Canada’s overburdened doctors need some help. And it could come from another set of professionals with an inclination toward white coats. With hospital wait times growing, Ontario recently expanded the range of services pharmacies can offer to include prescribing medications for minor conditions like ear infections and Paxlovid, a COVID-19 treatment. But transforming pharmacies from drug dispensaries to community health hubs requires substantial changes behind the scenes. For Rui Su, co-founder and chief clinical officer at digital health start-up MedMe Health, that is a major business opportunity.
MedMe helps solve a pressing problem for pharmacists: inefficient processes that slow down service. Su, a former pharmacist, and her co-founders Purya Sarmadi and Nicholas Hui created a web platform that enables pharmacies to automate some administrative tasks. Its features include tools to schedule clinical services like vaccinations, generate documents, send patients reminder messages and enable video consultations.
Founded three years ago, MedMe is used by more than 3,600 pharmacies across Canada. In March it secured a U.S. $2.7-million seed funding round, led by M12, Microsoft’s venture fund. But as a young woman of colour with a background in healthcare, Su hasn’t always felt comfortable stepping into a leadership role in tech.
We chatted with Su about MedMe Health’s mission, what it was like to go from medicine to tech and how other entrepreneurs helped her embrace her inner founder.
How did MedMe come about?
When I was a practising pharmacist, I saw a lot of challenges around workflows and the inefficiencies that existed. I wanted to provide more proactive care to my patients, but didn’t have the time, resources or the tools that could help me change my practice to do that. I have two other co-founders, who are not pharmacists. We came upon the problem separately. For them, it was seeing their parents struggle with chronic conditions and realizing that pharmacies could be leveraged to provide better care and ultimately create a more sustainable healthcare system. My co-founders met first, then one of my female entrepreneur friends from the University of Waterloo told me what they were doing and asked if I wanted to meet them. Our first meeting was 12 hours long — it just clicked for us.
What has it been like to go from pharmacist to founder?
It has required a lot of growth, and there have been personal and professional challenges to overcome going into a new industry. I have pharmacy expertise, but I had to learn about product development, business development, customer success cycles and sales. As hard as it was, I was also pleasantly surprised by the number of transferable skills that I had. I’ve also seen that transformation in other pharmacists we’ve hired who have gone into product management, clinical operations, sales and business development. Seeing them flourish in different ways has been awesome.
You’ve talked before about your biggest challenge being a belief that you didn’t look like a founder or have the skills and experience of one. Why did you feel that way?
I’m a pharmacist who went through a traditional education, but most of the stories you see about successful founders feature white, male engineers who dropped out of school to build software out of their garage. They’re coders; they created their products themselves. That felt so many worlds removed from my experience and made it hard for me to see myself in a role like this.
How did you change your mindset?
In the early stages, I had a lot of self-doubt. Everything felt so difficult and foreign. But my co-founders believed in me, and it was through their encouragement and how steadfast and confident they were that I was able to slowly work through these feelings and take on each challenge. We also benefited from mentorship and start-up communities. We joined the Hatchery at the University of Toronto, the University of Waterloo’s Velocity Program and Y Combinator, where I found like-minded individuals who also struggled with self-doubt. That helped me see that I wasn’t alone and that we were all accomplishing great things.
What’s next for MedMe Health?
We are expanding to both the U.S. and Europe. We’re looking at countries that have similar scopes of practice for pharmacies and similar opportunities for us to make an impact.
What advice would you give other founders — especially those from non-traditional backgrounds — who are just starting out?
Don’t feel boxed in by your current professional identity, whether it’s self-imposed or society’s perception of who you are and what you can do. This is especially important for clinicians because it’s traditionally harder to break out of the identity box. Lean into the transferrable skills you have as a clinician: your acute sense of empathy, intimate understanding of the healthcare system and first-hand experience of the challenges faced by different stakeholders in it.