How do I find medical collaborators for my startup?

Guest post by Armen Vidian (Excerpt from his original answer on Quora)

Your question has multiple parts: identifying the right physicians, “getting to” them, and then selling them on your idea and convincing them to want to be a part of it.

The good news here is that doctors — even very renowned ones — are often as excited as you are about new technologies to help patients, and might be more interested in meeting with you than you initially may assume. However, do note that a lot of traditional medical device and pharma companies (both startups and major players) approach them often, so physicians have become accustomed to a certain level of attention and professionalism (with some variation depending on the specialty). Be sure you’re buttoned-up before approaching anyone; it’s worth the investment ahead of time. You’ll find the forethought to be more challenging than the actual tactics of reaching out.

I’ll start with a few strategic / planning considerations, and then add to Halle’s and Daniel’s great input with a couple of experiences of my own in reaching out to physicians. Not knowing how early of a startup you are, I’ll try to give as much of a “straight down the middle” answer as I can.

Decide what you want from a partner physician(s). I’ve found some technical founders want access to a doctor in order to get the product in front of patients and to verify functional accuracy, but keep in mind that that may not make the best use of his/her time, and not serve your long-term interests. I’ll outline 3 of the more significant roles a physician can add to your startup:

The Evangelist
This role is important when you consider the “flow” of information in medicine. Most doctors, overwhelmed with the work of seeing patients and managing a practice, look to certain “thought leaders” for their input on new technologies. The annual conferences where thought leaders debate their opinions are where these technologies often begin traction. A good thought leader can write an article for publication in a journal, give a great presentation at a conference, and is well-connected to get peers to buy in to your product. But this takes time, so don’t underestimate its value early in your startup. Accessing the physician market is not going to happen solely (or even primarily) through social media or the usual tech publications.

The Clinical Leader
You need someone who can give good input on the product’s usability, design, and fit within the doctor’s workflow. But keep in mind that the thought leader, described in (1) above, may not be the best fit for this role. Thought leaders, while excellent at what they do, have sometimes taken a career path where they give a lot of talks at conferences, publish articles, etc., and don’t see as many patients as they used to. Find someone for this role who sees a lot of patients in the current environment. Also, if you need to do a clinical study, this person will likely be able to enroll people quickly.

The Reimbursement Expert
This may seem like it’s a ways out, but the last time I went through this, it never felt like we could start early enough. A physician familiar with the byzantine rules of Medicare can be a great help to you at the annual Medicare Town Hall Meeting in Bethesda, at which s/he can present on key clinical measures s/he knows that CMS will want to see. Likewise (depending on your product/market), you might want someone with a knowledge of the private payer system to do the same. (Note that this role doesn’t apply for something like an EMR, but would apply for many technologies that impact clinical decision-making, such as remote diagnostic testing.)

Decide how many physicians you want on your board
If you wish to create a physician “Advisory Board”, consider how many you want on the Board. If you just have one person, you won’t get any diversity of opinion. But too many people are difficult logistically. For a small startup, I’d recommend 3, perhaps in the roles I’d mention above. Each can specialize in one of the categories, realizing that they will probably be able to give some degree of input about the other domains, too.

Consider geography
I realize that it’s just logistically easier to have all the doctors on your Board right in your area. But keep in mind that local doctors may not represent the market well. Be sure not to select only people who share your interests or love technology as much as you do. You’ll get better feedback.

Don’t underestimate the value of the ease of working with someone. At the end of the day, be sure to select Board members with whom you think you’d enjoy working. Not only will you have more fun, it’s those people who are easy to work with who come through in the clutch, are passionate about what you do, and are there for you when the chips are down.

On finding physicians, I have a couple of additional recommendations to Halle’s and Daniel’s:

Identify physicians in the relevant specialty to your product, and see if they’ve published a paper or written an editorial
Better yet — find someone who’s written about something directly relevant to the health care problem you’re trying to solve with your technology. Then, write the physician an email saying something to the effect of, “Doctor, I read your editorial in the Annals of Cardiovascular Medicine with great interest, as we at XYZ are developing a smartphone technology to remotely monitor patients with this condition. Would you like to meet to discuss?” This makes your call less “cold” by providing a logical reason for the call. And the doctor will be impressed you read up on him/her.

Attend the relevant medical society conferences
Try to attend the relevant annual medical society conference to your technology; this is worth several times the airfare you pay to get there, because everyone you want to talk to is in one place. If you don’t have budget for the registration fee to get into the exhibit floor and scientific sessions, book coffee/lunch appointments with as many physicians as you can find who are going to the conference, and ask if they can introduce you to their peers who are also there. If no one responds to your requests to meet, hang out in the main hotel lobby of the convention hotel, and strike up conversation with physicians there. The convention hall always has a coffee shop with a huge line outside of it, with your entire market just standing there. I know this seems a little like stalking, (and no, you don’t want to harass anyone!) but you might be surprised at how many are willing to talk to you when they’re just standing there waiting for coffee. Besides, you’re not looking to sign up everyone; you’re just looking for a few of the right ones. And if you can afford the registration, do go to as many of the sessions as you can. Remember, your technology is there to solve a problem related to healthcare. So…learn about the problems the doctors in your market have and are trying to solve. Not only will doctors be impressed that you took the time to learn, you’ll have a deeper understanding of the challenges and be more informed.

When meeting with a physician, consider the following:

At risk of coming off as paternal, I include this point so you can understand the expectation that’s been set. At conferences and at the hospital, physicians wear suits, and you should, too. Overdress, and at least you’ve shown respect. But losing a would-be supporter just because your appearance didn’t give a good impression? What a shame.

Don’t count on having all the time you were promised with the doctor
Plan on the possibility that you may wait in a doctor’s office for an hour and then have 5 minutes with him/her. It’s not personal, it’s just how a doctor’s day goes. But be ready with the short pitch: (1) What is the problem you’re trying to solve? (2) How does your technology solve it? (i.e., what’s the product?), and (3) State clearly what you want from the doctor (i.e., “we’d be excited to have your leadership in a study of our product”). This final one is important, and be sure to understand the extent of the commitment the physician can give and if that is going to work out mutually.

What if the doctor says no?
First, don’t freak out. Ask if there’s someone else s/he could recommend who might be interested. And thoughtfully ask what his/her concerns are. If s/he doesn’t believe in your idea, ask for feedback. At the very least, you may learn something. And once in awhile, the physician is not reacting to your idea inasmuch as s/he may be venting about approaches others have taken. More than once, I’ve won someone over by patiently listening to concerns. Selling someone on your idea is at least as much about how you listen inasmuch as about how you talk.

Keep in mind that many physicians consult to startups in exchange for equity and or compensation. In turn, they have an obligation to make known that they are being compensated when they present about your company in public. Without going into details here, I’ll just say that compensation is a delicate issue, and you should be sure to get educated on regulatory and legal issues ahead of time. It’s well worth your time in a rapidly changing environment to spend the money to talk with a regulatory attorney. It may seem like your technology is innocuous enough, but remember that for very good reasons, medical technologies — and not just implants or invasive devices — undergo a lot of oversight. It’s not worth your reputation or that of your company to be anything less than informed.