James is a medical student at The University of Leeds, a serial entrepreneur and a part of the Doctorpreneurs team. He is currently working on his second startup, Synap, after building and exiting his first company JumpIn last year. JumpIn was a taxi sharing platform for students which successfully raised investment and expanded to 5 UK cities before being acquired by Addison Lee. His latest venture, Synap is an education app that uses research from neuroscience to enhance the way students learn, currently raising investment on crowdfunding platform Crowdcube.
We interviewed James to learn more about his experience over the last few years, his thoughts on the med-tech scene, computer programming and his advice for aspiring doctorpreneurs!
What inspired you to develop Synap?
We just wanted a more interesting and effective way to study. Medicine throws an incredible volume of information at us all, and as future doctors we’re expected to learn and assimilate that information in a way that can be recalled quickly and reliably in a range of different scenarios. The traditional, passive methods of learning – re-reading a textbook over and over again until you’ve memorised it – don’t cut it, in addition to being horrendously boring they lead to a very temporary, unreliable kind of knowledge that is difficult to apply in exams further down the line or in real world situations.
research into how the brain effectively consolidates and stores knowledge has been around for decades, but by and large it hasn’t found its way into mainstream educational practice
How did you meet your co-founders?
My co-founder, Omair Vaiyani, and I lived together in 1st year medicine. We had a common in various forms of geekery, and Synap evolved from a website we made called MyCQs one summer that ended up becoming quite popular. Our other team members we met through various networking events around Leeds and London.
What makes Synap unique, and how does it improve the learning experience for students?
What makes Synap unique is the fact that we’ve taken fascinating research from neuroscience and educational psychology, and built them into intelligent algorithms which can enhance the way our users learn by monitoring their progress in different areas, and suggesting what they should be practicing and when. This research into how the brain effectively consolidates and stores knowledge has been around for decades, but by and large it hasn’t found its way into mainstream educational practice, which is what we’re looking to change with Synap.
How did you get started with coding, and are there any particular resources/ coding languages you’d recommend?
I personally started when I was 11 with a kit of ‘Lego Mindstorms’, which is basically lego with sensors, motors and a microchip you can upload code to, and I absolutely loved it! Everyone gets a sense of satisfaction when they build something, and with code, not only can you build anything, but then you can distribute it across the globe instantly! Then I moved on to programming desktop applications and websites in a non-lego based programming language (a mixture of C++, C# and PHP for anyone who cares), stopped for a bit and got into Objective-C, the main language used to develop iOS apps, when we started MyCQs.
It’s a lot of fun, and it’s a great skill to have – it helps your to think in a logical, abstract way. Software development isn’t just, or even mainly about writing code – it’s about architecting robust and efficient systems. When most people look at code on a computer screen it understandably seems like nonsense, but if you know even a bit of programming you’ll see the abstract patterns, structure and connections in there.
– learn to code, it’s awesome!
What advice would you give to medical students and doctors who are interested in getting involved with enterprise?
Don’t wait for ‘the ideal time’ or for someone to tell you to do it – just do it! There’s a phrase in startup circles, ‘fail fast’ – if you’ve got an idea, you want to stress test it and make sure that it stands up to scrutiny. Do market research by asking your colleagues or patients, check for competitors, and generally think of all the assumptions that you need to be true in order for your idea to be successful – check whether they’re true as quickly as possible, if they are then great, go do it – if they’re not, then edit your idea or discard it and find a new one.
Software development isn’t just, or even mainly about writing code – it’s about architecting robust and efficient systems
How is a medical degree useful in enterprise?
More than most people think! Especially with the modern medical curriculum in most UK universities, we’re taught about leadership, communication, critical analysis, working under pressure, teamwork… so many things that are just directly transferrable to an enterprise role. Medics make great entrepreneurs – and I’m not the only one saying so.
Specifically in medical enterprise, we also have the incredible advantage of being ‘on the ground’: having clinical experience and interacting with patients. We’re perfectly positioned to know what many of the real problems in healthcare.
What do you think about the current state of and attitude towards innovation in the NHS?
There are some fantastic case studies of innovative projects undertaken by people working in the NHS – but as to the current state of innovation in the NHS as a system? It’s bad. These examples of innovation happen largely in spite of, rather than because of the system. They are putting effort into changing this and I do think it’s having some positive effects, hopefully they can turn it around but it’s incredibly difficult for any old, large organisation to maintain what I guess you’d call a ‘culture of innovation’, and unfortunately that seems especially so in the public sector.
I firmly believe in the NHS and hope it can beat the odds here, I’d love to see an NHS that supported innovation at its core, but I wouldn’t necessarily put money on it, unfortunately.
What med-tech startups do you think are particularly interesting at the moment?
I really love what Dr. Andrew Bastawrous and the team at Peek Vision are doing. Dr. Bastawrous is an Ophthalmologist who graduated from Leeds and practices in London, he created a 3D-printed adapter for smartphone cameras, along with an app which enables them to conduct retinal exams on a comparable quality level to slit lamps! They’re using it to tackle eye disease in Africa and other countries – it’s a great example of how mobile technology, and innovation in general can be something more than just a gimmick or something that’s limited to developed nations – they’ve harnessed modern technology to produce something that can be rolled out cheaply and at scale, and it’s literally saving lives.
What do you think the future of technology in healthcare looks like?
On one hand you’ve got the ‘sexy’ tech ideas like 3D printed organs, cancer-targeting nanorobots and biosensors, and that’s all great but I hope we’ll also see technology being applied to the more mundane sounding, but at least equally important issues such as medication adherence, patient engagement and chronic disease management. Very little real progress has been made in these areas at all so far yet they’re going to become increasingly problematic due to the acute-chronic shift and agein population we all know about.
Why did you decide to join the Doctorpreneurs team, and what is your role in the organisation?
I think there’s a growing interest amongst medics wanting to get involved in enterprise and technology, but it’s not something we’re explicitly trained in or shown how to do. I thought Doctorpreneurs was a great thing to get involved with, and like that we can be a ‘lightning rod’ for this kind of interest, showing people that there’s actually a larger community than they might have initially thought.
Within the organisation we all share a lot of the responsibilities, my main remit is on the ‘communications’ side so engaging with medical students at events, and making sure we’ve got a stream of interesting stuff to post out through the website, Twitter and Facebook.
You’re currently raising investment for Synap, what has that process been like and why did you decide on Crowdfunding in the end?
It’s been interesting to say the least! If you’ve been following me or Synap on social media you’d easily get the impression that everything was just going from strength to strength, but obviously we only post about the bits that are going well! There’s been a lot of work, dead ends and lessons learnt but it’s a process every business has to go through. We decided on crowdfunding for a number of reasons, but not least because I really think it’s a great way to validate your idea, by throwing it into ‘the crowd’ and seeing what they think.
What is the crowdfunding process like? Any tips?
It’s been great so far – I mean, a lot of work and planning, but it seems to be paying off now. My biggest tip – with the proviso that we’re still only halfway through our campaign so if you’re reading this in a few weeks time then have a quick check whether or not we succeeded first before taking it on board – is that there is no such thing as ‘the perfect pitch’ when you’re doing this kind of thing – some people just aren’t going to like your business, others aren’t going to like the way you’ve pitched it – there’s no way to win everyone over, the best you can do is make sure all the main bases are covered well, and that the business is presented in a way that’s true to you.
The other tip would be: have a marketing plan. There’s a lot of work that goes into actually setting up your campaign, but the biggest reason people fail (up to 50% of all pitches fail) is because they expected a rush of people to come and invest in them once they were live. Crowdfunding sites will drive some traffic to your pitch on your own, but whether or not you make your target is largely dependent on your own marketing efforts, spreading word about your campaign and lining up investors from your own personal network.
Your gut feeling is probably what inspired your business idea in the first place – trust it!
How do you balance running a business whilst also studying medicine?
It can be difficult, but there are ways to make it work. Most medics do some kind of ‘side project’ anyway whether that’s running a society, getting involved with research or widening access to medicine events – regardless of what you do it’s going to take a lot of your time but if it’s something you enjoy doing and is important to you, we all find ways to make it work.
Having a great team is a big part of it – in the early days it was just Omair and myself, and we managed to grow MyCQs to a pretty good level, but there was a definite limit to how far we could take it without bringing other people whose expertise we trust on board.
What are your longer term career plans? Do you intend to practice clinical medicine, if so would you like to specialise?
Right now, I’d like to finish my degree and then see what happens. I’d love to be a GP and pick up clinical sessions flexibly, but depending on where Synap is in a few years’ time I’ll probably take at least a few years out and focus primarily on that.
[Technology has] changed our reality, and I think to a lot of people healthcare seems to be at least a few years behind
Why do you think there is a growing interest amongst medics pursuing this kind of thing?
I think about this a lot.. and as far as I can tell there’s a lot of different reasons all coming together here. Firstly, I think it’s a generational thing: the generation of medics and junior doctors coming through the system now are the digital natives – we’ve grown up with computers, the internet and the general expectation that we can access any piece of information, anywhere at anytime. It’s changed our reality, and I think to a lot of people healthcare seems to be at least a few years behind – so there’s a natural push for younger medics to bring the hospital environment ‘up to speed’ with the progress they see in other areas of their life.
Secondly, you’ve got examples like Mark Zuckerberg from Facebook and ‘the rise of the 20-something entrepreneur’ – as I said before, technology has got to a point where you can build something and distribute it globally – people are inspired by examples of it and want to have that kind of impact.
And finally you’ve just got the sheer opportunities that doing this kind of thing offers. You get to work on a project you’re passionate about, make your own decisions, be creative, network with people – a whole range of different things. Pure clinical practice doesn’t always deliver on this – it’s obviously incredibly important, but it doesn’t fulfil everyone’s career and personal ambitions completely, so it’s natural people look for a side project. When you consider it in that context, medics moving away from clinical practice isn’t all that new – we already embrace the idea of clinical lecturers and clinician scientists, now we’re increasingly seeing clinical entrepreneurs too!
What are your ‘top tips’ or lessons learnt over the last few years working in the startup space?
There’s a lot of things you pick up along the way, the ones that spring to mind now are ones specifically for medics because I think we’re inclined towards certain ways of thinking that are very beneficial in medicine, but could be a hindrance in actually getting things done in a startup!
1) Learn to embrace your ‘gut feeling’ again
We’re told to be evidence based practitioners and to base all of our decisions on the best studies and meta-analyses available. This is a great ‘scientific’ mindset to have clinical practice, and having that perspective is definitely helpful in planning a strategy for your business, but you also need to learn to trust your gut feeling or instinct again. Sometimes, the evidence just isn’t there, especially when you’re doing a startup and by definition you’re doing something that hasn’t been done before. If you spend all your time researching or waiting for the research to come available, someone will beat you to it. Your gut feeling is probably what inspired your business idea in the first place – trust it!
2) Don’t try to be perfect
You won’t have enough time to be perfect, and there’s a law of diminishing returns type effect whereby 80% of the benefits from any given action come from just 20% of the effort. Your business plan, for example – will require a lot of time and effort, but it’ll never be perfect no matter how hard you try. Equally, you could spend years trying to build ‘the perfect product’, but what you want to do is build a product that is robust and offers value to your users, they’ll tell you how to improve it once it’s released. If you try to build the perfect product, you’ll never release it, and again someone will beat you to it.
Networking is a crucial part of running a business – despite all the advances in technology, people still do business with people. If you want to run a successful business, you’ll have to put yourself out there and built up your personal network and your personal brand.
What top resources would you recommend for a medical student or doctor who has an idea and they want to turn it into a business?
Well, an obvious bias here but I’d definitely put Doctorpreneurs in there – we’ve got a really diverse team of medics who have different experiences in startups and enterprise, so we can offer some interesting advice. Other than that, see if your university has a student enterprise department – at Leeds for example we have Spark who have been fantastic in helping us get to where we are by offering grants, awards and even office space for the last year. The Lean Startup is a great book and probably ‘required reading’ for anyone looking to start a business in this kind of field, as is The Innovator’s Prescription specifically for healthcare innovation.
Where can people go to find more information about Synap and your crowdfunding campaign?
You can view our crowdfunding campaign out at http://www.crowdcube.com/synap – you can invest for as little as £10! For more information on Synap generally our website is http://www.synap.ac – this is just a basic page for now but over the next few months it’ll change once we release Synap publicly.