Dr. Barry Finette of THINKMD

An exclusive Tech Tribune Q&A with Dr. Barry Finette (founder) of THINKMD, which was honored in our:
Tell us the origin story of THINKMD – what problem were you trying to solve and why?

I am a research scientist and pediatrician. Founding THINKMD came about when I decided to take a sabbatical and re-train myself, getting experience in the areas of global health and humanitarian assistance. I received a Diploma of Tropical Medicine & Hygiene at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and an International Diploma in Humanitarian Assistance from the UN Colleges and Fordham University. I spent a lot of time doing clinical healthcare capacity-building, research capacity-building, disaster assessments and, eventually, leading disaster relief missions initially in a variety of different countries including Bhutan, Uganda, Ethiopia, Republic of Congo, Cameroon, Togo, Benin, Jamaica, and Peru.

During this experience, a need that seemed to be universal was the fact that in low income countries (LMICs), and also a growing issue in high-income countries (HICs), there is an exponential growing shortage of professional healthcare providers, mainly doctors and quality nurses. In most LMICs, there is only one physician for every 2 000 to 50 000 people. In the areas that I was working, I was often the only physician that they would ever see in their lifetime. This is one of the main causes of premature death and increased mortality in these countries, since the paucity of frontline health professionals leads to communities not having trained professionals to make accurate clinical evaluation/assessment of patients when they are sick, what could be causing their illness and what is the best triage, treatment, and care plan for the condition/disease they may have. This is one of the main reasons for example why the under five mortality in the world mainly occurs in LMICs: 99% of children under the age of five who die are in LMICs. Often, those who are sick and require interventions are not identified appropriately. They do not have access to trained people who can do an integrated clinical examination, make appropriate recommendations, and follow the care of the child.

The other thing that struck me was the fact that cell phones are universally accepted. The cell phone has huge potential for delivering information. I became fascinated with the prospect of transferring how I “think” and do clinical assessments onto a phone and making it simple to use so that anybody could use it. This could dramatically increase healthcare capacity because integrated, clinical assessments are needed to determine if somebody is sick and what treatments they may need.

I decided I wanted to try and build this new digital clinical logic and distribute this technology since I could not find any other person or group who had already done so. All other technologies focus on case management or electronic health records (EHR) rather than how to accurately do clinical risk assessments, which would be based on paper-based guidelines that are very, very complex and not an accurate way to assess the condition of a patient. Other technologies are based on “binary decision trees” – a yes/no symptom algorithm, but doctors do not think this way. I wanted to transform the complex way that physicians think and put that onto a mobile device, using a very simple platform for the end-user so that anybody could do it. This is how THINKMD came about.

What was the biggest hurdle you encountered in your journey?

I encountered some personal challenges like learning how to start and run a company, build a product, and take it to market without formal experience. Obtaining funding as an older academic was also a hurdle that I had to navigate, along with being a doctor. There was a perception that those characteristics didn’t put me in a position to know much about business. Lastly, we’ve had to work hard at describing how our technology is unique and to differentiate it from other technologies that are seemingly similar. as well as build a product for markets that didn’t yet exist. We chose LMICs to build and implement the product initially for impact, even though it is not limited to LMICs, and in many of these countries, the infrastructure for digital health tools was not yet in place.

What does the future hold for THINKMD?

I think the future in global health in general is challenging on all fronts. It is a complicated market and a complicated time with the global health pandemics – both COVID-19 and others that will come. There is also global political instability and it’s really difficult to have good health where there is geopolitical instability. We are working in a market that is dependent on stability. The other major challenge in the delivering of health care in LMIC is the developed dependency they have on “donor” based funding of their health care for their country. This is not sustainable or dependable and all decisions are currently based on what others can and or willing to pay for. And those organizations are usually not the ones with the best understanding of what is needed.

In terms of health tech, what is exciting for THINKMD is that we are disrupting how healthcare is delivered. We need to build an understanding that health tech is not simply digitizing health information, but building out new novel digital health tools that have the ability to increase health skill sets and capacity as opposed to management of healthcare.

What are your thoughts on the local tech startup scene in Burlington?

The local tech startup scene has dramatically improved. There are incredible innovators in Burlington and an incredible entrepreneur feel. There are a number of investors that are actively in Burlington but still way too few to sustain and address the local potential. The biggest challenge is competing against Boston, New York, and San Francisco – places where there are a lot of resources and who in general don’t appreciate what we have in Burlington. This is a great scene for entrepreneurs, but it would be greater if the state could put more money into Vermont’s innovation.

What’s your best advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?

Make sure you are really passionate about what you are trying to do or build – if you aren’t 100% committed or passionate about your product, it will be impossible to move forward and be successful. It’s also okay if this changes, if you decide that you no longer want to hold on to your idea or don’t believe it will have the impact that you once thought it would. There are also many pathways to the same endpoint – you don’t have to believe anyone who says there is one way or a traditional way to achieve what you want. Lastly, sometimes saying no is the best way to get what you need. This is an important quality to have – you can’t say yes to everything and everyone.


For more exclusive interviews, see our full Profile of a Founder series