Former IBM executive Star Cunningham has spent over a decade building tech solutions for Fortune 500 clients. Today, she is the founder and CEO of 4D Healthware, a digital platform that helps patients track chronic conditions virtually through wearable devices, scales, and sensors, and share them with their healthcare providers.
We spoke with Star about her journey as a founder in the health tech space and how she envisions the future of the patient-clinician relationship. Check out our interview with her below.
Is 4D Healthware your first entrepreneurial venture, or have you had previous experience launching and running a business?
While 4D Healthware is my first formal entrepreneurial venture, I have been fortunate in my career to have roles that were entrepreneurial in nature and autonomous with the ability to build teams, explore cutting edge technologies, and bring structure to amorphic situations. Those early brushes with entrepreneurship provided good foundations in both product and market fit as well as pricing and customer service that I still practice today.
You openly speak about managing your own chronic pain and health conditions. How do these personal medical challenges play a role in shaping the vision for your company?
Because I do not have a healthcare background, my own experience consuming healthcare globally and designing smart service delivery platforms played a huge role in shaping the vision for 4D. Even though I’ve been privileged to have access to the best medical care in the world, I have personally experienced gaps in the system that have led to longer hospital stays, medication mistakes, and ER visits due to lack of integration and consumer-focused solutions.
I understand and empathize with those who may not have the financial means to access quality medical care. My conditions have improved, stabilized, and remained manageable because I use a combination of western and eastern medicine. I keep track of myself and manage my conditions, and I have the knowledge and skills to do so. Creating a solution whereby I can share my skills at scale is my passion. While most solutions are being built in the existing model of healthcare, I believe that in order to drive a new model, the healthcare industry must be disrupted with new solutions built on models that are quantitative, dynamic, agnostic, patient-friendly and extremely flexible.
Because my mother is out of state and aging, I also understand how powerless caregivers can feel. This can be addressed with the healthcare industry embracing and deploying technology like 4D.
People are living longer (albeit sicker) lives, and no one has taken on the enormous task of putting all the pieces together to understand why. The fragmented system can be made more cohesive with the application of technologies that are available now. Patient engagement and outcomes can be improved and medical care cost driven downward.
How does this influence your decisions about technology and how you serve your clients and customers?
My clients are providers and patients. Some [of their independent] needs are overlapping, many are not. Patients are consumers. Their expectations around healthcare are changing, much like that of the financial industry as they switched to direct deposit, installed ATMs, and created banking apps. Thirty years ago, banking transactions looked very different than they do today.
The same goes for healthcare. Soon, we will be looking back asking, “why did this take so long?”. The 4D solution meets client needs today and is designed to meet the constantly changing landscape of healthcare consumption tomorrow.
Your company is now in its sixth year. How has it grown since you first launched? Were there any significant changes through the years?
I started 4D Healthware with my personal savings and raised some money from family and friends. We now have 10 employees on our team and have raised $1.5 million in angel investments, and we’re preparing to raise more. We’ve since expanded our client base beyond healthcare systems to working with organizations that are moving quickly to address the issue of providing care to those who need it most.
How do you stay agile in this business as a female CEO? What have been your toughest challenges in building a health tech business?
I read non-stop and engage with other CEOs and industry experts who are just as passionate and tireless as I try to be. Knowledge gives a person agility. I also take time to re-charge, which is essential for good cognitive function.
The toughest challenge in building a health tech business is identifying the right types of investors, those who understand that health tech is not the same as consumer-based ventures where traction, eyeballs, and adoption are key indicators of success. Key indicators of success in health tech are: does it solve a tangible problem? Can it be integrated into the current workflow? Does it contribute to top-line revenue? Does it work?
Right behind that is identifying the right types of customers. Because health tech is a young business compared to the business of healthcare, many in healthcare don’t understand it, feel threatened by it, or are simply overwhelmed by it—and can we blame them? No, they are doctors and clinicians, not technologists. We need to partner with them, help them, support them, alleviate their fears and assist in bridging the gap from where healthcare is to where consumers are and provide tools and technologies that help them.
Because the health tech industry is so young and still finding its footing, it is also challenging building a company from a resource standpoint. My employees are amazing, they are intelligent, tenacious, relentless and exceedingly flexible. Which has allowed us to build an amazing product and for us to manage this constantly changing landscape while we achieve the ideal product/client fit.
How far away are we from most medical service providers adopting technology like yours to engage their patients and provide health monitoring? What are the current barriers to this adoption becoming ubiquitous?
I would say we are going to see a significant shift and more rapid adoption over the next three to five years. Consumers are already there; just look at the number of wearables that are being adopted by consumers. As consumers use these wearables, they are going to look for solutions that give them a more cohesive solution versus having 5 or more devices and apps.
They will want their clinical teams to be engaged with them and their data.
The most significant barriers are payment models that don’t take innovative platform solutions powered by wearables into consideration. Someone has to pay for the ‘equipment’ for the patients. If a diabetic patient is ‘equipped’ with the tools to better self-manage and they are being monitored and we prevent one trip to the emergency room or save one life, the ‘investment’ pays for itself.
Again, physicians aren’t technologists. That being said, they will need to either hire or partner with organizations that can help them to perform due diligence on the new and innovative solutions and deploy them. Healthcare entities will have to adapt and form internal organizations that focus on investment and innovation because they can invest in, partner with, and launch these solutions in their organizations, creating a win-win for entrepreneurs, patients, and themselves.
Lastly, what important trends or developments do you consider to be the next frontier in health tech, specifically for consumers?
The baby boomer generation will be an important demographic in digital healthcare within the next decade. You have a population of millions of people in their 50s and 60s who will soon be retiring and qualifying for Medicare. This is important because this age group is extremely tech savvy. They’re already using apps on their phones to bank digitally or keep up with their friends and family members on social media. Being able to manage their health care digitally through apps and communicate their health with their doctor is the next step.
A huge thanks to Star Cunningham for taking the time to share her thoughts on the current state of healthcare and where it’s headed next.