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From patient to entrepreneur: Three Medicine X panelists offer advice

patient panel

"Who better than to solve our problems in health care than the people who live it and breathe it every day?" That was the rhetorical question posed by Darla Brown, a panelist in a Saturday Medicine X session on patients as entrepreneurs. Brown, a cancer patient who co-created digital health company Intake.Me, and her two co-panelists, Molly Lindquist and Michael Seres, talked about how they took their health-related ideas from concept to reality and offered advice for the other big thinkers in the audience. Among the points made during their 45-minute session:

-Do your due diligence: As noted by Seres, a prolific patient blogger who founded the health tech start up 11Health, "there are thousands of patients who are solving real problems every day" but there may not be a widespread need for such solutions. In other words, a product or service that is helpful to one patient may not be appealing to many others. "Make sure you’re not the one person who wants this end solution," said Lindquist, a breast cancer survivor and founder of Consano, a nonprofit crowdfunding platform for medical research.

-Talk, talk and talk some more: When exploring the validity of an idea, pick up the phone or hit the keyboard. "You don’t need to do big market research – just talk with other patients," advised Brown. Lindquist agreed, noting that when she was thinking of starting Consano she reached out to numerous people in her professional and personal life. (She joked that when her number comes up on her friends' cell phones these days, they likely think, "Oh, what does she want now?") She said the ensuing conversations "helped vet the idea and the potential issues and benefits that would come from creating an organization."

-Be able to communicate your product and its need: Especially when working with potential investors or donors, "being really solid in your mission and intent and being able to communicate that" is key, said Lindquist. Seres shared with the audience that his first investor gave him only a "tiny bit of money" and wanted Seres to show him he could be successful on a larger scale. "Ultimately you have to prove the business model and be clear on who your target audience is and whether [your idea] is big enough," he said.

-Know there will be challenges: "I’ve been patient for more than 30 years. I felt I knew everything about my condition and my health and my journey," but navigating the business world was a whole different ballgame, Seres said. (He later noted that he still doesn't think of himself as founder of a technology company: "I’m just a patient providing a solution for a problem no one else" was working on.) But patients have resilience, he pointed out, and "given what you’re dealing with on a daily basis nothing is impossible." Brown also offered the practical tip of reading The Business Model Generation, which she and Emily Lu, MD, (the panel's moderator) consulted before starting Intake.Me.

-Get used to the word "no:" Rejection is inevitable, especially when it comes to trying to get funding for your idea, the panelists all agreed. "It’s hard for every business," pointed out Seres. "Why should we be treated any differently?" Brown half-jokingly noted that "I’m told that investors are people, too," and it's possible they have a family member with a health issue who could benefit from your product. Even if they choose not to fund you they may be willing to help determine whether your business model is a viable one.

-Know that starting a company isn't always the answer: Not every idea or solution is - or has to be - scalable, Seres said - in many cases, what you've come up with might only be useful in certain environments. And that's okay. Brown made the compelling point that a patient can be an entrepreneur without owning a business. "If you advocate for yourself, you are in a sense an entrepreneur," she said; in this case, your product is a healthy outcome.

More news about the conference is available in the Medicine X category

Photo by Stanford Medicine X

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