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Toronto startup veteran launches digital health-records platform

Dot Health’s Huda Idrees

Chris Chan

The first time Huda Idrees became a CEO she was just 12 years old.

Having learned several computer-programming languages and Web design at school in Saudi Arabia, one day it dawned on the enterprising young woman that she could sell those services. Her first client was a landscape architect who hired her to build a website in both English and Arabic. While that first turn at helming a business no longer makes the cut for her stacked resumé, it gave Ms. Idrees an insatiable taste for running her own show.

Now 26 and an established darling of Canada's tech-startup community, Ms. Idrees is set to reprise that leading role at Dot Health, a new Toronto-based startup she is bringing to life. Set to launch this month, the company aims to neaten the global mess of disparate patient health records by collating and then putting them directly in the hands – via smartphones, tablets and computers – of patients for a low monthly fee.

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"What if you could press one button and get all your information, all at once? That's where Dot Health came into being," said Ms. Idrees, who conceived of the idea while watching a friend's father struggle to get his health records – and as a result, proper treatment – during a battle with late-stage cancer. "Health information lives scattered across multiple different systems. It is a massive problem in the global health-care system," she said.

"Dot Health will go get all your information for you and store it in one place," she said, adding: "We want people to be the CEOs of their own health. We're not talking about rocket science here."

While Ms. Idrees might not think so, others in the health-tech sphere say that attempting to solve the longstanding patient-records problem will be monumentally tough. Numerous companies have attempted the feat but missed the bull's-eye with consumers. Fees are typically expensive, ranging up to $89 per record retrieved owing to the fact that most hospitals and doctors' offices charge $30 or more to release them. Existing monthly subscriptions for records-retrieval services range from $20 to $75 but the number of retrievals allowed is typically capped. Thus far, none of the players have become the gold standard. Ms. Idrees is hoping to achieve this by charging users around $10 per month to retrieve an unlimited number of records, store them securely and provide patients open access.

"Huda is entering a thicket of regulation," said Josh Landy, a Toronto-based physician and co-founder of Figure One, a photo-sharing app for doctors that has become a global success since launching in 2013. In startup mode, Dr. Landy and his partners learned how rife the health-tech sector is with red tape and privacy issues; to avoid being stifled by them, he said, his team worked to identify obstacles in advance and tailored their business model to avoid them.

Although Dr. Landy doesn't know Ms. Idrees personally, he, like many others in the Canadian tech community, knows her blue-chip reputation. "She is a juggernaut. Huda has been so successful at every company that she has been at, she needed to pick something extremely challenging," he said. "There isn't a better person to do this."

Ms. Idrees has had several high-profile roles at startups since graduating from University of Toronto engineering in 2013. The latest was an executive role at Wealthsimple, an online investment-management service where she grew a team from five to 50, built a mobile app from scratch and helped secure a $30-million investment from Power Financial Corporation.

She resigned from Wealthsimple last year to focus on the health-records tech gap. "It is a massive unfixed problem and nobody was looking at it because it doesn't have fast money in it," she said. "This isn't a charity or a not-for-profit. But at the end of the day, we want this to have a positive impact. We're actually in it to do good for people."

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Christian Lassonde, a venture capitalist who specializes in finance startups, said Ms. Idrees is well-suited to the challenge. "It takes someone like Huda who can galvanize a team around a proposed solution and break down the barriers that prevent solutions from materializing," he said. "We need more leaders like her starting ventures and disrupting the status quo."

Until now, Ms. Idrees hasn't publicly discussed Dot Health. But her months' long disappearance into "stealth mode" has drawn the curiosity of a wide swath of tech-industry observers, including an unsolicited lineup of venture capitalists who have offered to invest in Ms. Idrees's effort despite knowing scant details. Ms. Idrees, happy to continue bootstrapping while Dot Health firms up its model, has declined all offers so far.

While she will eventually need investors to grow, Ms. Idrees and the company's two other employees work out of free office space provided by DMZ, an incubator for startups in downtown Toronto. The trio completed a pilot in December that saw them post revenue; they collected health records for about 200 paying clients from 35 hospitals in Ontario and British Columbia.

While she considers the right growth strategy, Ms. Idrees and her team are busy forming partnerships with provincial health officials, hospitals and medical professionals across the country, pitching to win their trust. Part of her argument is that doctors will be able to give better care if they, too, can easily access entire patient records at the click of a button (also for a monthly fee).

But for everyone to win, Ms. Idrees has to convince health-records holders to open up access for her company on the cheap. The low user-fee structure in Dot Health's longer-term business model hinges on their ability to collect patient records data for far less than the $30 each record currently costs. Ideally, Ms. Idrees will get them for free. But to sell her case, she also knows she has to make it easy for hospitals. Toward that end, Ms. Idrees has nailed down an exclusive partnership with a leading electronic medical-records company that works with most major hospitals she will target. Plugging into them – and designing Dot Health to be compatible with those records – will speed the company's ability to vacuum in records data as more hospitals sign on.

Currently, Ms. Idrees said she is working with Toronto's Mount Sinai hospitals; she is also in talks with the city's University Health Network, among others. The goal is to spend the next decade building a global company capable of providing full health records to patients all over the world regardless of their ability to pay for it.

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"I don't want startups to stand purely for dollar signs. I would be an ad company if I wanted just to make money. That's relatively easier than trying to work with hospitals," Ms. Idrees said. "But if we all do that, then how will anything change? Somebody has to do this."

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About the Author
Global food reporter

Jessica Leeder is the Globe’s Atlantic Reporter, based in Halifax, Nova Scotia. In previous roles, Jessica has reported for the Globe from Afghanistan and post-quake Haiti, assignments for which she won an Emmy and a National Newspaper Award, respectively. She has also written about the politics of global food, entrepreneurialism and small business, and automotive news. More

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