Embracing Failure in Medical Entrepreneurship

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Entrepreneurial doctors in the United Kingdom met in November for the inaugural Doctorpreneurs Startup School. Here are a few key takeways from the event including tips on funding, building a great team and learning from failure.

By Dr. Catherine Schuster Bruce & Dr. Vishaal Virani

Traditionally the UK has lagged behind the United States in terms of digital disruption and startup innovations, partly due to the historically more risk averse British temperament. However, on a backdrop of global political uncertainty, under high ceilings and tall wooden beams, the inaugural Doctorpreneurs Startup School at St Thomas’ Hospital in London sought to redress the balance. It brought together entrepreneurial doctors and medical students in the UK seeking to disrupt the status quo, and set a more ambitious direction for the future of UK healthcare innovation.

One suggestion as to why UK entrepreneurs have been relatively less successful in the startup scene is that we are less ambitious than our US counterparts, because we worry more about failing. Successful doctors-turned-entrepreneurs at the Doctorpreneurs event did indeed talk openly about failing. Though perhaps more importantly, they addressed the fear of failing. That intangible feeling that can constrain us, especially those who have limited experience of actual failure, and stop us in our tracks. Coupled with this internal fear is the unwelcome external reality of funding difficulties in the UK, compared to the US, that perpetuates a culture of startup failure. Hussein Kanji, co-founder of Hoxton Ventures, in a recent BBC report stated that ‘It would still be hard for something like an Uber to be born out of the UK because I don’t think there’s a financing community that would give Uber the billions of dollars that it has consumed to get to the global stage’. BBC commented that the funding for startups in the UK is ‘appallingly bad’, hindering their expansion into global markets.

Hard, but not impossible. To be sufficiently ambitious to create a so-called unicorn in the UK these fears of failure and funding difficulties need to be overcome, and the Doctorpreneurs event served to do just that.

‘Pivot is another word for failure’ joked Ragen Nagar, founder of MedicaliQ, ‘don’t be afraid of failure’. It seems the ability to conquer the fear of failing lies in a form of ‘cognitive reframing’, a psychological technique that enables a supposedly unfavourable situation to be viewed from a new perspective. It was noticeable how the speakers, when divulging the highs and lows of their entrepreneurial journey, did not ever ‘fail’. Instead, they ‘pivoted’; they changed direction and tried something new or slightly different. Success followed. Dr. Felix Jackson of medDigital ‘pivoted’ four times before his UK company started growing exponentially. ‘Pivot early or re-articulate’ advised Dr. Guy Gross during an afternoon workshop.

At this event, failure was reframed to be positive, to be embraced, and integral to the overall entrepreneurial journey. Quite frankly, it was hard to ignore the infectious go-for-it attitude of the doctors-turned-entrepreneurs: ‘Live a full life and do the best you can. Let’s do that and not worry about failure’ encouraged Dr. Owain Rhys Hughes, founder of UK integrated healthcare platform Cinapsis.

Medical training in the UK is increasingly supporting innovation and entrepreneurship, exemplified by the NHS Innovation Accelerator that started up in 2015 and the introduction of a flagship Future Medicine course led by renowned surgeon Shafi Ahmed at a London medical school next year. Alongside these formal programmes, the Doctorpreneurs community through this Startup School is inspiring UK doctors and medical students to embrace failure and ambitiously scale their healthcare start-ups. The status quo has been disrupted, and Silicon Valley had better watch out, there may be some UK healthcare unicorns on the horizon.

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