Startups want to tackle Egyptian health, but lack money

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Ahmed Abu ElHaz CEO of Shezlong
Ahmed Abu ElHaz CEO of Shezlong pitching at BDL2015 accelerate in Beirut. (Image via Shezlong)

Egypt is fertile ground for entrepreneurs seeking to digitize the medical field, as searching for doctors, booking appointments, purchasing medicine, and booking lab tests can all be disrupted through startup innovations.

A few new platforms are looking to tackle this market head on.

Vezeeta, which helps users search for medical professionals and book appointments, landed $4 million in investment from two separate rounds, from Egypt ICT Trust Fund in 2014 and Silicon Badia in 2015.

With this success in mind several other entrepreneurs have decided to enter Egypt’s digital healthcare sector, which makes up 5.1 percent of Egyptian GDP. While these ventures have become profitable in a relatively short time, funding remains an important concern for founders.

Shezlong: psychotherapy online

Psychotherapists usually ask their patients to sit on chaise-lounges (locally known as 'shezlong') to freely express their feelings and thoughts.

An online psychotherapy clinic took this name and launched Shezlong in June 2015. The startup provides audio and visual interactions between patients and doctors while "guaranteeing total secrecy and confidentiality of patient informations", said cofounder and CEO Ahmed Abo El Haz.

There is stigma towards mental health in the Arab world so the company’s five cofounders were determined to make privacy a priority.

"The platform works with an algorithm developed in a fashion that even employees and developers can't access the data," Abo El Haz said. "The only one who can access it is the medical professional."

The platform, which currently hosts six consultants, has attracted 2,650 cases from 18 countries including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Germany, and the US. The startup says it has about 70 registered users who follow up frequently with their doctors.

Since June 2015, over 150 sessions, in the form of a call between a doctor and his patient, were held on the platform, each costing 150 EGP (US$20). Visitors to the site can also communicate and chat online with the psychologists on a free-of charge basis and at predetermined times. However, this option won't remain free for long as the founders intend to begin charging for it soon.

The team is currently raising their first round of investment to increase the number of psychologists on their platform to 40 by the end of 2016.

In February 2014, Shezlong came in second place at the Microsoft Openness Competition. The team also made it to the finals at the MIT Arab Competition in November 2015, and came in first place at the BDL Early Stage Competition that December.

Despite getting off to a strong start, Shezlong has a long way to go if it wishes to compete with global competitor Talkspace in the US, which succeeded in attracting 150,000 users and an investment of $13 million four years after its launch.

Otlob Doctor: bringing health professionals to your home

In December 2013, Otlob Doctor was launched by Ashraf El Fiky. The platform enables users to search for doctors and stay-at-home nurses, as well as book hospital appointments.

"We joined TIEC incubator for one year and four months, and we succeeded in attracting 1,400 doctors to the platform during the first six months of its release," CEO El Fiky told Wamda. "We now have 550 daily visitors and 20,000 registered users."

Ashraf Elfeeky CEO of Otlob Doctor
Ashraf Elfeeky CEO of Otlob Doctor, speaking at ArabNet Beirut 2015.

Otlob Doctor has several revenue streams, including doctors’ subscriptions, commissions on home visits, advertising, and platform sponsorships.

El Fiky is currently trying to raise a round of investment. "The number of investors in Egypt is very limited," he said. "And traveling to talk to investors outside of Egypt is not easy, especially considering the fact that we have run out of personal funding."

"Most institutions supporting entrepreneurship in Egypt only care about early stage ventures,” he said, rather than those in the later growth stages. "These obstacles have become a direct threat to the future of our venture, which has indeed achieved a tangible success among users in the last quarter."

Eldacatra: reviewing medical professionals

Launched in July 2015, El Dacatra is a platform that allows users to evaluate doctors and hospitals online. CEO Nada Hamada and her two cofounders created a platform that allows doctors to publicly share their contact information and specialities and allows patients to communicate with docstors and review their appointments.  

Outpatient clinic schedules can also be published by the hospital staff, along with other operational data like number of rooms available, names of resident doctors, and surgeries performed. 

Nada Hamada of El Dactara
Nada Hamada of El Dactara wins first place at
Shape the Future event in
Dubai in November 2015. (Image via El Dactara)

The company makes money from the subscriptions of doctors and hospitals. "We don’t depend at all on an advertising model because we are first and foremost an evaluation platform, and we don't want to lose our credibility with our clients," Hamada said.

El Dacatra attracts 10,000 monthly visitors. It currently has 100 registered doctors on the platform and 1,300 reviews on the site.

Hamada and her cofounders are also seeking an investor willing to help them take the risk of expanding their platform across Egypt and throughout the region.

An uncertain future

The future of this market remains unknown due to limited funding opportunities. Today, the investor community in Egypt remains small; venture capital funds are also hard to come by.

Will all of these ventures find investors willing to help them grow and expand in the region? "Of course not", said Vezeeta CEO Amir Barsoum. "Not all ventures seeking to digitize healthcare will get investment, and this is not because the sector is weak: the healthcare sector in Egypt is estimated to be $10 billion. It's a market that is not affected by political and economical fluctuations."

"Some startups are just late in addressing a certain idea that they should have addressed years ago,” he continued. “The problem is that they're late. And a lot of entrepreneurs fall into the trap of not identifying their potential client correctly."

Barsoum's advice for new companies in the space is to "look for investors outside of Egypt, because investors here are still very limited. Also, globally applicable ideas attract investors from abroad more easily. Entrepreneurs just need patience and persistence."

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