By Sarah Terry- Cobo
Courtesy of The Journal Record
OKLAHOMA CITY – Laura Fleet is pushing in the clutch and revving the engine.
She is looking to expand her technology startup from Oklahoma to the rest of the U.S. The founder of the SendaRide mobile application said she used her knowledge of the health care industry and her own experience needing a ride-sharing service for medical appointments. There’s demand for the service and increased interest from potential drivers, but its challenging to get money from national investors to scale up the business.
Scott Meacham, president of i2E Inc., said Fleet has the tenacious qualities that his organization wants in an entrepreneur.
Jim Bratton, assistant vice president of economic development at the University of Oklahoma, said if she has the right attitude and perspective, that can help her overcome a couple of a handful of risk categories investors worry about.
Fleet is a health care attorney and said she was faced with mobility issues after a difficult back surgery. She was on painkillers, so she couldn’t drive to appointments with doctors or for rehabilitation. Her husband took time off to help her during and after the surgery, and she said it was hard to continue asking for him to take more time off for weeks’ worth of recurring appointments.
She developed the ride-sharing software and mobile applications for people who needed to get to a medical appointment and either didn’t have access to transportation or had physical limitations and couldn’t drive. There’s plenty of opportunities, Fleet said. About 7 million people miss medical appointments in the U.S. annually due to lack of transportation. There are about 42 million people taking care of a senior citizen who doesn’t drive.
She said she designed the system with hospitals and insurance companies in mind, too. Hospital systems generally have budgets to pay for medical transportation for some patients and insurance companies can cover a portion of those costs. A physician or an insurance provider can book the ride on the patient’s behalf.
The app drivers have downloaded on their phones has tracking software, so the hospital can ensure the patient was picked up and taken directly to the appointment, avoiding the potential for additional stops that would overcharge the payer. The software is compliant with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act or HIPAA law that protects patients’ medical information.
“Prior to this, hospitals didn’t have a viable solution; they either had to over-purchase and buy a lift van to accommodate a wheelchair every time, even if it wasn’t needed, or they had to buy a cab ride with no transparency,” Fleet said.
That provides a potentially cheaper solution for a hospital with locations, times and dates all recorded in the system to show the driver’s route.
Though General Motors bought ridesharing service Sidecar in late 2016 for around $20 million, there isn’t much history of buyouts or initial public offerings for that sector that investors have to bolster confidence, she said.
Fleet’s lead investor is i2E. Meacham of i2E said her service is more of a concierge product that meets a niche need. The HIPAA factor makes scaling up the business more complicated, he said.
“The trick is the logistics of recruiting qualified drivers, getting them signed up and trained so you can comply with HIPAA, then having them in scale where they’re needed,” Meacham said. “So if it is more complicated, it is harder to raise money, and you need investors who have knowledge of this space. That pool is smaller.”
Bratton agreed that it takes longer to find investors willing to latch onto a complex business model. He manages all the intellectual property for businesses developed at OU.
National venture capitalists have lots of choices and are typically juggling nine to 20 other projects in their portfolio. So before they choose to put money into a new project, they are looking at five main risk categories: the soundness of the technology; the potential market growth; the sales risk; the capital risk of where the other money is coming from and the company’s staff.
“Is the team competent; are they talented business operators? Unless you know the investors, it takes time to build that trust,” Bratton said.
Meacham said Fleet if anyone is going to make it work, then Fleet will. Bratton said tenacity and persistence are the best qualities of an entrepreneur, so that increases her chances investors will bet on her.
“When people can’t access health care, it makes it more expensive for everyone,” Bratton said. “So I’m glad to see that hospitals see the value proposition there.”