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Entrepreneur who's no stranger to disruption
HIS dream was for his then-fledging startup to be the McDonald's of its industry - mainstream, affordable and widely-accepted.
But five years on, William Chew has loftier ideals. He now wants to connect different parts of the disparate healthcare ecosystem - from the doctors and nurses, to the pharmacists and laboratory lab rats - through technology.
When he first started myHealth Sentinel (mHS) in 2011, it was strictly a telehealth startup. A veteran entrepreneur - mHS is his sixth startup - who had spent time in Silicon Valley, Mr Chew was no stranger to disruption.
"I've been interested in the medical space for a long time, and I've seen technology transform so many industries: travel, media, books, television, radio, banking," he tells The Business Times. "When I looked at healthcare, I thought, 'Boy, this is kind of stuck in the stone ages. There's got to be an opportunity there.' And there was - telehealth."
Telehealth was still a nascent technology then. By leveraging on digital and communication technologies (such as intelligent plug-and-play devices, which could transmit measurements through the cloud via Bluetooth or a broadband network), doctors could remotely monitor the health of their patients.
Biometrics such as blood pressure or body temperature could be measured in real time from the comfort of a patient's home; the data could then be accessed by doctors and caregivers virtually.
Such a system, if adopted islandwide, would have huge ramifications for the healthcare industry. Doctors would be freed up to take on a significantly higher patient load, and hospital resources could be utilised more efficiently.
But at that time, it was early days yet.
What really convinced Mr Chew that he was on the right track was the then health minister Khaw Boon Wan, who in 2011 had declared that the healthcare industry needed an injection of innovation - just like the doctor ordered.
Says Mr Chew: "We weren't quite sure how we were going to do it. So we thought, 'Why reinvent the wheel?' We did research for several months, contacted telehealth system providers all over the world, and what we discovered was that they were largely proprietary."
The closed nature of the industry meant that the telehealth systems of the time ran about S$150 to S$300 a month for each patient, which would "never fly in Singapore, which is user-pay".
Determined to bring the technology to the masses, Mr Chew rolled up his sleeves, cracked his joints, recruited a team of five and decided to go for broke.
"Our dream was to make this into a mainstream, to be the McDonald's of telehealth, rather than fine dining," he says. "So we decided - in for a penny, in for a pound. Let's go for it."
After 18 months of research and development, the startup had developed the first iteration of its TeleMetrix+ service in 2012.
Keen to commercialise what he had built, Mr Chew approached hundreds of general practitioners (GPs) across the country to pitch the service. "We originally targeted the GP market. We intentionally did so, because we thought that as a small company with limited capital, we had to have quick adoption," he says. "We thought that going into the public sector, you get into the government tenders, and you're competing with giant corporations - decisions would be made slower."
But there was a hiccup in his plans.
"The reaction to our concept and technology was almost universally positive. They thought it was great. But - and there's always a 'but' that gets you - there were issues which they felt were difficult to overcome."
One such issue was that the GPs' patients did not see the need for the service; convention demanded that visits to GPs be "episodic" in nature, where patients visit their doctor to cure their immediate ailments.
"Patients ask, 'Is it going to cure me?' No. 'Is it going to save my life?' No. 'So why should I pay for this?' There was a real problem in terms of educating and convincing the patient," Mr Chew says.
Another problem that reared its ugly head was the fact that GPs worked on a "time-based model". With the lack of awareness about telehealth, doctors had to spend time explaining the system to their patients.
But each second spent on pitching the system to a patient was a second that the doctor could have spent on consultation, Mr Chew explains. "There was an economic side of it, as well; the doctors weren't getting paid when they explained, and what happens when a patient declines?"
For Mr Chew, it was back to the drawing board. But he didn't have long to wait.
Not long after, the Health Ministry and the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore (IDA) had opened a tender for the development of a new IT system which would virtually monitor the health of patients suffering from chronic diseases such as hypertension and diabetes.
He won the tender.
"We couldn't believe it - we were up against some really big corporations," he tells BT.
The pilot project involved about 800 patients of the National University Health System (NUHS) and the private-sector Frontier Family Medicine Clinic.
The grant amount was not disclosed.
The service, which was "device-agnostic", allowed mHS to partner with existing manufacturers to integrate their products onto their platform - which greatly reduces the cost incurred to the user, and allows for maximum vertatility, Mr Chew explains.
But even as mHS won more projects with its telehealth system - it partnered with Jurong Health Services, which manages Ng Teng Fong General Hospital and Jurong Community Hospital in 2015 - Mr Chew was keen to move into the "medical connectivity" space.
"We wanted to not just monitor, but also work with the other parts of the medical chain," he says.
To that end, mHS has moved into connecting patient data; it also has a system to improve lab productivity by automating previously manual, time-intensive tasks in areas such as quality control and quality assurance, he added.
While he declines to reveal revenue figures, he lets on that it's in the "seven-figure" range; mHS expects to grow its revenue about 70 per cent year-on-year.
Yet, as he moves forward, Mr Chew keeps one eye firmly on the past: he wants to learn from his mistakes.
"At the end of the day, what you've learnt - use it. It makes you stronger."