When talking about Startups in Berlin you can’t get around Dr. Sophie Chung and her medical platform “Qunomedical”. We met her in Berlin to talk about the improving connotations of “Medical Tourism”, the German Startup ecosystem and being a young entrepreneur in Europe.
innomaniacs: A big one for starters: what are the biggest puzzle pieces of your identity at the moment?
Dr. Sophie Chung: I think, when looking at the professional part of my identity, the area of medicine or health care runs through all of it like a golden thread. Since I was a little girl I always wanted to become a doctor. This is why I studied medicine. I did not stay in the field of medicine as a doctor though, but rather moved on to the business world and worked as a management consultant. Subsequently I have been in the Startup area where I now founded a business in the medical and digital sector called “Qunomedical”.
But I have always been working on medical topics in the broadest sense, also while being in consulting. This is why I would say at least my professional identity can strongly be deduced from the medical field. My personal or private identity is quite multicultural and diverse. I am actually Austrian. My parents come from China and Cambodia, I now live in Germany. I studied in the U.S., in China, and in Australia. So this is a wide range. And I believe, all these impressions I gathered in my life up to now have not just been shaping me personally but have also been influencing what I am doing professionally.
Was the field of medicine a topic in your family too?
Yes (laughing), I come from an Asian family so becoming a doctor is something parents appreciate in general. But I also come from a family of doctors. My maternal grandfather was a doctor and pharmacist. Many of my mom’s elder brothers were about to become doctors. My mom grew up in Cambodia; there was civil war in the late 70s. This is why unfortunately a part of my family did not survive. So, the question was whether I would just continue the tradition or if I also want it myself? And I think it’s both. I think the tradition is beautiful. But the subject and the profession are also incredibly fascinating to me. This is why everything goes well together for me.
How was your initial situation? And when did you decide to leave Austria?
I was born in Austria in the early 80s. Times were different back then. I was born in Linz. This is in fact, I think, the third or fourth biggest city in Austria with only 120,000 inhabitants. So this is rather a town. I had a beautiful childhood, but it was quite a homogeneous society there. For me it was obvious from an early age that I would not stay in Linz because I wanted to go out into the world to perceive more, see more variation, and experience more. Austria definitely still is my homeland and I love returning each time. Vienna, where I have been studying and living for a long time, is one of my favorite cities. Right now, professionally and personally I find myself and advance much better outside of Austria, though.
Of the many places you lived at, could you tell me a little more about Australia and New York?
I went to Australia right after my graduation from college. This is where my first attempts of being a doctor took place; I was in Brisbane. It was incredibly fascinating to get to know a different health system in another country. It was really exciting for me to get out there and work independently.
Many years later I moved to New York. I chose New York because I was able to gather my first impressions about the Startup-life there. For that regard only the U.S. came into question because they are simply five to ten years ahead compared to what we have in Europe. And I basically wanted to see how big the thoughts get there, how you work there, how the investment community is. New York as a city itself has always been one of my favorite places to go to and to live. I ended up being there for almost three years. And it was an incredibly intense time where I learned a lot. I would not want to miss these years.
You just said you wanted to integrate into the Start-Up community. Then there was the area of consulting you entered, too.
That was after leaving Australia, so at the very beginning. I had not been a doctor for long, came back, and had not planned to leave the medicine sector. I always wanted to become a doctor, work academically and carry out research. It was incredibly pleasing to work with patients. It was rather coincidentally that I crossed the path of consulting. I received an offer. It was incredibly fascinating for me to work on medical topics dealing with the health system not directly as a doctor but from a strongly economical perspective. I learned incredibly much. So, my actual plan was to make an excursion into the business world and return to medicine. The way life plays out, everything evolved differently, so I am in the Start-Up sector now. This is how it ultimately developed.
But I use to say, in life many opportunities open up for you and sometimes you just have to grab them and take a different path than originally planned.
How did the decision to found Qunomedical come up?
During my time in consulting I realized that there is another option for my future. It was the time when the topic of Startups came up and expanded a lot in Germany, especially in Berlin. There was not only the way back to a hospital or to a large business but there also was the opportunity to do something yourself and make your own idea happen. And that was absolutely fascinating to me. The problem I always wanted to solve was how a patient could be enabled to choose the doctor who fits best to him.
This would have been my next question. Could you sum up Qunomedical in one sentence?
Yes (laughing). Qunomedical is a digital platform that helps patients from all over the world to find the right doctor at any possible place in the world. This is what we do. The right doctor is not always the one where you can schedule an appointment and who is next door. The right doctor with the right specialization can sometimes be in another country. So, our aim is to create transparency, so no one is ever insecure whether they are getting the best medical aid.
So, you founded in Berlin?
You said you went to the U.S. because they are five to ten years ahead. Was it possible to launch your business there, too?
Absolutely. I considered where to found very thoroughly. I could have founded in New York or the Silicon Valley. I consciously chose Berlin because when I launched in 2016, the Startup community there was already developed very far. It was not the same like in 2013 when I went to New York. Currently there is no reason not to choose Berlin, in my opinion, but a lot of reasons to choose it. First, it starts out with low living costs. You can go much further with the given financial funding, compared to New York or the Silicon Valley.
Second, by now there are incredibly huge talent pools on the European labor market that you have access to. It means you get really good people in Europe right now. Third, the investment community changed a lot. Some years ago, you had a hard time receiving funding in Germany or Europe. This completely changed. Today the venture capital community is much more established. It is no issue at all to get early stage financing anymore. What is indeed a difference between the U.S. and Germany: If you approach someone with a new idea, people in Europe and Germany are pretty skeptical. And last but not least there was a personal reason: I do appreciate the European way of living more than the American one. These were the reasons that spoke for Berlin a lot.
Was there something that got in your way at the beginning?
We did not have any total road blocks. I had the idea of establishing a global platform for all people of this world and as many doctors as possible to help getting ideal medical aid. Most people said, “Sophie, you are crazy”, when I spoke about it. “This is too huge, too complicated. Take one little problem you want to solve.” The challenge was mostly that a lot of people did not believe in my idea. But it did not keep me from doing these things anyways.
Let us go into your service really quick. How exactly does it work? Is everyone allowed to sign up? How does it work regarding insurance companies?
Our system is designed to work with every patient who needs our help. This means everyone can sign up. We also have no hidden information. Everything is transparent. We work with the patient the way which is best for him. If it is a direct payment service, meaning if it is a treatment the patient needs to pay himself, it is working out. If it is a treatment processed by health insurance, it works as well. In this case we cooperate with the health insurance. So, our goal is to operate system independent.
Medical tourism is a term that just now evolved into a positive one. Do you still need to fight about that, though, when approaching decision makers or people who support you financially?
Less and less; it is really interesting to observe that when I started 3 years ago the term ‘medical tourism’ still seemed a bit dubious. But I mentioned it recently, when you think of it, medical tourism is excellent! It offers a patient more options. We see it as our task to positively connotate the term. I believe that we made a big contribution to the fact that medical tourism is not seen as skeptically anymore as it used to. People start to understand the value added by medical tourism for each single person. We continue working on it; we are not even close to where we want to be. The good thing is that the resistance towards this topic drops noticeably over time.
How exactly are you financed?
We are traditionally funded by well-known venture capitalists from Berlin and the U.S. We are also funded by a few German family offices. These are wealthy German families who are fascinated to invest in young companies. And this is an absolutely pleasant mixture of entrepreneurial mindset deriving from families of entrepreneurs and a professional mindset from VCs. This combination is something I incredibly enjoy.
Your company grew a lot within the last one or two years. Could you tell me a bit about it?
We have doubled our numbers every six to nine months. This is strong growth but there are companies growing even stronger. We could have grown stronger, but we are in a field, namely in the field of medicine, where fast or unlimited growth is not always positive because quality and trust are very important to us. And these are topics that cannot be scaled in infinite speed. This is why we are really happy about our growth and we push it, but not at all costs.
You are 60 people now, right?
Can you foresee to detach from VCs at any time?
To detach from them is not the main goal for us right now. Our goal is to grow fast and strong and, I use to say, reach world domination. Aggressive growth is expensive and resource intense; financially as well as regarding the amount of work. This is the reason why we actually fit well to the venture capital community. Of course we want to be independent sometime in the far future. This is where the topic of profitability and all related topics emerge. But you have to decide in each stage what you focus on and what is important.
Do you know if you want to stay in Berlin or will you establish other offices?
I am a big fan of centralization. We will stay exclusively in Berlin for as long as it is reasonable. But of course we are a global company and we will have other offices and locations in the future. So, it is not a question about whether it happens but rather a question about when it happens. We already take a look at where the next big market could be for us. Probably we are going to make a decision within the next six months.
What is necessary for you to be able to reach a certain goal within the next years? What has to happen for this whole project to be success eventually?
There is no easy answer to this question! I wished there was one, though. There are of course a few things that would work out in favor of us. Internal factors are to carry on our organizational growth while keeping a high quality. It starts by employing more qualified people while being able to keep those we employ. It also heavily depends on which financial resources we have at our disposal. So funding is significant for us. But it also depends on external factors we cannot control much. It depends on how politics are progressing, where geopolitics lead to.
We are a global company, so it is always exciting for us how health policies develop in various countries. We think that all macro-trends are in our favor: globalization, the fact that health is getting more and more expensive, the fact that humans get older and older, and the fact that transparency of data is more and more in demand, also data from patients. We have already been thinking about it intensely. So, a great number of internal and external factors have to occur today and in the future.
How did your service change since you began?
On one hand it got more international. We launched in the British market and by now we have patients from more than 50 countries. And it got more diverse in the sense of which treatments get booked on our platform. Meanwhile it ranges from direct payment services like dental treatments and plastic surgery to highly complex treatments in the field of oncology, cardiology or orthopedics. This has changed a lot.
On the other hand, what has also changed are the questions “Who is Qunomedical?”, “What are you doing?” or “Can I trust you?” – In the beginning it was obviously very difficult to gain trust from users. We notice how it gets increasingly easier and today we can excite an increasing number of people with our service. This is a really favorable trend.
How about your personal development? You studied medicine, worked in this area for a short period, then moved on to business. What will your next challenge be?
My next challenge is to continue growing personally as well. The subject ‘leadership’ is important to me. Leadership or direction is not just personnel responsibility. For me it starts way earlier in your mind, how you think about certain things, how you communicate with people, how you inspire them and guide them respectively. These are important topics for me.
Qunomedical is also a way for me to send a message. Especially on how to treat patients – and I do not mean medically but along the whole journey within the healthcare system. I think that patients deserve better treatment than they receive at the moment in a lot of places worldwide. I would like to spread this message way more. You can only do that by having your own voice and with a supportive base. These are the key challenges which are currently on the spot for me.
- Visit Qunomedical
- Dr. Sophie Chung on Instagram and Twitter
- Qunomedical is a digital platform that helps patients from all over the world to find the right doctor at any possible place in the world.
- Berlin is the perfect place for Startups at the moment because the costs of living are low, there is a huge talent pool, and investments have changed a lot.
- Medical tourism used to be connotated adversely but that has changed over the past years because the advantages and added value of a suitable treatment is more visible.
- Qunomedical is financed by a combination of venture capitals as well as family businesses which makes a pleasant mixture.
- Growth in the medical sector is usually not as big as in other sectors because the quality standards which must be met are extremely high and trust has to build up over time.