Most of us have referred to “Dr Google” for a physical or mental health condition at some point. Scrolling through pages of content, which includes a mix of precise information as well as wildly inaccurate analysis, we are sometimes convinced we have a life-threatening condition, when all we might have is a minor ailment.
People also sometimes use a social media platform such as Facebook as a sounding board to get advice on matters related to mental or physical health, often getting inappropriate responses.
Identifying the need for an online platform where people can receive accurate information on health queries from certified experts, Fadi Doss co-founded health and wellness online start-up Esaal with two others in 2018. The idea was to ensure that people are not dependent on “irrelevant” or “bad” advice.
“We felt that when it comes to advisers, when it comes to personal issues, still people use the standard ways to get their advice, which is using social media or Google … which might create bigger problems,” says Mr Doss, chief executive of Esaal.
"This is the [digital] model that we wanted [to create] basically to make people's life better. So we started Esaal in mid-2018 with the goal to let people get advice from real experts in different domains.”
Esaal, which means “ask” in Arabic, took roughly six months to go live from its ideation and was set up in Egypt as an online platform for physical and mental health consultations. It has since expanded operations to seven other countries, including Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, Palestine and Iraq, and currently offers services in both Arabic and English.
The platform has about 450 certified experts on its platform who provide consultations on a range of issues, including anxiety, physiotherapy, paediatrics and nutrition, among others. Users access these services through an app and can opt to receive services through text messages, video or voice calls and in-person visitations.
Consultation fees start at 5 Egyptian pounds ($0.27) per day to cater to a larger base of people.
The platform's user base currently stands at more than a million.
Esaal also offers corporate health and wellness programmes through which it has reached out to more than 15,000 corporate employees.
“The traction has been great. And the numbers that we [have] achieved confirms that … the demand is high. Especially … as we are the only platform [in the region] that has health and wellness under one umbrella,” Mr Doss says.
The remote healthcare market in the Middle East and North Africa is booming and is projected to reach $1.8 billion in 2024, growing at a compound annual rate of 12.8 per cent from $989 million in 2019, the 2020 Global Ventures Digital Health report showed.
In the UAE, the online health and fitness market is forecast to contribute $36.5m in revenue in 2025, growing at a compound annual rate of 16 per cent, according to a report last year by Ken Research.
Esaal, which was incubated and has been supported by Egyptian venture capital fund A15 since its launch, recently closed the last tranche of $1.7m in early-stage funding, bringing the total amount raised to $3m.
The company generated $4.4bn in revenue in 2021, demonstrating its high levels of capital efficiency, says Mr Doss.
Demand for online healthcare services has grown amid the Covid-19 pandemic and venture capital companies are seeking to tap into this by ramping up their investments in start-ups.
The healthcare technology start-up ecosystem in the Mena region attracted more than $80m in investments in 2021, marking an annual increase of 29 per cent in funding, data platform Magnitt reported.
The market is currently worth more than $1.5bn, a 22-fold increase since 2016, it said.
However, funding is currently the biggest challenge for Esaal, according to Mr Doss.
“We continue to grow and if we have a challenge, it's more or less to do with the funds … that we have to spend, especially with the current situation in the economy in general in the world. Investment now is a bit slower, VCs are thinking more about the funds they are putting, so we have to survive for a longer time with the cash that we have,” he says.
Many of the VCs mainly want to focus on their portfolio companies to make sure that they are safe rather than investing in new companies, he explains.
“So we cannot achieve our growth plans, because we need to take care and slow down to make sure we have enough funds to continue for a longer period of time,” Mr Doss says.
“It's probably bad timing when we started to look for new investment.”
The company needs investments to introduce new features on the business development side, improve the products, launch new ideas and enter new verticals — such as business-to-business partnerships, boost branding and increase human capital.
“We need to probably have at least like 50 per cent more people, we are very, very pressured,” Mr Doss says.
Esaal can scale up significantly and double its user numbers rapidly if it is able to access the funds it requires, he says.
“For sure, to grow more, to reach more people, you need to put in more investment, [and do] more branding and more advertising to be able to let more people know about your solution, your service. So hopefully, maybe within a year, we can reach two million users,” he says.
As part of its future growth, the start-up also plans to implement more technology tools, for instance, to use artificial intelligence to provide recommendations to people on their overall health and wellness.
Currently, if a consultant determines that a user suffering from depression has unhealthy eating patterns, which could lead to diabetes, the user is advised to meet another expert to address that issue.
“But in the future, we are developing some technology aspects that will use AI to do data analysis on the user's condition, medication and so on through his health provider to give them automated recommendations,” Mr Doss says.
However, the focus of operations will not switch to robotics or AI, he adds.
“We want it to be very human, because we talk about human issues. That is our concept and we don't want to turn it to something totally AI [led] … We still want to keep it as a one-to-one conversation, either video or texting, it's always a person that is live talking to you,” Mr Doss explains.
The platform is also working on building links with insurance companies and aims to launch new services.
In the Egyptian market, it is planning to launch home services soon to provide a home visit for a consultation or for services such as nursing — basically anything related to health and wellness.
Esaal is also keen to expand operations by partnering with governments and non-governmental organisations to digitise the health consultancy and delivery process.
While the Dubai-headquartered start-up is hoping to start offering services in the UAE soon, strict local regulations in different markets mean that it takes time to obtain approvals, says Mr Doss.
“We want to penetrate all the countries in the Mena region. Then we can move to other areas like maybe Africa or South-east Asia, where as well, there is a need for sure,” he says.
Mr Doss, who comes from an academic background in engineering and previously worked in telecoms and digital product development, says that he feels extremely happy that he has been able to use his experience to create “something valuable for the user”.
The vision for Esaal is to always “really care about the people”, rather than just focusing on the financials of the business, he says.
“We want to offer a 360-degree experience for the user when it comes to his health and well-being. So, if you're not feeling well, the first thing that will come to your mind is Esaal — 'I'll talk to the experts, or talk to this consultant, I'll get the medication, I'll need to do an analysis' — it's all always on Esaal.”
Based: Launched in Egypt and currently headquartered in Dubai, UAE
Launch year: 2018
Number of employees: 24
Sector: Healthcare Technology
Q&A with Fadi Doss, co-founder and chief executive of Esaal
Who is your role model?
I never had someone specifically as a role model.
What is your advice to other entrepreneurs?
My advice would be keep your dream alive by working smart and hard. And if you need to fundraise, don't delay it because it takes some time. So, you have to start as early as you can. I believe this is a mistake that I made. I should have started my [funding] round last year, not this year.
If you could start all over again, what would you do differently?
I would start getting funds early on.
What drives you and keeps you going?
The value that we create for people. I mean, when we get a testimonial from our users that things are better, we saved their lives, how they feel better, for sure that's something that really puts me in a happy mood. That what you've created really makes a difference.