Nigerian health-tech entrepreneur believes the sector’s untapped potential is ‘incredible’

Adegoke Olubusi, co-founder of Helium Health

If your personality type is that of a compulsive fixer, world-wide pandemics are simply another problem you want to sink your teeth into.

Adegoke Olubusi, co-founder of Nigerian-based health-tech company Helium Health, is currently sacrificing the luxury of sleep because the company can’t stay ahead of the demand for its products in the fight against Covid-19.

Over the years, he has relentlessly knocked on many doors to get the pubic and private healthcare sectors in the three countries the company operates in – Nigeria, Ghana and Liberia – to take their medical infrastructure and processes online with the help of Helium Health. The uptake was slow and steady, but in the last two months the company has seen a big surge in interest and new sign-ups for its solutions.

In the state of Lagos, the company has deployed an end-to-end solution for the government to manage its Covid-19 workflow: from the call centre, to the AI-powered tools advising healthcare workers what next steps to take, to the GPS system that assists the evacuation team in picking up positive cases for isolation.

“As much as this is a global crisis, and we are not happy about it, the one thing that we are grateful for is that it is forcing everyone to see the need to invest in our own healthcare sector, in the infrastructure and the processes. It is one of those things that has plagued me for too long, the fact that we haven’t paid that much attention to the healthcare sector. You had countries prior to Covid who were even reducing their healthcare spend,” says Olubusi.

He uses the word “plague” regularly when referring to his inherent inability to let a problem or inefficiency go. Growing up in Lagos, says Olubusi, he was always imagining how he can be the solution for a problem that existed in his community, the country or the world. “I have always been perplexed about how we had normalised some problems that we should have fought relentlessly against. I have just never seen the need to give in or give up.”

Choosing health-tech

Olubusi moved to the United States after completing high school, enrolling at Morgan State University in Maryland for computer science and electrical engineering. In 2014, after he finished his degree, he helped create the communication app KingsChat. Then it was on to Johns Hopkins Whiting School of Engineering where he received his master’s degree in engineering management.

He still remembers the moment the problem statement in healthcare became a business idea. Whilst travelling in Nigeria to research telecommunications technology and connectivity as a possible future venture, Olubusi and one of the co-founders visited the office of the then Speaker of the House of Assembly in Lagos, a doctor by profession. “After listening to our pitch, he said: ‘That is nice and cool, but let me tell you about an even bigger problem that no one wants to take on.’ He then highlighted the pain point of an inefficient healthcare system where it was impossible to find and trace medical records for patients.”

Dangling a challenge like that in front of someone who thrives on finding solutions, was just the ticket. Helium Health (then known as OneMedical) was established with co-founders Tito Ovia and Dimeji Sofowora in 2016. The company’s mission was to accelerate Africa’s transition to a technology- and data-driven healthcare sector.

New products and expansion

The first solution the company offered was to help hospitals transition from their paper-based records to a digital medical records system in order to optimise patient care. It has now evolved into a wider suite of services, from analytics to payment systems and streamlining funding opportunities. One product, Helium Health’s telemedicine platform which was launched recently, has seen a surge in sign-ups as private hospitals are losing revenue in the current Covid-19 lockdown period with patients not able or willing to physically travel to healthcare facilities. Olubusi says the take-up has been so rapid that the company does not have the capacity to meet the demand. They are adding staff members on a daily basis to keep up.

If not for the impact of the virus on movement, Helium Health would have had its team spread across eight countries already in April of this year. The plan is still to aggressively expand into East and North Africa by the end of 2020 – specifically into Kenya, Uganda, Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia. Rwanda is planned for further down the line.

The company also just completed another round of fundraising with an investment of $10 million led by two international investors: Dubai-based venture firm Global Ventures and Singapore-based Asia Africa Investment and Consulting.

Inviting competition

Olubusi is actively hoping for and encouraging competitors to join the fray in health-tech deployment on the African continent.

“The extent of the opportunity and potential that exists is incredible. There could be ten or a 100 Helium Healths working at ten times our current capacity and we would still not be 10% of the market. We’ve been curious about why smart people are not graduating and starting health-tech companies, it is the one sector that really binds us all together in the most human of ways,” he explains. His advice to investors looking for growth sectors is to focus on those sectors that are linked to the livelihood of people – for example: agriculture, finance, education and health.

For Olubusi, collaboration is one of the key elements of success that Helium Health strives for. “I personally don’t think the right approach is aggressive competition. If you see how big and underserved the continent is in this space, there is so much room for beneficial collaboration,” he says.

The other two unique traits that his team has tried to foster within Helium Health, are boldness and relentlessness. Boldness to walk into a room full of policymakers and explain exactly why what they are doing and how they are doing it is the wrong approach. Relentlessness to get buy-in for ideas that don’t immediately get traction.

“In terms of relentlessness, we have built that as a culture in the organisation. We are looking for team members who are crazy enough to do things that don’t scale, because going back after you received a ‘no’ from one hospital is not really efficient. Here, we don’t understand the concept of ‘no’. We go back, because we believe that every hospital, whether they like it or not, should be digital and will be digital,” he says.

Further reading

[April 2020] After a decade of building and investing in African companies, Emilian Popa explains why he is bullish on these five industries
[April 2020] Covid-19 and the future of African airlines: Kenya Airways and Airlink CEOs share their views
[April 2020] South African company ready to roll out low-cost ventilators for the African market
[February 2016] Private health sectors across Africa offer significant business investment returns