This Lebanese engineer on launching one of the region's leading healthcare startups, CardioDiagnostics.

Part of our “How I Did It” series, featured in the January 2017 issue of Inc. Arabia. Insider stories from from some of the Middle East & North Africa’s most innovative companies; and the grit and wisdom from their founders.

Inflection points are important junctures in one’s life. I believe they can often dramatically determine your life path. I believe one such pivotal inflection moment for me was when my father died suddenly of a heart attack. I was just 17 and about to start a major new chapter, heading to university. And here came an agonising thunderbolt that jolted me out of that naive teenage state.

I had to step into adulthood very quickly. Dad’s passing impressed on me how valuable and limited our life is here on earth, and how we’re each called to use our time, our talents, and opportunities to improve ourselves and the lives of others.

I also knew that my father’s death could have been prevented. Doctors said that he could have been saved had they seen him earlier on…which is true, given that there are discernible electrophysiological changes that occur in the heart prior to a heart attack.

At Lebanese American University (LAU), where I studied, I focussed my engineering studies on this aspect, understanding the electrical activity of the heart and how monitoring and analyzing that activity can save lives. It was a natural focus because I loved science and technology. 

The year 2006 was my senior year of college and for my final project, I built a primitive prototype, made of a simple microprocessor connected to a Nokia mobile phone, which ran this special software I’d created.

When I graduated, I put that work on the backburner and dived into the rat race, getting a cushy job at a telecom company.

But I quickly realized that there was a vacuum in my life. I was not hungrily seeking knowledge or passionately focused on something, unlike when I was developing that prototype. Furthering my studies would be the only way for me to take that initial research forward. I left for the US in 2008 to do my masters in biomedical and electrical engineering at the Ohio State University thanks to a Fulbright scholarship. I made the most of the tremendous resources available, not just in terms of research but also professors and peers who were renowned for their expertise.

But I never wanted to stay on. In my Fulbright application, I had said that I would return to Lebanon to create the Middle East’s first and best medical technology company.

And that’s what I did. To build traction, I sought opportunities to showcase the technology I’d developed, such as in the Stars of Science reality TV show, in which we won second place in Season Three and the 2011 Global Innovation through Science and Technology (GIST) Tech-I competition, where we ended up winning first place. These wins allowed us to secure initial seed funding, enabled me to connect with mentors, and get my prototype ready for market.

It’s important to know that no matter how revolutionary your idea may be, it needs to both impact people and generate revenue. I realized early on that this industry, especially in the US, is heavily reimbursement dependent.

You can have the most pioneering medical technology on your hands, but if you don’t have a good reimbursement rate established, you’ll go little to nowhere. That’s why I pivoted towards developing a product  that has an established reimbursement rate.

Unlike startups in the online or e-commerce space, starting up in medical hardware is a completely different ballgame. Not only is it incredibly costly and complicated to build, but also uncertain. You may spend a few millions building something and your competitor might go to the market with a device that’s far superior to your own.

That’s also why I pivoted towards focusing on the software and opened our platform to be easily synced with any hardware manufacturer in the space—who can then use our software under a license arrangement. The way I see it, this way I can reach many more people.

The commendation by President Obama in 2015 was completely unexpected. But it goes to show that good work will always be recognized. His style of leadership is what has stayed with me. He’s not only charismatic but also so approachable and aware. He knew a lot of details about the technology that we’re building, down to minute details!

We’re poised to grow rapidly in the coming year, as a team and in terms of our reach. We’re currently finalizing partner relationships across Europe, Australia, and parts of Asia. The Middle East is also a key market for us and we’re increasing our footprint in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE.

But it’s not a one size fits all approach. There’s a fair amount of evolution involved not only on the product front but also in adapting our business model according to the market. I wasn’t expecting any of these challenges. But the impact we are achieving is what makes it worthwhile.

It’s been around four years since I launched CardioDiagnostics and I believe we’ve come a long way. But there’s still lots to do!

We are now looking to raise and close a round of funding. We’ll continue to aggressively expand our markets. In this part of the world, it takes a unique mix of patience, persistence, and ingenuity to get things moving. Progress can be slow. It takes a long time to find and train qualified staff. Plus the entrepreneurial culture here can be brutally territorial and lacks collaboration.

From the beginning, I wanted to adopt the best practices and make CardioDiagnostics a role model business for the Middle East.

As a startup founder, I believe you can grow more when you grow together. That is why everyone employed in my company has equity, regardless of their position. They are all an integral part of the team and of the impact we are having, saving lives every day.

Photograph by: Roland Ragi