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How AmarLab was created

All creation stories are fascinating. Over the years, we have published a handful of creation stories of Bangladeshi startups—how these companies got started. While there is a common thread among these stories, each story offers a fascinating insight into not only how companies come into being but also how things usually happen. The stories provide a beautiful reminder about the reality of our work and life that: often the hardest part of any journey is getting started. If you can muster the courage to start, things will roll. The second reminder is that randomness rules our life. Things rarely go to plan. But it is not all doom and gloom. Rather it means when we try our best, better things manifest than our plans. In today’s episode, we look into the origin story of AmarLab. 

Founded by Tazin Shadid and Ishtiaque Zahid in 2017, Amarlab is a Dhaka-based digital healthcare startup that provides at-home diagnostic test services. Along with its excellent consumer healthcare services, the company has launched several B2B solutions targeting both companies where it provides its services to employees through corporate partnerships and hospitals, where it enables hospitals to deliver home collection pathology solutions. In partnership with other healthcare services companies, AmarLab also helps customers access other relevant healthcare facilities such as medicine delivery, doctor appointment, and so on. 

AmarLab has experienced excellent growth within a short period of time. We have seen an influx of new healthtech startups scale their operation in the past two years. Amarlab is easily one of the most prominent players in the vertical. 

In an interview with FS published in 2021, AmarLab CEO Tazin Shadid shared how the company came into being and what the early days were like. The story offers excellent lessons about passion and entrepreneurship. 

This is an excerpt from our interview with Mr. Tazin, you can read the full interview here

On the origin of Amarlab

Tazin Shadid: We have been working in the health care sector for around 15 years. In 2007, my mother was diagnosed with late-stage cancer. I was working at Microsoft back then. My mother, Alhamdulillah, has miraculously survived. But those were difficult days. For the first time, I had a direct experience of going through the healthcare system in Bangladesh. Healthcare is a challenge in many countries in the world. While our healthcare system has its good sides, it is a broken system nonetheless. The experience with my mother’s illness was the first inspiration for me to start working in the healthcare sector.

In 2007, I founded a clinic to provide free medical services such as consultation, tests, etc. Dr. Ishtiaque Zahid, my co-founder at Amarlab, was the first doctor to join our clinic. Within just 10 years, we had served more than 200,000 patients in our clinic.

In 2016, I returned to Bangladesh permanently. By that time, we learned a lot about the healthcare sector in Bangladesh. We realized that a lack of innovation and creativity is a challenge in the sector. It is not that we need disruptive ideas to transform the sector, rather we need comprehensive basic solutions to address the basic problems around healthcare delivery and quality services.

We realized that healthcare is not a problem for underserved people alone, it is an equally uphill battle for affluent people. We realized the challenges in the sector can’t be solved through charity work alone. We need robust initiatives to address these challenges.

Just to give you an understanding of the challenges we are facing in healthcare in Bangladesh: we have only six doctors for every ten thousand people. For every 73,000 people, there is only one medical technologist. The challenge is not only about the socio-economic issues, but also about the lack of experts and access.

It takes around five and a half hours on average to do a diagnostic test. A patient has to go to the diagnostic center, wait for hours to do the test, and once done, they have to visit the diagnostic center again later to collect the test report. This entire process is not only time-consuming but also stressful for the patients and their relatives. We thought we could do something innovative in this area to solve this problem. Therefore, I, Dr. Ishtiaque Zahid, and Sabbir Amin, a friend of mine and a successful entrepreneur, started to look for an innovative solution to this problem.

There are several reasons why we choose to solve issues related to diagnostic tests first: many times patients do not complete their required diagnostic tests after being prescribed by their doctors because of the hassle involved with doing a test. It is time-consuming, difficult, and for many patients, a challenge due to their age and physical condition. In the case of elderly patients, someone needs to accompany them while going for a test. Overall, the experience of doing diagnostic tests is not pleasant in most instances.

We thought we could design a service to address these challenges where patients can get this service at home. Since we ran a clinic, we had an understanding of how this works. But we decided to understand the realities and requirements of providing at-home diagnostic services. We spent almost a year in R&D to develop our sample toolkit, develop the processes and systems, develop the user experience, etc.

While it appears like a home delivery service, it is not. This is an intimate service. Patients are allowing our people inside their houses. Our staff has to work with the patients and their family members. In hospitals, they have a convenient and straightforward working environment. But here they have to visit patients’ houses, talk with the patients and their family members and deal with any emergencies and situations that might emerge. Hence, we took a year to build our entire service and train our staff.

When we finally launched Amarlab, Tamzid Siddiq Spondon, the Managing Director of NeoFarmers and Zanala Bangladesh, took over the responsibility to run it since I and Zahid were working on other initiatives. He ran Amarlab for a year, managing the entire operation, building the MVP, and finding the initial transaction to the stage where it needed more attention. Later I and Zahid took over the responsibility and now we are working here full time. This is how we started Amarlab. We’ve learned a lot along the way.

Now we have a pretty steady growth. Our month-to-month growth is around 140%. Especially when COVID hit last year, we saw a surge in demand as visiting diagnostic centers for the COVID-19 test is risky. We have done some 12,000 orders so far. Usually, when people use our service once, they never go back to the diagnostic centers again. We have also launched several other related services such as telemedicine, prescription drug delivery, etc.

We want to provide people healthcare services at their homes, within their comfort zone. From running a clinic, we have learned that the majority of healthcare services can be delivered at home with the proper equipment and preparation. Our vision is to make healthcare accessible to everyone everywhere in Bangladesh.

On the mechanics of AmarLab’s operation 

Tazin Shadid: In terms of operation, we are completely different from other home-delivery services as we have to go inside the patients’ homes. Timing is an important factor in our service. While collecting samples, our staff may have to wait for 10-15 minutes for the patients to get ready. Sometimes they face some challenges such as getting interrupted by a family member of the patient while collecting samples, etc. Since our staff has to face different types of challenges while collecting samples, we focused on those issues during our R&D.

We serve four major groups of patients: the first one is the elderly patients with chronic diseases. They need to do various diagnostic tests regularly. The second group is the pregnant women. 10% of our users are pregnant women. They have to do regular diagnostic tests for about a year. The third group is the busy professionals for whom convenience and time are important. We do their tests in their offices. The fourth group is the newborn babies.

We have worked on these groups as each group has different needs. We had to figure out how to provide our service to different groups of patients.

Right now, we are working on health data. My mother miraculously survived after being diagnosed with cancer. But dealing with her medical needs remains a challenge. Still, when I take her to the doctors, I have to carry the printed copies of the diagnostic test reports of the past 15 years. I have all these documents organized in different files. We want to solve this challenge. We want to provide people with an option to record, preserve and access their health data so that they can keep track of their health and do not need to carry the printed copies of their prescriptions and health records with them anymore.

This is an excerpt from our interview with Mr. Tazin, you can read the full interview here

Mohammad Ruhul Kader is a Dhaka-based entrepreneur and writer. He founded Future Startup, a digital publication covering the startup and technology scene in Dhaka with an ambition to transform Bangladesh through entrepreneurship and innovation. He writes about internet business, strategy, technology, and society. He is the author of Rethinking Failure. His writings have been published in almost all major national dailies in Bangladesh including DT, FE, etc. Prior to FS, he worked for a local conglomerate where he helped start a social enterprise. Ruhul is a 2022 winner of Emergent Ventures, a fellowship and grant program from the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. He can be reached at ruhul@futurestartup.com

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