12 Nov Insights from the founder – mentor David Schaerf
We were delighted to recently interview David Schaerf, one of our mentors at Vision Health Pioneers Incubator. David shared his insights on his own founders journey and experience in healthcare but also advice for any entrepreneurs who are wanting to shape the future of digital healthcare. These lessons from someone who has founded companies is essential reading for those in or about to embark on their startup adventure and we thank David for his open answers.
You have vast experience in founding startups, what do you enjoy most about launching these?
In any venture the launch phase is uber exciting and even slightly more enjoyable than running an established company. I also enjoy the step before, which is to vet startup ideas and go through the motions of validating the viability of potential product concepts. In most cases these ideas don’t make it passed this first stage, which is a good thing as it saves time, sweat and tears down the road.
As a product expert – what knowledge do you enjoy passing onto other startups?
My mantra is: *without a great product, nothing else matters.* I often observe that “product” is often only one of many aspects that founders have on their radar and thus wait way too long to really deeply understand and subsequently solve the pain points of their intended users. Many founders have an amazing vision but struggle to set up the right product foundation and make critical mistakes right from the get go.
Especially at the outset, it is vital to get out of your comfort zone and immerse yourself into the intended environment and really identify and understand the pain point in as much detail as possible. Talk to as many patients, medical professionals, regulators, decision makers that you can get in front of. Value their feedback but extract only what is valuable to you and don’t get too distraught by skepticism of naysayers. As soon as you have a prototype or MVP, start testing and collect data that will help you understand if your hypotheses are proven correct, then iterate. Only then will you be able to have the insights needed to invest time and resources into new features or use cases. This is at the heart of my work as a mentor in the program as well as the advisory work I do at North Star Labs.
How did you enter this particular area of expertise?
In short: totally by serendipity. I was always very tech-savvy and had a heart for product development. I started my career in business consulting, working (on what was called *e-business* at the time) across various industries and was lucky enough to team up with talented people at the intersection of tech, strategy and product / UX. I had an epiphany while working for a Pharma client around 2011, realising that the healthcare sector was at a pivotal moment, ripe for massive disruption. So over a number of steps, I naively founded a digital health company at a time where scepticism was abundant and one healthcare executive even warned me that I might go to jail for our intended use of patient data (needless to say he wasn’t a fan of digital). I quickly had to learn about native app development, medical guidelines, regulatory frameworks and the ins and outs of the very complex German healthcare system.
“The German healtchare system is complex to say the least and founders need to understand and speak the right “language” to be taken seriously by stakeholders.”
What is the biggest advantage and also greatest challenge for entering the German market?
One clear advantage is certainly the size of the market and its advanced regulatory environment in a somewhat homogenous European market, offering various pathways for medical products that have proven medical evidence. At the same time, these pathways require significant investment into areas such as data privacy, clinical evidence, quality management, interoperability, etc. The German healtchare system is complex to say the least and founders need to understand and speak the right “language” to be taken seriously by stakeholders. Another advantage is that the German digital health ecosystem is growing and becoming quite robust, especially the hub in and around Berlin.
At this moment in time, how do you view the current digital health space in Germany?
Having been part of the first wave of the German digital health startup scene and witnessing its progress over the last decade, it is no understatement to say that the last 18 months have been immensely positive for our sector. The impact of Covid-19 has created a tsunami, in the positive sense, leapfrogging digital health transformation forward by at least 5-10 years. So while some effects may be short term, flattening out over the next 1-2 years, most changes will be permanent and hopefully creating a golden decade for digital health.
What do you enjoy most about coaching the entrepreneurs in Vision Health Pioneers Incubator?
Throughout my career I’ve been lucky to have had great mentors and coaches that helped me make bigger steps than I would otherwise have been able to make. Now being able to give back is rewarding on a number of levels, most notably revisiting some of the same crossroads and being able to draw on my experience to help founders make difficult decisions
What advice would you give to an aspiring entrepreneur who is thinking of entering a program like this?
Having been a participant as a founder myself and now being a mentor on a number of programs, I know how demanding it is to juggle the fast-paced curriculum while building a company at the same time. Therefore try to avoid the temptation to cut corners and rush through the program because you think you need to focus only on your business. Instead, really make an effort to immerse yourself into the program and make full use of the mentor network as this will benefit your company long term. It’s unlikely that you will have access to such amazing resources for free (and zero equity) any time soon.
“Be patient and have faith; most things will take twice as long as initially planned and often enough the path to success is not yet visible when you initially set out.”
Is there any advice you would give to your younger self?
Be patient and have faith; most things will take twice as long as initially planned and often enough the path to success is not yet visible when you initially set out. Life is not a sprint race but a marathon and it’s very easy to forget to enjoy the journey. Often enough times of struggle are those that you cherish most when you look back later in life. Ps: buy bitcoin at $10
What is the best advice you have ever received?
Some things are simply not meant to be. So don’t run after opportunities that are not working out. In life and business we sometimes come across opportunities, which seem so grand and important that we chase them with the utmost perseverance while possibly ignoring our instinct, advice from peers or our long term vision. Often enough you will find out later why an opportunity did not work out and why that is a blessing in disguise.
If you were hosting a dinner party, who would be your dream guests (dead of alive) and why?
I would invite a colorful mix of some of my idols, inspiring inventors, entrepreneurs and artists: Michelle Obama (amazing charisma and leadership), Bill Campbell (possibly the best creator of team culture and spirit), Steve Jobs (vision of technolgy this century and beyond), Sylvia A. Earle (her vast experience in ocean exploration and conservation), Leonardo da Vinci (as the most amazing inventor of all time: how can we stop global warming), Coco Chanel (her influence in female leadership and design), Tony Robbins (the amazing energy), Sean Connery (beyond charismatic and cool), Nikola Tesla (how would he solve the clean energy challenge), Snoop Dogg (as master of ceremony), Albert Einstein (his ideas about the universe and the future of mankind).