Harry Gandhi is the CEO of Medella Health, the Waterloo tech startup whose vision is to create a contact lens that helps diabetics manage their glucose levels. Harry is an ex-UWaterloo student (now Thiel Fellow) who dropped out before finishing his degree to put 100% into Medella Health. The company recently closed a $1.4M funding round. When I asked Harry to elaborate on that, all he said was, “yeah, something like that.”
Harry is insanely smart, though he won’t admit to it if you ask (I tried). I met him at TEDxUW last year, where he was a speaker. There’s something he said recently that stuck: university is valuable for the people you meet. Agreed; even though I met him outside of school, it was in connection to UW that I ended up at TEDx in the first place. Every choice you make has a domino effect on your life. And now you’re reading this interview!
Tell us about yourself!
Being in the world of startup wasn’t something I planned for. I don’t think anyone really does, you just fall into it. A lot of the stars aligned — or misaligned, depending on how you want to look at it — and I ended up here. I’ve worked in e-health and biotech, and now I’m on the nanotech and business side of things. I’m just another university student at the end of the day and one thing led to another. It was a culmination of hanging out with the right group of people, being in the right places, sprinkled with a little bit of luck.
Why did you come to UWaterloo?
As a high school student you know little about anything. So you either take the advice of your friends, who don’t know what they’re doing, or you end up taking the advice of adults who know what the world was like in their prime, ten to twenty years ago, but they also don’t know what they’re doing. So it’s like the blind leading blind in both scenarios. Luckily, my parents didn’t push me down a certain path, and I had freedom to do what I wanted. So I chose Waterloo, for the wrong reasons: because a lot of my friends went to Waterloo, and I wanted to keep my degree as broad as possible. I chose a program called Science and Business, and kept it as broad as possible. It’s a fantastic way of marketing yourself, but that’s all it is.
You left the school. Did you not enjoy it?
Here’s how university went for me: my first four months, I had a lot of freedom in the world and ended up partying and meeting lots of awesome people. I had a lot of fun. Second semester, I joined a bunch of extracurriculars. I did robotics, was a teaching assistant in my second year, was part of non-profits, student groups, clubs, and that really became my classroom. School is interesting, but the knowledge an average student picks up in their first and second year is something we have learned as a society maybe a couple hundred years ago. If you have already learned those things on your own by reading a couple of papers, then it doesn’t matter whether you went to class or not.
I remember when I was ready to drop out of school, I was doing one course per term. I would register for like three courses, go to the first class, and tell my professors “I’m 90% sure I’m not going to attend your class, but are you cool with me coming to your office and learning about what you’re teaching? I’ll get you a coffee every Friday, and you just teach me stuff?” That’s how I learned a lot of the economics I did. Usually one of the professors was ok with that system, and the others said I had to attend class. So by the end of the first week I knew exactly which classes I was dropping.
You wrote an article about the lessons you learned in San Francisco. One of those is to take advice with a grain of salt. Is there advice that you do take?
I take all advice. I just have to normalize it in my head by understanding what the person giving advice went through. I have strong opinions about school, for example, but people listening to me should understand the background and context of why I’m saying the things that I am to make sense of it. Never take things on face value. What people say and what they mean to say are two different things.
Have another minute? Read this: How A Coffee Date Turned Jagneet Singh Into A TED Speaker
Best advice you heard, but did not take?
For sure the naysayers. You want to hear people create objections to what you’re building or your vision. If their reasons are correct you’ll switch over, and if not you’ll find answers that disprove them. The best advice I did take is to take everything with a grain of salt. I learned that from Dan Debow, founder of Rypple, early investors of Thalmic Labs, and couple other local startups.
When you’re hiring people, what do you look for? What do you ask?
I look for, ultimately, alignment. When people lie in interviews, I think they’re doing themselves a disservice because they won’t find the right experience at the company they’re going for. I like to ask things like What do you care about? What’s your story? What’s the coolest thing you’ve learned in last 6 months?
[Ed. Note: Medella Health is currently hiring! Check them out.]
What is the best interview question you’ve been asked?
“What is a truth you hold that most others disagree with?” I ask this in interviews, too. I hold many truths. My opinion on education is one; most people think getting a formal education is a good thing. Also, most people would say if you can become an entrepreneur it would be nice. I don’t think entrepreneurship is for most people. As much as it’s glamourized, it’s a tough and a lonely path to be on.
Why do you believe in disrupting the healthcare industry?
I was talking to friend of mine who had chest pain earlier today. She was like “I’m not going to go to the doctor, it will waste a few hours of my day. It will go away soon.” That just means the healthcare industry is designed so poorly. So many other things require much less activation energy and are of much less value, yet we’ve failed to put emphasis on our healthcare system. It’s a combination of three main problems I think: data collection, organization, economics problems. People aren’t incentivized in the right way in order to lead to better patient outcomes. And it’s going to take an ecosystem of innovations to solve these problems.
For example, there are two types of doctors. One is the healer type who will see four patients an hour. They’ll take fifteen minutes with each patient to talk to them about their life and lifestyle, providing that deeper level of care and getting to the root of symptoms. They are in some way providing better care by taking that extra time. To contrast, another type of doctor could see one patient every five minutes — that’s twelve patients an hour — and make significantly more money than the first doctor. It’s a mis-incentivized system of how to take care of patients.
In a private system, you can get a great level of care if you have the right dollar amount to spend on it. But not a lot of people want to spend money. So even if I get a cough or a cold in Canada, it might make sense to have it checked out, even if it’s only semi severe. But in the US there is a big abstinence to going to the doctor because it’s going to take money. The median annual wage in the US is just over $30,000. People don’t have a lot of money to spend on healthcare.
How did Medella Health come to be?
The co-op program really helped. I worked in healthcare for almost all my co-ops. Two were spent in e-health, one in a diabetes management program. I came back and saw fourth year design projects for nanotech engineers, and saw one of the students was building a glucose censor. I thought, ‘let’s talk to this guy, see if he wants to take it one step forward.’ This was one of those nights nights where I was studying at DC and thinking “why the hell am I doing this? This information is stuff I will never use again.” So I left the library to where all fourth year nano projects were, and it’s how I met this awkward Chinese guy named Huayi. And thats where it all began: we decided to meet for coffee afterwards. One thing led to another and now we are here.
What are you most proud of so far with Medella Health?
Bringing together the set of guys and girls we have. And really making a company. I’m focused on people, ideas, and implementation. In that order.
What does success mean to you?
Figuring it out, living a day at a time.
There you have it folks, 21 coffees down. I hope you learned something. And to Harry: keep kicking butt.
Have more time? Read this: Startup Canada’s CEO Victoria Lennox on Hustle, Success & Her First Job