How to become the medical advisor of a cool health startup?

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Are you an MD or other healthcare expert? Have you ever wondered what other career options are out there apart from working in the hospital, a private practice or the pharmaceutical industry? Do you enjoy working outside of large cooperations in small creative and entrepreneurial teams?

If you answered “yes” to most of the above questions then this post is for you. Odds are that you would be well suited for the position of the medical advisor to a health startup. In this post I will describe how I became the medical advisor to one of the coolest health startups on the European tech scene, why I truly enjoy this job, what this job entails and how you can become a medical advisor as well.

MySugr – Conquering Diabetes

MySugr is a young health startup founded by two Type I diabetics, located in Vienna. Their mission is “conquering diabetes”. The MySugr “Companion” is an iOS app that lets diabetics monitor their glucose levels, physical activity, carbohydrate intake and exercise levels in a fun way using an intuitive user interface. These guys are really good and have recently won a Techcrunch hosted startup competition. You can learn more about MySugr here.

What does MySugr have to do with anything?

Last year I became the medical advisor to MySugr. As an internist, I am intimately familiar with the intricacies of diabetes mellitus, the needs of patients and their physicians as well as its treatment. Admittedly, the founders are well informed diabetics who know more about diabetes than many doctors. However, there are several knowledge-gaps with respect to the healthcare system that have to be covered by outsiders like me or you.

Some duties of a medical startup advisor

So you want to know what my job as a medical advisor entails? The fun part is that I get involved wherever I can be of help. Let me give you some examples. In early April, MySugr filed an application to become a CE certified medical device. This application needed to be complemented by a systematic review of the scientific literature about the efficacy and safety of mobile glucose monitoring. So that’s what I did – I systematically reviewed the literature and wrote up a report. Done. My next major project is to conduct a clinical trial testing the efficacy of the MySugr Companion itself PLUS I am giving the startup access to my large network of healthcare experts. This is invaluable. These are just some areas where I can add value to the team. And that’s what it’s all about: adding value.

What’s in it for the advisor?

There are several options of how you can be “reimbursed” for your contributions. Conceivably, you could be paid for your services. The problem with a salary is that startups usually don’t have tons of money. So they would not be able to pay you as much as you could make – let’s say – as a pharma advisor. The other option is to pay you in shares of the company. Or a mixture of both. If you don’t need the additional stream of income to pay your fixed costs, I would go with the share-option. If you choose that approach, you become what’s called an “angel investor”, someone who invests in a very early stage company. You might say “but I didn’t really invest in the company”. But I would reply “yes, you did”. You might not have invested cash equity but what you are investing is your time – in startup lingo that’s called “sweat equity”.

How can I find a startup to advise?

There are several routes you could take in order to connect with cool health startups. First of all you could try to familiarize yourself with the startup scene reading blogs like Techcrunch or Venturebeat (or once in a while you’ll also learn about excellent health startups on the blog you are currently reading). Rock Health, an incubator for health startups, is very active on Twitter and has loads of information on startups.

Apart from those dynamic and continuous ways to access startups, it is recommended to keep a profile on Crunchbase and more importantly Angellist. The latter is a marketplace that connects startups with investors, founders and similar founder counterparts that are important in the early days of startups.

In the long run, it must be your goal that startups find YOU and not the other way round. In order to accomplish that you need to proove that you can really “add value” to a startup. Not only through your medical background as I described earlier in this post, but also show your network and knowledge of the health space in general. Being active on Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn obviously helps to spread your “brand” as a potential startup advisor. In addition, you might want to think of getting your own personal blog in order to communicate your brand. We’ll cover more about that in later posts.

So, what’s next?

Once you have your shortlist of one to three startups, familiarize yourself with what they are currently up to. What are the stumbling blocks lying ahead? Where could you contribute? Who are the founders? What are their e-mail addresses? Follow them on Twitter. Visit their websites. Study this information as if you were their advisor already. What would you do differently? What would you advise them at the next meeting? Write that stuff down and make suggestions as to what they could do in order to be more successful. Think of people in your network that would be of help to them. Write these people down as well. After you’ve done all that, it’s time to take the next step.

How to approach them – giving before asking.

Now it’s time to connect. Use the e-mail address – if you found one – or connect on LinkedIn, or send a Facebook message or tweet them or connect on Angellist or get an introduction or or or. Be inventive! Write a message to the founders telling them about your insights and some concrete steps they could take in order to be more successful. Tell them who you are and why they can trust you. Offer to hook them up with your contacts and most importantly: give without asking. Give advice and encouragement,  some of the most essential resources in a startup. It’s extremely likely that you are the first physician contacting them in that way. If your advice is phrased correctly (not patronizing but sincere and empathetic), you’re on your way to building true relationships. Continue this approach for some time. Usually there will come a point where it is obvious that your help can increase the value of the company. And that’s the time where the founders will want to reciprocate. Off course, there is no guarantee for that but that’s what I have experienced time and time again.

So now it’s up to you. We are convinced that most of the innovation in healthcare that’s lying ahead will come through tech innovations, so get involved and be part of the revolution! We’d love to read your thoughts in the comments section!

2 COMMENTS

  1. Running a clinical trial and taking shares in the company that will tank if the trial proves the product is no better than snake oil is a conflict of interest no?

  2. You are right Snakeoil1235. This type of conflict of interest is quite usual in clinical trials. Almost every primary investigators of a large scale clinical trial is “on the payroll” of the sponsoring company. Otherwise, many of them would not invest their precious time in it. However that’s why these potential conflicts have to be disclosed. Makes sense?

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