Meet the Entrepreneur: Oluwasoga Oni, Genevieve Barnard Oni and Joe McCord, MDaaS Global
At FINCA Ventures, we look for entrepreneurs leveraging market-based solutions to create large-scale, lasting social impact. In this series, “Meet the Entrepreneur,” we’ll be taking you into the minds of the intrepid leaders at our portfolio companies who boldly venture into markets in need of positive disruption.
Heavy infectious disease prevalence, a rise in non-communicable diseases and the world’s fastest growing population form the ingredients of an intractable health crisis. These elements come together in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country and one that suffers from chronic under-investment in the health care sector. In this interview, we spoke with Oluwasoga (“Soga”) Oni, Genevieve Barnard Oni and Joe McCord, three of the four co-founders of MDaaS Global, to share how this healthtech start-up seeks to provide tech-enabled health care for Africa’s next billion. MDaaS Global builds and operates modern, convenient and affordable diagnostic centers in clinically underserved communities offering imaging, cardiac and lab services to identify health issues earlier and more accurately for effective treatment.
There is a history of medicine, public health, pharmaceuticals and operations in the founding team. Take us through the MDaaS origin story and how these experiences prepared you to build a healthtech company.
Soga: The business idea had been percolating for a while. I grew up around health care: My dad is a medical doctor in a small town in Nigeria and I witnessed the issues he faced accessing medical equipment. The notion of starting a company to tackle this was made real by one of my classes when I was pursuing a Master’s in System Design and Management at MIT. We were challenged to build a company that could serve 1 billion customers. I was introduced to Joe [McCord] during that class and saw that he was a cool dude. He had spent significant time working in Nigeria, so he understood the context of my business idea. I then met Genevieve [Barnard Oni], also through that class, and she, too, had prior experiences in similar settings: Uganda, Malawi and Ghana. For our second date, Genevieve sat through a two-hour class to hear me pitch an early iteration of MDaaS for one-minute. Eventually she joined the team. [Soga and Genevieve are now happily married.] I’ve known Ope [Ologun] since college. We started a barbecue chicken business together back then. He’s a great operations guy. Once I moved back to Nigeria to transition MDaaS from an idea to reality, I convinced him to leave brewery sales and sign-on as the fourth and final co-founder.
Genevieve: Prior to meeting Soga, I was working in Uganda with Global Health Corps in conjunction with Millennium Villages Project out of Columbia University. Most of my work was in rural public health facilities. I spoke with doctors and saw the challenges they faced operating with limited resources. Repeatedly, I heard complaints about access to medical equipment. In nearly every facility, I saw a room dedicated to donated equipment that had broken down. It was frustrating for the doctors to see such waste. At the time, I didn’t know how to address the challenge, but it was clear that there were inefficiencies in the medical equipment space. When I met Soga, we spent our first date talking about medical equipment in rural and peri-urban places. At the time, I was working in Boston, MA at Babson College in their Global Healthcare Entrepreneurship program. This exposed me to social enterprises addressing the inefficiencies I had seen, all of which had me poised to dive into health care entrepreneurship. The year after joining MDaaS, I enrolled in a three-year dual-Master’s program pursuing an MBA at MIT Sloan and an MPA at the Harvard Kennedy School, and I graduated earlier this year.
Joe: Before graduate school, I worked as a contractor for the USAID | DELIVER PROJECT which focused on improving the availability of pharmaceuticals at the health facility level. Much of the work focused on last-mile distribution challenges in planning, delivering, forecasting and collecting data. This work took me to health care systems in many countries but the one that I spent the most time in was Nigeria. I liked coming to Nigeria for its strong culture around entrepreneurship, resiliency and opportunity. When I began a Master of Engineering in Supply Chain Management at MIT, one of the key things I wanted to do was gain exposure to start-ups. Based on my background, someone suggested that I meet with Soga. He invited me to come out to Nigeria during a spring break to see what he was working on. It seemed like a cool business, so we stayed in touch and I formally joined as a co-founder in 2016.
Some married couples dream of working together while others want clear separation between work and home life. Soga and Genevieve, how do you find balance when the distinction between job and family time becomes blurred?
Genevieve: It’s hard to imagine not working with Soga, especially on something so challenging and time-consuming. Being able to share that experience with someone that you’ve chosen to spend your life with is incredible. I love that we’re building something together along with Joe and Ope who have decided to become co-founders with a married couple [laughs]. With that said, we struggle with creating boundaries. We must work hard to budget time for being together as a married couple versus being together as co-founders. Once I finished school and moved to Nigeria, we had to go through the process of creating boundaries all over again — not just for ourselves, but how to make decisions as four co-founders. It’s something we’re always working on improving.
Soga: We had an adviser in the early stages who was adamant that I had to pick between him and Genevieve. That was an easy decision for me. Genevieve brings so much to the team — skills that we wouldn’t have without her, like structure and organization. The challenge is the two of us spend a lot of time together working on MDaaS, so how do we become more intentional about creating space for personal time and knowing when to unplug from work.
Business models pivot as companies grow and find their niche. How did the MDaaS business pivot from leasing medical equipment to operating its own diagnostic centers?
Soga: When we started MDaaS, we were spending most of our time in the U.S. We understood the challenge of medical equipment access in Nigeria and we figured that if we could get equipment into the right hands more affordably, we’d quickly become the #1 medical equipment supplier in Nigeria. What we came to realize, however, was that even at the lower price points we were offering for equipment, Nigerian patients were not paying doctors enough money for them to invest in equipment. Also, there was still the problem of who was responsible for the lifetime maintenance of the equipment, so that this stuff didn’t end up in the equipment graveyard. As a result, our first customers ended up being the wealthier hospitals trying to save money. This was not whom we set out to serve — we were after primary and secondary health care facilities in secondary and tertiary cities — so this wasn’t an exciting business for us. We then tried leasing medical equipment, but the interest rates were high and the financing terms too short, so doctors were scared to take this on. After this, we experimented with a rental model, but once again we started attracting the big, wealthy hospitals looking to avoid putting assets on their balance sheet. During all this iteration, there were some low points when things weren’t working, and you realize your baby is ugly. I remember my MIT classmates had graduated and were making six figures. Meanwhile, I’m running around Nigeria making no money trying to figure out what I’m doing. But we just persisted. Through all this trial and error, we looked at where our inbound requests for medical equipment were coming from. As we followed-up and interviewed those people, we realized they wanted their own medical equipment because they were not satisfied with the diagnostic services around them but couldn’t afford the equipment themselves due to financing challenges. This led to the insight that if we could provide diagnostic services for them, then they would not have to worry about the equipment. In the end, that’s all our customers want: a reliable place to send their patients for quality diagnostic services. So, that’s when we shifted to building and operating our own diagnostic centers. Once we did, the uptick was amazing and that’s when we knew we had something that could scale, but it was a two-year journey to get to that point.
Your company is MDaaS Global, but you operate clinics under the name BeaconHealth Diagnostics. Strategically, why did you create a separate brand identity for your diagnostic centers?
Soga: To be honest, everyone hated the name “MDaaS” at first, which stands for “Medical Devices as a Service.” I thought it was cool. But the reality is it didn’t inspire comfort as a patient-facing name. We did a branding exercise through the Techstars Impact Accelerator to come up with a brand identity for our diagnostic centers. We knew from talking with our patients and staff that the brand identity had to evoke something aspirational and convey “shedding light on health care challenges.” We also wanted a name that was warm and welcoming. Eventually, we landed on BeaconHealth Diagnostics as the brand name for our centers.
Genevieve: Strategically, MDaaS Global is our investor-focused brand. It’s where we share our grand vision around health care access and what we are trying to build with this company. Our patients aren’t interested in our grand vision for the continent of Africa — they just want to know what diagnostic services I can get in Ibadan, for example. The BeaconHealth Diagnostics brand allows us to tailor our messaging to the patients and doctors that we are serving. Practically, we have separate websites for talking to each audience. [See mdaas.io and beaconhealth.io.]
How is MDaaS tackling diagnostic health care in a way that is new, better or different in Nigeria?
Soga: There are four things that we obsess over: affordability for patients, clinical excellence for reporting, patient experience and speed of results. Affordability is built into our fabric, so it’s not really a competitive advantage. People go to terrible places for health care because that’s what they can afford. The question we ask is, “How can we create a place that leads to better health outcomes at a price point that customers are used to?” So, affordability alone is not an advantage; clinical excellence, patient experience and speed are our advantages.
Genevieve: We want to create a sense of surprise, so that when patients walk into one of our centers, they are amazed that everyone gets to be treated in a clean and safe facility with modern equipment and quick, reliable results at the same, low price point. As part of this, we eventually want to hire our own in-house consulting doctors, radiologists, cardiologists, etc, to consult with patients both remotely and in-person. This way, patients can visit one of our centers and gain access to top doctors and specialists that otherwise they’d have to travel to a teaching hospital to see. Separately, we’re talking with AI companies interested in building data models to more quickly diagnose diseases like tuberculosis from medical images. We ask ourselves, “Is there more we can be doing with data to make the jobs of our radiologists easier and to contribute to this body of knowledge around different disease profiles on the continent?”
Joe: The fact that we have in-house biomedical abilities and our multinational presence allows us to bring in high-quality, refurbished medical equipment cheaper than anybody else. We also anticipate using technology in ways that competitors are not. For example, using an internal software system to connect our diagnostic centers with doctors and patients. This will allow us to bring doctors the fastest, highest quality reporting and it would mean that patients can get their results back as quickly as possible — either online or through SMS alerts. It would also create a community of practice for referring clinicians to ask questions and discuss what they are seeing in results, which is especially helpful for doctors who work in isolation. It’s about finding more ways to be with doctors and patients throughout the care journey and bringing everyone together in the health care experience in a way that no one else is in the market.
What types of financing solutions are you exploring to make your services even more accessible?
Genevieve: We aim to join more HMO networks and encourage patients to sign-up for health insurance. Right now, we are working with a couple different insurance providers. If you catch patients when they are paying out-of-pocket, you can show them the value of having health insurance. That way, patients can get the health care they need without being faced with large expenses.
Soga: We are also working on short-term financing solutions, like health care loans. Health care is often a sudden, unanticipated expense, so short-term loans can be useful. Health care is also a necessity and diagnostics can represent the most expensive part of health care. [For context, BeaconHealth Diagnostics charges about $4 for an ultrasound and $8 for a chest X-ray.] We are in talks with fintech companies, but the challenge becomes how to assess patients’ credit worthiness and how to deploy solutions at scale. We may be able to provide the data points to help financial service providers evaluate potential loan recipients.
It’s five years from now and MDaaS has made international headlines. What’s the headline and why?
Soga: “MDaaS Global is the largest diagnostic network provider in Africa.” With scale, we can drive prices down, increase services and reach places that no one else is willing to go. Some places will be very profitable, others less so, but ultimately it will enable vastly more people to access quality diagnostics. Once readily available, diagnostics will be broadly accepted by the medical and patient community.
What are some of the barriers MDaaS faces in achieving the vision articulated in that headline?
Genevieve: We’re growing so much over the next few months. One thing that we’re testing with the next few diagnostic centers is how to operate under the same set of values embedded at HQ and our original center [in Ibadan]. To do this, our focus is on people and how to support each of the centers without needing to have a heavy hand in day-to-day operations. It’s critical that we deliver on our core value propositions and the people-first culture we have at our first center.
Why were you excited to have FINCA Ventures come on-board as an investor?
Soga: With FINCA, there was an overlap in the target populations that we cared about — that was the most important fit to us. From the very first conversations we had with the FINCA Ventures team, they just got it. They understood the vision we were building for and the challenge we were trying to solve. Also, the due diligence process was probably one of the best we have experienced. Since then, the support they have provided has been great.
Genevieve: Impact is central to our business model, so it was wonderful to have FINCA on-board who shares a strong impact focus. It’s been great getting support on operational challenges like patient surveys from FINCA’s research team and to have a thought partner with deep experience on surveying and collecting data in the field.
Joe: We consider ourselves mission-driven and we anticipate bringing on more impact-focused funding as we grow. FINCA is a well-respected name in the impact investing space and other investors seem glad to know that we have an organization like FINCA as one of our investors.