An Interview with Hugh Ma, Founder & CEO of Robin Care

Hugh Ma is the founder and CEO of Robin Care, a Silicon Valley Based Digital Health startup that is tackling the complex navigation of Cancer care. Through their technology-enabled service platform, Robin Care provides high-touch advocacy, coaching, counseling and guidance to Cancer patients as they fight their disease, with the aim of dramatically improving the patient experience, reducing costs and increasing the quality of outcomes. We sat down with Hugh to learn more about the business, his background, and why he’s passionate about solving this problem.

Q: Tell us a little bit about Robin Care and its mission.Hugh Ma

A: Without fail, people who have been touched by cancer understand how terrible the experience is. And what they learn, is that cancer isn’t just a clinical situation, it has a domino effect on everything that goes on with the cancer patient and their families. That suffering is unnecessary, and that’s what our mission is to change. Our mission is to bring to people the help and guidance that completely changes their cancer experience. With cancer, one thing that we hear a lot, is ‘if you guys were involved, I would have known on Day 1 what I now know on day 300, and that would have changed everything.’

Our mission is about 3 things: It’s about changing the lives of cancer patients and their loved ones. It’s unique that we’re able to bring to it a level of expertise and experience both in healthcare and entrepreneurship, which means that we can find the business models and the ways to navigate healthcare that can affect that change. Our second mission is to make sure we leverage our own capabilities the way we should, and our relationships the way we should, to achieve that impact on patients. And the last mission is around meaningful change in healthcare; the model we’re bringing to healthcare is the kind of thing you saw in earlier forms with companies like Livongo and Omada, etc. We stand on their achievements and their shoulders in taking it to the next level, in using digital in healthcare that hasn’t been seen before, and it’s being embraced by the market strongly.

Q: You’ve been in healthcare virtually your whole career, and this isn’t the first time you’ve incubated a company from scratch. What’s different this time?

A: This time there are a few things coming together that haven’t existed for a while. First, healthcare is at a point where change is both inevitable and as needed as it has ever been. That’s created an environment and an appetite for things that weren’t there even 3-5 years ago. The second is, technology has developed to a place that’s different. And it’s the way that technology has weaved itself into our actual lifestyle. Everyone talks about how smartphones didn’t exist until a little while ago, and now they’re so pervasive. That has been an important piece for us – the ability to integrate technology into people’s lives in a seamless way that fits their lifestyle. If that wasn’t there, we couldn’t do what we do. The last piece is that there’s been enough experimentation in healthcare that people have a sense of what does and doesn’t work. So this is not 1.0, this is at least 2.0, and that means that people have a sense of recognizing what’s good and what’s bad, and that has worked out well for us.

Q: Traditionally, Cancer advocacy is expensive, manual, it’s 1-1, it’s not accessible to most, which makes it very elusive for the vast majority of patients. How do you foresee Robin Care addressing that problem at scale?

A: The combination of technology and Cancer Advocates allows us to do that. Particularly because technology allows us to achieve dual goals. Technology allows us to have a relationship and intimacy with our patients that wasn’t possible before. That’s huge because it also means that we can scale the impact of our Cancer experts. The analogy I like to use, is that Facebook allows you to have 1,000 friends, but in real life there are only 20-30, and the rest are acquaintances. The reason why Facebook allows you to have 1,000 friends, is because of the concept of synchronous micro-transactions. That’s the kind of thing that technology enables, and it’s been built into our lives now. When you flip that model on its head and use that in healthcare, what that means is, you can have 1,000 micro-transactions between a patient and our cancer experts, and have the impact in that kind of relationship that you couldn’t have 5 years ago. So that’s both important from a cost and scale perspective, and it’s also important from an impact and relationship perspective. That means that patients have convenience and access that was never available before, and we’re able to do it at a cost basis and sustainability level that was never possible before.

Q: You’ve had this idea for quite some time, why did you feel that this concept was finally now supportable?

A: I’ve been thinking about Robin since my mom had breast cancer, and that was over a decade ago, so I have been thinking about it a long time. The things that came together are some of the things we talked about before, around trends and technology, but a huge piece of it was also about people – the team that is Robin today. I honestly don’t believe that you can force things through, it takes the right team to make things happen. We were fortunate to have this group of people come together – the kind of thing that you guys have certainly helped with, in terms of finding the right people, and the unique combination of skill sets, experience and passion. It’s one thing to find expertise; I would argue its easy to find expertise. It’s harder to find expertise married with passion married with experience. And some of that we’ve been lucky to find on our own, some of it we’ve been lucky to work with you guys to find. I certainly could not have done this myself, it’s the team that’s been able to come together to make this possible. Aside from everything else, it’s definitely the team.

Q: As you just alluded to, this is personal for you – as it is for so many, unfortunately. How have your personal experiences shaped Robin’s founding?

A: What Robin is, at its core, is empathy – and also a set of values. We know that without question what’s best for the patient is going to be what’s best for us. And that comes from the personal space – it comes from so many on our team having been subjected to Cancer in one way or another, and that provides a grounding set of values, and a grounding North Star for us. That core then reflects every decision we make; we know if we’ve got that front and center, we’ll make the right choices. And that has largely been true. I was recently talking with a former colleague, and he shared his cancer story – and his story is heartbreaking. His daughter was diagnosed at 2 years old with brain cancer, and she was given two weeks. He and his wife were told to go home, focus on hospice, and saying goodbye. And that in and of itself is heartbreaking. The thing about their story is that 7 years later she is still here. And there’s certainly a medical miracle within that, there’s no question. But the thing that he was telling me, was that the reason he reached out to us is, because 10% of what they faced as a family was clinical – 10% was about that tumor. 90% of it was about the fear of loss, and the fight every single day to survive. He said 90% of that wasn’t even clinical. It was about helping her eat, or how she should be interacting with other kids, or are we really saying goodbye, or what are we doing? Stories like that, unfortunately are unending, but they’re also inspirational. We are a team with a lot of empathy, and we adopt those types of experiences. It’s the thing that makes it easy to wake up every day and fight the good fight.

Q: I know you guys made a strategic decision pretty early on, to target the self-insured employer market. What was the thought process there, and how has that played out for you?

A: The thought process was to play to some strengths that we had. We as a team had a lot of experience with employers, in terms of relationships that we have there, understanding how they buy, understanding the difference between them as customers and their employee base as actual users. It was certainly about playing to that, but it was also about playing to the trends. Self-insured employers are a segment of the market that is growing, they have an understanding of what they’re buying now, and a sophistication that wasn’t there a few years ago. That also played into how we thought about it, but we also recognized that by spending time with employers, it didn’t close the door to other areas and other markets. We have a strategy and a plan for how we move into the provider market, and how we interact with pharma companies.

It’s played out the way we hoped – if anything it’s played out far better than what we’ve hoped. There’s a clear hunger in the market for what we do, and that’s been gratifying for us to see. We’re launching with 10X the employer population we’d planned on for 2017, so that’s been phenomenal. We still learn something new every single day, but it all comes back to the team. We’re the kind of team who can learn from that and then apply it.

Q: Healthcare IT can no longer be considered a nascent space, and competition for top talent is pretty fierce. So what keeps you up at night?

A: There’s a few things that keep me up at night. One is, that the space is moving and developing pretty fast, and there are actually some bad companies out there. And that can be something that colors the entire market for everyone else. On the flip side, there are also some great companies out there, and that also can color the market for everyone else. So what keeps me up at night, is how that balance is going to work out over time. Will those great companies continue to stand out from the crowd, and continue to win, and can we make sure that some of the other players don’t color the customer base?

That segues into the second thing, which is that there is an incredible amount of talent outside the healthcare industry that’s looking to come into healthcare. I think that’s incredibly exciting, it’s a great thing. But there’s a lot to learn in healthcare. So helping those people find the right spots in healthcare is going to be a big deal; it’s going to be the difference between seeing healthcare change in 3 years, or seeing healthcare change in 5 years. That is also something where you guys have helped us a lot – in looking at both healthcare and non healthcare talent, and helping us decide – do we need someone within healthcare or can we get someone from outside? And it’s not a binary thing; how much of one or the other can we get, and what’s the right call for us? It can be easy to assume that everybody needs to come from healthcare, and I don’t think that’s necessarily true. On the flip side, I think it’s easy to get excited about ideas that come from outside the industry. As with all things, breaking that balance is what keeps me up at night.

Q: As you mentioned earlier, it sounds like you and Robin Care have been fortunate enough to experience a significant amount of success pretty early on. What advice can you offer other founders looking to make an impact?

A: It comes down to 3 things. One is, you as a set of founders have to have a personal passion for what it is you’re trying to accomplish. Entrepreneurship is incredibly hard, the ups and downs are extreme. If you’re not personally passionate about the problem you’re solving, it can be hard to get up in the morning.

The second piece is, you’ve got to have the right people around you. And this is where you guys have been big for us. A lot of founding teams start with just a handful of people. But the difference between that small handful and the next person who joins the team can be dramatic. Having the right help as you make that first hire is key, because that chemistry of culture, of personality, of passion is delicate, and incredibly important. And if that gets broken, then the company will get broken.

The third thing that I would share with founders, is that you’ve got to be incredibly passionate about the problem you’re solving, you have to have emotional distance from what you’re actually doing. And the reason is, you’ve got to be able to see the warts in it; to see the things you should change, which aren’t working. You can’t conflate your passion for the problem with your passion for the solution. And that’s where team becomes so important, because that first hire after the founding group, is the one who has the most third-party perspective, and the one who can identify good things from bad. So being able to listen to that person and incorporate that view into the group is incredibly important.

Q: What do you want to leave our readers with?

A: I will leave your readers with this: We all know that healthcare is in a point of transition, and we all know that disruption is important. I can’t stress enough how important people are to that equation, because it’s not a checklist – there’s as much science as there is art when it comes to building a team. Investors talk all the time about building a team, but I think healthcare is where that’s most important. You need to find the right people with the right passion, the right expertise, the right experience, and you’ve got a winning thing. But it takes help to do it, and we’re grateful for your partnership on that front. Recognizing that early has been important for us, and it should be important for everyone reading this.