Top Skills For your Health Tech Startup Team: The Experts’ Take

The following is a guest article by Ghazi Shah, a freelance health writer.

Technology is disrupting every industry and healthcare is no exception. Critics who were previously labeling the heath-technology pair as a ‘fad’ have gone quiet. Without question, technology-driven innovations in the healthcare space are here to stay. The number-crunchers have shown us that any innovation in the healthcare industry will not be possible without technology. The interest in technology-driven healthcare startups is evident from the increasing number of incubation programs and competitions like the TMCx accelerator program, Accenture HealthTech Innovation Challenge, and StartUp Health Launchpad program.

Here’s a bird’s-eye view of the health technology industry, as reported by Venture Scanner:

  • Health Tech Categories:        22
  • Countries:                                59
  • Number of Companies:         3077
  • Total Capital Raised so far:    $145Billion

Even with the size of investors’ interest in this segment, we still see a large number of startups struggling to keep their heads above water. Statistic Brain has reported that 44% of health-related startups fail to see their 4th birthday! These figures clearly indicate a major issue that needs serious attention.

Getting off the ground in the health tech world is even trickier than other industries. To start with, a successful health tech startup needs to strike up a combination of clinical knowledge and technological expertise. Secondly, getting through regulatory compliances and approvals is an uphill task. Words like HIPAA and FDA are nothing short of a nightmare for digital health entrepreneurs.

In the complex jigsaw of startup success, the pioneer team carries great significance. Failory has reported that ‘Team Problems’ are responsible for a staggering 18% of startup failures. Conjuring a perfect startup team can increase the odds of success – but it’s easier said than done.

To help solve this issue, I interviewed 36 successful entrepreneurs from the health tech space. My ultimate objective was to extract the secret recipe for a successful team that can take an idea and turn into a successful venture. Here are the 3 questions I asked:

Q1. Based on your digital health startup experience, what do you think are the top skills/traits that aspiring entrepreneurs must ensure while recruiting the pioneer team?

Q2. Why is each of your stated skills/traits essential for success, particularly in startup teams?

Q3. What advice would you like to give to budding health tech entrepreneurs?

Demystifying the Secret Recipe of a Winning Health Tech Startup

Here are the insights from 5 of the executives I interviewed:

1. Dr. Simon Lorenz, Founder and Managing Director, Klara

Working out of New York, Klara is a secure medical messaging app that aims to simplify the communication between medical teams and their patients.

Top Skills: Dr. Simon is very clear about his recruitment criteria. Each of his team members should have the potential to grow, adaptability and a passion towards his startup’s mission.

Why? According to Dr. Simon growth potential is important because naturally, his startup is focused on growth and a member who cannot keep up will – sooner or later – become a liability. He values adjustability because, in his words, “Teams that can adjust to the instability of the startup environment will be more successful in the long-run.” He screens for passionate ones – people who truly care about the mission – to make sure that his people have a reason to stay and exert themselves through thick and thin.

Advice: You have to truly believe that what you have is going to make a difference. Be persistent. Be patient, persistence will pay off.”

2. Ramji Srinivasan, Co-founder and Ex-CEO of Counsyl (Now Myriad Women’s Health)

Counsyl is a California-based DNA testing and genetic counseling service. Their services include Hereditary Cancer screening and Prenatal screening.

Top Skills: Ramji stresses that a health startup team must have a desire to understand and improve the customer experience. He also believes that a shared sense of purpose and pragmatism are two must-haves for the team.

Why? According to Ramji, the overriding focus on customer experience is of utmost importance because, “Customers don’t care about what happens inside your company, customers are paying you for a specific result. The more your team understands that, the better your team will be able to deliver services that meet customer needs.”

A shared sense of purpose helps the team push forward cohesively – creating synergy. Finally, pragmatism is desirable to foster a culture of results, achievement, and accountability.

Advice: Ramji offers his words of wisdom by stating that healthcare is an opportunity to touch the lives of millions, but it takes hard work and grit to get there. He also encourages healthcare entrepreneurs not to lose heart in the face of regulatory challenges and keep pushing until you make it.

3. Harold Jonas, Founder and CEO, Sober Network

Headquartered in Florida, Sober Network provides a host of digital solutions for the addiction and recovery niche. Their mantra is to help people “Get Sober. Stay Sober.”

Top Skills: “The top skill aspiring entrepreneurs must consider when assembling their pioneer team is steadfast commitment. It’s about having the ability to never waiver from your undying belief and passion in your vision.

Why? Harold pays special attention to these traits because according to him, “Your belief and passion in your vision get challenged daily as your startup begins to experience growing pains. This is especially true for new entrepreneurs. Slowly self-doubt creeps in, the sleepless nights, the “What ifs” swirl in your brain, and you start to second-guess yourself.” In the face of such snags, the unwavering commitment and passion of your team will help your startup withstand hostile times.

Advice: After laying down the desired traits for the team, Harold stated two qualities that the founder themselves must have – humility and an open mind. Why? Because using this duo, you will be able to identify your weaknesses and make sure that your team makes up for it. Finally, he hands out another practical one: “Know your role and allow others to flourish in the roles you recruited them for and you’ll succeed.”

4. Glen Tullman, Chairman and CEO of Livongo (Recently merged with Teladoc)

Livongo is headquartered in Mountain View, California and had raised a capital of over $90 million before merging with Teladoc. Livongo’s main features: One, connected healthcare devices that send live readings to health providers. Secondly, coaching support that is delivered to the patients through an app.

Top Skills: While conjuring up his team, Glen made sure the members were mission-driven, action-driven and open to continuous learning.

Why? It’s vital for all the team members to be passionate about their work because, according to Glen, “For them, it’s not a job, it’s a passion. It’s about changing the world.” Glen also believes that time is the most important resource when you’re building something big. As such, his team is a pack of action-oriented people who are always racing against the clock.

The last skill that is on Glen’s list is the ability to keep learning, and he has a solid justification for that. Endless learning is necessary because you never know what skills the next challenge will demand. The inability to quickly learn and tackle such tests multiplies all your other skills by zero.

Advice: Glen urges all healthcare entrepreneurs to, “Think big.” He says that if you set small goals and achieve them, then you end up with unimportant results. If you set a colossal goal, even if you don’t get it 100%, you still end up with something that will change lots of lives. He sums up his thoughts with these words, “Today, there is a once-in-a-century opportunity to revolutionize healthcare. The only missing ingredient is someone to do it… why not you?

5. Erik Halvorsen, Ex-Director of Texas Medical Center (TMC) Innovation Institute

To help you set clear parameters for recruiting your health tech team, I also found it relevant to interview Erik Halvorsen. Why Erik? Because he has over 20 years of experience at an ideal crossroad of health and technology. His leadership role at TMC Innovation entailed providing a complete range of incubation services to healthcare startups until they grow wings of their own. Erik has coached over 50 health startups at TMCx alone! After going through Erik’s profile, I just had to reach out and ask him for his thoughts on the topic. Here are his musings regarding the healthcare startup team’s skills and qualities:

Top Skills: Confidence (yet with humility), hustle and communication.

Why? Erik suggests that your team members should have a confidence level that almost touches the territory of arrogance! He states that the pioneer team members should believe that “they are building something that is solving a problem that nobody has solved before and they can displace or outcompete everyone else in the space.” At the same time, Erik recommends a streak of humility as well, so that they are aware of their shortfalls and won’t hesitate to ask for help when in need.

Erik emphasizes the power of hustling without a pause, but warns about being well-organized in order not to lose focus along the way.

Effective and clear communication also made it to Erik’s top three skills’ list. In his words, “Good communication creates shared vision, sets the culture, defines roles, responsibilities, and deliverables and motivates the team. Poor communication undermines all of these – and ultimately, either slowly or swiftly, will lead to the company failing.

Advice? Erik hands out his advice in two parts.

First, “You need to be willing to work 24/7 to avoid working 9 to 5. If you don’t have that drive and commitment you will not succeed and rise above the competition – and there is always competition.”

Second, “Really understand everything you can about the unmet need you are trying to solve, know the competition inside and out, get end-user and customer feedback early and often, and hone your value proposition before you go sell.

Between the Lines

After interviewing all these health tech gurus, I feel like sharing what I read (or listened to) ‘between the lines’ while gathering their valuable insights.

The first pattern that I couldn’t help but notice was the founders’ overriding emphasis on their people’s commitment towards the mission of their startup. The words that were repeated over and over again included commitment, passion, sense of purpose/mission and the like. Healthcare founders want their people to have an unshakable belief that this startup is bound to solve important healthcare problems and touch a great number of lives with their solutions. In addition to that, founders also paid attention to ‘shared’ passion and/or mission, because a common passion helps achieve a laser-sharp focus on desired results.

I also observed that healthcare entrepreneurs pay special attention to the onslaught of fierce competition. The digital health landscape has over 3000 companies after all – and counting!

Compliance with government regulations and getting necessary approvals also sounded like a major hurdle towards joining the club of successful health entrepreneurs.

Pinning It All Together – With Your Culture

Now that we have insights straight from the horses’ mouths, let’s find a vehicle that not only unites these essentials in your pioneer health tech team, but also maintains them throughout the initial times – until your venture loses its ‘startup’ label.

The search for this enabling feature leads to only one alley, which is your organizational culture. In his HBR article, Michael D. Watkins offers a dynamic and multi-perspective discussion around this topic and among other insights, he states that, “Culture is a form of protection that has evolved from situational pressures. It prevents “wrong thinking” and “wrong people” from entering the organization in the first place.

By setting the right culture from the outset, you can ensure that only the right values are promoted in the system. As a result, you can have the liberty to recruit the right skills (like seasoned health practitioners and data scientists) and have them embrace your values (like resilience and openness). During her interview, Dr. Heidi Jannenga, Co-founder and President of WebPT, placed an overriding importance on the culture of a startup: “Make culture one of the biggest factors in your hiring decisions. Because at the end of the day, you can teach people new skills and concepts, but you can’t teach personality; you can’t teach values and you can’t teach passion.”

An important consideration while setting your culture is that no amount of rhetoric will establish your desired culture until and unless you become the cultural role model and display those values yourself. Also, once you have a culture in place, you might want to keep it dynamic and fluid to stay aligned with major shifts in your overall strategy, flow of industry’s undercurrents, and shifts in regulatory frameworks.

About Ghazi Shah

Ghazi Shah is a freelance health writer with a deep interest in the Health Tech industry. He is on a mission to make the exciting world of Health Tech more understandable and accessible to the general public. A foodie, bibliophile, and a simplicist. Ghazi can be reached at