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Great expectations: How a Sri Lankan start-up plans to conquer India

Great expectations: How a Sri Lankan start-up plans to conquer India

Great expectations: How a Sri Lankan start-up plans to conquer India

In recent years, Colombo has become a hub for start-ups with more and more being established each month. Most of these tend to cater to the local market and rarely venture into global or even regional markets. However, a few start-ups have been ambitious enough to penetrate this geographical glass ceiling and take Sri Lankan products beyond our shores.

oDoc, Sri Lanka’s video medical consultation platform, has become that rare Sri Lankan start-up. It took its services to the regional market, moving into Bangalore, India in February 2019.

Speaking to The Sunday Morning Business, Co-founder and Chief Medical Officer (CMO) Dr. Janaka Wickramasinghe stated that the start-up expanded to India using the Techstars Bangalore Accelerator programme, which is dedicated to supporting start-ups from around the world that address emerging market problems. The programme looks out for companies that apply technologies like AI, blockchain, AR/VR, and robotics, and provides them a readymade network of contacts from the respective industry as well as mentors from other industries.

oDoc is a home-grown B2B (business-to-business) app that helps employers provide their employees with medical care. The app allows patients to consult doctors via video, audio, or text, providing them a hassle-free experience. It also allows patients to channel Sri Lanka Medical Council (SLMC)-registered doctors, obtain medical advice, receive prescriptions, and get medication delivered.

“This is mainly to help people who come from backgrounds with poor access to healthcare; this can be due to cost, location, or many other factors. So, our primary market is the blue-collar worker and not what’s traditionally called white-collar workers.

“We go to the companies they work for and provide telemedicine coverage for these employees at a very low cost, starting at around Rs. 35 or INR 15,” said Dr. Wickramasinghe.

oDoc’s revenue is generated through the companies that subscribe with them. Once a company subscribes, its employees and their families are given unlimited consultations on demand with any of the 440 general physicians (GPs) or specialists partnered with oDoc. The app covers certain specialisations that have a high demand such as paediatrics, gynaecology, dermatology, and mental health services, and the doctors will be available for the employees within the day.

Dr. Wickramasinghe stated that the start-up looks for doctors with medical council registrations, at least five years of experience, and good bedside manners. This was also carried into their expansion to Bangalore.

While currently having around five GPs partnered with them in India, Dr. Wickramasinghe stated that once the demand picks up, oDoc will be taking in more GPs and specialists.

According to him, there are some fundamental differences between the Sri Lankan and Indian markets and the main difference – size – becomes very apparent in certain sectors.

Taking example of one of oDoc’s main clients in Sri Lanka – in the apparel sector – he stated while there are around four or five major companies in all of Sri Lanka employing a few thousand floor workers, India has around 20 or 30 similar companies around its manufacturing hubs such as Bangalore and Chennai.

“If you can establish yourself with one of these 20 or 30 players, the opportunities it presented are of a much higher degree than in Sri Lanka. This is purely because of the size of the market.”

Another big difference he had noticed was that the competition in the workforce was much higher in Sri Lanka as there wasn’t enough labour to go around. Therefore, the Sri Lankan companies had a bigger incentive to provide more benefits in order to attract more workers.

“In India, the motivation isn’t as high as in Sri Lanka; there are so many business and they have a much larger workforce. As such, it’s somewhat of a challenge when it comes to the product we are selling. But then again, these large companies sell to larger buyers in Japan and the US, so they need to maintain good working conditions and ensure workers’ rights are protected.”

Compared to Sri Lanka, communication with the locals in India is proving to be more of a challenge, stated the doctor. This is due to there being several languages spoken in India, such as Telugu, Hindi, Tamil, Punjabi, and Kannada. He stated that finding doctors to speak the three languages in Sri Lanka was much easier than finding doctors to cover all the languages in India.

“When you’re providing a product like ours, it needs to be provided in the local language. These are workers who communicate in their mother tongue, which can be one of many different languages, unlike in Sri Lanka. Here, Sinhalese, Tamil, and English can be easily covered by two or three doctors. But if you want to provide a nationwide service in India, you need to cover many more languages.

“If the doctor and patient aren’t able to communicate, you would not be able to provide the care that is required and it won’t be a pleasant experience for the patient.”

He explained that while these languages differ from region to region, there is the added complexity of migrant workers moving within these regions for work.

Despite these challenges, the oDoc app adapted itself to the Indian environment by including languages like Kannada, Telugu, and Tamil.

Dr. Wickramasinghe stated that one of the similarities they saw in the two markets was that all their clients were interested in innovation and fostering a community environment for their employees.

“Our buyers in both Sri Lanka and India care about their employees and don’t just focus on productivity, even though the availability of an on-demand doctor does reduce the amount of time an employee has to be out of work.”

However, he explained that the propensity to adopt technological solutions in tackling day-to-day problems is much higher in India; this can even be seen with street vendors who have multiple digital wallets.

“The adoption of technology in India can even be seen at the lower end of the income pyramid,” said Dr. Wickramasinghe.

This provides oDoc with more opportunities as it provides them with a much broader segment of the market that looks past high-income earners in urban centres.

According to Dr. Wickramasinghe, while there are several well-funded competitors in the telemedicine space, most of them focus on the consumer market with some competitors having gained a lot of traction.

However, he stated that only very few venture into enterprise sales and that even when they do, they mostly focus on high-end companies like IT firms that cater to white-collar workers.

“While there are well-funded competitors, competition in the B2B space and low-income market is at its infancy,” said Dr. Wickramasinghe.

Dr. Wickramasinghe stated that this doesn’t make it easy for oDoc, as they experience situations like long sales cycles in B2B sales, and without an existing customer in India, it’s difficult to convince others to subscribe.

Speaking about their move to invest, Dr. Wickramasinghe said they are currently raising the next round of funding looking at the potential of the Indian market. While having set aside funding they raised previously, he stated that oDoc India will be run on a shoestring budget, as a proof of concept, to show that they can operate, sell, and grow in India.

He also stated that the move for expansion garnered interest from some foreign angel investors as well as some regional and institutional investors.

“We do have some interest in what we are doing, and it does help having India as a potential growth market due to its size. But then again, there is interest in what we do in Sri Lanka as well, because we have yet to hit capacity. What we want to do is build our Sri Lankan operation to be self-sustaining, and not rely on venture funding.”

Dr. Wickramasinghe went on to speak about the response the app received in India, and stated that several buyers, which have several factories with around 20,000 employees, are interested.

oDoc currently closed with a farm operator which has 10 different sites, and is providing consultations to its workers. They’ve also sold to around five or six white-collar-employee companies, mainly start-ups with around 15 to 20 workers.

“Start-ups find it difficult to provide their employees with services like medical insurance and other benefits as they run on very tight budgets. As such, we present to them a very affordable way for them to provide something for their employees,” said Dr. Wickramasinghe.

As for their future, Dr. Wickramasinghe stated that they are currently focusing around Bangalore, due to it being both a start-up and manufacturing hub, and monitoring the traction and potential growth in India; all the while continuing to help oDoc Sri Lanka grow. He also stated that they have their eye on other South Asian and Southeast Asian markets, where you see a lot of growth in the manufacturing sector.

“We don’t want to ignore the Sri Lankan market, because that’s where a lot of our revenue comes from now and we want to grow that. However, that being said, we do not want try and expand too soon and lose the focus we have here or the service that we are delivering to the clients in Sri Lanka. But we always have our eye on potential markets, especially in the South Asian and Southeast Asian regions.”

By Uvin Lugoda

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You can score a $1m seed round even in Sri Lanka. These founders show how.

You can score a $1m seed round even in Sri Lanka. These founders show how.

The island nation south of India with its gorgeous beaches, rainforests, and ancient Buddhist ruins just saw one of its startups – medtech app oDoc – score US$1 million seed funding.

This is the largest seed investment round for any startup in Sri Lanka.
The country’s startup ecosystem is still very young with over 50 percent of its entrepreneurs using their personal savings to fund their companies. The seed funding round for oDoc comes at an opportune time as the island’s mass market is embracing tech through new ride-hailing options.

ODoc isn’t going after the mass market though – at least not yet. The app connects patients with doctors for video consultation. Say you wake up in the morning with a nasty rash and fever. Three taps on your smartphone and you can submit your pre-consultation notes, take a picture of your rash, and get a doctor to review those. A doctor will call you and send his prescription with the doctor’s seal and signature right to your phone. All done in 10 minutes.

Many startups around the world have been at it but oDoc’s four founders – with their diverse backgrounds – approached it more from a design perspective than as a tech problem to solve.

“The reason nobody has really cracked it is because they looked at it as a medical problem. They were building it as an Uber for doctors of sorts. But it is really about changing behavior. So it is more of a design problem. It needed a fresh set of eyes,” the founders tell Tech in Asia.

Stalking investors

The credentials of the founders plays a key role in instilling investor confidence, especially in the early stage of a startup when the product usage is yet to take off. That’s true for oDoc as well.

Before turning entrepreneur, oDoc CEO Heshan Fernando was the youngest assistant vice president of Sri Lanka’s largest listed company John Keells Holdings. He holds four majors – in mathematics, statistics, economics, and operations research – from the University of Warwick.

ODoc’s tech head Sohan Dharmaraja – with a PhD in computational applied mathematics from Stanford and masters from MIT – was an algorithmic trader with Goldman Sachs. He had built a braille keyboard app for the blind when was in the US.

Dharmaraja came back to Sri Lanka after his PhD. He tells Tech in Asia that he didn’t want to be just another expat critiquing his home country from afar instead of trying to push change himself.

Back home in Lanka, he started marketing tech startup SocialRoo with data analytics before moving to a consulting business. But he found it tough to convince companies in Sri Lanka what data analytics could do for their business.

Dharmaraja finally found his metier in oDoc, which has two more co-founders: Inshard Naizer, Fernando’s former colleague from John Keells, and Dr. Janaka Wickremesinghe, a general physician who holds three patents. Dr. Wickremesinghe is also the founder of Sri Lanka’s first online medical education platform CorpusMedici – which a third of all doctors in the island nation subscribe to, according to Fernando.

The investors who pumped in the US$1 million are Ajit Gunewardene, deputy chairman of John Keells; Phoenix Ventures, the investment arm of Sri Lankan apparel exporter Brandix; and Loits, the IT arm of conglomerate Lolc.

The oDoc team started the fundraising efforts early this year.

Gunewardene has known Fernando for nine years now, and he was also one of their mentors. “Even with him we walked a very fine line between being persistent and getting a restraining order,” Fernando jokes. “We assumed it would take us three months, but kept a six-month timeline. It ended up taking nine months,” he tells me.

Gunewardene’s endorsement piqued the interest of the other two investors, and finally, the team clinched the deal last week. The money has hit oDoc’s bank account and the team is going to hire more hands and start marketing their product now.

AI to help doctors diagnose better

The founders spent 12 months designing and building oDoc, which they describe as a “360 degree solution” – providing pre-consultation notes, video calls, and the prescription sent to your smartphone.

They began by building an electronic medical record system that would allow a doctor to document a consultation digitally. “We believe that there is a lot of power and insights that can be gathered from the consultation data which will be passing through our system. We want to collect, store, and analyse that data to provide insights to the doctors, and eventually move into a point where some of the consultation can be automated using AI,” Dharmaraja says.

Tap a button and you can consult a doctor anonymously too but then you won’t get a prescription.

For example, the AI could assist the doctor in diagnosis by reading the patient’s complaints or if the doctor is prescribing a medicine, the system can suggest the right dosage automatically.

“There were nuances in this space that had to be built into the product. Trust between the doctor and the patient, for example. You don’t need to be convinced of the skills of a driver when you are trying to book a cab. But patients will always have a concern about how good a doctor is. We built the app taking such nuances into consideration,” Dharmaraja says.
Patients will be charged a consultation fee, of which oDoc will get a percentage. The startup is mulling a subscription model as well, Fernando adds.

The oDoc app is available in three languages – English, Sinhalese, and Tamil. Its immediate goal is to get product-market fit. In the next five months, they’re aiming for 1,000 successful consultations – where doctor and patient are happy with the experience.

But there are inherent challenges. For instance, although a little over one-third of Sri Lanka’s 20 million people have smartphones, only around four million use the internet. There is 3G coverage in 75 percent of the country, and the big cities have 4G as well.

To begin with, oDoc requires a mindset shift in the users who have to get familiar with the idea of video consultation as an effective form of medical care delivery. “People have doubts like “Is this prescription really valid? Can I go to a pharmacy and show this to them?” Legally, there is nothing wrong with it but not many people know that,” Fernando says.

Can convenience beat fear?

Telemedicine has been breaking down geographical barriers and bringing access to medical care to remote parts of the world. For years, radiologists in India have been consulting with hospitals in Africa using digital technology. But when it comes to conditions that need immediate attention, even if they are minor, video consultation has not caught on in India or Southeast Asia yet.

” To begin with, oDoc requires a mindset shift in the users. “

The convenience factor could do the trick though. For example, an app like oDoc could reduce leg work for chronic patients who go to a doctor every month to show a blood report. They could just click a picture of the report and talk to the doctor about it from anywhere.

For patients with mental or sexual health problems, who are hesitant to go to a hospital due to fear of stigmaa, consulting a doctor anonymously on oDoc is an option. “Tap a button and you can do it on an anonymous mode too but then you won’t get a prescription. The system will not collect or store any of your details either,” Dharmaraja explains.

Currently, the doctor-patient ratio in Sri lanka is 1:1000 – quite similar to India. ODoc has roped in 25 doctors in Colombo, Kandy, and other main cities of the country.

“For a product like oDoc, the easiest way to get more users is when they are at a doctor’s clinic or at a pharmacy. We could get doctors to tell their patients to do the follow-up consultation over oDoc – as a tool of convenience as well as to save their time,” says co-founder Inshard Naizer, who is also oDoc’s chief growth officer.

They are initially going after patients in Colombo. “Then to all other cities of the country, and then other Commonwealth countries. Bangladesh and Maldives, for example, where geography is a barrier and medical care could be improved,” Naizer says.

The nascent Sri Lankan startup ecosystem would get a boost if startups like oDoc gain traction and catch the attention of investors from abroad. The Lankan government’s Information and Communication Technology Agency has been holding an annual Disrupt Asia conference since last year to showcase what the island nation has to offer in tech innovation. But, as the saying goes, nothing succeeds like success on the ground.

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Janashakthi Life partners oDoc to enhance customer experience

Janashakthi Life partners oDoc to enhance customer experience

Janashakthi Life partners with oDoc, to provide free life insurance cover (inclusive of Covid-19 coverage) and critical illness insurance cover up to Rs. 100,000 for all customers via the app.

In addition to this, oDoc customers can extend the free cover to specially design at an affordable discounted rate. These special products are designed to cater to the customer needs and to make life insurance convenient, affordable and hassle-free.

“As we continue to adapt to the “new normal” that awaits us all, with this partnership our goal is to encourage all customers to continue to use digital alternatives when possible to ensure the safety of our community. Healthcare is a key component of our lives as well as a necessity and through this partnership, we hope to strengthen our commitment to the community by enabling their protection needs. We will also continue to serve our customers better and meet the changing demands through novel digital solutions as the situation continues to evolve” noted Jude Fernando, Director and Chief Executive Officer of Janashakthi Insurance PLC. “At oDoc we aim to make high-quality primary healthcare universally accessible, affordable and personal to all Sri Lankans. We are extremely honoured to partner with Janashakthi Life to enable our customers to seamlessly obtain an opportune life insurance cover “said Heshan Fernando, Co-Founder and CEO of oDoc.

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Partnership between hSenid and oDoc to enhance employee well-being in Sri Lanka

Partnership between hSenid and oDoc to enhance employee well-being in Sri Lanka

oDoc, Sri Lanka’s largest telemedicine company establishes strategic partnership with hSenid Business Solutions, Sri Lanka’s number one HRIS solutions provider. This partnership aims at providing value addition to hSenid’s client base in order to promote better employee wellbeing.

oDoc is a technology platform that enables businesses to grant their employees unlimited access to high-quality remote healthcare, over the phone.

The platform connects users with over 600 SLMC registered doctors and healthcare professionals across 40+ specialisations via video, audio or chat consultation from right where they are at any time of the day. oDoc makes healthcare accessible, affordable and truly personal.

hSenid Business Solutions CEO Sampath Jayasundara mentioned: “Being a people-centric organisation, our aim is to help employers look after the most important asset of their business, ‘its people’ in the best way possible.

We let them focus on their employees, while our team focuses on the processes.

The integration with oDoc now helps us take a step further in this relationship as we now have the opportunity to not only help with the processes behind HR, but also create an impact towards the wellbeing of employees and this could not have happened at a more needful time.”

oDoc has launched the Sri Lanka National Telemedicine Platform on behalf of the Ministry of Health.

They have expanded internationally to India as well as the Maldives and now cover over 200,000 lives across 65 corporates. The value addition created by this integration enables employees to engage with doctors within three minutes, 24/7 via video, audio and chat consultation, access to valid digital prescriptions, medical leave certificate as per request, medicines delivery services and access to mobile lab partners for tests.

Speaking on this partnership, oDoc Co-Founder and CEO Heshan Fernando stated, “It is a great honour to partner with hSenid to make providing oDoc to all their business partners as simple as turning on a switch.”

Striving to keep up as an indigenous multinational, hSenid Business Solutions takes the responsibility of taking care of over 1,000,000 users of 1,200+ organisations across 18 industries in over 35 countries and operating from Australia, Bangladesh, India, Kenya, Singapore and Sri Lanka.

The integration of oDoc and hSenid, enables corporates across the globe to access the platform with the support of the HR solution. Hence creating a global opportunity to reach out towards employee wellbeing, which in return provides the ability to further expand a local platform towards global recognition.

For more information on this partnership visit, marketplace.peopleshr.com.

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Daraz together with oDoc provides online medical consultation

Daraz together with oDoc provides online medical consultation

~ Allows free medical consultation for 6 months through the Stay safe shop at home campaign

Providing a much needed service under the prevailing health situation in the country, Daraz partnered with oDoc Sri Lanka, the virtual doctor consultation platform, to offer a range of medical services to the general public. The timely service will enable all Daraz users to obtain consultation, prescriptions, mobile lab services and medicines delivered to their doorstep, thereby avoiding travelling to and long queues or waiting rooms at medical institutes. During the Daraz’s Stay safe and shop at home campaign period customers who shop on Daraz are able to consult a doctor through oDoc for 6 months, free of charge. This consultation package, which usually costs Rs. 2,994 is offered free as a benefit to customers facing adverse health situations at the moment. Through oDoc, clients can speak to a doctor online, within minutes anytime of the day, regardless of where they are. A valid prescription can be obtained, which will be sent directly to the mobile phone. In addition, medicine delivery and mobile lab services are available at discounted rates through the platform. oDoc is the largest virtual medical consultation platform with over 250 SLMC registered doctors, covering over 40 specialized areas, being on board. Launched in 2017, oDoc provides its services to more than 40 corporate clients across various industries such as apparel, banks, insurance companies and retail, boasting a proud portfolio of leading brands such as Daraz,MAS, Brandix, Hela Clothing, Hirdaramani, Commercial Bank, Uber, PickMe, Aeturnum, LOLC and AIA. In total, oDoc currently covers over 120,000 lives. “Daraz has a long standing partnership with oDoc, where we provide oDoc as a health benefit to our employees. Therefore, we wanted to extend this benefit to our Daraz customers. We believe that it will definitely be an advantage, considering the current situation in the country,” stated Rakhil Fernando – Managing Director of Daraz Sri Lanka. In addition to the consultation services, oDoc products are also available for online shopping in Sri Lanka  through the Daraz platform.

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