5 Lessons From Medical Student Entrepreneurs

“You have an idea and the company becomes the oxygen for that idea. In these times, a company is the best way to spread that idea”  Jack Dorsey, co-founder of Twitter 

Would you take a year off from medical school to launch a startup?

For many medical students, the idea of running a business as a doctor, let alone as a student, is a terrifying thought. We are trained in pathology and best-practice guidelines, not spreadsheets and business plans. A group of trailblazing medical student entrepreneurs, however, are breaking the traditional medical career mold.

I recently interviewed four entrepreneurs who took time off from medical school in order to run a startup. Each at different parts of the startup process, they had lots to say about the steps leading up to their companies, juggling coursework and running a business, deciding to take time-off from school, and how they thought residencies would view them. The interviewees included:


1. Launching a startup takes more than a great idea

A common misconception about starting a company is that the key to success lies in just finding a great idea. The backgrounds of these medical students shows otherwise. Yang worked for a venture capital firm where he met with entrepreneurs and reviewed business plans, Monsen used his engineering background to build apps during his pre-clinical years, Haynes built 3D online virtual environments for math in high school and college, and Gaglani’s extensive list of projects include The Patient Promise and The Smartphone Physical. As Haynes explains, “In retrospect, these projects built the foundation for my work on Osmosis both in terms of technical skills and user interface design.” Their rigorous involvement in tech, business, and education gave them the exposure to not only develop a great idea, but also have the necessary skills to execute it.

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Adeel Yang (Picmonic)

2. Running a business requires a full-time investment…  

Medical students aren’t typically known for having an abundance of free time, and trying to run a business at the same time can be a recipe for burn-out. All of the entrepreneurs I interviewed made the decision to take some time-off from school in order to devote their full-attention to their companies. Talking about the early days of Picmonic, Yang discusses how tough it was juggling rotations and business:

“We’d do our rotations during the day and work with the artists and engineers on the product at night and on our days off.  We followed this routine for about a year until both of us realized that we were losing sleep, getting sick a lot, and simply burned out. At this point, the situation was beyond what a pros/cons list could do for us; it was more of an ultimatum (in or out). We knew the company was growing and needed our devotion, so we made the call [to take time off from school] together.”

The rigors of medical school and running a startup are challenging enough, and the combination of trying to balance both successfully can be an almost impossible. Especially for startups looking for funding, venture capital firms are looking for individuals who are “all-in” on their project and how can you be convincing when you’re spending 8-10 hours a day at the hospital? Halle Tecco, CEO and co-founder of RockHealth, explains in a video for AlmostDocs that “if you’re in school and you’re distracted about getting your MD, there’s no way you’re going to put 110% in the startup.”

3. But deciding to take time-off from school isn’t easy

It’s not unheard of for medical students to take off time from school for a research project or master’s degree, but the uncharted territory of starting a business wasn’t such an easy decision for Monsen. “The overwhelming ‘con’ was that we may spend a year working on a project with nothing to show for it in the end. Our parents and mentors would also need to be convinced.” Taking a year off from school is be a difficult decision in the first place and the possibility of the startup fizzling out can be terrifying for students who are used to the set-path of medicine. Another complicating factor for the entrepreneurs was considering how residency programs would view their decisions. Yang explains, “Some programs consider students like us high risk candidates because of our tendency to be distracted by exciting side ventures. We’ll have to prove to the programs that we can add value to their institution both in service and business.”

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Craig Monsen (Symcat)

 4. Don’t let school get in the way of your education

Simply put, Yang says, “I learned more in the past two years about business, people, and about myself than I ever did in school.” At times, medical school is so focused on preparing students for board exams that there’s often no room for personal development. Taking a break from the non-stop classwork and rotations has given each of these entrepreneurs the chance to develop crucial skills outside of the classroom and better understand the systems they are aiming to fix. As medical students, we are constantly inundated with how broken the healthcare system is, but how many of us truly understand how the healthcare system works? Haynes explains:

“Trying to both understand a problem and then actually implement a large-scale solution provides a much more nuanced understanding of the complexities facing innovators. What being at DreamIT with 9 other healthcare startups made me realize is that we don’t lack people with ideas and passion to make our healthcare system better. As future doctors, our duty to our patients extends beyond the patients and families themselves and to the task of seeking out and collaborating with innovators who can help revolutionize how we collect data, diagnose, and administer treatments.”

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Shiv Gaglani and Ryan Haynes (Osmosis)

5. Their career paths are opening doors for future innovators

For residency programs that traditionally rank students based heavily on board scores and research publications, finding a way to incorporate entrepreneurship into the evaluation process can be tricky. Medical students who decide to launch their own startups, thus do so knowing that their business pursuits will be a crucial, yet uncertain, part of how residency programs view them. What struck me though, was how all the entrepreneurs I interviewed embraced their career trajectories as being remarkably different than most medical students. Gaglani explains, “My goal is to apply to a residency program that will view my passion for innovation and entrepreneurship favorably. It doesn’t make sense to ignore my natural interests and abilities to try to ‘fit the mold’ of what a specific residency program is looking for because I’ll be investing around 2-5 years of my life in the program.” Given the success of Picmonic, Osmosis, and Symcat, I’m sure more medical schools and residency programs will begin viewing entrepreneurship as a driving force for medical innovation.


Featured image from Flickr | UK in Canada.

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Ryan Nguyen, "Almost" DO

Ryan Nguyen is a DO student at the Western University College of Osteopathic Medicine of the Pacific and blogs about medical school at WhiteCoatDO.com. In addition to school, he is a Foundation Scholar for the California Academy of Family Practice and Student Ambassador for Doximity. He tweets @RNguyenMed.