As a part of my series about “The Future of Healthcare” I had the pleasure of interviewing Andrew Le. Andrew is the Co-Founder and CEO of Buoy Health. Buoy is using artificial intelligence and machine learning to empower people with better insights about their symptoms and help them get to the right care at the right time. Buoy’s clinically-tested chat interface mimics a friendly conversation with a doctor and has had over 25M visitors to-date. Andrew has raised $9.2M in total funding and is backed Optum Ventures and F-Prime. He obtained his MD from Harvard Medical School and his BA from Harvard College.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Prior to starting Buoy, I was on my way to becoming a neurosurgeon. It was during my last year of medical school at Harvard when I had my first rotation in the emergency room of a major hospital in Boston. I was struck by how many people came to the ER having just searched online to self-assess…and that assessment being wrong a majority of the time. People who should have stayed home were coming in; worse, people who were especially sick were waiting at home and getting worse. It was around that same time that my dad got really sick. He had a mini-stroke and didn’t go to the hospital. When I asked him why he didn’t call me or my two sisters, who are both doctors, he said that he thought we were busy. When I asked him why he didn’t search online to figure out what to do, he said that he didn’t trust what he’d find online. That was an emotional tipping point for me that led me to take a sabbatical from school, 3 months before graduating, to start Buoy with 3 other people. Since then, we’ve been obsessed with this belief that the front door of health care, the self-assessment made online, is broken, and that we’d be the ones who would fix it.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
When we were first starting out, we won the ability to pitch for the board of trustees at Harvard Medical School. I was nervous as I was the only med student among a list of famous professors. Worse, I had recently become homeless and lost all of my earthly possessions. Just a couple of weeks before the event, we were all working in the apartment we’d been using as an office and home when we heard a commotion on the street. At first, we thought it was just the college kids that frequented the area, but then we heard, “Fire!” My co-founder, Adam, and I ran out into the street with barely enough time to grab our laptops and wallets. Just like that, all of our possessions were gone. What didn’t burn was covered in sooty water, leaving me with only a few bags of clothes.
That’s how I ended up in front of famous Harvard professors and Boston’s elite… in a t-shirt and jeans. I apologized for how I looked, explained my unusual life circumstances, and did the presentation with the same delusional excitement I had when explaining our start-up to my friends. At the end, one of the trustees, Jack Connors, gave me his card and told me to call him.
A few weeks later, I showed up to his office on the highest floor of the tallest building in Boston, an even more intimidating place than when I first met him. As we sat down, he said, “I imagine you and your team are living on a ramen diet?” I nodded in response.
“I appreciated your guts to show up that day looking like you did (badly). How about $250,000 to grow your company?” I couldn’t believe my ears. I hurriedly agreed and ran out of there before he could change his mind. Jack’s check was the first, significant break at Buoy, and he’s now on our board of directors and still an integral part of the company.
Can you tell us about your “Big Idea That Might Change The World”?
The internet is a scary place and many people find the wrong information about their symptoms. Buoy Health’s A.I. health assistant is an interactive tool that analyzes symptoms, provides triage and acts as a first-line of care for users. Made to resemble a standard texting interchange, Buoy leverages artificial intelligence — powered by advanced machine learning and proprietary, granular data — to mirror an exchange you would have with your favorite doctor. After about two to three minutes, Buoy provides consumers with a real-time, accurate analysis of their symptoms and helps them easily and quickly embark on the right path to getting better.
How do you think this will change the world?
At Buoy our goal is to take the confusion out of self-triage. In an ideal world, we’d have infinite access to highly trained doctors. Unfortunately, that’s impossible, even in the US. So, how can we solve this issue in a world with an increasing population and an ever decreasing ratio of doctors to patients? We believe that in the near future, people will develop relationships with health-based A.I. akin to patient-doctor relationships today. Currently, Buoy helps people make better care decisions, which leaves our company and our products poised to be the gateway to care, allowing hospitals, insurers and employers to offer patients a safer, smarter, and more efficient journey to health — from start to finish. As Buoy is a free platform available to all, we hope to reach as many people as possible and improve the accessibility of healthcare worldwide.
At Buoy, we don’t believe that A.I. can replace doctors. Rather, we think that A.I. can help patients make better health decisions and help doctors practice at the top of their licenses. We’re currently facing the unintended consequences of online medical information. Too often the internet sways people in the wrong directions — whether that means making them seek care when they don’t need to or telling them their symptoms aren’t serious when they are. By providing a personalized analysis of symptoms, we’re actually working to solve a problem that was already unintentionally created.
Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this idea? Can you tell us that story?
I mentioned the tipping point regarding my dad in an earlier question. That’s the happy-ending story because my dad ending up being perfectly fine. The story I talk much less about is about my aunt who was like a second mom to me. It was right after everything unfolded with my dad. I called her to just check-in, and she told me she’d been having these vague symptoms for the last 9 months. I recognized the symptoms as being worrisome for ovarian cancer and urged her to go to her OB immediately. The worst possible scenario turned out to be true. 3 years later, she was in hospice care.
I remember my last conversation with her vividly. She asked me why I was doing this crazy start-up thing. “Go back to medical school, become the doctor you said you’d be,” she urged me.
“You don’t understand. If Buoy was around when you were first sick, maybe we would have caught all of this earlier. This is all for you.”
What do you need to lead this idea to widespread adoption?
Great interview opportunities like this one. Press coverage will go a long way in driving awareness. And, we aim to have such a personalized, empowering product experience for people that they’ll tell their friends and family the next time they’re sick. We’ve found that there is such an appetite for a tool like Buoy when people are sick and worried. So the story really resonates with people.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
- “In any given year, you’ll have 3 extremely important days. You just don’t know which days they are, so you have to show up every day thinking this might be that day.” — This is word-for-word advice from our first investor, Jack Connors. I still remember the day before my meeting with Jack, I had a teammate say that he didn’t think this meeting would amount to anything. We’d been disappointed so many times in the past that it’s easy to assume that each subsequent meeting would be equally disappointing. As it turns out, that day — that meeting — was pivotal. At the very least, I had to show up.
- The highs and lows create massive swings — We’ve had incredible days (our first investment check, our first big contract, the day we hit our millionth visitor) and horrible ones (our first employee leaving, a contract being canceled, investments falling through). Having the ability to handle these swings is paramount to the job.
- Focus on the job-to-be-done — From Clayton Christianson’s work, I wish I knew about this idea from the day Buoy began. What job is your company/product being hired to do? An obsessed focus about that job is the key to victory.
- Reading supercharges the accumulation experiences– Charlie Munger is famous for his systems thinking, which is really learning how to categorize situations into patterns, or systems. I’ve learned that you can certainly improve as a decision-maker and thinker with experience, which teaches you new systems as you face new problems. However, this process is linear and correlated directly with time. Reading, on-the-other-hand, can teach you new systems and how to handle new experiences at a much more rapid pace. As a first-time founder, this has been essential in my continuous development.
- Alignment is hard to find and you have to work on it every day — Getting a few people, then a few dozen people, then people in two different offices to be all be on the same page is really difficult. And, just because you were aligned yesterday, doesn’t mean that you’re aligned today because things change so rapidly. Alignment around purpose, vision, objectives, and strategy are essential to execution. And the need to realign is near constant.
The future of work is a common theme. What can one do to “future proof” their career?
The interesting thing about new technology is that it enables industries to offer new services that need people. In other words, as new technology gets adopted, companies build service layers all around that new technology. Electric cars now need mechanics who can service them. Social media’s surge means that people can become influencers and companies can be created around representing those influencers to advertisers. The examples are endless. So, I think the best “future proof” strategy is to be flexible in learning new skills because chances are, you’ll be the first wave of people that figure out how it all works, which is a huge advantage.
Based on the future trends in your industry, if you had a million dollars, what would you invest in?
Second to Buoy, of course, would probably be in computer chip designers, especially graphics card producers. A.I. technology consumes a lot of GPUs, and perhaps one day quantum computers. The trend for greater computing power will continue.
Which principles or philosophies have guided your life? Your career?
Be generous. Karma is real.
Can you share with our readers what you think are the most important “success habits” or “success mindsets”?
As mentioned previously, books are the greatest shortcuts for success. You can leapfrog years worth of learning just by reading a book because some of the greatest minds literally reveal their secrets for success in 200 pages.
Some very well known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
Imagine if health care weren’t so confusing. Buoy uses A.I. to help people feel heard, understand their medical situations, and help them understand exactly what to do when they’re sick. Made to resemble a standard texting interchange, Buoy leverages artificial intelligence to mirror an exchange you would have with your favorite doctor and in about two to three minutes, Buoy provides consumers with a real-time, accurate analysis of their symptoms and helps them identify right path to getting better. Buoy is powered by data from 22K clinical papers and 30M visitors. We’re learning how to empower each individual person with the knowledge they need to make the most efficient health care decision.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.