Wharton MBAs Launch Start-Up To Help Fix Medical Communication

After years at medical school, Divya Dhar dropped it all for entrepreneurship. The former doctor is injecting new communications into hospitals with a start-up, co-founded by a fellow Wharton MBA.

Divya Dhar strolled into Wharton’s west Philadelphia campus, overlooking the Schuylkill River, and stared in shock. The New Zealander had left her hospital appointment for the bright lights of the United States, but Doctor Dhar was taken aback by the state of the US healthcare system.

She was on the east coast three years ago with a start-up ambition, and was studying a dual degree, some of it at the prestigious American business school.

“I learnt more about US healthcare policy and specifically the Affordable Healthcare Act. I saw how broken healthcare was and it made me sad seeing people live in a healthcare system that’s so broken,” says Divya.

That day was her calling. She felt the need to do some social justice, and help fix the system. “One of the major things is coordination. It's hard for different people in different departments to talk to each other. I wanted to help that.”

Divya pauses when recalling her first foray into business management in 2011. She had left Counties Manukau, on New Zealand’s north island, and enrolled on a dual-degree – an MBA at Wharton and an MPA (public administration) at Harvard - to get an injection of healthcare knowledge.

“I did the Wharton MBA and specifically did the healthcare management [track],” says Divya. “Wharton has one of the best in world.”

Proudly spoken and with a Kiwi twang, the enthusiastic entrepreneur is in Philadelphia to drum-up support and bank more clients for her fledgling medical communications business.

After a career that has taken her to opposite ends of the earth, seen her found a non-profit organization for young people and qualify as a practicing doctor, the start-uper is in a happy mood. She is now on a mission to grow her medical business, Seratis, into rude health.

Yet the entrepreneur knows it is not an easy patient to treat. “Healthcare is a hard industry to understand and it’s hard to do so from the outside,” says Divya. “There is space for it, but generally people who don’t know it from the inside end up creating businesses that are wellness-orientated as opposed to healthcare-orientated.”

Seratis is not in the business of curing diseases. The start-up, a product of two Wharton MBA students, is strictly tech. Seratis is a mobile communication platform which helps coordinate, track and analyse care across medical teams.

By using smartphone technology, the pair hopes to enable doctors to coordinate patient care with staff via text, images and videos. It spells death for the pager.

Divya is leveraging her years as a doctor to develop the product with inside knowledge of the healthcare industry. Proving the doubters wrong has become her passion. In the early days, much of the company’s expenses came from her own pocket.

She stumbled onto the idea while working as a practicing physician in New Zealand. “Often I had no idea how to communicate with my patients,” recalls Divya. “We are trying to solve that problem – in real time, so any of the team members can coordinate care on behalf of the patient.”

The ease with which the concept has gained traction is in stark contrast to the many months Divya spent training to become a doctor. She started out her medical career as a house doctor for the Auckland District Health Board. That preceded countless years at medical school, where she served for three years as vice president of the New Zealand Medical Students' Association.

When she had finally made it into that long-winded career, her ambition started to change. She founded a non-profit, P3 Foundation, and realized she could improve healthcare through entrepreneurship, not just by treating patients.

“I realized that I have a knack for this,” she enthuses.

But she pondered the decision for four years. When she told colleagues about her plans to leave the profession, the response was less than encouraging. Her fellow doctors did not prescribe a career in business.

“It’s stable, steady, it pays reasonably well,” deadpans Divya as she recalls her medical past. “Everything tells you to stay. Why would you ever leave something so secure, which has a huge impact on humanity? It came down to this gut feeling.”

As a fresh MBA student, Divya balanced her time between Wharton and the Harvard University Kennedy School of Government, where she studied public policy. She has been captivated by the US healthcare system ever since, and is focused on improving it.

It was how she met her start-up co-founder, Lane Rettig. He has a background in software development. “Him with his technology and me with my [medical] background – we are combining our knowledge.”

Yet her passion for healthcare cannot disguise a shrewd businesswoman. Getting onto the MBA at Wharton – one of the US’s most selective schools – with such a non-traditional background is remarkable in itself.

She saw off competition from dozens of other start-ups to win a competition held by DreamIt Ventures, an accelerator. The prize banked Seratis up to $42,000 in funding.

The Seratis app itself is in beta-stage. The co-founders launched it last August. The company is small with just three official employees. They hope to hire a fourth, a launch manager, soon. Seratis is live in one hospital in Texas. A second “soft-launch” took place this week at a hospital in New Orleans.

“Everyone else is in the pipeline,” says Divya. Her target is ten sign-ups by the end of 2014.

Divya has done extensive market research, and the company is offering independent physicians a free trial of the software.

Developing the technology, she says, was a “crazy learning curve”. But getting the product to market was considerably more challenging: “It is crazy; you need to tick so many boxes before you can get it into a hospital – legal, security, clinical stuff. It takes a long time.”

The first pilot launch was a huge landmark for the fledgling start-up. “It helps people recognise that it can be done,” says Divya. “Most hospitals, they recognize the problem. They recognize they’re slow, inefficient; there was an inner desire to make their work more efficient. I think eventually it came down to the right mind-set.”

Yet her struggles have been more extreme. Transitioning from doctor to entrepreneur is no easy feat. The MBA took care of many of those start-up jitters, however, and Divya admits it was essential.

But her venture is driven by much more than management education, as fine a thing as a Wharton MBA may be. The co-founders will no doubt wish Seratis communication upon every hospital across the US. As a former doctor, Divya is hopeful.

“It’s an industry where communication is really important,” she says as she sets out her market plan. “Europe has it, New Zealand has it, we [the US] have it, and Brazil is currently doing a pilot because they have the same issue. I can’t imagine any doctor saying this problem doesn’t need solving.”

To trial the Seratis app email hello@seratis.com

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