About Dr. Dirk Schroeder
Dr. Dirk Schroeder
Dr. Dirk Schroeder is a digital health entrepreneur, startup advisor, Associate Professor of Global Health at Emory University, and managing director of AHIA at Emory University. He co-founded HolaDoctor Inc, a leading digital provider of health and wellness solutions for Hispanic audiences. He later founded UpDraft Health Innovation Advisors, a management consulting firm that helps digital health entrepreneurs, innovators, and investors successfully commercialize their products and services.
What led you to become a health innovator? Did you always know you wanted to be an entrepreneur?
Honestly, I had no idea that I would end up where I am today. My background and academic training was all in international public health. Prior to coming to Atlanta, I had lived oversees for about a decade before I joined the Global Health faculty at Emory Rollins School of Public Health.
I expected to be an academic researcher and teacher for the rest of my career. Then, unexpectedly, I had the chance to co-found a digital health company – HolaDoctor Inc – during the height of the first Dot Com boom. I relinquished tenure to build the company and very happy that I did.
In sum, I’m an “accidental entrepreneur”.
How has your experience with HolaDoctor informed your current approach to innovation in the US and around the world?
As a co-founder of a digital health start-up over 20 years ago, I have personally lived through the ups and downs that come with innovation. At HolaDoctor, for example, we originally targeted Spanish-speaking health consumers in Latin America. We soon realized, however, that we were about 10 years too early to that market.
Fortunately, we also discovered a huge market need and opportunity with serving healthcare organizations and businesses here in the U.S. So, we pivoted – from being a B2C web company to being a B2B translations, healthcare services, and consulting company nearly overnight. Our clients were hospitals, health plans, pharmaceutical companies and governmental agencies wanting to grow with Hispanic and multicultural markets.
The B2B services division grew and paid the bills until we finally did re-launch our B2C consumer site and ultimately achieved our initial vision of building the largest Spanish-language health information resource on the Internet.
What are the top features/qualities you look for to gauge potentially successful digital health innovation?
This is an area I’m really interested in. In fact, I am currently working on a project entitled “Getting Past the Pilot: a guide for health innovators and entrepreneurs” for which I interviewed over 100 leaders in the field, including 11TEN’s CEO James Lewis. From these interviews and my own experience, three of the features/qualities for potentially successful digital health innovation include:
- Solves a problem: In the majority of cases, it is critical that the innovation solves a real problem and that this problem is big, severe, and/or costly. In my interviews, “not addressing a real problem” was the number one reason people gave for why most innovations don’t get past the pilot phase. I am always concerned when innovators start with a phrase like “wouldn’t it be nice if….” or are too focused on how technology could do this or that. Innovators need to reframe their ideas in terms of the problem they are solving.
- Will be used: The second key quality is that the digital health innovation will be used in a regular and on-going basis. In many ways, it is fairly easy to build a digital health innovation – the hard part is getting people to adopt and use it. The digital health landscape is littered with apps and “solutions” that made sense and may have even solved a problem, but were just too complicated or inconvenient to use. For example, there are latterly thousands of diabetes apps, but only a handful that have scaled to be used by thousands of people. Innovators should be spending a lot of time upfront in the design phase with end users and then iterate with them as the product/service evolves.
- Someone will pay for it: The majority of digital innovators I meet have not given nearly enough thought to the business/revenue models for their products/services. Healthcare in the U.S. is complex and it is very important to understand who, e.g. hospitals, doctors, health plans, consumers, is going to ultimately pay for the innovation.
What are you focused on now with AHIA (and what is AHIA/why is it important)?
AHIA stands for Advancing Health Innovation in Africa. AHIA is an organization based at Emory that was started over 10 years ago by Dr. Dennis Liotta. Over the past decade or so, Dr. Liotta and other Emory colleagues have conducted workshops for African health entrepreneurs, developed strong partnerships with African organizations and universities and provided education, mentorship and guidance to promising bio-innovators. You can read more about AHIA at AHIAEmory.org.
I took over as the Managing Director of AHIA in early 2022. Over the past year, we conducted a comprehensive scan of the bio-innovation ecosystem in Africa and given a great deal of thought to the role AHIA can play in accelerating the pace and impact that innovation can have on health outcomes on the continent.
What do you see as the future of AHIA?
In August 2022, we conducted a workshop in South Africa for nearly 100 biomedical students and innovators. The key takeaway from this experience is that there is ample human capital, i.e., well-trained and motivator investigators and innovators in Africa, but still a real shortage of the knowledge about how to get a good idea out of the lab and into the market, and an even greater need for financial capital to scale.
The future of AHIA and our current 2023 strategic goals align with these market needs. AHIA is focused in three main areas:
- Education: We are re-launching and ramping up AHIA’s educational programming, both virtually and in-person. A key to these educational programs is that we are sharing best practices for generating innovation in health, but adapting that for the African context. As I learned through building HolaDoctor Inc, it is not just about making sure products and services are in the local language. Local, cultural beliefs, delivery and reimbursement systems, and even business networking norms have a big impact on whether an innovation is adopted and scales.
- Scholarship: The fact that AHIA is based at a leading biomedical academic research university (Emory) is important. A key goal for the future of AHIA is to involve more faculty and students in the education, research and publication that will advance the field for the benefit of Africans. We are also looking to grow more partnerships with other universities, organizations in the greater Atlanta area, and corporations.
- Funding: Like anywhere, funding is a major impediment to bring good innovative ideas to market. At AHIA, we are currently exploring ways that AHIA can partner with social impact investors, companies looking to advance their corporate social responsibility, and philanthropic donors looking for ways to make a real difference.
How can an ecosystem of life science, med device, and academic partners support the advancement of healthcare innovation in Africa?
Our ultimate vision is for AHIA to be the corridor, or bridge that connects innovators in the greater Atlanta area with peers and colleagues in Africa.
We believe, in this way, AHIA can be a key facilitator of the global life science, med device and academic partner ecosystem. In my personal experience, I know that each of these players has the desire and commitment to make a difference for the people and economies of Africa, but are often stymied in their ability to do so.
The current ecosystem remains fragmented, with islands of light and opportunity, that are often held back from making a difference for financial, knowledge and/or political reasons. Like 11TEN, AHIA seeks to bridge these divides. Most of the pieces of the puzzle on how to advance health in Africa through innovation are already available – we just need to give them a bit more support and guidance and tie them together.
I have lived and worked in many low-income countries and regions around the world during my career. During some of these experiences, I honestly didn’t see how things would change much for the better. But that’s not the case with present-day Africa.
Today, I truly see tremendous opportunity to radically improve the health of African communities quickly and affordably. I very much look forward to dedicating this next phase of my life to making this a reality.