Oncologist turned CEO, Dr. Nikhil Pooviah aims to transform the experience of cancer patients with his convenient, wide-reaching, and free app: CancerAid. As a practicing clinician, Dr. Pooviah could help dozens of patients per day, but as the Chief Executive Officer of CancerAid, Dr. Pooviah can help upwards of hundreds of thousands of patients per day.
Jumping into the Shark Tank, Dr. Pooviah secured the heavyweight Andrew Banks as an investor. With help from a health tech accelerator, Dr. Pooviah along with co-founder Dr. Raghav Murali-Ganesh, quickly soared to success as the #1 Cancer App in the Apple store.
First, can you tell me what CancerAid is?
CancerAid is an app that helps cancer patients, caregivers, and clinicians, improving the lives of those hurt by cancer. We launched CancerAid on the App Store and the Google Play Store. Currently, CancerAid is the #1 Cancer app in U.S., U.K., and Australia. My co-founder and I wanted to address issues in the hospital as we were working in radiation oncology. We wanted to help even more patients than we could when we were practicing as clinical doctors. We are currently witnessing a shift from clinical medicine to digital medicine, and CancerAid is one of the pioneers of this wave in Australia.
How did you transition from practicing radiation oncologist to CEO & Founder? What was that ‘aha’ moment?
My co-founder and I were in our third of five years of training. As a radiation oncologist, I played around with a lot of the current cancer calendar apps to see how they could help my patients. These apps were of poor quality and left much to be desired. With my expertise and experience working with patients, I thought I could come up with something better. I worked on this idea part-time for about a year and a half. I kept it to myself for a year. As many other entrepreneurs feel initially, there is a fear of criticism. In Australia, not much was happening at the time with digital health, especially from doctors moving into entrepreneurship. For me, it was a big leap quitting clinical medicine and working on this full time. I waited until we had enough traction and we had a big group supporting us before I stopped practicing medicine. The major supporter was an Australian health insurer called HCL. CancerAid got accepted to be in a health tech accelerator program in Australia. At this point I realised that this was the validation that proved CancerAid was something I could do full time. I quit my clinical job, and have been working on CancerAid full time for the past two years, and I love it.
What did the accelerator do for you?
The accelerator was essentially three months of business school. My team and I come from clinical backgrounds and didn’t have much background in business. This education gave us the framework of what we needed to know to run a business. The accelerator also put us in the spotlight and allowed us to engage with powerful decision-makers in the Australian healthcare field. By demo-day, we achieved quite a few things. We had an MVP prototype which allowed us to raise 1 million USD and we signed 3 million customers.
This education gave us the framework of what we needed to know to run a business
Specifically, what differentiates your cancer management app from the others?
First, our media angle is unique in that we are a socially responsible business. Second, we designed CancerAid in conjunction with three stakeholders: the patient, the caregiver, and the clinician. We made a product that is useful for its users. A combination of these factors, in addition to our advisors and our teamwork has made us the #1 app in the App store. However, the secret sauce of CancerAid is that we come from clinical backgrounds. By being cancer doctors, we have much more credibility and authority when engaging in business in the health sector.
The secret sauce of CancerAid is that we come from clinical backgrounds
Seeing as CancerAid is a free app, what does your revenue stream look like?
CancerAid is free for patients and caregivers. We license an integrated offering to U.S. health systems on a per month basis. Our most recent customer is Cedar-Sinai in Los Angeles. CancerAid allows patients of the care system to log symptoms to the app. In conjunction, we provide clinicians of the health system the ability to visualise this data to enhance clinical decision-making. Randomised trials have shown that CancerAid’s feedback loop reduces ER visits and 30-day readmissions, saving health systems $19,000 per patient per year and improving patient quality of life. This feedback loop has been shown to increase the lifespan of a cancer patient by five months, which is an incredible achievement for cancer patients.
Does CancerAid interact with any Electronic Medical Records (EMR)?
We take pride in that CancerAid is the first cancer app to integrate with an EMR. We did it for the first time at Cedar-Sinai with Epic. Over the next year, we have a pipeline of 50 other Epic (software company) users that we are looking to integrate with.
There is a growing body of literature that has found that medication non-adherence – patients ‘not following their doctors’ orders’ – is a major problem for cancer patients. In what ways do you see CancerAid solving this problem?
We haven’t yet released the feature that directly solves this problem. Our solution is based on an Apple product called CareKit. Each patient gets a CareCard. Patients record their medications as they take them. Each day patients are reminded about their meds. The patient clicks a circle each time they take their medication. Throughout the day, if the patient clicks all the circles, then a heart pops up, giving the patient a sense of achievement. Apple has found that patients who use CareCard have better compliance.
That sounds highly innovative. Also, I think the “champion” and “heroes” segments on your app combat this issue as well, in that they mitigate the loneliness and helplessness that cancer patients often feel. It is likely that the social support network makes patients feel more inclined to continue treatment, because they would be trying to get better for the sake of their loved ones, not just for themselves.
What trends to you see in terms of the demographics of those who use CancerAid? By gender, age, location, income.
Our main users right now are 40-60-year-old women with breast, colorectal, and lung cancer. Currently, CancerAid is most popular in the U.S. & Australia.
Based on these trends, have you conducted any targeted any marketing campaigns toward those who haven’t been using the app?
We’re lucky that they don’t have to run too many campaigns. We use our relationships with health systems across U.S. to market ourselves. Marketing to cancer patients is very complicated, but we try to let the outcomes of CancerAid speak for themselves.
Shifting gears a bit, can you tell us about your Shark Tank experience?
We filmed it 7-8 months before it aired. It was definitely the hardest part of our experience. The hard part happens after TV. Luckily, we had socially responsible company, so the sharks weren’t too pushy. We came in wanting a particular shark, but we were able to get two sharks.
When negotiating with Great Whites & Hammerheads, did your patience and other abilities from your medical training help?
Not at all. Everything we learned in our medical training and from the hospital doesn’t help in the tank. The skill that proved most helpful in negotiations and investor acquisition is our use of social media.
The skill that proved most helpful in negotiations and investor acquisition is our use of social media
How do your sharks help you?
They are advisory in nature. For example, Andrew Banks has been incredibly helpful in workshops and helps us come up with new ideas. He also helps us answer on-the-fly questions.
On your LinkedIn, it says that you come up with a good idea every three months. What sources of inspiration do you have?
I come up with ideas all the time. I come up with new ideas when I have time to think. Unfortunately, there isn’t much creative time each week to brainstorm and come up with new ideas. The last good idea I had was a paediatric version of CancerAid. We’ve taken elements of CancerAid and made it into a children version. We’ve added elements of education, symptom journaling, and positive feedback loops to help children diagnosed with cancer. This project is in the early stages of development. It’s in the pipeline for being made next year. We are currently looking to build our development team for this project.
What can we expect coming from you in the next couple of years?
CancerAid is my business and my hobby. I don’t expect to do anything new in the meantime besides CancerAid. There is enough to do in the cancer space in the next 3-5 years that we have enough to do.
Do you think there is a market for other chronic disease management apps?
Definitely. In any chronic disease, there is potential to help with a management app. However, diabetes, for example, is a very competitive space currently.
Based on your experiences, what advice would you have for future medical entrepreneurs?
You need to be passionate and want to create a more social impact. Medical entrepreneurship has to do with helping even more patients than when working in clinical medicine. It’s very hard to change careers. That’s why you need the right support systems in place. It’s crucial to be able to take criticism. You need to be willing to learn and change. It’s very hard to sell in the healthcare space – especially to hospitals.
Medical entrepreneurship has to do with helping even more patients than when working in clinical medicine
How important is the medical background to where you are today?
Our medical background is the primary reason CancerAid is successful. It is a definitive requirement for success in this sector. Patients respect doctors. Caregivers respect doctors. Hospital CEO’s respect doctors.
Besides your own business, what other health-tech start-ups are you particularly excited by?
My good friend Dr. Ben Casavante is working on Tasso, which is a virtually painless blood collecting device.