Patrick McGuire (00:00)
Hey, it’s Patrick. Before we start, at the time of this recording, we went through a bit of a name rebranding from RIC Centre to Altitude Accelerator. With that in mind, we hope you enjoy the following interview. Welcome to the Startups Transformed Podcast. I’m Patrick McGuire, your host board member and advisor at Altitude Accelerator, where we help startups scale to new heights. We chat with phenomenal tech business leaders who’ve climbed their way to success within their industry. Our guests delve deep into the lessons they’ve learned along the way so that you can get a head start on your next big idea.
Patrick McGuire (00:44)
I’m keen on making sure that we take care of people in a better way, getting them more information, keeping them safer, keeping them healthier, making sure that everybody has access to something they need. And in this case, I’m talking with Michael Do. And Michael, first of all, before I get into who MedEssist is and what you guys are doing, I just want to say a big thanks for joining us today. How are you doing?
Michael Do (01:06)
I’m doing good. Thank you so much for having me.
Patrick McGuire (01:08)
I really do appreciate it. So what is Michael doing. Well, Michael is MedEssist and MedEssist is really doing something unique. It’s the patient relationship management platform for pharmacists, giving pharmacists more power to help patients and to educate them to help manage what’s going on in their lives. And the patient registry, the workflows, triaging, scheduling and much more. That’s what MedEssist is. Now, Michael, I’ve said the corporate statement, but why don’t you tell us what MedEssist really is all about?
Michael Do (01:41)
I think what you said is true. I mean, I think one analogy that I just thought of today, actually, in another meeting is when we think of libraries, we think of them as places you go and get books. But really, nowadays, libraries are so much more. They’re really an information resource. People go there to access the Internet, people go there for education, for training, for so much more. And we’re seeing pharmacies give out the vaccine in record numbers, millions and millions of doses across Canada. I think that capacity for pharmacies to impact public health and impact people’s health is there.
Michael Do (02:15)
And our mission is to get that on the pharmacies and keep it there and have it accessible by the public.
Patrick McGuire (02:21)
Very good. And you guys are pretty much a relied source nowadays. I mean, you’re relied on by pharmacies from every brand. I mean, PharmaChoice, Guardian, and I’m sure you can name a whole bunch of others. Is that right?
Michael Do (02:34)
Mainly, we work with a lot of independent community pharmacies. So pharmacies that- some of our pharmacies are mom and pop stores. And the vaccine rollout is a great example. It’s a complex, complex initiative. Things change all the time. Eligibility criteria changes. From a pharmacy perspective, we don’t have security guards, we don’t have administrative staff to handle the demand and the inventory that is being shipped to us. That’s what MedEssist comes in. When we help these independent pharmacies, it brings us so much joy because it really changes the standard and the perception of what pharmacists can do.
Patrick McGuire (03:11)
Yeah. That’s empowering them to be even better and to become part of an integral team to your health. I think we need more of that. We need more education. We need more people that can actually be enabled to do better and take care of you and help you and everything, whether it’s your insulin, whether it’s vitamins, whether it’s other interactive drugs. So I really think that’s awesome that you’re doing it. It’s early days, 2018 or so. When were you founded?
Michael Do (03:38)
2018? A lot has changed. I mean, the last year plus has been all about COVID-19, kind of had to take a little detour from our main kind of mission, which is really being patient-focused and really trying to help pharmacies navigate this kind of historic initiative, even though we seem like we’re two years old, it’s almost like we’re one year old with this whole kind of new angle that we’re attacking.
Patrick McGuire (04:02)
Yeah. And I would say in that year, a lot of companies, at least the digital platforms have grown by, like, five and six years in terms of what they’re doing, how they’re doing and what they’re executing, who they’re working with. So like you said, you’re two years old, but you really feel like you’re one years old, but you’ve already got, like, five years of experience under your belt because of this rapid requirement for the pandemic and helping others and helping the pharmacies. So it’s not easy. It’s not hard, but it’s just you’ve got to do the work, right?
Michael Do (04:30)
Yeah I think the growth has been tremendous because now that we have hundreds of pharmacies across Canada, when we launch a service on our platform, it’s immediately available at all these sites. And all these sites are already familiar with our workflow. So the scalability, the ability to have an impact. That’s very measurable across Canada. It’s what’s exciting moving past COVID, because everyone is used to it. Things have changed and we’re not moving back. We’ve seen how much better things can be, how much more efficient, how much more modern, how much more information is available.
Michael Do (05:09)
It’s very difficult to go back.
Patrick McGuire (05:11)
Yeah, absolutely. Everything’s got to go forwards. We have to make a difference no matter where you are, what your belief system is, what your strategy is. We’ve got to continue to strive ahead in business, in health, in vaccines and any type of products that we’re taking these days. Now, again, going back to the fact that, hey, you’re kind of new, but you’re kind of young, but you’re not really. Tell me about some notable awards and recognition announcements that you’ve picked up on along the way.
Michael Do (05:36)
Well, I don’t know about awards or anything like that, but being involved in COVID-19 vaccinations, there are opportunities for press to be involved. But it’s really interesting the way the media kind of like looks at COVID vaccines. And really, this is a bit of a tangent, but I just want to shout out to my pharmacies because they’re getting media, too, from all the work that they’re doing, and they’re building so many relationships from their communities. And when we see that, that’s exciting to us, we’re not always on the forefront of that from the public perspective, but I think pharmacists as a group and as a whole are getting a lot of that limelight, and that’s exciting for us.
Patrick McGuire (06:16)
That is exciting. I love that you recognise that you can’t always get recognition for being the one, the guy, the company, the product, that is getting all the limelight and getting all the recognition. But I love that you guys are satisfied knowing that, hey, you’ve enabled pharmacies to do so much better that they can get the recognition. And you have your little hurrah celebrations in the back corner whenever they celebrate, because without you, they might not have pulled it off. So it’s very awesome that you do that.
Patrick McGuire (06:44)
Tell me. I mean, you’re helping independent pharmacies. But what did you do early in your career and what led you to this?
Michael Do (06:52)
I am a pharmacist and I manage a pharmacy in Toronto. So these are problems that I deal with every day. We’re doing COVID-19 vaccinations. So I’m someone that’s using the platform and my staff are using it, too. So if there’s any issues, my staff has a direct line to the CEO of the company. I think that’s kind of my story. It’s just something that I’ve been a pharmacist for almost a decade now. So it’s not like the startup kind of realm is new to me compared to the pharmacy where I’m so used to what’s going on in that field.
Patrick McGuire (07:24)
Yeah, for sure. And just to remind all entrepreneurs, hey, look, you may be working a job right now. You may be just doing something that you enjoy, or maybe you absolutely love it. But the opportunity to do something incredible to change the lives of not just yourself, your family and your employees. It’s to change the lives of others like MedEssist is doing like Michael and his team are doing all across Canada, hundreds of pharmacies. Or maybe you’re just taking that one passionate idea, like Michael did and saying, I know we can do better, let’s figure this one out.
Patrick McGuire (07:54)
And that’s really an exciting thing to remind people that you never know when the next great opportunity, the next great idea is going to show up. And I’m glad, Michael, that you took that chance. And you aggressively said, let’s do this. And you’re still a pharmacist because you clearly like helping people. I like that.
Michael Do (08:11)
Yeah, I still work a few hours every week. I wish I could work more, but you just can’t. I think that’s important, too. You don’t want to be so away from your customer, you want to really be involved in there and really be involved in the industry. And I think that gives you so many hints and so many clues on how to build the product, to continue to develop the product.
Patrick McGuire (08:32)
Yeah. And we know that you got that inspiration kind of when you were just working and thinking things through and it was part of your everyday life and you felt there’s a better way to do it. But what really inspired you to make MedEssist?
Michael Do (08:45)
Our mission is to improve patient’s health. And originally, we were very focused on medication adherence, which is making sure patients take their medications properly. About five to 10%, depending on which nation, five to 10% of patients end up in the hospital do so because they don’t take their medications properly.
Patrick McGuire (09:02)
Michael Do (09:03)
As a pharmacist, I saw this and this is something all pharmacies deal with. What really struck me is and I train students too, pharmacy students, at my site with the University of Toronto. These are things that we think about. And when patients come in and you do everything perfect, you counsel the patient, you talk to the patient, the patient understands everything perfectly, but they go home, they miss take it, they end up in the hospital. It’s not enough. It’s not enough. You can do everything perfectly at the pharmacy, but it’s not enough.
Michael Do (09:34)
And that’s what really kind of inspired me and said, we need to have other ways to support patients at home. And we still have the app, and it’s still being used all across Canada. It’s to enable patients not only to refill their medications, but they’re getting reminders there is medication information, there’s ability for them to communicate with the pharmacist. And that’s kind of how MedEssist started.
Patrick McGuire (09:55)
It’s young and you’ve had experience already. And you’ve smashed, like, five years of experience in a one year with this COVID and everything tracking, plus all the medical plans that you had earlier and you’re having that experience. Was there a pivot point in the business so far today? And what was that?
Michael Do (10:11)
Yeah absolutely. I think we’re doing the mobile app. We spend most of our time now helping the pharmacy manage that workflow and helping pharmacies manage COVID-19 vaccinations and other services. And we can’t wait to tie those two things together. We just haven’t had the time yet, but it’s coming soon, so that the entire workflow, from the medications refills to the injections to the counselling. Everything is on one dashboard, and the pivot happened because of COVID, but it’s going to turn into something really amazing in the end, we can’t wait to release.
Patrick McGuire (10:44)
Absolutely. And whether it’s COVID or something else -vid, who knows what it is, there’s always going to be something. There’s always going to be a need for a great platform like yours. And that’s pretty cool that you can take this quasi pivot, adjust to it, and plan it out for the future. And really glad you guys have that vision that foresight for it, and you’re just going to keep pushing forwards. Obviously, I’m not even going to ask because we already said I was going to say what drove this change and this need for pivot.
Patrick McGuire (11:13)
COVID, Hello. But Michael, who led the change, who led this desire to go from being just a medical knowledge and sharing database to an injection and vaccine tracking system to go with it?
Michael Do (11:27)
Well, we’re a small team, so decisions get made with everyone kind of being involved. End of day, it’s the customer. If everyone is talking about COVID and pharmacists as well, are wondering what’s my role when vaccinations come, what’s my role? How am I going to manage everything, if that’s their biggest concern and you’re coming in there pitching your vision or whatever you’re pitching, and it’s not their biggest top three concerns, then you’re going to have a tough time. So really listening to your customer and really not putting yourself in a box and be willing to just address whatever their biggest problems are.
Michael Do (12:04)
I think that’s so important.
Patrick McGuire (12:06)
Thinking of their biggest problems, and we understand that customers drive that decision. And you guys made that decision as a team. What might have been a difficult decision for you and the company, whether it was business process, product platform, funding, not everything is easy. So what was a challenging or some might call it a bad decision or others call it a learning decision that you guys made?
Michael Do (12:30)
Well, I think the Pandemic is a massive kind of event, and we kind of are a bootstrapped company. So we scaled a lot, but we probably could have scaled a lot more if we had resources. It’s not like an active decision to bootstrap necessarily, but we just had no time. We just had to move and it takes months to fundraise. It takes time. It takes effort. And when there’s this giant demand and need right now, it’s so hard to pull yourself away and you just go through it.
Michael Do (13:04)
So I guess my mistake is just not being able to get in more staff during this time or during the beginning of the pandemic to really scale up. And a lot of times there was a great opportunity because a lot of pharmacies when they adopt a more simple booking system or they start doing paper and pen waitlists, and they get into it, it’s much harder for them to switch what they’re doing, even if it’s very inefficient. It’s very hard to switch than to adopt a system from the start.
Michael Do (13:34)
And so that kind of like initial push. Being able to have those resources in would have been maybe a big game changer for us.
Patrick McGuire (13:42)
Got you. Hey, Bootstrapping is awesome. I’ve done it a couple of times myself, so I do enjoy it. It also sucks. It’s also painful. It’s slow growth at times. Sometimes you’re not sure if you’re going to make it or how it’s going to go. You’re really happy. You’re really sad. You’re really happy. It’s a roller coaster. But Bootstrapping is so satisfying when you do make it, or even when you go from Bootstrapped to raising your first couple of rounds, or whether it’s Angels or VC and Series and Seeds and all this wonderful stuff, it is something to be proud of that you guys have gone this path.
Patrick McGuire (14:12)
And like you said, companies that are getting started. Sometimes the opportunity is so in front of them, it’s immediate. You don’t have time. It’s a reaction to get your product out the door rather than like you said, waste time. And it’s probably a good thing that you chose to attack the market when the timing was right now. Are you guys raising funds? Do you have Angels? Have you continued to grow? Are you now still Bootstrapping? But based on new sales and new onboarding of platform customers?
Michael Do (14:43)
Yeah. I think it’s a different kind of approach now, like we’re in the midst of COVID, or basically we’re kind of moving past it. The features, a lot of them that we’re releasing is more in line with our long term vision.
Patrick McGuire (14:54)
Michael Do (14:55)
The kind of, like, heavy lifting part of it is a little bit past. And we’ve already bootstrapped. And we’re already continuing to grow while Bootstrapped. So it’s nice to be able to kind of assess things and take in money only when it’s going to make a real impact.
Michael Do (15:11)
And we have the opportunity to kind of make sure that we do that.
Patrick McGuire (15:15)
Awesome. Well, hey, look, obviously you’re not freaking out. You’re not panicking. You guys are doing good, you’re growing and you’re self supporting, which is exciting for a start up now, coming out of that experience, do you plan to raise, is it something that is on the radar or do you think that growing your platform and growing your clients is going to sustain itself for the next little while?
Michael Do (15:36)
It’s so hard to say. But I think sometimes you’re so used to Bootstrapping, whenever there’s a problem ahead, you’re like, oh, I can figure out a way to solve that problem, but if you had resources, maybe you could take advantage of opportunities that you don’t have, you don’t see. I think we will definitely pursue funding, but it’s just looking at the right time and making sure that we’re taking it at the right time. And we have a solid plan.
Patrick McGuire (16:03)
Yeah, absolutely. I think you’re starting to think differently these days. You’re starting to go from hey, we bootstrapped it and we got it to where it needs to be. And you’re starting to think about what’s the long term big picture here. That is that new level of CEO thinking versus a startup CEO. And it’s challenging. It’s not easy, but it is rewarding when the time comes, whether you continue to bootstrap or whether your customer growth is so explosive that you don’t need to take on money which is what I hope for you.
Patrick McGuire (16:28)
By the way, I really do. Hopefully it gets so busy you have to hire and staff up to onboard new customers that pays for your future growth of the platform. That would be my goal for you guys and excited. But also, hey, the right investments with the right team members that can help you to grow is great. And just being one of those guys, Michael, knowing that you guys are a young start up, I would say make sure you interview the money, okay, interview them, interview them well.
Patrick McGuire (16:56)
And this is for all startups and all entrepreneurs. Interview the money, make sure they fit, make sure they bring you value. Don’t just take the money because it’s a dollar. So when the time comes, hopefully that helps you out a little bit.
Michael Do (17:08)
I absolutely agree. I think us raising is exactly like you said. It’s not about the money, it’s about the connections you can make. It’s about mentorship, it’s about them helping you expand to an area or an expertise that they can bring to the table that helps you kind of like grow up beyond whatever boundaries you currently have.
Patrick McGuire (17:26)
That’s exactly. And one of my friends in the startup world that I live in, it’s the ecosystem with the RIC Centre and others. That’s exactly what they do. They actually go out to raise and they look at it as not to raise money. They look at it as to who do you know and what’s your network and what are you going to bring? Are you going to bring me ten new pharmacies plus 500K a million dollars, or are you just going to bring me cash and I owe you debt?
Patrick McGuire (17:52)
It’s a unique strategy to take. Thinking things through as you’re going forward. What’s the most important decision that you think has led to the company’s success so far?
Michael Do (18:03)
Being reactive, I think, is so important when you’re a small startup being reactive and that’s how we win, especially during COVID, where things change so quickly. If you’re using legacy software, if you’re not on the cloud, you’re not cloud based, you can’t react to all of a sudden changes that quickly. And that’s our advantage. And we really relied on that. So during the COVID-19 vaccine campaign, changes would happen at press conferences. Pharmacists would not find out if eligibility is changed. On Friday, I think the government announced that if you got your AstraZeneca dose first dose now, you can come in and get it at eight weeks instead of twelve weeks.
Michael Do (18:40)
So pharmacies find this out when patients call in and say, hey, can I come in earlier? So to be able to be reactive and adjust your documentation, adjust the workflow, adjust things on the fly. I think that it’s not like one decision. I guess it’s just all these small decisions that add up.
Patrick McGuire (18:57)
And I’m sure that’s difficult because you guys, MedEssist, has to be reactive and on the cusp as well to get that into your system to say, hey, yes, we are clear get your shot. Or other medicines or heart treatments, whatever it might be, you have to be up to date with all of this stuff. And we both know that medical databases are not small, even just a simple Journal. One report is massive, but you guys have to be able to get that in. Does that prove a challenge for you guys to be able to keep up to date on so many different announcements. Either just in Canada and maybe in the future, globally, right?
Michael Do (19:33)
Absolutely. I mean, it’s a year long sprint basically. Things just change so much. But it’s always so rewarding to kind of solve all these problems that are kind of like under the surface that the public doesn’t see before a pharmacist like, they’re huge problems and they’re workflow and huge problems to their operation.
Patrick McGuire (19:54)
I think of it as like the boxer. You always have to be on your toes. You got to be moving, you got to be ready to dance and you got to strike when the opportunity is in front of you, and you got to be able to counter and protect yourself. And in this case, you’re protecting your pharmacist and your pharmacies to just be ready when whatever the next thing is that comes. All right. I’m going to ask you something a little more personal this time. What are three things that you wish you could have told the younger Michael, the pre entrepreneur Michael. I mean, I know you’ve been an entrepreneur getting in the pharmacy game, but that was kind of like a structured pharmacy game.
Patrick McGuire (20:25)
So you had a plan to take over the pharmacy to be a pharmacist to do all that work. But when it comes to a start up, it’s a totally different beast, thinking back to your experience. What would you wish you had told the younger pre entrepreneurial Michael?
Michael Do (20:43)
I wish I was stronger technically. I mean, I learned to code in high school, and I actually didn’t code for, like, ten years, and then I had to pick up coding to do MedEssist. And now I spend half of my time, if not more coding. If you’re a solo founder or if you’re a team, you need someone there with a technical background. Like, it’s so important I think, just to be able to communicate with your developers or understand what’s possible and what’s not. And to have realistic time frames.
Michael Do (21:10)
And for me, I can’t imagine not having that technical background when you’re developing a technical product. I guess that’s the one thing, but you make mistakes. And the important thing is to fix them real quick, do the best you can I guess.
Patrick McGuire (21:24)
Now I’m going to ask you then what would you tell entrepreneurs who are thinking about getting started? What are tips you could give them?
Michael Do (21:31)
One thing I tell young students and new grants is don’t rush into it. There’s this whole kind of thing where you’re supposed to be this Wiz kid genius, and that’s what they look for, someone who’s young and able to do it. But I’m successful because I have all this experience in pharmacy before I got into it. And I think the average age of successful startup founders is a lot higher than I think a lot of people think it is. So my advice is keep an open mind, keep working on your soft skills wherever you are.
Michael Do (22:00)
Keep working on your problem solving skills because that’s what I do on a daily basis. It’s not the idea anymore. It’s the execution. What’s the problem right now that Maxim has given us? And how do we solve it and being able to solve that problem or solve problems day in and day out? That is what you want to practice before you commit yourself to a startup. Because once you commit, you’re committed in a lot of ways. Once you’re committed, you get put inside like a box.
Michael Do (22:30)
You don’t have as many opportunities to learn. You’re the leader. You have to have answers, you have to know things, and you can’t always really explore and push your boundaries in certain ways anymore because you have all this responsibility. So work on execution, work on problem solving, work on communication skills. Don’t rush into it.
Patrick McGuire (22:50)
I like that you called out to be a problem solver. Play mental chess all the time. Right? Try and figure things out. Or Jenga or Tetris. However you want to term that these days always keep the brain going, which you clearly do. Being a pharmacist, you’re always in the mix. You’re always doing something in the thing that you love with MedEssist. So I’ve got a headline here that came up that RIC did a review on you. RIC Centre Research Innovation Commercialization Centre for anyone that’s listening, MedEssist sees exponential growth after completion of Digital Main Street lab pilot project.
Patrick McGuire (23:23)
Can you maybe tell me a little bit about that?
Michael Do (23:26)
I just want to say the RIC Centre has been amazing as well. The programming that you get at the RIC Centre, it’s programming that you could get at MaRS. But when you go to the RIC Centre, it’s so much more personalised. Going back to your question, Digital Main Street is there to help support small businesses and pharmacies are small businesses as well. But also in order to get the economy up and get small businesses functioning, we wanted to ensure that essential workers, such as grocery store workers, restaurant workers, they were getting their vaccine as soon as possible.
Michael Do (24:00)
So part of what we did with Digital Main Street was we built out a system where patients could register and pharmacies could easily see who in their community was an essential worker or a healthcare worker. And if there was not enough supply, those patients would be prioritised. Another thing we did with DMS project was make it accessible for the public by having all these different languages that were specific to the region appeal, which is where the project ran.
Patrick McGuire (24:27)
That’s not a small task.
Michael Do (24:29)
Yeah, that was not a small task, but very important to our long term vision of how community pharmacies can impact in a way that is unique to their surroundings, unique to their patient population. So it was just an exciting opportunity to do that. Of course, it led to all sorts of great partnerships with the Ontario Pharmacy Association and with Pharma Choice, which is the largest independent pharmacy banner across Canada.
Patrick McGuire (24:55)
That’s fantastic. I love it. And others just quick to mention, because Michael won’t go through. But I will. But you got partnerships with, like, U of T, sheridan College, Ryerson Venture Zone, Dynacare, William Osler Health System. We can keep going. There’s a lot of people that now are fully aware of what you’re doing, and they’re aware of medicines and or they’ve been strategic partners to help you make this thing grow. What has got you excited for the future of the company.
Michael Do (25:23)
I’m excited to get everyone vaccinated. That’s the first thing. And obviously we’re playing a role in that. But I’m excited because the way that pharmacies have been able to manage the vaccine is so similar to how we want to launch all these new healthcare services. It’s exciting because it’s already set up. These pharmacies have been doing it, and now they can do even more using the same platform, using the same workflows. Pharmacies are going to be a healthcare hub. That’s our goal. And to offer way more services in the future.
Patrick McGuire (25:55)
Wow. So I guess COVID in a roundabout way has been a great blessing and testing ground for your technology to plan for the future.
Michael Do (26:04)
Patrick McGuire (26:06)
Everybody always wants to know how entrepreneurs think. What are they thinking? Are they just crazy? But if you were given the chance to start all over again to be an entrepreneur, would you do it?
Michael Do (26:17)
100%. Like, once you’re committed to something, sometimes you run into ideas, you run into other startups, and you just love what they’re doing. But you wish you could be a part of it, but you can’t because you have your own thing. The world could always improve. And there are so many opportunities to improve it. And that’s exciting to me. And I always want to be a part of that.
Patrick McGuire (26:36)
I know it’s in you. I can tell. And I love that you guys are constantly innovating with MedEssist. Every little step is like the new entrepreneurial project within the company, and you’re going to make it something great. I know you’re making a big impact all across Canada. I know you’re helping so many pharmacies, pharmacists and their assistants, but you’re also helping the people that are going to those places. We’re proud of you, and we’re very thankful for MedEssist to be out there and making a difference. So, Michael, I just want to say on behalf of all of us, thanks for joining me on this podcast today.
Patrick McGuire (27:08)
I appreciate all that you’re sharing and I look forward to telling your next awesome success story.
Michael Do (27:13)
Thank you so much, Patrick. Thank you so much RIC Centre. It’s been a pleasure.
Patrick McGuire (27:18)
Thank you for joining us on Startups Transformed Podcast. You can subscribe to the show wherever you get your podcasts. If you enjoyed the conversation, a rating or review goes a long way, recommend the show to a friend. Find us at altitudecelerator.com where we can help you begin your startup journey with access to our workshops, advisors and mentorship opportunities. Be sure to tune in for our next episode.