Meet the Startups Breaking Into Nashville’s $38 Billion-Dollar Healthcare Industry
Health care companies are striking a resounding chord in Nashville — to the tune of $38.8 billion — and these savvy startups are getting in on the action.
Social entrepreneur and industrial engineer Fathi Abdelsalam founded his San Jose, Calif.-based health-tech startup AkibaH to help individuals with diabetes more easily and conveniently test their blood glucose levels on the go.
“My fellow AkibaH team members and I are committed to finding a way to improve the lives of people with diabetes after losing several of our own loved ones to the condition, and after watching many others cope with its complications,” Abdelsalam told Free Enterprise. “My sister-in-law, who was also a young mother in her mid-twenties at the time, passed away from the disease.”
To realize his vision — and to honor his beloved late sister-in-law — the Startup Weekend mentor and former TechStars entrepreneur in residence recently designed and launched a special device called GluCase through a successful Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign.
GluCase, which Abdelsalam describes the “world’s first” glucometer smartphone case, seamlessly stores all of the components of a traditional glucose measuring system — glucometer, test strips and lancets — in a discreet and compact smartphone case for iOS and Android smartphone models. The innovative case enables users to test their blood glucose levels anywhere, anytime, and wirelessly “talks” (via Bluetooth) with a mobile app that displays their blood glucose levels and more.
We had a chance to ask Abdelsalam why he’s so passionate about helping people live happier, healthier lives through mobile technology, what it’s like to successfully crowdfund such a unique medical device, and how it feels to make a positive impact through social entrepreneurship. Here’s what we found out:
What inspired you to create a groundbreaking blood glucose-testing smartphone for diabetics?
“While finishing my graduate studies at Cornell University, a few friends and I had the idea to start a company that would benefit society in some way, as well as be a lucrative and sustainable business. Our startup team — which now consists of a small and agile group comprised of myself and three others — decided to build products to streamline and simplify diabetes management after watching many of our own friends and family members struggle with their condition.”
What problems does GluCase solve through what types of technology and how does it work?
“GluCase, AkibaH’s flagship product, is the world’s first smartphone case glucose meter. It seamlessly integrates a blood glucose meter, test strips and lancets into a smartphone case. This all-in-one design eliminates the need for a person with diabetes to carry bulky meters and test supplies, while offering real-time coaching from their care team via a companion GluCase mobile app.
People who use GluCase can also view their glucose levels in context of other information (activity, diet and medications) by syncing with various other devices. Moreover, the technology correlates changes in blood glucose levels with information on lifestyle choices to allow for behavior augmentation, helping patients better manage their condition via predictive analytics.”
What does it mean to you to be a social entrepreneur — a business founder who runs a for-profit venture with a purpose for the greater good?
“It means going beyond what classic business asks of you and taking on an ethical and professional position to create value for your environment in more than one way.
I’ve taken graduate courses in formal academic settings at Cornell and have encountered professors that are both for and against the use of the term ‘social entrepreneurship.’ One professor, who was undoubtedly more of the traditional school of thought, would often paraphrase renowned economist Milton Friedman exclaiming, ‘The business of business is business.’ In other words, maximizing financial gain should be the main goal of companies.
Meanwhile, other professors fully embraced the concept and even encouraged students to consider incorporating companies as B Corporations (benefit corporations), whereby the triple bottom line becomes the legally defined goal of the entity — maximizing social, environmental and financial returns.”
How does it feel to help others through your invention? Through technology?
“It feels wonderful. I try to live my life by the simple motto, ‘Be part of the solution, not the problem.’ Technology is the perfect vehicle to tackle many of the social and environmental challenges that we face today.”
How is GluCase different — and/or better than — existing traditional blood glucose testing technologies, portable solutions among them? In other words, what’s your competitive advantage?
“GluCase is the first product of its kind in the world to offer an all-in-one solution built into a smartphone case. Others have tried to bridge the gap between the bulky carrying kit and phone, but still require the individual to carry their testing supplies, cables and/or meter. Moreover, it correlates changes in glucose levels with information on lifestyle choices to allow for behavior changes, assisting patients in better managing their condition over time with help from access to predictive data.”
What’s it like being a med-tech startup in San Jose, Calif., essentially in the epicenter of Silicon Valley? How do you stand out from the crowd?
“It’s humbling since there are so many very smart and successful people around you at all times. We don’t spend too much time on devising plans to stand out from the rest. We simply work by the ethos that if our product is truly one of quality and people recognize its value, then we’re fine with slowly but steadily garnering organic growth and attention via word of mouth and marketing.”
How did you initially fund GluCase, in addition to your recent successful Indiegogo campaign?
“We initially self-funded the company. The first institutional capital came from Techstars and Sprint Corporation. Techstars is a highly competitive incubator program that accepts fewer than one percent of applicants. Since Techstars, we’ve also received investments from other angel and venture capital investors.”
Your startup was incubated through Techstars, a well-known launchpad for many successful tech companies. What was the experience like? How did it help prepare you for the rigors of launching a health-tech startup?
“We went through the Techstars program as a company being incubated, and Techstars was our accelerated MBA in entrepreneurship. We learned from a lot of very talented and informed mentors there, many of whom connected us to strategic product development and commercialization partners. It’s a fantastic program that I’d highly recommend any aspiring entrepreneur to consider. Personally, it helped me prepare more rigorously in managing dynamic teams and process flow.
As with many incubator and accelerator programs, many lessons can be learned, from how to legally incorporate a company to how to scale your user base. I usually think of these programs as accelerated practical MBAs in entrepreneurship. The difference from its traditional counterpart being, of course, that you’re actually starting and growing a real business.
While mentoring others at Startup Weekend and Start-Up Chile, I’d say the number one lesson I learned in observing startup entrepreneurs was that success usually hinges on the ability of an entrepreneur to be both humble and open to learning, while also flexible and decisive enough to pivot as needed.”
Where can people find and buy GluCase?
“Currently, GluCase is only available to the individuals that placed a limited number of pre-orders through our crowdfunding activity. We are planning to open sales to the general public this coming fall. Customers can order online at our website, www.glucase.com, as well as at retail outlets to be announced.”
What’s next for AkibaH and GluCase, and for you as an entrepreneur?
“Right now, we’re simply heads-down focused on scaling and improving the product. As an entrepreneur, I’d love to try my hand in other spaces in the future as well.”
What’s your top advice for aspiring entrepreneurs who want to launch a successful tech startup?
“Firstly, make sure you have a solid team that you can count on because, when the going gets tough, you will need strong pillars of support in your corner. Secondly, be ready to commit and sacrifice; that means quitting your day job, declining your acceptance to graduate school, living frugally and putting aside some personal goals.
For folks that aspire to be in med-tech specifically, I would recommend finding a founding team member that can help guide them along the way. There are many challenges in med-tech that don’t exist in other spaces; for example, F.D.A. rules and regulations and HIPAA compliance.”