Presented by Providence Ventures

As a company founder of a health care startup, you likely spend a majority of your time developing your product. If you are successful in demonstrating product-market fit, you think your product should speak for itself. It solves an important problem in a large market, and has a solid business model around it. What more do you need?


Veterans of early-stage companies know that nothing is certain for a startup, and you can expect a great degree of learning and pivoting. Health care in particular is a minefield of day-to-day challenges, surprises, and shifts that could upend many professionals who might expect smoother sailing when their product proves alignment with a particular business need.

As an early-stage company starts to build and demo its products in the health care ecosystem, leaders should not dismiss the importance of hiring key people who can survive and thrive in this unique environment. What follows are some of the critical characteristics of successful people in health care startups.

1. Intense curiosity, understanding details that matter, and a desire for learning

Solving critical problems in health care requires a deep understanding of the problems  below the most obvious ones on the surface. People who probe for those causal problems, not just the symptoms of a problem, will better understand what the solution needs to do and when they are on the right track.

For example, many potential technology solutions have been introduced to meet the problem of medication adherence. The simple problem statement is that patients forget to take their medications when they are supposed to, or, on a deeper level, they get confused by having to take multiple medications at different times each day.

Yet, solutions that solve only for these problems will get little meaningful traction in the marketplace because they are not solving the problem in its entirety. Conversations with our leaders at Providence St. Joseph Health (PSJH) have helped us learn that there are a multitude of factors that challenge medication adherence.

These include affordability, side effects, barriers to achieving proper dosing, lack of belief that the medication is important, transportation and communication restraints that impact refill requests or prescription pickup, theft of drugs if delivered to the home, confusion over multiple prescriptions — and sometimes, forgetfulness.

People with the inherent curiosity and desire to dig into the problem more deeply will likely discover a lot more than what’s assumed.

2. Adaptability (aka grit)

The regulatory environment that governs health care can be astounding to entrepreneurs new to the industry. Solutions that seem to make perfect sense for better patient care can sometimes be at minimum, restricted and at worst, illegal.

For example, one would assume that a reasonable method to reduce overcrowding at Emergency Departments might be to re-direct patients who are not in need of ER-level care to lower-acuity facilities nearby. However, the practices of advertising another facility or referring a patient to another practice are highly regulated by both federal and local laws.

While good intentions direct many of the rules of health care, discovering these surprising road blocks can be enough to make an entrepreneur and their team used to developing new products in less-regulated industries increasingly frustrated. Thus, teams will need to be adaptable to new learnings and incredibly creative to develop products that can be used within the health care environment.

Those with the grit to face each newly discovered challenge with creative persistence will differentiate themselves through the wide funnel of new companies and talent trying to fix health care.

3. Self-awareness, humility, and authenticity

Very few, if any, individuals understand everything there is to know about the complex world of health care. While it’s possible to “fake it till you make it” to a degree when developing and pitching new products and services for health care, it can be disastrous to go too far in professing outcomes that haven’t yet been proven or product features that have yet to be built, destroying trust that took much effort to build. There are many famous examples of this in the industry…Theranos as one example.

Health care leaders are squarely focused on delivering high quality care every single day in an environment that is incredibly complex, highly regulated, and in which profit margins are increasingly slim. These professionals have little time to try out a new product in the context of their busy days or read an email about a new technology platform. Making an honest effort to understand their challenges, admitting to yourself where your weaknesses exist, and hiring people to fill the gaps shows that you truly are working to add value.

Implementing a product in health care is a long game; the relationships you develop and maintain will be critical to your solution being tested and fully integrated in a health care system. If you’re not easy or pleasant to work with, a product of high value won’t be enough to get it done.

Overall, seek out people who do their homework by seeking depth of understanding, are adaptable and creative in the face of what might seem like unnecessarily burdensome challenges, and bring their authentic selves towards deepening relationships with potential customers and end users. Your fantastic product will receive a warm reception with the right people behind it.

Christiana DelloRusso is Partner at Providence Ventures.

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