their European counterparts think of them rather than building something on the ground, insurance companies that think they can bully others around with their money, and “accelerators” that have a limited understanding of healthcare models and force startups to become copy cats of each other.
I had to stop what I was doing because it was quickly becoming devoid of meaning. The wolf had become more vicious than I thought, and I felt like I was becoming part of the problem. I felt like I was in a circus, and I was promoting the show. But when the show was all over, there was nothing of substance that came out of it.
Was that what I have given up my life for? The introspection of Covid and 2020 came to me in perfect timing. I needed distance from what I was doing (and what I was becoming) to realign my values. I realized that what I really want to do is build a startup myself, and I have focused completely this past year on building www.resilient.doctor.
As an entrepreneur again, I now face the wolf from a deeper sense of compassion towards all the other startup founders. And for you my dear innovator and budding digital health guru, I have decided to get back to pen and paper and start writing and documenting some of the findings and reflections I have uncovered in the past years of working with the biggest names in digital health.
There is a lot to be told, and there are many masks to be unveiled. I have also collected a lot of quantitative, and qualitative data which I will share over the months to come. I am also going to restart a project I abandoned over a year ago which is of the podcast nature. I will interview guests that will help you cut through the massive amount of bullshit that the circus may present you with.
Till then my digital health founder friends, stay focused, drink water, get good sleep and put your users’ needs at the heart of your company! And remember: No one knows about your company as much as you do, so disregard the naysayers, embrace the rejections and find your mentors.
Subscribe to Movers and Shaker to be notified of future posts and interviews about digital health in the Middle East.