Ten years ago I worked at Páginas Amarillas (Yellow Pages), the guide that everyone relied on for looking up a business. One of the products I used to coordinate was El Callejero, the street and route-finder map product of Paginasamarillas.es. It was fantastic. It had all kinds of features and people loved it. This was evident in the fact it proudly positioned itself among the Top Ten most visited Spanish web pages.
It was around that time that the Google search engine began to insert its first little pins into Spanish maps and, in the course of just one year, my company went through three very different phases. The first was simply quiet curiosity. We knew that Google was our main rival in the field of advertising, but we were convinced that with a product like El Callejero, they would have no chance of overshadowing it.
El Callejero was an eminently local product and, after the many years we had behind us invested in content, development, functions and work, we knew that it was something very complicated to replicate. It was a virtually unique product. That's why it was the one most used by millions of Spaniards on a daily basis.
And yet within a few months we entered a second phase, this time of growing concern. We realized that the Google team were very nimble on their feet and that their user numbers were starting to grow rapidly in spite of them offering far fewer functionalities than we did.
The third phase was one of complete impotence, on realizing that they had overtaken us on the inside lane and that the user, the same user that had lifted us into the TOP TEN, was abandoning us, seduced by the simplicity and flexibility of Google Maps.
Now, just ten years later, Google Maps forms part of the select group of Google products with more than 1,000 million users worldwide, almost three times the population of the EU. El Callejero by Yellow Pages still exists, and I have a personal fondness for it as I still have good friends working there - but it's not even a shadow of what it once was.
Strangely, it was five years after that I began to work for Google. And in a very short time I made two important discoveries: the first was that, although both Google and Yellow Pages used to say they put the user at the center of their business, Google were infinitely more demanding and radical. And the user could spot this clearly.
The second was the discovery that Google was not only perceived as a competitor in the field of advertising. Many other sectors such as telecommunications, retail, automotive and finance, which was my responsibility, also saw Google as a current or future potential competitor. And interestingly, this was not something Google was looking for. In fact, one of the slogans that forms part of Google's culture is “Focus on the user, not the competition”.
And having experienced this first hand at Google, I believe the same could be said of other giants of technology such as Apple, Amazon and Facebook.
Naturally, the health sector was going to be no exception. Three articles published in recent weeks serve as examples: “Much is expected of Amazon's entry into Healthcare”, “Apple's healthcare platform has already incorporated information from over 39 health systems”, “Google launches its cloud functionalities for Health”.
It is true that these news items refer to the USA where the health system has very particular characteristics and it is also true that, in Amazon's case, the initiative is to provide a service to their employees. But these major technological companies are specialists in testing ideas first... and later putting them into mass practice. They learn what works for their employees or in their core market before going global.
Now, therefore, the leading companies in the health sector: pharmaceutical laboratories, hospitals, health insurers, etc., view these movements with interest but also concern. This is because although they all try to move in the right direction, they are aware of what slow progress is being made and that their user/customer focus remains way behind that of the big technology companies.
Can we expect that in all industries, and specifically that of Health, there will be a repeat of what I went through at El Callejero? Well, ten years have gone by since then. And in those ten years the world has experienced a revolution bringing huge changes. And to answer the question, two of those changes are especially relevant: the Cloud and Data.
Cloud and Data: the technologies that change everything
Over recent years we have witnessed the popularization of the Cloud. It is thanks to the Cloud that technology has stopped being a complicated undertaking requiring infrastructures that are expensive to build and maintain. Also the models of technology as a service, and in terms of storage and processing have democratized these technological capabilities which, until now, were only available to big companies.
And the second technology, the irresistible rise of Data as a consequence of the connected world: we started by connecting computers, then it was people connected through smartphones and now we do it through millions of devices that share information between themselves - the famous Internet of Things. And it doesn't end there. It's not hard to imagine a near future in which we all have chips implanted and biometric systems that interact with our surroundings. And this revolution in Data is particularly relevant in the Health industry.
These two trends, Cloud and Data, are the substrate of something that seemed impossible ten years ago: the flourishing of a new and exciting business model, the already famous start-ups.
The HealthTech company garden
The process is easy to understand: by planting an entrepreneurial seed in that substrate, with the passion, optimism and desire to change the world embedded in its DNA, and watering it with a little funding - not too much - you can very quickly get young shoots to grow. And according to the type of entrepreneurial seed that is sowed, gardens can be populated with a variety of different species: AdTech, AgriTech, BioTech, CleanTech, EdTech, FinTech, FoodTech, GreenTech, InsurTech, PropTech, RegTech, RetailTech, TravelTech, and naturally, of course, HealthTech.
In the HealthTech company garden, the majority of the plants have three strengths in common. And one weakness. The first strength is that they are energetic and innovative, reflecting the optimism and passion of their creators. The second is that they are very strongly focused on the user, very much in the style of the big technological companies.
And the third is their professional endorsement. Generally speaking, HealthTech companies reach agreements with hospitals, universities or renowned professionals to give them a medical seal of approval that ratifies their value proposal as being of use.
And the weakness? There is only one, but it's very important: the problem it faces in order to grow and become popular, to expand step by step. It is true that extensive watering is not required in order to test out a concept or a minimum viable product, but this changes when it comes to achieving large volumes of users, a vital element in making the business profitable. And this needs powerful financial muscle.
‘Ingredient H’: the magic touch that can make a HealthTech company flourish
And this is where magic can happen. If we take the major companies of the healthcare sector, and we carefully graft onto them startups of the HealthTech species, we will see how the strengths of one variety compensates for the weaknesses of the other.
But for this magic to occur, it is essential for new sap to circulate through both parts, and that is the sap of humility. Humility on the side of the entrepreneurs to recognize that even with huge amounts of optimism and passion, it is much easier to change the world through powerful allies, and which counts as disruption just the same. And humility on the side of the major companies, to recognize that it is possible to have young shoots that know as much or even more about your business as you do, and that should be treated as equals.
Yes, it's not easy, but if we manage it, if we succeed in getting this new sap to circulate as it should, we will obtain a garden full of new plants that are robust, flexible and user-focused. And we can then say out loud: Tremble, Google!