With 10 years’ experience using rapid diagnostic tests to improve global health and development, Patrick is passionate about empowering patients to proactively manage their health. He earned his undergraduate degree in Chemical Engineering, magna cum laude, from Princeton University and his MBA, with distinction, from the University of Oxford, where he was a Skoll Scholar.
Born and raised in Alaska, Patrick enjoys spending his free time outdoors, paragliding, rock climbing, or just going for a run. He’d love to walk on the moon someday.
What does Redbird bring to the marketplace?
Redbird lets community pharmacies offer rapid diagnostic testing, so that a patient who needs to check up on their health can pop into a conveniently located pharmacy and get a five minute test done with instant results, rather than having to go to a hospital and wait hours for the exact same test.
Tell us about your background pre-Redbird and how that led you to entrepreneurship and to Africa.
I did my undergrad in chemical engineering at Princeton, specifically focusing on the interface with biology, and I did some research into nanoparticles for drug delivery. Then, immediately out of college, I joined the US Peace Corps and was a volunteer teaching math and chemistry, first for two years in The Gambia, West Africa and then for another year in Guinea, also in West Africa. That was my first exposure to Africa.
I enjoyed my time in the Peace Corps. It was great to feel really good about the work I was doing, but I did miss the more scientific, technical aspects and all the training I had done in chemical engineering. So, after three years I moved back to the US. I moved to Boston because I was interested in biotech and the startup scene. I ended up being the founding scientist at a non-profit medical diagnostics company called Diagnostics For All (DFA). This was using a technology out of George Whiteside’s lab at Harvard called paper microfluidics. We at DFA were developing this technology into diagnostic tests with an eye towards low resource settings. So, a lot of a focus on Sub-Saharan Africa, also Southeast Asia, and some Latin America.
It was, for me, a fantastic opportunity. It was the combination of the two things I enjoyed - I felt the work had a strong purpose, and it was still highly technical. I had to set up an entire lab from scratch. I was the only employee for quite some time. And so, I got that exposure to the earliest stages of growing a company. We grew it to about twenty people and a couple of million in mainly grant revenue per year. It was a wonderful experience that I was very lucky to have and it also set me on the path for Redbird.
One of the things I would do when I was in Africa for say, trials of our diagnostic tests, was go around to pharmacies and just ask, “Hey, if you could test for anything in the world - don't think about what's possible, just anything that you want an answer to - what would you test for?” I thought that this would tell us oh, this is the next test we should develop. But nine times out of ten, the answer I got was a test that already existed. It was solved as far as the technology problem was considered. And so I started realizing that we're developing these new tests and that's great, but there's some sort of market failure here or opportunity where existing technology just isn't making that leap into wide scale adoption. Pharmacies seem like they could be using these tests, and they should, but they aren't. And so that's what set me on the path.
I did an MBA at Oxford as a transition year and used it to look at different markets, and got excited about Ghana as a potential market. I moved here but first helped start up a branch of a Tanzanian medical supply company that wanted to open up the Ghana market. I did that for them, met my co-founder Andrew during that time, and after we had about a year of working in our free time, we quit our jobs to go full-time and pretty soon after that, brought on our third co-founder Edward.
What kept you driving forward?
Like most entrepreneurs, I feel like I've got that builder-type spirit. Once you start thinking of something you could build that seems to make a lot of sense, it's hard to think about anything else. And that's what happened to me with Redbird. When I was still at DFA, I loved my work and it was still a small company and I was a very core part of the company history and loved living in Boston. But once I started thinking about this - why is no one getting pharmacies to do these tests and what that would open for decentralization of healthcare, and all the potential there - it was hard to not think about it. The more I thought about it, the more excited I got, and the more excited I got, the harder it was to think about anything else. Eventually, I realized that this is something I'm going to either have to do or somehow stop thinking about.
Of course there are times when it's more difficult to keep that enthusiasm going. Sometimes, as things get more real, it gets more exciting, and sometimes, as things get more real, it gets more difficult to keep that enthusiasm.
At different stages, there are different things that bring the enthusiasm back up when things get hard. Sometimes for me there's been stages where the team that we've been able to build has been a big part of that. The traction that you see has been a big part of that. For me, it goes often back to the fact that you're building something that is your choice. Even when it gets difficult, you can always lean back on this is something that I think can come into existence and I want to make that happen.
How has Redbird adapted and responded to the COVID-19 pandemic?
It’s been a very interesting time for us, as you can imagine. It’s interesting for all companies right now, especially for health tech companies. There was the initial, how do we modify everything that we do to be able to do this remotely? Work from home is not a huge culture in Ghana, because infrastructure is often more difficult to have. We're a small team, only thirteen people total. How do we now make sure that everyone on our staff is able to work when power outages hit or internet connectivity can go down for any number of reasons? There was a big scramble. Luckily, we were seeing what was happening elsewhere and got ahead of the ball. Ghana was one of the later places to get hit, and so we were able to have those plans in place. Then we ended up, like most countries, having a period of lockdown. Ghana’s was pretty short, but that was pretty drastic for our business. When no one's leaving their house, even for three weeks, suddenly we couldn't sign on new pharmacies because our sales guys couldn't leave their houses. And new pharmacies weren't necessarily that enthused about investing in new areas when everything was uncertain.
So I think those aspects of it were very similar to a lot of companies. Where health tech companies can be a bit different - and Redbird was a bit different - is that this also opened up some significant opportunities for us. Early on, a week after the first cases came to Ghana, we sat around (the three co-founders and our lead Dev guy) and we realized that we have a health tech platform. It’s not designed for COVID-19, but could we leverage this somehow to give benefits? We came up with this idea of symptom tracking. Diagnostic testing was a huge problem in Ghana, like it was in a lot of places in the world. We knew that we couldn't directly attack that (we weren't in the best place to be doing that from a capacity standpoint). However, we are in a great place to help the government understand better what symptoms were happening, because we already had a tech platform that could collect data like that easily and without any downloads.
Within the span of a week, we developed an add-on to our app that enabled anyone to log on or access the app, report any symptoms that they were having, and then send that to us, so that we could collate the data and help the government then understand where hotspots of symptoms like shortness of breath or coughing were happening and better target the capacity they did have for diagnostic testing. That was a pretty exciting time. It was a weird time to suddenly be thrown into you have to work from home and the business is very uncertain but, on the other hand, it also was one of those incredibly exciting times when it almost didn't matter. You weren't thinking about what is the market here because it was just obvious that someone needs to do this, this has potential, let's just do it.
Since then, business has come back very quickly for us because our core offering to patients is hey, here's a way to not go to hospitals if you don't have to and that is something that's really resonating with people right now. We see this as an acceleration of trends that were already happening. Decentralization of healthcare is happening all around the world. It's the leapfrog opportunity for Africa. They talk about cellphone networks and mobile money as the two biggest leapfrogs that the African economies have done. Decentralized healthcare will be next, I strongly believe that, because it's very similar. We're seeing this as accelerating some of that.
What are the key changes healthcare will undergo due to this crisis? Do you think the pandemic will spur more entrepreneurship in the space?
Yes, I do think it will. I should caveat anything I say with, healthcare is very different. There's that saying: healthcare is local. Regulations and everything around data creates a different environment depending on what country you’re in. Whereas for other industries, there's less difference across borders, there’s a significant difference when you compare the US healthcare system, to Europe, to Sub-Saharan Africa, to India. Everything I say should have that caveat that I’m talking about the African healthcare sector, but I think the trends are very similar.
One of the strongest trends that we're seeing is a normalization of certain technologies that existed but weren't being widely used in healthcare previously, both with patients and with regulators or providers. On the patient side, it’s being more comfortable or exposed at all to new digital options. I'll take my parents, for example. They’re in Chicago. They've each done teleconsults with their doctors that they need to see on a regular basis. They needed to have this checkup, and it was also important that they not go in-person. And so thankfully, they made something work. The impact of that maybe isn't being completely appreciated now, but once you’ve gotten over that hurdle, the future's going to look different. With an older generation more comfortable with digital health technology, it becomes more difficult to ignore or more pressing to answer the question of why not this digital solution? If this was good enough now, why is it not good enough when it's maybe not a pandemic, but a much more convenient option for me or for anyone else?
A lot of providers are being forced to innovate and try out some of these new approaches. Again, it's getting over a hurdle and you see this as a possibility. Maybe it's not perfect yet, maybe there's some concerns that need to be worked out, but suddenly it's not sci-fi, it's a feasible solution. That's one of the ways that it's really changing the environment. It's getting people over these hurdles that then will spur future innovations. It'll create space that people have been trying to work in and push the industry forward.
What challenges have you faced leading a startup on the African continent? Do you see a future for widespread entrepreneurship in Africa?
I see a very bright future for widespread entrepreneurship. Part of the reason I moved to Ghana was because I was excited about the entrepreneurial scene here and just how quickly it's changing. I think of Ghana about five years ago when I first moved here - the Ghana at that time, as far as the entrepreneurial ecosystem is concerned, was widely different. Part of the reason it moves so quickly here is because it has to - like leapfrog opportunities or the saying “Necessity is the mother of invention.” It's very exciting what's happening over here and I think you're going to see more and more of it.
It’s definitely not without its challenges, though. A lot of challenges, a lot of opportunities. One of the biggest challenges is that the ecosystem isn’t as developed yet. One of the things that makes Silicon Valley so strong as an entrepreneurial ecosystem is that everything you need is there. If it’s not there, someone's working on making it there. The established ecosystem means that you can focus on your business and what's core to your business. You don't need to distract yourself with other aspects. That’s a key thing. This is definitely not of the same degree here [in Ghana] or in a lot of other markets. Sometimes that's exciting because it means that you're forced to innovate in different ways or collaborate in areas you might not think you would, or it opens up opportunities in areas you don't think you'd be involved in. Other times it's frustrating because you can't move as fast. But the more the ecosystem develops, the more you get that snowball effect. I absolutely think you're going to see even more exciting companies coming out of Africa in the coming years.
Redbird identifies itself as a “for-profit social enterprise.” Balancing effective social impact with a strong bottom line can be a challenge. How is Redbird able to strike this balance? What advice would you give to other entrepreneurs attempting to create businesses that produce social as well as financial returns?
When I was at Oxford, I was fortunate enough to be a Skoll Scholar for social entrepreneurship. Social impact is something I feel strongly about. What I learned throughout my career and definitely my time at Oxford is it's a very broad spectrum of people, when you look at social entrepreneurs and social entrepreneur-founded companies or nonprofits. One of the things that I think has made Redbird successful in balancing those things is that we tried to make it not a balance. We tried to think of how you can find an opportunity where your monetary success is aligned with your impact success. It's one of the great things about healthcare, that oftentimes that's an easier thing to do.
For instance, with our revenue model, we get paid effectively every time a test is performed. We like that for a couple of reasons. One, we see huge upside potential because there's a lot of tests that need to be performed. But the other thing is, we don't make money unless our customers, the pharmacies, are making money. And they're not making money unless patients actually want these tests. It aligns everything. One of the biggest issues in our theory of change is that more testing leads to better health outcomes - health monitoring especially, I'm talking a lot about chronic disease here. More testing leads to better health outcomes, and therefore we want to align our success with the increased testing. One of the nice things in healthcare is that this is more often possible. I think that's really important because if you don't have alignment like that and you’re fudging the alignment, then one of those two things is going to give pretty quickly. Because you're constantly having to rethink your business, especially in the early years, you're going to have competing interests and if you don't have alignment, then something's going to give.
What was the most valuable thing you learned from your Alchemist experience?
Two things really jump out in my mind. One is more personal and one is more to my cofounder. The more personal one was very specific demo day prep feedback that I got after our first run-through. We did two run-throughs as our prep for demo day in front of everyone on stage. I did my first one and got some very honest feedback that my energy was so down and they said, “This was bad. We know you, we know this is not you, but that was bad.” And so, the second time I got up there, I decided that I’m going to go completely the opposite direction. I'm going to feel like a clown up here. That’s the amount of energy I’m going to go for to try to fix this. And it worked! It was much better.
We ended up being the second company to pitch on the actual demo day. What I learned out of that was you get so used to your own thing that sometimes it's easy to forget how to project the right enthusiasm, because to you, this isn't revolutionary or new. Now anytime I pitch I always tell myself two times the amount of enthusiasm I think is appropriate is still not enough.
One of the things that my co-founder Andrew told me that really highlighted one of the core reasons we did Alchemist, why we felt it was very successful for us, is this: it was a couple of weeks into the program, and we were in San Francisco. We were working out of the coworking space with the other groups from our cohort. We've had a couple of weeks at this point of the sessions with the various mentors, and Andrew turned to me and said I get everything you've been saying now. It took me being exposed to all these other companies and to see what normal is out here to understand better why you weren't satisfied with things or why you felt we needed to move this quickly, or things like that. Seeing what's possible when you’re in the midst of a really high functioning group of entrepreneurs who are being coached by very skilled mentors, it just made it so much easier for him and I to work towards that. To Andrew especially, that exposure was invaluable because it made us realize that we were at half throttle and needed to be at full.
Any final insights for the next generation of Alchemist founders?
Besides the two times enthusiasm as you think is appropriate, use Alchemist to find your trusted advisors. That's something that's key and will always be key. The times when I'm really grateful are when I need opinion on something and I know there's four trusted people that I almost always go to, and some of those came out of Alchemist. Alchemist is a unique time to build those relationships with people. One of them, of course, is Ravi for me. He’s always one of the first people I think of when I need to source opinions on something, but it's others too. I think that's what you want, because that's something that is not just a near-term thing. That is something which is going to be useful to you forever, for as long as you have that relationship.
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