A Startup’s Evolution: Reflections from the CEO

Doodles capturing Dr Hong’s TEDx Speech, courtesy of the Infographers.

A world first in eye health was unleashed last year by our very own Dr. Hong at TEDx Auckland: an open source 3D printed medical device, the OphthalmicDocs Fundus Adaptor.

The free online release of the attachment was first of its kind, allowing clinicians around the world to access eye equipment that would help end preventable blindness. It was an inspiring story that generated a lot of interest in the eye care professional, maker and start-up communities around the world.

But after the hubbub died down, the key question remained: How do we push forward Hong’s vision to end preventable blindness? How exactly should we continue funding this?  Were we going to try to rely on grants?  Was the business or the charity going to change the world of eye health?

Our Creative Director, Alain Brideson, presenting our adaptors at the SAP and Akina Foundations Social Enterprise Forum

Some of us believed, myself included, that a charity could not afford the expenses to make truly innovative products.  I believed this wholeheartedly from my time working with another organization that was trying to do something similar in healthcare.  I believed that an investor would be our only hope to be able to build a product that evoked meaningful value. The budgets for most R&D product development programs are immense. GE Healthcare spends over a billion dollars on R&D alone every year.  How would we ever compete against those kinds of organizations? Did we know of any charities that made truly innovative products? Would we survive?

To innovate, one must be able to understand the framework of what we wish to change. We have to make money, to grow and scale, and become profitable to impact the most change.

With this in mind, Hong did a great job of networking us to the top.  He said he wanted to capture two company’s interests: Google or Microsoft. Having impressed Google Auckland in his TEDx talk, Hong was invited to meet Google Life Sciences Lab which led to their interest in giving us a $500k grant. There was only one issue: the grant could be applied only for by a non-profit organisation.  For $500,000, we thought yes, it was worth setting up a charity to do it. So the actual employees at Google NZ fundraised $2,800 internally for us to pay our lawyers to set up a charitable foundation.   We needed a business plan.

Our team is located all over NZ.  We all booked tickets to Wellington for Startup Weekend.  But because the format doesn’t allow an existing startup to work together during the weekend, we ended up squirreling ourselves into a 2 bedroom AirBNB instead and writing up our business plan.  We submitted our business plan to Google the following week and waited.

Complications arose. Our lawyer contacted us and told us the charities commission was concerned that we couldn’t keep track of both a charity and a company (it would require setting up both separately) and they were concerned about the finances and how exactly we would keep track of it.  We hesitated at this, as it seemed quite administrative and resource-intensive.

In the United States, the intersection in the Venn Diagram of ‘Company’ and ‘Charity’ existed as a Benefit Corporation. But in New Zealand oDocs didn’t have a blended structure.  We could set up one of each, and double up on the accounting and the staff, but that seemed like a waste.  We had a small team, we should conserve our resources.

So we thought of the greatest altruistic people of our time, Bill Gates, Elon Musk, and Mark Zuckerberg. These entrepreneurs grew large empires commercially, and then could afford to fund very large-scale programs to effect change. And because they had been conditioned and backed by the commercial world, they were often more efficient at doing so. We wanted to be in that group; the ones that could feasibly end preventable blindness. We chose the company structure.

Google eventually told us that we didn’t receive the 2015 grant after all. I hope that one day in the future we will convince them we should.

Some may argue that health in and of itself is a social enterprise.  But when the models of health are skewed only towards the areas with the highest return on investment, then it becomes polarized and elitist. There are huge opportunities for people to innovate in health, but the barriers to entry are usually so high that few survive to implement it.  A few large companies then end up ruling the entire arena, their focus generally limited to leverage success. But does this actually help as many people as it could?

We’re breaking new grounds. That’s why oDocs is an exciting development for our supporters; our social mission means that we are geared toward the democratization of healthcare equipment. Perhaps I am an idealist. I think we need to use our knowledge and resources to find solutions to real problems, not just the ones that make the most money.  We hope that with your continued support that we survive to see it through.

Hanna Eastvold

CEO of oDocs Eye Care

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