How MedMe’s Rui Su went from pharmacist to founder

Canada’s overburdened doctors need help. And it may come from a different group of professionals with a tendency toward white coats. With hospital waiting times increasing, provincial governments are expanding the range of services pharmacies can offer to include prescription contraception and treatments for minor ailments such as ear infections. But the transformation of pharmacies from pharmacies to community health centers requires substantial behind-the-scenes changes. For Rui Su, co-founder and chief clinical officer of MedMe Health, a digital healthcare start-up, this is a major business opportunity.

MedMe helps solve a pressing problem for pharmacists: inefficient processes that slow down service delivery. Su, a former pharmacist, and her co-founders Purya Sarmadi and Nicholas Hui have created a web platform that allows pharmacies to automate a number of administrative tasks. Features include tools to schedule clinical services such as vaccinations, generate documents, send patient reminders, and enable video consultations.

MedMe was founded three years ago and is used by more than 3,600 pharmacies across Canada. In March, it secured a $2.7 million seed round led by Microsoft’s venture capital fund M12. But as a young woman of color with a background in healthcare, Su didn’t always feel comfortable entering a leadership role in technology.

We chatted with Su about MedMe Health’s mission, what it was like to move from medicine to technology, and how other entrepreneurs helped her embrace her inner founder.

How did MedMe come about?

When I was a practicing pharmacist, I saw many challenges around workflows and the existing inefficiencies. I wanted to provide more proactive care for my patients, but didn’t have the time, resources, or tools to help me change my practice to do so.

I have two other co-founders, who are non-pharmacist. We encountered the problem separately. For them, it was seeing their parents struggling with chronic conditions and realizing that pharmacies can be leveraged to provide better care and ultimately create a more sustainable healthcare system. My co-founders first met, then one of my female entrepreneurial friends from the University of Waterloo told me what they were doing and asked if I wanted to meet them. Our first meeting lasted 12 hours – we just clicked.

What was it like going from pharmacist to founder?

It has taken a lot of growth and there have been personal and professional challenges to cope with entering a new industry. I have pharmacy expertise, but I needed to learn about product development, business development, customer success cycles and sales. As difficult as it was, I was also pleasantly surprised by the number of transferable skills I had. I’ve also seen that transformation with other pharmacists we’ve hired who have been involved in product management, clinical operations, sales and business development. It was great to see them bloom in different ways.

You’ve talked about your biggest challenge before, which is the belief that you didn’t look like a founder or have the skills and experience of a founder. Why did you feel this way?

I’m a pharmacist with traditional training, but most of the stories you see about successful founders are about white male engineers who left school to build software out of their garage. They are coders; they made their products themselves. That felt so many worlds away from my experience and made it hard for me to see myself in a role like this.

How have you changed your mindset?

In the beginning I had a lot of doubts about myself. Everything felt so difficult and strange. But my co-founders believed in me, and thanks to their encouragement and how steadfast and confident they were, I was able to slowly work through these feelings and face any challenge. We have also benefited from mentorship and start-up communities. We joined the University of Toronto’s hatchery, the University of Waterloo’s Velocity program, and Y Combinator, where I found like-minded individuals also struggling with self-doubt. That helped me to see that I wasn’t alone and that we were all doing great things.

What’s next for MedMe Health?

We are expanding to both the US and Europe. We look at countries with similar pharmacy practices and similar opportunities for us to make an impact.

What advice would you give other founders, especially those from non-traditional backgrounds, who are just starting out?

Don’t feel hemmed in by your current professional identity, whether it’s self-imposed or society’s perception of who you are and what you can do. This is especially important for clinicians because it is traditionally more difficult to break out of the identity framework. Leverage the transferable skills you have as a clinician: your acute sense of empathy, deep knowledge of the healthcare system, and first-hand experience of the challenges facing various stakeholders.

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