Entrepreneurial MD shares insight on tech start-up

By Rosie Lombardi

Doug KavanaghDoctors who try to start up a tech company on a part-time basis will likely fail. That’s one of many insights shared by Dr. Doug Kavanagh (pictured), co-founder of Toronto-based CognisantMD and 2016 winner of the CMA’s Joule award. The company has successfully launched Ocean, a multi-lingual tablet app that allows patients to complete questionnaires in the waiting room which are then automatically uploaded to the patient’s EMR record. In this Q&A, Kavanagh talks about what it takes to break into the Canadian market and beyond with innovative healthcare technology.

Q: How does Joule’s $50,000 award help growing start-ups?

A: So many potential health IT businesses led by physicians don’t go anywhere because the physicians have trouble giving up their $200-$300K annual salary for a couple of years. Even if you’re lucky enough to be in a successful business – and we’ve all seen the stats where only 1 in 10 succeed – you’re still probably not going to do as well as you would working full-time as a physician.

A natural reaction is to try to do it part-time or spend a day a week on the business – and that is just not enough time, unless you have someone running it day to day and you’re just an advisor. There’s this enormous financial sacrifice that you have to make in the short term. So having that $50K to invest in the business softens the blow. I think that award will make more physicians willing to take that leap of faith. Usually within a year, you can have a pretty good idea whether your business is going somewhere or not. It’s a really good boost for companies that might not otherwise give it a shot in the first place.

Q: How do you manage your time? Do you still have patients?

A: Yes, I still have over 800 patients. Maintaining a practice unquestionably divides my attention and forces me to be strategic about how I allocate my time. But it’s also incredibly valuable. It gives me some credibility when I speak to clinic workflows. Without my practice, there might be a certain disconnect. It also allows me to find great examples to explain how our solutions work in medical practice. I don’t consider myself the best public speaker, but I do find when I’m up there and talking to other healthcare providers, I can describe our products in very grounded and practical ways. There’s a great synergy between my clinical practice and the business. I would burn out if I had to clinic full-time but I would also burn out if I sat in front of a computer all day. I like having two different jobs, it keeps me fresh. None of this, of course, would be possible without my brother and co-founder Jeff Kavanagh and our team running the business when I’m not there.

Q: How has Joule helped you grow your business?

A: It has allowed us to hire more talents earlier, which has unquestionably speeded up our growth rate. Thanks in part to that funding, we were able to hire our wonderful new VP of Client Success, Dr. Heather Thomson. It’s a jack-of-all-trades role that plays to her clinical skills as a PhD nurse as well as a project manager. She’s someone who works with our clients to implement the wide range of complex solutions that you can create with the Ocean platform. Some of them might need help with simply setting up tablets or getting basic workflows in place, while others may need to build complicated research surveys with specific inclusion criteria that trigger further questioning.

Some metrics: Since August 2016 until February 2017, we’ve had a 75% increase in the number of patient forms completed. We’ve had a 25% increase in the number of clinics on the Ocean platform in just six months, so we now have about 400 clinics in total running our software. We have new clients in B.C., Alberta, Manitoba and Nova Scotia, and we even have American clients now.

Q: Canada already has a lot of business incubators. Where does Joule fit in the existing innovation- fostering ecosystem?

A: Many of those are small community-based business resources that don’t necessarily have the marketing reach needed to really launch something on a national or international level. I think incubators have an important role to play. MaRS has been helpful to us, for example, with their advisors. But it’s incredibly hard to get beyond that pilot phase. I’ve seen so many small businesses peter out because there’s no way for them to turn their very modest, private payments into something that can sustain more than a few people in the business. Joule is good at picking companies that already have a bit of momentum and giving them a good shove forward. I think that’s really good too because the Canadian market is tiny compared to the American market. Even the companies that are succeeding, aren’t growing at the rate that they could be.

Q: How helpful is it to get advice and feedback from colleagues in the early stages?

A: I think the hardest thing is networking. If you’re lucky enough to already have an existing network of technology-minded doctors or clients interested in investing in technology solutions, then that’s great. If you’re just a wide-eyed doctor with a great idea or a programmer buddy and you built a great product, you’re going to need a lot of help to get that to market. Business incubators can help in that regard. But if you can get the weight of Joule behind you, then you’ve got all sorts of different media platforms to reach out to people. I think Joule can be a missing ingredient in the healthcare system. Right now we have EMR vendors, technology providers, and government agencies, but none of those bodies tends to trust the others.

The CMA’s Joule can act as a trusted mediator, connecting people who are just trying to swap solutions to problems.

For more information, visit https://www.cognisantmd.com/

The submission deadline for the 2017 Joule grant funding is May 1, 2017. To apply, visit https://www.cma.ca/En/Pages/joule-innovation.aspx.