Please share more about your journey from being a Stanford-trained physician to becoming the founder and CEO of Sika Health. What inspired you, and how did your diverse experiences shape your vision for the company?
As you mentioned, I went to Stanford for medical school, but ultimately decided that the way that I wanted to serve patients was more at a systems level. During medical school, I spent some time working after hours at different medical device startups; I was involved in the Stanford Biodesign program. During undergrad, I also really leaned into the research, the innovation side of things. I had this bug for entrepreneurship fairly early, and that never left me throughout medical school. When I really dug deep and evaluated how to use my training and passions to serve the world, it was not in the traditional, secure path that was laid out for me. When I was in it, I loved the practice of medicine—helping people, treating patients—but there was something inside me that knew I wasn’t realizing the fullest version of myself. I felt an incredible sense of urgency to take action now, and I knew that another four years of training, plus another many years of practice, wasn’t going to get me closer to what I really wanted to do, where I wanted to have impact. I knew that the way that I needed to help people was finding a way to help people on a larger scale.
So rather than pursue residency and training onward, I decided to go to BCG to learn about the health care system from all sides, from payers and providers to medical devices to the pharma side. By seeing the holistic view of how health care works, how the incentive structure is devised, how health care payments work, I gained a whole new perspective of where the opportunities could lie. At BCG, it was the first time receiving my own health care plan and actively participating in all that these benefits have to offer. I was impressed with how incredible BCG’s health care plan is, making copays and prescription medicine so affordable, but also the tools that we have available to us as consumers. With these options, individuals can proactively invest in their health, exercise, and nutrition. I started to think, What if our health care system looked more like this and was providing incentives to consumers to actually help people maintain their health proactively? I was really inspired to try and create a movement where consumers would be empowered to prevent disease rather than waiting to treat it. One concrete example: Many people don’t know that tools like HSA and FSA are for more than medications and copays. I started to learn about how to use them to invest in a new mattress for better sleep, an exercise bike for physical and mental well-being, and supplements for my long-term nutritional health.
I began to realize how many people struggle with navigating these kinds of tools and benefits, knowing how to use them most effectively and efficiently, and that is when the wheels started to turn in my head about creating a business. There are 70 million people out there who have these accounts but either are not using them or are not taking full advantage of them for preventative and proactive health measures.
Building and leading a startup can be a challenging journey. What are some of the key lessons you’ve learned along the way as the founder and CEO of Sika Health?
You are right about that! And I cannot believe it has already been two years since I quit by job to start this business. As I said, I’ve had this desire to help people on a broader scale, waiting for the right opportunity to make real impact and apply my expertise and passion. In the last two years, it has been an incredible journey to building the right team, building our product, bringing on a major investor, and connecting with the right people for my vision at Sika Health and making that dream a reality. The vision has always been to reinvent health care and health care payments, making them more consumer-centric and consumer-friendly. We went live with our product late last year and already are quickly building up our partners, our customers, and growing day by day!
In terms of major lessons, I have to say “team” is everything, and that’s really always been the focus. How do we build the best team, and how do I empower this team to be successful and motivated? This is a lesson that I have to really credit to BCG from my days there as it was very much shaped by the teams that I was on. In fact, every case is defined by your team. It’s defined by your partner, project leader, and consultants and associates who are assembled to deliver for that client. The ability to have that tight-knit team experience I think is really unique to consulting. You travel together, solve problems together, go through fires together, and really build and mold the experience together. You learn how to best assemble your team, discover a user manual of sorts, learn how to communicate and troubleshoot, and then replicate from case to case. I think it is a big part of the way that I approach life as a startup because, ultimately, it’s just one small case team. And over time we’ll grow into one or many case teams. But it really comes down to understanding how to build that team, manage a team dynamic, build morale, keep people motivated, engaged, and connected as one team.
Without the team, you have no product, no customers, no company. Hire slow, fire fast! I very much focused on hiring the very best people and making sure that I had the right support, whether it was advisors who could help me, bringing in recruiters to ensure I was finding the right people. Invest and overinvest in finding and keeping the right people—it is probably the best lesson you can learn and pass on.
How do you envision the health care and fintech industries evolving over the next few years, and where do you see Sika Health’s role in shaping this evolution?
This is such a big and important question. I’ll start with certain things that I don’t expect to change very much: regulations in health care and fintech. These are both heavily regulated industries with a lot of oversight…and for good reason! We have high standards for the way that both our financial data and our health care data are managed in this country, and those things should stay the same. So that’s an important sort of grounding principle, as I think about how to evolve this industry making sure that we’re starting with that sort of regulatory first approach, starting with a privacy- and security-first approach, because that is the cornerstone of everything. For better or worse, the other thing that will not change is that health care costs will continue to rise for the foreseeable future. We already spend more than 20% of GDP on health care in this country – that’s over $4 trillion dollars annually. My hope is that we’ll start to invest some of that spend towards more proactive and preventative health, and that actually will be a positive reason to continue to see health care costs rising.
One of the ways I hope health care will evolve and change is to become more digital. We’ve been able to see a much greater acceptance of telehealth, of telemedicine, of digital health. When I was back at Stanford as recently as a decade ago, “digital health” was the new hot term, and everyone thought it was a fad, and now it’s very clearly here to stay. We’ve seen multiple IPOs of digital health companies; we’re seeing more and more other sorts of companies come into health care—for example, people are recognizing that food and food delivery is a core part of our health care journey. This entrance of digital tools and tech companies into health, I think, is a very positive trend, and will help bridge the gap between more traditional approaches and where our tools and technology are going. We’re seeing a rise of more consumer tools that are making it easier to do everything from deposit a check from our phones to invest in our health much more proactively. I think ultimately the reason for that is we’re realizing, as a system, that if you can give consumers the power to invest in their health care more proactively, to direct how their health care is utilized, it is not only better for them, but that ends up reducing the cost and leads to better outcomes. The rise of consumer-directed benefits like HSAs and FSAs is one of the biggest manifestations of these trends.
How do we bridge the gap between these tools that you have available and where you are as a consumer? You’re not necessarily in an employer portal most of your time. You’re out in the world. You’re experiencing commerce, you’re shopping, you’re going to the pharmacy. And there’s when Sika Health comes in to help shape this evolution in being a consumer-first tool that can help you understand your health care benefits, direct how those funds are spent, and be fully in control. Our main product at this time is a tool that helps the 70 million consumers that have $150 billion sitting in HSAs and FSAs to easily spend them as a new form of payment. So, upon checkout, it tells you that you can utilize your health care benefits with a particular merchant. We’re live with merchants like Lola in the feminine care space, Elitone in post-partum care, with Audicus the hearing Aid company, and with several skin care brands, sun-care lines (such as Naomi Osaka’s!) and expanding into the wellness and fitness care space. Right now, it is a really broad range of products and services, and the goal here is again to create that consumer-first tool that enables any consumer to understand where and how they can use their benefit. We want real consumers to find friendly and easy ways to spend their benefits so that they can unleash this $150 billion, that majority of their out-of-pocket health care spending towards purchases that enable them to invest proactively in their health.
What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs who are looking to make a meaningful impact in a complex industry such as health care?
I think one of the most important things for any entrepreneur is continuous learning, from taking entrepreneurship classes to just getting out of the building and spending time talking with customers. In health care, this can be a lot harder just because of the way that the systems work. But that is probably the most important way that I would advise any entrepreneur to get started and to invest.
In the early days of Sika Health, it was all about spending time with as many customers as possible to define our path. We think of customers in two ways: First, consumers like you and I, relatively easy to find, and their challenges navigating how to best use their benefits. But then, the other key stakeholders are the merchants. There were some merchants like Lola who were friends and colleagues who had also recently started businesses. Others required me to find creative ways to get introductions to people and bigger companies and then realizing there’s actually a lot of complex stakeholders. One key important stakeholder in our business is the IRS, with whom I was able to talk about the way that they approach regulations in the space.
For so many who are starting a business, the first thing that comes to mind is “Let me build and write a business plan, go raise money and talk to investors, recruit a few engineers.” There’s so much to do all at once! But I would say that by far the most important activity is to just spend time with customers. Try to deeply understand your customers and try to focus on understanding their needs, understanding where they come from, the gaps that exist. And then through that you’ll have a sense of whether or not to raise capital, whether or not to build a particular product that requires a particular expertise, or whether there might be other ways to address your customers’ needs with the limited resources that we may have, both in time and capital.
On a personal level, listen to your own self and try to dig deep and discover what it is that you’re uniquely good at, what it is that you enjoy, and try to focus on those things rather than chasing achievement or other people’s definition of success. Life is long, and as long as you’re continuing to listen and focus on improving yourself, you’ll only get closer to that mission and closer to achieving the things that you set out to do right.
Please share a glimpse of Sika Health’s roadmap and future plans. What can we expect from the company in terms of innovations, partnerships, and growth?
This is a fun one for me to think about because we’re just at the beginning! Our goal is to dominate the space of FSAs and HSAs, and to carve out a completely new category for the way that people with these benefits can spend their funds. Prior to Sika, there were very few e-commerce sites that you could go to spend your HSA & FSA Funds – FSAstore.com and Amazon.com for example. It’s so incredibly difficult for merchants to be able to navigate how they can accept these dollars, and then in turn for consumers to be able to spend these funds as easily as they can spend with a credit card or a gift card. And now, in a very short amount of time, we’ve partnered with over 40 merchants, so we really created the broadest category of new places where people can spend their tax-free dollars, and for that to not have to be a thing that you do at the end of the year on December 31.
So our main focus right now is to continue to expand within that category and grow our base of partners and grow into the many of the other ways that people can and do spend their health care dollars. We spend about $4 trillion in this country on health care between dollars that we as consumers spend out of pocket, or an employer may spend on our behalf. As a consumer, this can all be so hard to navigate with a lack of transparency, and a lack of tools at your fingertips. Our ultimate vision is to create a digital health care wallet that follows you from employer to employer, where you can most effectively use and maximize your benefits. And ultimately the goal is to help people afford the things that they need to get and stay well, to proactively and preventatively maintain their health, so that we can help bend that curve towards a lower cost and higher return health system.