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Startups to watch: These startups look to take digital healthcare services mainstream in Bangladesh

A twenty-something corporate professional orders a pathology test via a mobile app. He chooses the test and lab and places an order for an at-home test. The next hour, a medical technician visits him at the office and collects his blood samples. 

A middle-aged woman from Chattogram schedules a video consultation with a doctor in Dhaka using an app. She books the appointment online and attends the consultation through a video call from her mobile phone. 

A young father needs to buy medicine for his kid. He opens a web app and places an order for the medicines. Medicines arrive after an hour. 

Three different types of healthcare services, but they all fall under the same category. Welcome to the world of digital health.

It’s a subset of growing healthcare solutions in Bangladesh that leverages technology to deliver healthcare services. It can be in the form of telemedicine, e-medicine delivery, at-home diagnostics services, as shown in the examples above. While the first model—telemedicine—has been around for a while, the last two are recent developments in Dhaka’s healthcare space. 

Companies like AmarLab, DocTime, SafeWheel, MedEasy, and Square Health are some of the players trying to take advantage of a shifting consumer market in Bangladesh post-pandemic by offering digital healthcare services. 

All four startups have seen meaningful growth over the past months, partly owing to the pandemic-induced digital services boom. For example, AmarLab said it has seen a 6X growth in the past few months and the company now eyes a 10X growth by December. 

This isn’t surprising, considering the digital healthcare industry is still in its infancy. The healthcare market in Bangladesh is massive. The sector has tons of challenges. On the back of these challenges, several founders are trying to raise capital and build fascinating companies. In fact, several companies have been able to attract decent investments from both local and international investors. 

Judging by how digital healthcare services companies have scaled in India and Indonesia, Bangladesh might just welcome a few major digital healthcare services companies in the next few years. 

However, the road to building successful and large-scale digital healthcare companies is not clear-cut for Bangladesh’s young digital healthcare startups. All the companies we covered earlier and feature in this list are still experimenting with different strategies to realize the sector’s potential. Significant work lies ahead before we get to a point where digital healthcare does make a real difference. 

There are three main things that differentiate one player from the next—the problem it is solving—while there are many challenges, it appears that companies are yet to find problems that can offer a truly demand-driven market, the product categories it focuses on, and the geographies in which it operates. Based on these three factors, there are many different ways to approach the market. And for every choice, there’s always a trade-off.

To that end, Dhaka’s digital healthcare market is yet to have a clear winner. 

In this edition of our startups to watch series, we feature five fascinating digital healthcare companies offering distinct products and services across verticals. All five companies are in their early stage either just closed their pre-seed or seed investment. But each of them offers a peek inside the fast-evolving nature of Dhaka’s startup scene. 

AmarLab’s on-demand at-home diagnostics services and data play  

Amarlab is an on-demand at-home pathology services company based in Dhaka. The company works with hospitals and lab partners to deliver at-home diagnostics services. 

AmarLab has developed its proprietary sample collection process to deliver quality service. Customers can book tests through the AmarLab website, mobile app, call center, or messenger. Customers can also choose their preferred labs for getting the tests done. Upon confirmation, Amarlab’s medical technician visits the customers at their preferred location for the sample collection, be it their home or office, collects the samples, takes the samples to the designated lab, gets the tests done, and delivers both digital and physical reports to customers. 

Amarlab says it can offer a one-hour window to customers for collection — which means Amarlab can collect your sample within an hour of placing an order for a test.

The strength of Amarlab comes from its ability to collect samples from customers' homes and offices cost-efficiently while maintaining the exacting quality. Many hospitals and labs do offer home collection services for emergency cases but doing it at scale is often infeasible for most labs and hospitals. Many are not equipped to do it at scale and for others, it is not a profitable thing to do. AmarLab has built processes and systems to provide home collection services. This has made it an ideal ally for the hospitals and labs that want to provide at-home collection services but don’t have the proper setup. 

Now apart from being a partner of Amarlab on its platforms, many hospitals and labs are outsourcing their entire home collection delivery to Amarlab opening a new door of opportunity for the company. 

Founded in 2017, the company has experienced excellent growth within a short period. We previously featured Amarlab several times. Like every other digital service, the coronavirus pandemic has changed the digital healthcare landscape in Bangladesh. Owing to the shifts in the market and a relentless focus on growth, Amarlab is a different company today. In the last one year, the company has seen 6X growth across all important metrics, raised half a million in pre-seed investment, and expanded its operations in two cities outside Dhaka. The company now looks for accelerated growth. 

“We serve several thousand patients every month,” says Amarlab CEO Tazin Shadid. “We are working to significantly increase that number. By December, our goal is to get to 500 users daily. This is our north star.” 

The company also plans to expand to other divisional headquarters this year. Apart from its partner lab service, it has introduced a cloud lab model from which it provides bulk and dedicated test services for partners and plans to open a few more cloud labs. 

Amarlab currently operates in three cities including Dhaka, Chittagong, and Savar. 

DocTime’s distinct telemedicine ambition 

DocTime is an online medical consultation service where doctors consult patients on video calls using the DocTime app or website. Simply put, DocTime provides on-demand video telemedicine service with verified and certified doctors in Bangladesh. 

The company has built a platform where customers/patients can book appointments with doctors in real-time, consult through a video call, and get a digital prescription through a built-in system on the platform.  

DoctTime has built an excellent platform, both web, and app. Patients can find doctors 24/7, get consultations via video call by paying a consultation fee. At the end of the consultation, the doctor immediately uploads the e-prescription which the patient can download from the App. The company says all doctors on the DocTime platform are minimum MBBS qualified and BMDC certified. And that its video calls are encrypted and secured by using a 256-bit encryption method that ensures the confidentiality of patients. 

The company says it is vertically integrated with medicine delivery suppliers, diagnostics services partners, and payment providers for an end-to-end digital health experience. Customers can avail almost all their healthcare needs from within the DocTime app. The app also has features for follow-up consultations. DocTime also stores a patient's previous medical profile and prescriptions and users can use DocTime for the entire family.

Founded by Anowar Hossain in 2020, the company has experienced excellent growth within a short period, thanks to the timing and excellent product and execution strategy. If you go through the DocTime platform, the company has managed to build a system to offer affordable doctor consultation services in Bangladesh apparently at scale. The availability of doctors has also been excellent. Users can find a doctor at any hour of the day. This has made the platform reliable to users. The company says it is on a “mission to improve the health and wellbeing of the population it serves and aims to take its services to every village in Bangladesh at affordable cost.” 

DocTime says it has more than 20 different specialties available on its platform and is growing every day. Apart from doctors who provide services through the DocTime platform, the company also maintains a small team of doctors who provide services when doctors are not usually available on the platform. 

The company says it aims to empower doctors to serve more patients by making their lives easier. It has built the platform in such a manner that doctors can give consultations while sitting in their cars while commuting. Doctors can set their availability hours on the platform and provide service accordingly. This has helped the company convince many doctors to provide consultation at relatively lower fees. 

SafeWheel focuses on e-pharmacy 

Founded in 2018 by Rafiq Islam, Faysal Islam, Mazbahul Islam, Anas H Makki, and Sadat Daniel, SafeWheel originally started as a venture aimed at providing affordable ambulances and on-demand emergency medical services in rural areas of Bangladesh. The company wanted to turn local three-wheelers into easily accessible ambulances, especially for underprivileged communities. However, SafeWheel has since pivoted to become a digital healthcare marketplace for healthcare products, and lab tests. Currently available in Dhaka, the company is primarily focused on medicine delivery. 

SafeWheel is a fascinating story because the company came out of a student entrepreneurship competition. Rafiq, Faysal, and Mazbahul, students of the Marketing Department at Bangladesh University of Professionals (BUP), participated in The Hult Prize competition in 2019 with the original idea of SafeWheel. The company has since gone through a number of iterations and today is primarily focused on online pharmacy while aiming to build a marketplace for healthcare products and services. 

Online pharmacy has seen phenomenal growth in many markets including India and Indonesia. Dhaka has several players in the space. One of the earliest players in the vertical, BanglaMeds, was acquired by Chaldal a few months ago. Other prominent players in the vertical include Arogga, pharmacy.com.bd, ousud.com, etc. 

MedEasy’s ecosystem ambition 

Previously Daktar Bondhu, MedEasy was launched in October 2020. The founding team includes Arefin Zaman, Dr. Golam Moktadir Prince, Nazmul Hossain, and Mamun-Or-Rashid. The company was one of the winners of the R-ventures 2.0 by Robi Axiata Ltd and is a portfolio startup of the IDEA project by the ICT division of the Govt of Bangladesh. The company raised an undisclosed seed investment from SBK Tech Ventures last year. 

MedEasy started as an online doctor consultation platform and has since expanded into medicine delivery and on-demand at-home diagnostics service. MedEasy provides some of these services through partnership. 

The company claims it has over 60 specialist doctors across 20 departments on its platform that patients can access through its app. On the medicine delivery, it claims to deliver authentic medicine and healthcare products to the patients’ doorstep within 24 hours inside Dhaka city. 

The company claims that 50% of its paying customers are recurring and its app users can save up to 15% in healthcare expenditures each month. 

Square Health’s healthcare digitization play 

Square Health is the only company in this list owned by a conglomerate. Square Health, as the name suggests, is owned by Square Group and is undoubtedly one of the most fascinating companies on this list. 

The company described itself as “a healthcare services aggregator aiming to digitize healthcare services”. It says it is on a “mission to help build a country where every patient can access their health information and participate in their own care, and every healthcare organization can serve their community quicker and more safely through cutting-edge technology with instant access to records, knowledge, and data.”  

As the description suggests Square Health offers products for both doctors and patients. 

For Doctors, the company has a product called Jotno Expert that allows doctors to manage their appointments and write prescriptions digitally. It also automates data management for doctors. “The data is backed up in real-time, encrypted and safely stored away on the cloud; saving the caregiver the hassle of dealing with storage of files and folders and never losing patient histories again,” the company writes on its website. 

For patients, Square Health has Jotno Patient. Jotno Patient is a stand-alone app that allows customers to “look up symptoms, find doctors, book appointments, consult (remote or physical), get prescriptions, order medicine, book investigations, etc.” The app also allows “users to record health data, sync with devices along with few other ancillary health services.”

Private practice automation for healthcare professionals and digital doctor consultation and diagnostics, both verticals have several interesting companies in Dhaka. Square Health getting into these verticals means competition will intensify in the coming months. 

SQUARE as a group is one of the major players in Bangladesh’s healthcare sector. The homegrown conglomerate owns several prominent entities in the healthcare sector. Getting into digital health makes sense for the company. While Square Health has seen excellent growth, per several people aware of the matter, the company runs into the innovator's dilemma of being part of a large conglomerate. How Square Health navigates the challenge will determine its trajectory going forward. 

Startups to watch is a weekly series from Future Startup. You can read our previous editions here. 

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