Canada’s overworked doctors need help. And it could come from another group of professionals with a penchant for white coats. As hospital wait times increase, provincial governments are expanding the range of services that pharmacies can provide to include the prescription of contraceptives and treatment for minor ailments like ear infections. But transforming pharmacies from drug dispensaries to community health centers requires substantial behind-the-scenes changes. For Rui Su, co-founder and clinical director of digital health startup MedMe Health, this is a major business opportunity.
MedMe helps solve a pressing problem for pharmacists: inefficient processes that slow down service. Su, a former pharmacist, and her co-founders Purya Sarmadi and Nicholas Hui have created a web-based platform that allows pharmacies to automate certain administrative tasks. Its features include tools to schedule clinical services like vaccinations, generate documents, send patient reminder messages, and enable video consultations.
Founded three years ago, MedMe is used by more than 3,600 pharmacies across Canada. In March, it secured a US$2.7 million seed round, led by M12, Microsoft’s venture capital fund. But as a young woman of color with a background in healthcare, Su hasn’t always felt comfortable taking on a leadership role in technology.
We chatted with Su about MedMe Health’s mission, what it was like to transition from medicine to technology, and how other entrepreneurs have helped her embrace her inner founder.
How was MedMe born?
When I was a practicing pharmacist, I saw a lot of workflow challenges and inefficiencies that existed. I wanted to provide more proactive care to my patients, but I didn’t have the time, the resources, or the tools that could help me change my practice to do so.
I have two other co-founders, who are not pharmacists. We encountered the problem separately. For them, it was seeing their parents struggle with chronic illnesses and realizing that pharmacies could be leveraged to provide better care and ultimately create a more sustainable healthcare system. My co-founders met first, then an entrepreneur friend of mine from the University of Waterloo told me what they were up to and asked if I wanted to meet them. Our first meeting lasted 12 hours – it just clicked for us.
How was the transition from pharmacist to founder?
It took a lot of growth and there were personal and professional challenges to overcome in order to enter a new industry. I have an expertise in pharmacy, but had to learn product development, business development, customer success cycles, and sales. As difficult as it was, I was also pleasantly surprised by how many transferable skills I had. I have also seen this transformation in other pharmacists we have hired who have gone into product management, clinical operations, sales and business development. Seeing them flourish in different ways has been awesome.
You’ve already said that your biggest challenge is believing that you don’t look like a founder or have the skills and experience of a founder. Why did you feel this?
I’m a traditionally trained pharmacist, but most of the stories you see about successful founders are about white male engineers who dropped out of school to build software in their garage. They are encoders; they created their products themselves. It felt so worlds away from my experience and made it hard for me to see myself in a role like this.
How did you change your mindset?
At first, I doubted myself a lot. Everything seemed so difficult and foreign. But my co-founders believed in me, and it was through their encouragement and determination and confidence that I was able to slowly overcome those feelings and rise to every challenge. We have also benefited from mentoring and start-up communities. We joined the University of Toronto Hatchery, the University of Waterloo Velocity program, and Y Combinator, where I found like-minded people who also struggled with self-doubt. It helped me to see that I was not alone and that we were all accomplishing great things.
What’s next for MedMe Health?
We are expanding both in the United States and in Europe. We are looking for countries that have similar scopes of practice for pharmacies and similar opportunities for us to make an impact.
What advice would you give to other founders, especially those from non-traditional backgrounds who are just starting out?
Don’t feel boxed in by your current professional identity, whether it’s self-imposed or society’s perception of who you are and what you can do. This is particularly important for clinicians as it is traditionally more difficult to get out of the identity box. Build on the transferable skills you possess as a clinician: your strong sense of empathy, your intimate understanding of the healthcare system, and your first-hand experience of the challenges faced by different stakeholders.