When someone shops in a mall or dines at a restaurant, they are considered consumers. The moment they step into a clinic or hospital, however, they become patients, losing some of their autonomy in a space where the fear of making the wrong decision and pressure of selecting the right procedure takes over.
Amir Barsoum is one entrepreneur looking to eradicate the fear and indecision, using technology to empower consumers to also make more-informed healthcare decisions. The founder of Egypt's healthcare start-up Vezeeta has created an app that allows users to search for doctors by their specialisation and location, see reviews from other patients who used the service and, in turn, book an appointment.
"We're in the business of converting patients into consumers," says Mr Barsoum
Egypt ranked as the top nation with the most start-up investment deals closed in 2019 in the Middle East and North Africa, attracting 25 per cent of the 564 sealed deals, according to a January report by start-up data platform Magnitt. The North African nation was second, after the UAE, in terms of deal values, attracting 14 per cent of the $704m in total funding.
First set up in 2012, Vezeeta now serves 4.5 million users, who make 300,000 bookings a month, with 20,000 subscribed doctors across its operations in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Lebanon.
The app matching patients with doctors is free for users but the business charges healthcare providers a transaction fee that depends on the specialisation and location.
While Egypt and Saudi Arabia are the company's biggest markets, recording a "strong pick up" in demand over the past 18 months, Mr Barsoum says, Vezeeta is now eyeing expansion into new markets beyond the Middle East, with plans to enter Africa and South-east Asia in early February.
"We’re more comfortable with emerging markets but there’s global opportunities," Mr Barsoum, from Egypt, says. "Globally, we can be operating as north and south as it gets. As long as there’s fragmentation in the healthcare market, that’s where we can add value to our consumers or patients."
The start-up, which has raised $22.6 million (Dh83m) since it set up eight years ago, is seeking another round of funding to pay for its expansion to new markets, as well as research and development (R&D) and new products, Mr Barsoum says. He declined to reveal the amount or timing for the new fund raising round.
One product is the pharmacy platform the company launched on the app in December 2019 for limited areas, which it plans to grow to the rest of its markets within three to six months. The service allows doctors to file their prescriptions on the app, which then delivers the medicine to patients at their doorstep or allows them to refill an existing prescription.
Other new products will use data science and machine learning to enhance algorithms that match doctors with healthcare providers to ensure better outcomes.
Vezeeta, which has its headquarters in Dubai and count's the UAE's early-stage venture capital firm Beco Capital as one of its shareholders, raised $12m in a Series C funding round in 2018 led by Saudi Technology Ventures (STV).
The start-up is valued "well above" $100m, Mr Barsoum says..
Its annual revenue has tripled year-on-year in the period between 2016 and 2019, he said, declining to disclose dollar figures.
While its business in Egypt, the Arab world's most populous country, is "pretty profitable," its operations in Lebanon were hurt by the ongoing anti-government protests raging across the nation.
"There were very tough days where business was strongly affected … It got pretty hard early on," Mr Barsoumd says. "But things have normalised in the last two to three weeks."
Mr Barsoum, who says his previous experience working as a management consultant for the global consultancy McKinsey and as a Mena strategy manager at pharma giant AstraZeneca enriched the process of starting Vezeeta, adds that the biggest challenge for the tech industry is attracting the right talent.
"Egypt is the biggest source of this talent in the region," he says. "But the amount of brain-drain we’re losing to Europe and the US has exceeded expectations."
Another challenge for the region's tech industry is attracting financing from major international venture capital firms.
"We need to depend on money coming out of the region, which is enough if you’re thinking of tickets of $20m to $30m, but beyond that we need global players," he says.
Q&A: Amir Barsoum, founder of Vezeeta
What does Vezeeta mean?
It is the Egyptian colloquial term for the payment made for a doctor's visit
What is the core focus of the company?
To empower consumers through data and technology. Patients in different parts of the world, whether in developed or developing markets, lack all kinds of empowerment. In every experience of the healthcare industry, patients are weak and not informed, and we believe our role is to change that.
Who first invested in you?
Egypt's venture capital fund, the Technology Development Fund.
What already successful start-up do you wish you had started?
Travis Kalanick’s Cloud Kitchen start-up would top my list. The Ghost Kitchen model is completely disrupting the hospitality industry as we know it, making brick and mortar restaurants a thing of the past.
What is your next big dream?
To become the global booking powerhouse serving and empowering patients in each step of their healthcare journey.
What new skills have you learnt in the process of launching your start-up?
Definitely, identifying the right talent. I believe in hiring our weaknesses. As we grow in size and impact around the globe, I’m proud to have built a culture that attracts and retains talent that generates disruptive ideas and exponential growth.