Many readers write to me with ideas for Vision 2020 ventures. One, Dr. Vaman Shanbhag, a neurologist in Mumbai, sent me a great idea for a healthcare venture which inspired Doctor At Hand.
The core idea behind our venture, founded in 2009, was that there is a tremendous amount of medical information and content that discuss common illnesses and their remedies, as well as relevant drugs, dosage, and other details of administering the medication/treatment.
At the beginning of our journey, we set out to create a searchable knowledge base of this content. It was critical to put together a simple, wizard-based user interface that could be accessed from a cell phone and would put this repository at the fingertips of millions of users.
This knowledge base also made it possible for us to draw up an analysis of the key drugs that would need to be stocked at a small pharmacy.
Armed with this analysis, we approached a set of pharmaceutical companies in India to raise financing for our thus far bootstrapped startup.
Our value proposition to the pharmaceutical companies was that we would create a franchise of pharmacies throughout the heartland of India that would not only stock their products, but also administer treatment. In many of the remote villages that we wanted to reach, there were no doctors.
Our proposal was to train pharmacists and arm them with the cell-phone based knowledge base, with which, for 80% of the common illnesses, they could administer treatment. Our value proposition also included creating and managing the supply chain of delivering the drugs to these remote pharmacies. We also proposed to update our knowledge base to roll-out new drugs, as they got discovered, and make sure that the pharmacists were trained to administer them as well.
The drug companies loved the idea. It would offer them a dramatically larger reach and consequently expand their addressable market. While the total available consumer market in India was large, the addressable market had been a huge problem.
We raised $30 million in three rounds of financing between 2011 and 2015 to scale our venture. We also partnered with several micro finance institutions (MFIs) to arrange financing for our franchisees to set up pharmacies in various villages.
We partnered with Bioscope to spread awareness about this franchise opportunity, and to recruit entrepreneurs. Our ramp strategy closely mirrored that of Bioscope, and we were pretty much in every village they were in. By 2020, thus, the Bioscope marketing partnership helped us get to 300,000 villages.
On supply chain, we had to add an additional layer of creativity. We needed a hub-and- spoke distribution channel that could pick up inventory from the distribution hubs of the pharmaceutical companies and deliver them along the last mile to the more remote areas.
For this, we used the micro franchise model once again, and trained a new category of micro-entrepreneurs who played the role of the delivery service, shuttling between their village and the closest distribution hub. Our MFI partners funded them, against our guarantee.
With the franchise marketing and delivery chain in place, the remaining piece of the puzzle was training. Here, once again, Bioscope came in handy as a great partner. We leased their facility for four hours every morning for six months to deliver a distance learning program that trained 35 pharmacists per village at launch. After launch, we had training sessions once a week, to keep pharmacists updated. Once a month, we also sent a doctor to each village to answer questions and help diagnose unresolved cases, many of which naturally were outside the realm of the pharmacists’ expertise.
Part of our intent was to create redundancy, as well as reach. While the pharmacy trained 35 people at once, it only employed the top 10 on-site. The other 25 were given the opportunity to buy a cell phone and build a private practice based on house calls. Again, this third genre of entrepreneurs was also financed by the MFIs based on our guarantee. Branding-wise, they were Doctor At Hand certified, which gave them credibility. They were also given the specific charter of prevention-oriented treatment, including vaccinations.
With this three-pronged micro franchise model, we found ourselves in a position where we were guaranteeing a lot of credit. We mitigated the risk profile of our venture by limiting our exposure to a limited set of loans, while introducing a World Bank Guarantee beyond our acceptable threshold.
The World Bank Guarantee (WBG) was a new class of financial service that we, along with a group of MFIs and micro franchise companies, helped bring to market. It was designed to offer incentives to micro franchise enterprises to scale fast. The WBG has had enormous impact in alleviating poverty across the world.
In 2020, Doctor At Hand serves 300 million people, taking care of their day-to-day medical needs. We are confident we can double that coverage in five more years.
This segment is a part in the series : Vision India 2020