I’m now reflecting upon the recent annual Mailman Health Policy & Management Conference. It was great to see generations of EMPHers: my classmates milling about our predecessors and successors, sharing stories, and getting updates. I realized at one point that I really must put some time into creating the all-essential one-liner to describe my work and path. Somehow “clinical pharmacist transitioning into public health” doesn’t seem to fit anymore…and that’s when I ran into Rami who had the best one-liner ever. When asked what he was up to, he told me, “I now pay people to exercise.”
Rami Rafeh (c/o 2012) surprised me with his update. Since his graduation just six months prior, he has done what many of us aspire to…give birth to a project based on an idea. He started a company. He named it spott3r. And they pay people to exercise. Yeah, that’s right.
I was curious about all the steps leading up to it, so we chatted in Columbia Club’s plush leather foyer while I got the back-story. After studying biology (undergrad) and biomedical sciences (for a masters), Rami became a young, up-and-coming wiz at Pfizer working in drug safety. He quickly grew more proficient at the biz side of drug development and considered going back to school to pursue an MBA. His boss and mentor, an epidemiologist by training, encouraged him to pursue an MPH instead. This ended up becoming what Rami now reflects upon as being a great decision at a critical crossroads (yet another reason we should all have mentors). Rami came to Mailman with the ultimate goal of being a consultant, specifically at Mckinsey or Booze.
During the program, Rami proved himself to be quite the multi-tasker. At Pfizer, he transitioned to the Worldwide Business Development & Innovation team, took a health information technology program also at Columbia (a 7-month certificate program), became a limited partner for a healthcare start-up accelerator (more on this later), and an advisor to startup incubators. He was layering his skill set (science to business to technology and public health) in order to become an “out of the box” thinker and an asset to employers. And with this, he was able to beat out the MBA competition in an emerging niche. As superhuman as it all sounds, it turns out it was. Rami confessed to getting maxed out at one point, realizing he was possibly doing too much. Nonetheless, “it carved the path to entrepreneurialism” as he puts it.
Aside from a flashback to Back to the Future, I was unfamiliar with the term accelerator, so Rami set me straight. Essentially, they grow viable companies out of fledgling ideas. Good ideas. Or perhaps a cool solution to an existing problem. The accelerator (Blueprint Health, for example) provides space (co-shared with other innovators) + seed money + marketing assists + the proper mentors in exchange for part ownership. As a limited partner, Rami was surrounded by people converting ideas into companies, a contagious phenomenon. Combined with MPH classes (like strategy, marketing, social entrepreneurialism), Rami started brainstorming. At school, we spend countless hours discussing problems with the system. He simply thought of one solution. Spott3r grew from a school project. When he realized it was actually a good idea, he patented it.
How do you pay people to exercise, I wondered. And how is this a viable business model? He told me that people like to exercise – it makes them feel good and look good, but that’s not always enough to keep them going to the gym. Money might be the necessary boost. Furthermore, many health insurance companies recognize exercise as an investment and cut checks to customers who submit gym logs. In spite of that, many people don’t bother to make claims. And that’s where spott3r fits in – by partnering with gyms and insurance companies with consent by customers to create a win-win-win situation.
Why don’t people just make the claims themselves? The typical process is multi-step: providing a gym agreement, proving payment, sometimes showing evidence of cardiovascular equipment, filling out insurance reimbursement requests, and submitting them by mail. With spott3r, the customer simply fills out an online form and sits back while receiving checks. Rami’s company does the backend work and in return, takes a small percent from the customer’s reimbursement.
Rami still works at Pfizer. He also recently joined the Startup Leadership Program in NYC, which connects him with over 900 entrepreneurs worldwide to share best practices. Apparently approximately half of the NYC folks are alums or current students of Columbia University (news to me!).
As far as his dream of becoming a consultant? He tells me, “Nah, not for me anymore. Not to bash traditional careers, but I think I’ve found a way to make an impact while pursuing a passion.” He went on, “coming out of a program like ours with insights into healthcare delivery inefficiencies begets a lot of opportunity.” He wants this to be a call to action to other students…to partner up, mentor a start up, invest in projects, or do it oneself. There’s gratification in knowing that you are applying class work to the real world. Ultimately, Rami wants to tie the company’s efforts to health outcomes (obesity rates, cardiovascular disease, etc).
Next moves for spott3r? To partner with gyms and run pilots. They plan to launch widely late summer. Rami’s research indicates that there are over 25 million Americans who might be eligible. And the name spott3r? He reminded me that a spotter is the person who assists and protects when lifting weights. And the 3 for the e stands for “sign up, work out, and cash in.”
Sometimes the simplest ideas are the most elegant and perhaps even most impactful. Partly because simple translates into doable. Rami’s story makes me wonder about what walls we put up between change and us. It’s not really about the one-liner, is it? Perhaps the idea comes first, then the action, and the one-liner organically follows. Stuff to ponder…
Check out the spott3r video here: http://bit.ly/spott3rlaunchvideo