Gangadhar Sulkunte was a guest participant for the MoMo mHealth competition event on the 25th of April 2012. He was one of six competitors, with his app DialogApp, receiving first place. This is an interview, Eleni Natsi conducted next day from Gangadhar for the MoMoAth website.
The number of adults with diabetes worldwide has more than doubled since 1980 to 347 million. Are we facing a diabetics epidemic? The scientists say yes. So does Gangadhar Sulkunte, a developer from India and proud winner of the MoMo Athens mhealth event competition, who decided that it is good to be an entrepreneur, but it is absolutely fascinating to create something that might affect in a positive way the lives of millions.
Gangadhar Sulkunte: Sometimes life itself shows you the way. In my case, the death of my father from cancer, back in 2008, made me feel absolutely powerless (I was standing beside him when it happened).
So, my immediate inner reaction was that I should do something about it, to help other people with the same problem.
You see, at the first stages of my father’s illness, I thought it wasn’t serious. “We live in the 21th century, medical science gives answers and solutions” I remember saying to myself and then it came….The sudden, the unexpected, the death of a beloved person.
Back then I also asked myself “Should I start over from scratch and become a doctor?” and then I realized that: Why not help people as an engineer? By building a mobile health app. But still.. a mobile health app for cancer doesn’t make a lot of sense, because of the nature of the particular disease.
Consequently, after my mother’s death in 2010 from diabetes, I saw the opportunity: Regarding diabetes, all you have to do is control your diet and your lifestyle.
After my father passed away, my mother had many things to run for herself, so she didn’t stick to a strict diet program for her diabetes. That was fatal for her.
But what if she used a mobile health app for controlling her diabetes? She could easily test her daily diet, without running to the doctor on a frequent basis.
Eleni Natsi: So, let’s talk about DiaLog App. Can you tell us, what it actually does and the business plan behind it?
Gangadhar Sulkunte: Following the death of my parents, I realized that a mobile on your hand can make a really big difference if you’re diabetic.
Given that forty plus adults use their mobiles extensively in order to play games, I came up with the DiaLog App idea: Tracking your diabetes, through a series of games, can be entertaining and at the same time incentivize you to follow a healthy diet.
So, after coming up with the idea, I looked for a mobile developer, since I didn’t have an expertise in mobile development, myself. However, it is difficult sometimes for someone to grasp the “spirit” of your idea, so I decided to open some books and build it myself. That was back in 2011.
Concerning the business model, I had the help of my wife, a university professor in Business Development.
We don’t charge the users for the app. Our target for making profit is the insurance companies, especially in the US where the insurance market is more mature. Here’s how it works: After launching the app into the market we track down how many users actually use it and if their health has been improved as a result of its use. According to the above, we give feedback to the insurance companies which invest their money in the app, if they deem so.
Eleni Natsi: How about the rest of your team? How many are involved in the project?
Gangadhar Sulkunte: Apart from me and my wife, I collaborate with an American doctor that holds a permanent residence in Minneapolis, who is responsible for the medical aspects of the application. There are also good friends of mine who act unofficially as advisors with their expertise and knowledge in different areas.
Eleni Natsi: How about funding, the bottleneck for most startups? Where are you now and what kind of funding are you targeting?
Gangadhar Sulkunte: For the time being we are in search of funding. To my mind the usual road for startups to follow is bootstrapping, then angel funding and then gaining access to venture capital. It is difficult to begin with your own money and end up straight with a VC, except if you’re a proven entrepreneur, with a successful entrepreneurial background.
Eleni Natsi: Talking with Andreas Constantinou, co-founder of MoMoAth, he stressed out to me that there isn’t a roadmap for startups. If that’s the case for you too, is there any strategic plan you have to achieve your goals?
Gangadhar Sulkunte: First of all, let me state that I agree with Andreas. There isn’t a specific roadmap. But what I actually did and helped me a lot was to register with an entrepreneurial incubator, the Founder Institute.
I highly recommend it for fresh entrepreneurs to follow a similar program on the grounds that you spend three months in an incubator, testing your idea, listening to mentors advice, learning how to create a successful business plan, how to pitch your idea in front of possible funders etc.
And of course you are provided with valuable help in your search for funding. It’s really worthwhile, it doesn’t cost much and the deal is that Founder Institute graduates hold a shared stake in the companies that were incubated in it.
Eleni Natsi: Regarding health apps there are legal, privacy, security issues involved. Can you tell us which of those also apply to DiaLog App?
Gangadhar Sulkunte: A legal issue concerning health apps is whether they’re considered medical devices or not.
If for example, you have an app that counts your blood pressure or gives recommendations to the patient, then according to the strict legal framework of the EU, it should take a CE mark.
However, in the case of DiaLogApp, the patient enters his/her data into the system, so an application of that kind cannot be regarded as a medical device.
Another legal, privacy and security issue at the same time is that of medical data use. To be more specific, given that the patients enter their personal medical information into DiaLog App system, they are stored in the app – which means that in case of mobile loss, you lose your data too.
So, some people come to me and raise the simple and logical question “Can you put my data in the cloud, as a backing system?”. The question seems simple, but not the answer.
In the US, where things are more flexible, compared to the EU, the patient can decide if he/she wants to have their medical data stored in the cloud. However, in the EU, there are strict regulations concerning encryption and security of the data storage which is permitted only within a specific certified cloud.
Furthermore, you have to pay one thousand euros per month for that kind of storage, which is a heavy burden for a startup in its’ first steps to market.
Last but not least, I would like to add that the integrated gamification process in DiaLog App doesn’t enforce uploading of data on Facebook without the user’s consent. Of course personal medical data is not allowed to be uploaded on social media in any case.
Gangadhar Sulkunte: Yes, I recall that. Well, it reminds me of Internet back in the ‘90s, where we had the dial up Internet connection.
Back then everyone was in favour of textbased colourless websites for the average user. The same happens with textbased messages at the moment. For the past and for now, messages are good. But in the future no. I definitely see a big growth of mobile health apps and smartphones in the near future.
Someone might argue here with me and say what about Africa and India for example? Is there the possibility of a big penetration of mobile apps in these countries? Let me say, that right now, to my knowledge, 4G networks are being built in India. So, wait a year and see. Don’t forget that India is a developing economy right now.
Eleni Natsi: What you’ re saying, reminds me of something I read about the high number of mobiles in India right now. To be honest, that was striking to me.
Gangadhar Sulkunte: It is true. The majority of my friends in India have mobile phones or even smartphones instead of fixed phones. Also, Internet on your mobile is considerably affordable now in India, so people widely use it on their phones.
Eleni Natsi: What about providing us with a list of advantages of mobile health apps compared to simple messages?
Gangadhar Sulkunte: I will provide you with four right away through specific examples.
Let’s say I am a diabetic and I want to travel from France to Greece. I love Greek food, but due to my problem, I have limited choices. My app can provide me with info of what to eat or not, based on where I am.
Depending on my voice, while speaking at my phone, the app might give me a red notice for my condition. If my voice sounds different, that will signal my app to alert me to check my condition.
I have a serious health incident and I cannot do anything. However, via a smartphone I can be easily tracked by my friends/relatives, wherever I might be.
Supposing that I live in a remote village in India or Africa. In case I am injured, I can use my phone, take a picture of my injuiry and sent it over via e-mail to a doctor, who will give me instant feedback; whether I should visit a hospital or not, based on the picture I sent. This is already being implemented by SANA, which was one of the finalists at the MoMoAth event.
Eleni Natsi: Entrepreneurs face the so called “emotional rollercoaster’’ in every stage of their career. What’s your personal philosophyin fighting wrong emotions?
Gangadhar Sulkunte: It’s very simple. My philosophy lies to my effort to spend some valuable time with my family every single day. Just simple things; take a walk with my wife and kid; bake with my son. Everyday things like those I mentioned really clear up my mind and bring balance to my life. Everything comes from us and ends with us.
Eleni Natsi: I definitely will keep, your last sentence, in mind.
Gangadhar Sulkunte: It was my pleasure being here and meeting you all!