Season 2, Episode 02: Decentralizing Health Care in Ghana - Featuring Redbird’s Patrick Beattie

September 28, 2021
IFC speaks with Patrick Beattie, the co-founder and CEO of health tech company Redbird.

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In this episode, IFC speaks with Patrick Beattie, the co-founder and CEO of health tech company Redbird. We talk to Patrick about what drew him to work in West Africa, what it means to decentralize the health-care system and how to help patients manage chronic disease by putting them in the driver's seat.

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Jasmin Bauomy (Host): This is Creating Markets from the International Finance Corporation. Hello, and welcome to another episode of the new season of Creating Markets. I'm your host, Jasmin Bauomy, and on today's episode, we're exploring the thriving health tech sector in Sub-Saharan Africa. And to do that, I talked to Patrick Beattie.

Patrick Beattie: We have the opportunity in Sub-Saharan Africa, I think, to realize a leapfrog event where we can design decentralized, digitally enabled health care. As you would, if you were designing from scratch and therefore create a superior solution to anywhere else in the world, because we have the opportunity and the need, the pressing need, to do it.

JB: Patrick is the CEO and one of the three co-founders of Redbird that just last March raised $1.5 million in seed funding.

PB: Redbird is a US-Ghanaian digital health company where we help pharmacies offer rapid diagnostic services, so patients can access quick medical tests to monitor their health and save hours that they would have spent at a hospital.

JB: In this season, we're starting off each interview with a few icebreaker questions and then we'll dive into three different parts.

Part one: how we got here. Part two: what's the situation like right now. And part three: where's the industry going in the future. All right. So let's get started.

I reached Patrick in his office in Ghana's capital Accra, and I quickly found out that Patrick is actually from Anchorage in Alaska.

JB: So how does a guy from Alaska end up in Ghana?

PB: Yeah. So I think just following the interesting and exciting work is really what led me there. I mean, I did my undergraduate degree in chemical engineering and found it really fascinating. But when I got to the end of my time at university, I just, I had been exposed to the Peace Corps and was very excited about the potential to give back on a more global scale, recognize the benefits and the privilege I had had.

JB: Patrick was a Peace Corps volunteer for several years. And he spent quite some time in West Africa.

PB: Every day was, was interesting. Even though some days were great and some days were bad. And then I moved to Boston because that's where a lot of biotech innovation was happening. Now, I wanted to be a part of that. And I was really fortunate to meet George Whitesides, Carmichael Roberts, who were setting up a non-profit medical diagnostics company, designed to create novel diagnostics specifically for the area I had just been living in, in West Africa. And so I was able to join that as the founding scientist and build that over time.

And yeah, eventually, I got the early idea for Redbird. I wanted to be back on the continent because I was seeing just really exciting stuff happening in the startup scene.

News Clip: “Welcome, terrific tech Tuesday!”

“It's a terrific tech Tuesday and today we’re looking at the tech industry that’s the start-ups in Africa. And Africa has a lot of start-ups. We’ll start with Namibia where…”

News Clip: “East African entrepreneurs have come a long way to pitch their ideas. But increasingly, Germany has been an important destination for African tech start-ups looking to expand their activities.”

PB: And so I worked my way out here doing a school scholarship at Oxford, but then looking at markets, got really excited for what I was seeing in Ghana, moved down here in 2015 and eventually found my co-founders and started up Redbird.

JB: Wow. Okay. One last ice breaker question.
What, what's the nerdiest thing you got into during this pandemic?

PB: You know playing board games with friends, typically online. There's a lot of great online options, but these classic, very involved contrived board games is something that I've really enjoyed playing. It's made me some great friends here in Accra. And it's been a way to stay real close with friends in other parts of the world, and it can be quite nerdy at the same time.

JB: Love it. I love this. Okay.

Now it comes to serious parts. We're diving into the first part of our interview, which is we're going to look back. I want to ask you how Redbird came about, what was at stake back then? Yeah. And how did we get to where we are right now?

PB: So there's three co-founders and we each had our own path towards Redbird. So I'll start with myself.
As I mentioned, I was previously in Boston at a startup called Diagnostics For All.

We were making a novel, rapid diagnostic tests. One thing I would do when I was field testing, these wherever I was at, I would pop into pharmacies. Because in my mind is great. A pharmacy was a great point of care, a place that could inform us on what we should develop next. And so I would just pop in and talk to a pharmacist and I'd say, “Hey, if you could test for anything in your pharmacy right now, you could give her an answer for anything don't think of what's possible. Just tell me, like anything in the world you would want, what would you want?” And nine times out of 10, that answer was technology, a problem that had been solved. It was something like blood sugar or anemia testing, where we weren't going to be able to make a better, cheaper blood sugar tests.

That that's something that had been solved. And yet I, what I realized eventually was that all these technology issues have been solved, but there was a market issue that was keeping these tests from being utilized to their full potential. And that was the moment that got me thinking on what would eventually become Redbird and just recognizing there are so many smart people who were addressing the technology side of this problem and yet, if we didn't solve the market side, none of this technology was actually going to have the impact that it wanted to.

JB: So you had this idea and you saw there's a demand. How did you meet the other co-founders then?

PB: So I moved here in 2015 but I knew that I needed to find the right team, that it couldn't be just me trying to do this.

JB: And so Patrick networked as much as he could until he and Andrew Quao, who is now Redbird's COO, found each other at a health-themed hackathon in Accra.

PB: It was just one of those moments where like, you look back on it. It is just, it was an instant recognition. I was like, that's the guy I've been waiting a year, and that is the guy.

JB: Just like Patrick, Andrew, I thought of a concept that would utilize pharmacies to provide more convenient health care.

PB: And so we met up and within five minutes we realized that we're each trying to pitch each other to work with them.

And do we just called it out? We said, okay, obviously we want to work together. Like, let's start doing this. We each had full-time jobs still. Uh, so we said, let's meet up in some of the evenings during the week weekends. We ended up ending our employment at our respective places and doing this full-time.

JB: They trialed an initial concept in a couple of pharmacies, which got a great response.

PB: That was a patient record system with our initial concept, just really quick and dirty and, you know, a terrible solution if you think of something that could really scale, but we didn't care.

JB: But it also made Patrick and Andrew realize that they needed someone with a technology background in their founding team. And so Patrick quickly thought of his friend from the Peace Corps, Edward Grandstaff.

PB: And and we, we brought him down here, and I think we, we hooked him pretty quickly. I think he got very excited for the opportunity and he joined on as, as our third co-founder.

JB: That's very cool. So I've got a question because not everybody, you know, in the global north might understand how people in Ghana and elsewhere in Africa, and the Middle East and other emerging markets, how people use pharmacies.

What made you think that the pharmacies is where we can have a huge impact?

PB: Yeah, that's a great point because when people think of pharmacies, they often think of how pharmacies are used in in the U.S., which is, which is very different from most of the world and even Europe. Most of the world it's used very differently and it's used effectively as primary care. So when you see people here and this is some of the research we did, we talked to people when you're feeling ill, where you go. Most people, your first stop isn't to a hospital. It's not to an urgent care clinic, unless it's very urgent, like an emergency room. It's to a pharmacy, and the reason people go to pharmacies is because, two things, one, they're convenient, they're close to where you live, you can pop in. And two, they have a pharmacist there who, who a lot of people trust as their trusted health professional. They have much more engagement with the average customer of a pharmacy than you would see definitely in the U.S. and even compared to Europe.

And so therefore it is really this community extension of primary care for a lot of people. That's how they use it. And so, recognizing this, we knew that this was the ideal place for us to launch the service because people were already going there.

And so rather than trying to create a convenient option that required huge behavior change on the part of patients saying, okay, now your doctor's on your phone and you have to get used to that. We said, do you know what? They're already going to a pharmacy, let's work with the pharmacist and build off of that relationship because it seems convenient and it's trusted.

JB: I love that you're not trying to change behavior, but you're trying to make it more convenient for both the pharmacies and the customers or the patients.

So in, when I read up about you, there's two buzz words that I hear when your company is being described, which is one is convenience, like you just mentioned, and the other one is decentralization. What does that mean?

PB: Sure. They're well, they're linked. Not surprisingly, I guess. So first let's start with convenience. It's the base of, of everything that we do. So if you ask me or anyone at Redbird, what is Redbird about? We would tell you convenient health care. And why do we feel that's important? Well, because when you look at how health care is changing, and especially health burden is changing across Sub-Saharan Africa, across most of the world, it's a shift to chronic disease. Contrast diabetes with malaria, for instance, which is not a chronic disease. If you get malaria, your typical pathway as a patient is you, hopefully, you feel bad and then you get diagnosed and then you get treatment and then you're better and you move on. And with a chronic condition, you're going to have this condition for the rest of your life in many cases or for a very long time. And therefore your pathway is you get diagnosed, you get on a treatment plan, ideally, but then you need to keep monitoring yourself and then tweaking your treatment based on that health monitoring, of course, with health professionals. That is how you stay healthy, and that's how you avoid any of the serious bad effects that can come from chronic disease.

And so what that means is now someone with a chronic disease, they're not just accessing the health-care system once to get this sorted and get done. They're constantly having to check in over time. And that means if you expect people to be able to do that, health care needs to be much more convenient because otherwise they just can't. And so convenience changes from being a luxury to being a necessity in the chronic disease situation.

But here's the key thing. You can't just move care closer to the patient and not connect it to those centralized tertiary facilities like hospitals, because then what happens is a patient is managing their care close to home.

Eventually, maybe they need to go back into the hospital and all of that information is lost if it's not connected. So a real decentralized system, you’re efficiently managing the health burden by giving people access where it makes sense, where it's convenient for them, and is at a level sufficient for them.

But all the data flows sort of follows the patient so that they're always getting the best health care based on their entire personal health record.

JB: That's where Redbird offers a tech solution, right, in form of an app.

PB: Absolutely in form of a couple of different tech ways. But yes. So that's the tech part of Redbird is making sure that anyone who's doing tests out of a pharmacy can build their health record and therefore bring it with them wherever they go, when they go back to see their doctor and benefit from that testing.

We do it a couple of different ways because we recognize that different patients have different technology, comfort levels.
We recognize that some people aren't comfortable with an app.

So there are other ways. You can go into any one of our almost 400 pharmacies, and if you approve the pharmacy to look at your health record, then the pharmacist can show you right there and talk you through it and see everything on the tablet that the pharmacy has for rendered surfaces.

And then there's even a level where every test you're done, you get done, you get an SMS on your own phone, so that you know, in the worst case, you go into a hospital, you see a doctor, you can open up your messages from Redbird and they'll see everything that you've done testing there.

JB: And this is a we're moving onto the second part of this interview, which is let's look at the now. So you came to Ghana in 2015. A lot has happened in the health tech sector, across the African continent. It's been super exciting.

PB: Absolutely a lot has changed over these years, especially in Ghana. That's one of the reasons I was so excited to come to Ghana is how quickly things were developing here, especially in the startup space.

And so it's great to see all that growth and health tech has been a prime example, especially with the pandemic. I think in the last year and a half people have recognized the importance of resilience in health-care systems throughout the world and the importance of decentralization.

When you have a pandemic situation, for a lot of patients, the hospital now is not just an inconvenient place to go, but not necessary for what you need to do. If you can do the same health monitoring in a lower risk environment, that's better for you. And it also frees up the hospitals to be focusing on the higher risk areas that need them.

And I think that's probably one of the biggest shifts that we've seen, especially in the last year. It's just a recognition that yeah, there's many reasons other than just the pleasure of convenience that you're going to see the shift towards decentralization and improved resilience in the health-care space.

JB: Redbird’s resilience paid off. Like I mentioned, just in March, they closed $1.5 million seed round with partners, such as the Johnson & Johnson Foundation, the Imperial Venture Fund with Newtown Partners, and Founders Factory Africa. But that doesn't mean that they're not facing any challenges.

PB: I think one of the biggest challenges is it's relatively easy to have a vision for what the health-care system could look like in the end. However, that involves a lot of change and every little bit of change involves different people.

And there is a reason that the change hasn't happened already just on its own. And so there's a lot of learning that we've had to do as a company to understand and better appreciate why that change hasn't happened and what we can do to help push that change.

And that's, that can be not very exciting stuff. Things like how your payments work and how your delivery works with the pharmacy, you know, that's not necessarily why any of us got into this was to revolutionize how postdated check collection is going to happen with a pharmacy. And yet, if you don't figure that out, you'd never get to this stuff that you're really trying to do, because you've got to create something that works for everyone.

It doesn't matter how great the technology is. If it's not used , you're not having the change that you.

JB: I tried to read up a little bit on the health tech sector in Ghana and across the African continent. And from what I heard is, I mean, clearly there's been a lot of like telemedicine startups as well that have been coming up. And there's a few factors that are challenging right now in the ecosystem.

First of all, people relied on the government to kind of take care of the health care sector, and now there's been a slow development where there's been more appreciation for the private sector coming in and helping out.

PB: So, yes. Government does play a huge role, and it of course it depends on each country. The old saying is health care is local. You can't escape that, and it's true.

So for instance, in Ghana, it's very common for people to migrate between public and private health care, even in one situation.

So they could go to a public hospital, be seeing a doctor for some reason, whether it's a diagnostic test that needs to be performed or imaging or something else. They might go to the private sector to get that done, bring it back into the public sector. And so, so there is more back and forth than is always appreciated.

JB: Let me move on to the third part of this interview. I want to look at the future of the health tech sector and your company as well, wherein lies the potential of what you do and what other health tech companies in Sub-Saharan Africa are doing. Why is it worth investing in right now?

PB: So when people talk about health care in Africa, especially people not in the startup space, people often talk about the lack of infrastructure and the problems that that creates. And, and it's true. There are infrastructure deficiencies that need to be addressed. But when you talk to people in the startup space, that's also the exciting opportunity because it means that there, when you think of it from a startup perspective, a lack of infrastructure can create the right environment for leapfrog opportunities.

I feel we are there with health care. The fact that the needs of patients in Sub-Saharan Africa are now actually very similar to the needs of patients all over the world. It's a shift from acute disease to chronic diseases, and yet the infrastructure is quite different. It also creates the opportunity to design a solution that is well-suited for the reality in the future. Whereas other places are still working off of legacy systems because they work okay. Right. And, and you'll see this everywhere in the world, people are trying to move towards decentralized health care, move closer to patients.

We have the opportunity in Sub-Saharan Africa, I think, to realize a leapfrog event where we can design decentralized, digitally enabled health care. As you would, if you were designing from scratch and therefore create a superior solution to anywhere else in the world, because we have the opportunity and the need, the pressing need to do it.

JB: I think that's really, I thought that was really interesting. The fact that, because there's this gap, you can just learn from what others have done and find the better solution for it. Just really, really exciting.

And then the last question, and I mean, you're clearly good at this cause you've got a bunch of investment rounds, but if you could talk to, you know, 10 investors who are sitting in front of you who are looking, you know, at the health tech sector, in and across Sub-Saharan Africa, but they're a little bit apprehensive, what's the one argument that you would say would put them over the edge and make them decide to invest?

PB: Sure. So, I mean, I think you can look at classic growth numbers, you know, the fastest growing, middle-class, the huge explosion of in our case just disease burden shift towards chronic disease. You can do all of that, but you assume that a lot of investors, they know this. I think the thing I would say. and what I think makes this the most exciting market to be in from a health tech standpoint is when I talked about that leapfrog opportunity around decentralized health care, one of the things I didn't mention is something that's unique to this opportunity. And especially when you look at the data potential.

So the potential for usage of the data that comes out of a health-care system like that you have the opportunity now to build a decentralized health-care system, realize all the potential of that, and create a data asset that is unique and uniquely suited towards the future of data utilization in the pharmaceutical industry.

Things like real-world data.

And so it's not just the opportunity for the African market. If we're successful and we as the ecosystem are successful in building a real resilient, decentralized health-care system, we're also going to be creating a data asset with global potential that is just unheard of, because it will be designed fit for purpose, I guess is limited to say.

And if that doesn't get you excited, then I don't know what.

JB: And that's it for this episode of Creating Markets. If you enjoyed it, then please make sure to subscribe and rate our show on Apple Podcasts. It makes it so much easier for others to discover this.

And many thanks to Patrick Beattie for taking the time to chat.

In our next episode, we're going to India and I'm talking to the legendary Chetna Sinha, and I'm not even exaggerating.

She really is legendary. So in 1997, she founded Mann Deshi, India's first bank by and for women. And she co-chaired the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2018. So here's a little taste from our next episode.

Chetna Sinha: Jasmin, I'm always very clear and I'll make it clear: never make a woman a tool of development. Don't do that. That is a very poor way of thinking. Make them the leader of development. is difficult The leader development will come with the dignity

JB: This podcast is produced by the IFC communications team. And I'm your host, Jasmin Bauomy. And I'll talk to you again soon.