Interview with Huda Idrees

Huda Idrees is the CEO and founder of Dot Health which has its headquarters in Toronto’s Distillery District. Dot Health is “a real-time personal health data platform” that allows you to take your healthcare into your own hands. 

Dot Health can be downloaded on Android or IOS. The application allows you to store your health reports and records. The app follows provincial and federal privacy laws and uses bank-level encryption so you feel safe. 

Only you have access to your data. 

Users can make notes, access health glossaries and keep track of their health timeline. Medical data can also be converted into comprehensive visuals. Overall, Dot Health allows you to keep yourself and your healthcare providers up to date on your health.

Idrees’ work has been featured across various global media outlets. She received the 2019 Excellence Canada’s Board of Governors’ Special Recognition of Achievement Award, the YWCA Toronto’s Young Woman of Distinction and the 2018 University of Toronto Engineering Early Career Award among others.

Photos courtesy of Huda Idrees

WQ: What inspired you to found Dot Health versus another startup? 

HI: Healthcare is a pretty big industry, and one that’s pretty broken. In Ontario, we spend over 60 billion dollars on healthcare a year. Obviously, we spent more last year, given the pandemic, but the typical budget hovers around that number. If you think about it, for a population of 14 million, it’s pretty ridiculous. 

There’s a lot of waste in the system. A lot of it comes down to the way that we run our services. Public healthcare is inefficient by definition, unfortunately. I wish it wasn’t.

That’s really where the desire and the need for something like Dot Health came about. We found it was near impossible for Canadians to access their own health information. They were completely blind in their own care journeys. Our first user was a cancer patient who was diagnosed with Stage IV liver cancer. He had no idea what was going on. 

It wasn’t like we came up with an idea like “Yes, let’s create a healthcare company.” It was more like “This is a person desperate for help understanding what’s going on with his own health. What can we do to help?” That’s where it started.

WQ: How has the response been to Dot Health’s founding? Have you seen an increase in people taking their healthcare into their own hands? What’s been the evolution since then?

HI: The business was launched in 2017 and it’s pivoted quite a bit since then. What’s been pretty constant is the demand from Canadians for a service like this. 

The last year and a bit has been the busiest, the most successful and profitable because of the pandemic.  People still needed to access the same information but without the ability to physically go to healthcare providers.

I think the demand has always been there. I don’t think that’s ever going to change. I think what will change is the way the system is adapting or understanding where it needs to go. Often, with public systems, you kind of don’t care, right? There’s no motivation for government or public organizations to improve anything.

I think a lot of it depends on that. We’ve had a great couple years and it’s been hugely educational for us and the team.

Photos courtesy of Huda Idrees

WQ: Have you noticed a difference in terms of use between marginalized communities or more remote, rural communities compared to more urban areas?

HI: Our usage obviously remains high in densely populated areas. Ontario, Alberta and BC are our primary markets. We’re not spread across North America yet but we’re getting started. 

We’ve actually been surprised with the amount of people from remote communities who are part of our network. They almost need it more.

We don’t pitch it like this, and we don’t necessarily market it for Indigenous communities on reserves. We’re not marketing to them directly but we’re seeing usage from them. 

We have people on Dot Health who are all across the country. [When it comes to caring about your own health I think a lot of it has to do with your ability to access technology, your ability to understand what you think that you need, looking for the tools to help you on your journey and less so with location.] People care about their health regardless of location.

WQ: I was curious in how your background in engineering and your previous work experience guided you in launching Dot Health?

HI: I went to school for industrial engineering which is an engineering discipline that deals in improvement. Most other disciplines deal with some sort of basis in industrial engineering on top of existing engineering factions. There’s actually a stream at University of Toronto Engineering that specifically deals with healthcare inside of hospitals, called operations research.

I didn’t actually do that. I wasn’t initially thinking about going into healthcare. After graduating and working at a bunch of startups, I recognized healthcare was a huge area of need. I wanted to be able to apply the skills that I have.

It’s pretty easy to get a product like Facebook or a Google. It’s not an earth-shattering kind of job actually solving anything major. Like at Facebook, you’re probably trying to get more advertisers to look at stuff. It’s pretty similar at Google. 

Meanwhile there are lots of people and communities that are hurting because they don’t have access to good technology. Technology is not that hard. I think people just need to be applying it in the appropriate places and healthcare was one of them. 

I thought “Where are my skills needed the most, where can they do the most good?” The initial user I mentioned previously, he was really the reason it came to be. It’s not like I was looking to build a healthcare company, necessarily. I think a lot of it is influenced by the question “Can you improve a process?” And then combining that with the area of highest need.

WQ: What have you gained from your experience being on the board of directors for Tech Girls Canada or Ontario MD?

HI: Nobody really taught me how to be a board member. If you’re in school, nobody really outlines how being on boards is a different role. It’s actually been a really interesting professional development tool. 

I’ve been asked to sit on different boards or committees, and I actually didn’t understand why people were asking me. I had no idea what that involved.

A lot of it actually has to do with governance. Ontario MD is a private company but it’s entirely funded by the Ministry of Health. You’re actually deciding where these public dollars are going to go. I’m on the board of directors for Ontario MD and I also run their financial planning committee. There’s a lot of decisions made around money. It’s just so interesting because they have a very different structure than my own startup. I get to learn from other directors and we’ve had to tackle really challenging things at all the boards.

It’s a good learning opportunity for me. I’m sure there are lessons that I apply to Dot. I learned how to deal with difficult situations. I’ve learned how to communicate around staff. I’ve borrowed concepts around how to govern or how to develop policies. There are a lot of different policies that everyone’s adopted because of COVID.

I usually wish more people told me what being on a board is like and why that’s important. I honestly think more young people should be on boards. This is nothing against my other board directors, but everyone there is twice my age. Which is wild to me because you’re basically responsible for running these organizations. Why do we only have 60, 70-year-olds running these things? There are young people who have a huge part to play in their community. They either don’t get asked, which is unfortunate, or they’re not interested because they think it’s boring. Both of those things could be changed.

WQ: Did you imagine Dot Health would have the success it did?

HI: I think some of these things are just luck-based. Lately, what’s really interesting is we still get a lot of press coverage. It’s very funny because people think we have this big PR team. We don’t. We just happen to be in a field that’s just really interesting for a lot of people. I think we’re getting attention because it’s in the communal health tech field and it’s not super crowded.

I’ve been lucky to be able to travel the world and speak in general about healthcare, which is awesome. It gives you all these opportunities for personal growth and professional development.

It’s fantastic for Dot because it gives us a lot of credibility, especially in New York markets. We can say “We know the Canadian community, they know us, they love us, they’ve featured us, they’ve challenged us.” I think it lends a lot of credibility that way, which is great. But I don’t know that I went in with a desire to be featured across a bunch of different publications.

WQ: I imagine it’s not really something you prepare for or imagine will happen.

HI: We have a lot of PR strategy around it. There’s a huge push to talk about all the money we’ve raised. Dot’s done a few fundraisers and we’ve never announced it. That’s on purpose. A few people have asked us why. We just don’t think it’s an accomplishment to raise money. Often, a lot of companies will use that to say “Look, we did a thing.” You didn’t do a thing. If you helped millions of people, you did a thing. But if you raised money from a few people to then go and help people, that’s not really an accomplishment. That’s why we never really share it.

WQ: What’s in the works for the next few years and how are you hoping Dot Health will grow?

HI: We often use VISA as an analogy for what we’re trying to do at Dot. We really want to be a global transaction network. Anywhere in the world, your data would be able to travel with you so you get the care you need.

We’re really looking at expanding geographically. I think COVID has broken down a bit of that barrier in our minds and the market. The world sort of became a global village even though there were all these travel restrictions. We’re doing our Asia launch soon, which is going to be really interesting. We did our American and Mexican launches earlier this year, which is really exciting.

Our usage numbers have never been better. We’ve now processed millions of transactions in our network. We will continue to expand. The UK is a really interesting market for us but a difficult one to get into. 

We would love to become the ubiquitous transaction network for anyone dealing with health data, period. The global data movement is a big one for us. We’re going to keep expanding on our user enhancement features as we go.

WQ: Do you have any advice for young women looking to work in health or hoping to launch their own startups?

HI: I think young women as a group are underestimated the most, which is pretty wild and grossly unfair. I also think you can use that. You can leverage that unfairness into some kind of power for yourself. When people think you can’t do it, you take that on as a challenge. That’s one way of looking at it. 

I think more young people in general and young women specifically should start their own ventures, if they’re able to. I think it can be really daunting. One way to do it is to treat it like a side project and not as a full-blown company. That’s what I did. I had a full-time job when I started building Dot on the side. I left my job when I knew Dot would take off. There’s a certain sense of security with a job, especially if your parents aren’t multi-billionaires. It’s really difficult to have that safety net.

If you have an idea you can build a solution around, try doing it small and see where it goes. Invite people in and don’t be afraid to take the first step.

When it comes to the venture capital world, there’s a stupid amount of money that funds male founders. When if comes to female founders, they’re grossly underfunded. Now we’re seeing a lot more women going into venture capital. They’re becoming the decision makers to fund these ideas. 

I would also advise people to get involved with boards earlier on. I think it just teaches you a lot. Depending on which company board you’re on, it’s a lot of fun. You get to know about a new industry.

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