What do you get when an engineer, a lawyer and a biomedical scientist come together to build hospital management software in a country with one of the worst healthcare systems in the world? Helium Health, a holistic hospital management software that helps healthcare institutions digitize their operations and patient records. In under two years, this unlikely trio of entrepreneurs have raised over $2 million in funding, deployed their product in over 60+ hospitals in Nigeria and established their presence in 3 West African markets.
Healthcare in Nigeria is a disaster. The most populous black nation on earth has about ~24,000 hospitals with a doctor-patient ratio of 1:5100 – one of the lowest in the world. In comparison, India’s ratio stands at 1:2000 and the US comes in at 1:500. The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends one doctor to 600 patients. But that is not where it ends, budgetary allocation to the healthcare industry has continually dropped over the years, with the healthcare allocation making up just 3.9% of the budget in 2018. Meanwhile, other African countries like Rwanda, Botswana and Zambia have hit the “Abuja Declaration” target of 15% of their annual budget since 2013.
Despite these insufficiencies, Nigeria’s population keeps ballooning, further stretching already lacklustre healthcare service delivery. With Nigeria expected to become the third most populous country in the world by 2050 and its population expected to hit ~270 million in 2030, the demand for healthcare services will only continue to increase. Today, hospital wait times in Nigeria can be anywhere between one and seven hours with hospitals still relying heavily on paper-based patient records.
Other challenges such as the cost of healthcare delivery, lack of constant power, an ongoing emigration of Nigerian doctors due to poor working conditions and the inability of the average Nigerian to afford basic healthcare have driven the standard of healthcare into the gutter. It is this problem that Adegoke Olubusi (the Engineer), Dimeji Sofowora (the lawyer) and Tito Ovia (the biomedical scientist) came together to solve through their startup, Helium Health.
Health care in Nigeria by the digits
58: The amount of active health tech startups in Nigeria we could find.
52: The amount of healthcare management organisations (HMO) in Nigeria.
70+ – The number of public and private hospitals in Nigeria currently using Helium Health’s hospital management software
146 – The number of drug manufacturers in Nigeria
1:5100: The ratio of doctors to patients in Nigeria (2015).
~24,000 – The number of public and private hospitals in Nigeria
35,000 – Number of registered Nigerian doctors practicing outside Nigeria.
72,000 – The number of registered doctors in Nigeria
$5 billion – Estimated size of the Nigerian healthcare market.
The business of healthcare in Nigeria
According to Sofowora, most of the hospitals they work with had zero computers before they signed up to use Helium’s hospital management software. This is both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, the absence of technology opens up room for Helium to demonstrate the possibilities of digitising processes and patient records, but on the flip side it means that these hospitals have to invest in technological infrastructure, which they usually can’t afford. Helium Health does make exceptions though, sometimes helping the hospitals make that investment and subsidising the cost through its network of wholesale hardware suppliers. But how does Helium Health make money?
The startup operates a subscription model where the hospital buys credits at an agreed cost. One credit is to one patient for a period of 365 days. The hospital won’t need to renew the credit within that time regardless of how many times the patient returns. That said, Helium’s model is highly customized per client due to the subjective nature of each hospital’s operations. “Sometimes, we find that hospitals within a chain are different from other ‘branches’ of the same hospital chain. This means, for the most part, we have to design pricing for each individual institution depending on their needs,” said Ugo Iwuchukwu, who handles communications at Helium.
Patient perception is another area where Helium Health has been able to provide value. Per Ovia, patients tend to have more confidence in hospitals that have some kind of technology infrastructure inculcated in their operations compared to those still relying on manual systems. “When people go to some of our partner hospitals and see the efficiency of our software at work, they are inclined to come back and recommend that hospital to other people. Just cutting down the wait times alone holds incredible value to the average patient,” said Ovia.
In terms of the market, regulation and competition, Ovia and Sofowora opine that the health tech industry is “ripe” especially as more and more private hospitals are looking to go digital and government interest keeps increasing. As for competition, the Helium team says they aren’t worried about that since the market is still wide open for the taking. That’s why the startup has been investing in its product, marketing/sales and building out its teams with each funding milestone. It now has over 60 employees in three cities and two countries.
A Helium Timeline
2015 – Market research and development on the MVP begins. First employee is hired.
Mid 2016 – MVP is completed and pilot begins
Late 2016 – Helium Health (then OneMedical) wins N5 million prize money from Etisalat Prize for Innovation. Operations were entirely self-funded before this
Dec 2016 – The first Helium Health hospital management system is deployed
May 2017 – Applied for Y Combinator Summer ‘17 Class
June 2017 – Helium Health is accepted into YC and begins the program. Receives $120K in funding.
August – September 2017 – Helium Health raises $2 million in funding post-YC. Name changed to Helium Health from OneMedical
Early 2018 – Secured a deal with Akwa Ibom State government to deploy Helium Health software to a number of general hospitals in the state. Akwa Ibom team is established
2018 – Helium’s client list exceeds 70 hospitals across Lagos, Akwa Ibom, Abuja and Liberia.
Adegoke Olubusi and Dimeji Sofowora were the original founders of Helium Health, which was named OneMedical at first (they changed the name in August 2017). They had been friends since their days as students of Kings College, Lagos. Ovia came on board much later in January 2017 after meeting Sofowora through a mutual friend.
Of the three co-founders, Olubusi seems to be the most entrepreneurially inclined. Just after finishing his degree in electronic and communications engineering at the Morgan State University in the US, Olubusi founded KingsChat in 2014, an instant messaging and social network hybrid that has now grown to over a million users. After his masters at The John Hopkins University, he and Sofowora launched Helium Health, deploying at their first hospital in December 2016. Olubusi is also Managing Partner at magic.fund, a US-based early-stage angel fund which aims to invest in 20 startups every year.
“I spent some time thinking about it and the potential impact and how critical the problem we hoped to solve was, won me over. I can’t say I have any regrets,” – Dimeji Sofowora.
Born and raised in Lagos, Sofowora had always wanted to be a lawyer so after secondary school he went to study law at the University of Leeds in the UK, graduating in 2013. He went on to get his Masters degree in banking and finance law, fitting in a 3 month internship at Goldman Sachs in between the program. He returned to Nigeria for law school in 2014 and did his NYSC program at law firm Aluko & Oyebode. He was on track for career in law. Then in 2015, Olubusi reached out to him about building a healthcare data startup – Helium Health. After some contemplation, he eventually decided to focus on Helium Health completely. He even got his former boss and partner at the law firm he worked, Mr Oyebode, to make an angel investment in the startup.
“A lot of the numbers that are thrown around in the Nigerian healthcare space are estimates. It is very, very hard to find accurate data – there are non-existent in more cases than most people realize,” – Tito Ovia.
Prior to joining the team, she worked at the Lagos State AIDS Control Agency after returning from the UK where she had studied biomedical science. She had interned with Orbis in 2011, traveling to Mongolia for her work there. According to Tito, she never planned to do tech but following her work with the Lagos State AIDS Control Agency, and her experience in a third world country like Mongolia while interning for Orbis, she realised that technology could help fill a lot of gaps in the Nigerian healthcare industry. Then she met Dimeji and the rest, like they say, is history. An ambivert, Tito leads the startups marketing and sales efforts.
Through an unlikely alliance, the founders of Helium Health are using their product to improve outcomes for healthcare service delivery in Nigeria. Though the health space in Nigeria is still evolving, Helium health offers a lens through which we can gauge the future of healthcare service delivery in Africa’s most populous country.