He may have cut his teeth on six years of mergers and acquisitions as a corporate lawyer, and is now a busy chief executive carving out a slice of time to make this interview with us, but Bryan Koh has no airs about him.
Bryan walked into our office all smiles, and it took no time at all for me to feel like we were simply old schoolmates catching up.
It’s clear that his unpretentious demeanour has the same effect on his employees. The two marketing staff who accompanied him were comfortable enough to playfully chide their boss from time to time, or egg him on when he got bashful in front of the camera.
Juxtaposed with this gentleness and humility however, Bryan is also a tough leader when the time calls for it.
He describes himself, with no sugar-coating, as the kind of person who “hates it when people tell [him] something cannot be done.”
His employees are no exception to this rule. When doubt arises from his team, he turns the question back on them and says:
If you think it can’t be done, then why are we here today?– Bryan Koh, founder and CEO of WhiteCoat
With this very persistence, or what naysayers might call stubbornness, Bryan has made Singapore’s first Ministry of Health-approved telemedicine practice a reality.
Since founding WhiteCoat in 2018, he has brought affordable online healthcare and medicine delivery to tens of thousands of people in Singapore.
Growing Up With Role Models In The House
Never once does Bryan talk about his entrepreneurial journey without mentioning his family, who always served as an inspiration to him.
His own values developed from watching how his parents “worked extremely hard” to get to where they are today.
“My dad started out in advertising and marketing, [while] my mum was in sales. She sold everything from insurance policies to Xerox machines.”
For Bryan’s father, Edmund Koh, working hard to “establish himself and climb the corporate ladder” was more than just a fancy saying.
After making a career switch to investment banking, Edmund worked his way up from being an industry greenhorn, to eventually becoming the first Singaporean appointed as UBS’ Asia Pacific President.
A big part of Bryan’s inclination towards business actually stemmed from his father’s encouragement to always “think about how [he] could do things better”.
But like any other young boy, Bryan gave his parents a fair share of worry as he was growing up.
Struggling to get their soccer-obsessed son to do his homework was a pretty common woe. What caught them off-guard though, was realising that their primary school son always came home with more than his $2 pocket money.
“My parents, being very worried, constantly asked me if I was stealing money,” Bryan says, with a hint of a chuckle.
On the contrary, he was actually running his very first ‘business’.
I was observing and asking my friends what they wanted but couldn’t get from the school bookshop.
I would then buy these things in bulk — like marbles, collectible cards, country erasers — and I would repackage them and sell them to my grateful schoolmates. I think that’s when I first understood the concept of the customer’s needs.– Bryan Koh, founder and CEO of WhiteCoat
“My parents always recall this story and say that some things just can’t be trained. Sometimes, it’s a bit of nature [in each of us],” he adds.
Lessons For A Reluctant Lawyer
While the signs showed that he was born for business, Bryan’s path was altered when his father persuaded him to pursue a double degree in commerce (his intended course of study) and law.
But as a youth, he was full of haste — his priority was to “graduate in the shortest possible time, find employment, and hopefully rise through the ranks as quickly as possible”.
He was especially keen to follow in his father’s footsteps and go into investment banking, but he gave in and enrolled in a double degree programme at the University of Melbourne in the end.
Despite having to stretch his studies to five years (Bryan crammed it into slightly over four), it was an experience he turned out to be extremely grateful for.
The most important takeaway from my legal degree was the way I think, the way I structure my thoughts, and how I apply it into actual practice.
Law trains you to structure your thoughts and navigate through regulatory and contractual boundaries, and it has become very relevant for the current business I’m in.– Bryan Koh, founder and CEO of WhiteCoat
Regardless, Bryan was still playing tug-of-war in his head. Throughout university, he would apply for an investment banking internship one year, then a law internship the next.
After he went through another two years to complete the bar exam, Bryan eventually decided corporate law would suffice as a “compromise” between his two fields.
He then started his legal career at Allen & Gledhill, where he practiced in mergers and acquisitions for six years.
During his tenure, Bryan constantly crossed paths with many business founders who built their companies from scratch, and always made sure to pick their brains for advice on how they made their ideas work.
If Everyone Had A Doctor In The Family, Wouldn’t That Be Ideal?
“What about your business idea?” I ask him. “How did WhiteCoat come about?”
Bryan first shares that there were always some factors at work behind the scenes, pointing him towards the value of telemedicine.
He dislikes two particular things about seeing the doctor, which he believes many people can relate to: having to wait in line when you’re already feeling very sick, and being exposed to more germs from other patients.
On the other hand, he admits that he has been “very fortunate” that he could often avoid all of this because he has a doctor in the family — his sister, Natalie, is a cardiologist.
Then along came the catalyst: his honeymoon to South Africa in 2016 lit the first spark in WhiteCoat’s creation.
Even before jetting off to celebrate his marriage, a lawyer’s work is never finished.
“Down to the last six hours before takeoff, I was still busy finalising an agreement,” Bryan says.
He then received a text from his wife, reminding him to pack their travel medications. It was his task and he hadn’t prepared it yet.
Thankfully for Bryan, all it took was a quick phone call to his sister to get their supply of medicines ready just in time for the trip.
This really got me thinking, “If everyone could have a doctor that they trusted in their family, wouldn’t that be ideal?”– Bryan Koh, founder and CEO of WhiteCoat
The seed of an idea was planted as he set off. Even while he was on his honeymoon, Bryan couldn’t help but start looking into possibilities and discussing it with Natalie.
At that point in time, setting the groundwork was a sibling effort. On Natalie’s end, she provided the doctor’s point of view from being on the ground with patients, before eventually assuming the role as WhiteCoat’s medical advisor.
One thing she shared with Bryan was that “the most vulnerable patients who really needed access to healthcare, were often the ones who could never get the medical attention they required”.
“And with today’s level of technology, [Natalie] felt that this was unacceptable. Healthcare should be readily accessible to everyone,” Bryan says.
At that time, there were already a few companies offering doctor consultations through video calls but they all didn’t address this one gap: people still had to make a trip to the pharmacy to pick up medicine with their doctor’s prescription.
That was when he knew what WhiteCoat could bring to the table. “We needed to create a closed loop, with [consultations online and] medication delivered to the patient.”
How WhiteCoat Convinced The Ministry of Health
The Ministry of Health (MOH) runs a regulatory sandbox for companies to safely provide telemedicine and mobile medicine services, and WhiteCoat was the first to receive the sandbox license on 18 April 2018.
Prior to this, MOH only had a set of telemedicine guidelines. Bryan clearly recalls looking over them and how he took a step back when he realised they “didn’t have the force of law”.
This formed the basis of an important decision. The two paths he could choose were either going ahead to launch, like some other companies had done, or engaging with MOH to obtain official regulatory approval before serving customers.
His commitment is unmistakable when he tells us that he was firm on taking the latter approach. Otherwise, he would not launch WhiteCoat at all.
I felt that if we were to offer healthcare that deviates from the way it is traditionally provided, it was important to get the Ministry of Health’s support because we’re not in it for the short run — we’re in it for the long haul.
Healthcare is something that requires trust from your end user, and getting MOH’s approval would mean that both patients’ interests and doctors’ interests will be safeguarded.– Bryan Koh, founder and CEO of WhiteCoat
So it was settled. He was going straight to the health authority with “no track record”, just an MVP (minimum viable product) developed over 10 months, and hope for the best outcome.
Bryan highlights this as one of his biggest challenges in building WhiteCoat.
People would tell him, “No hospital, or no other big healthcare provider, has managed to engage [MOH] on this discussion. What makes you think you would be able to convince them?”
Against the odds, he approached MOH and started discussing how telemedicine could “solve certain pain points in the healthcare system”.
After numerous meetings, Bryan takes us back to a session with MOH in October 2017, when he heard the words he didn’t dare to believe.
“You’ve convinced us, we looked through the whole prototype you had, the different clinical pathways and protocols you’ve constructed,” he recounts their words.
MOH finally said they were willing to create a regulatory sandbox programme with WhiteCoat as the first participant, he adds, with a wide smile plastered on his face.
From A Six-Man Team To Greater Strength
With the long-awaited seal of approval, WhiteCoat did its due diligence to meet all of MOH’s requirements before launching almost a year later in June 2018.
Their office and clinic at Apex @ Henderson was finally open for business, where doctors on duty would receive patients’ calls when they rang through the WhiteCoat app.
When asked to describe those starting days, Bryan beams with pride as he talks about his initial tiny team of six and how far they carried the business.
“We had two doctors, one clinic assistant slash operations personnel, two product executives, and myself. Everyone was triple-hatting,” he says.
“We were truly in startup-mode, really trying to see how far we could stretch each dollar, and how we could fill up any vital roles by ourselves.”
Rank didn’t matter either, with Bryan himself doubling up as customer support and delivery man when the time called for it.
But of course, things didn’t stay that way forever. In less than a year, WhiteCoat had significantly grown and was serving an estimated 50,000 patients, according to a Business Times interview.
They also scored a landmark deal shortly after — they were appointed as the telemedicine provider to AIA, one of the largest insurers in Singapore.
Almost like a recurring theme for the young startup, this ambitious partnership was again met with many doubts.
Potential corporate clients were willing to sign up with WhiteCoat if they got endorsed by an insurer, but they repeatedly told Bryan “there was no way” it would happen.
“Insurers will only go for mainstream healthcare, they wouldn’t adopt a solution like this,” they reasoned.
Yes, there was no guaranteed win as WhiteCoat was up against “various regional providers”. But eventually, clinching the deal opened WhiteCoat to a massive audience of 1.2 million corporate lives under AIA.
This later expanded to 2 million, including AIA’s life insurance policyholders.
By now, their team size and customer base would look pretty different from older reports but Bryan is tight-lipped so as not to place all his cards on the table.
Instead, he gives credit to having the right “people, product and partnerships” for giving WhiteCoat a competitive edge in the telehealth space.
When it comes to people, WhiteCoat has their own approach. They hire all their doctors full-time, instead of hopping on the sharing economy model and letting any doctors connect with patients through a platform, like some other providers might do.
When we started on this journey, we felt that healthcare shouldn’t be ‘Uber-ised’ for the time being. Healthcare is not like taking transport, where you can hop into any different vehicle. I think patients really want to be able to build that trust with a doctor.
So what we wanted is doctors who firmly believed in this new modality of healthcare, that would actually dedicate all their time towards seeing patients on this platform, and give patients the assurance that proper medical care is being provided.– Bryan Koh, founder and CEO of WhiteCoat
Additionally, Bryan feels it was imperative that WhiteCoat has a physical clinic because he understands the reality that a phone call won’t always be able to solve every health problem.
Telemedicine is great as a “first point of access”, he says, but some conditions will still require “physical investigation or further examination”.
WhiteCoat may be a digital healthcare provider, but being equipped with a brick-and-mortar clinic ensures that they are fully ready to meet their patients’ complex needs.
Meeting The Needs Of A Global Health Crisis
Right now is no ordinary time for healthcare providers, as the world fights against a global virus pandemic.
Having an in-house team is all the more crucial, and Bryan is thankful that WhiteCoat’s team of doctors have all availed themselves to “putting in additional shifts to meet the larger demand”.
In such a time when the rapid spread of COVID-19 has shrouded the world in uncertainty, the use for telemedicine becomes even clearer to see.
People still fall ill for a range of reasons and patients with chronic diseases still need their regular medications. With digital healthcare, they can reduce the risk of contact with others and still receive the medical help they need.
“We now see a multi-pronged approach for bringing awareness to this solution. The Ministry of Health has been proactively trying to assist this. We’ve seen different businesses, corporates and insurers also trying to provide coverage [with telemedicine] to their customers and clients,” Bryan says.
This climate also makes it a timely juncture for him to look beyond what WhiteCoat can do in Singapore, in line with his “ultimate goal” to take telemedicine to the region.
Currently, there are disparate levels of maturity and different needs in different countries, as evidenced now by how the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic differs from country to country.
Even though healthcare is universal, the landscape is actually very nuanced with cultural, social, political, economic, and regulatory sensitivities.
So, we can’t just copy and past the Singapore model and transplant it into another country. But we believe that you should be able to receive healthcare wherever you are, and wherever you need it the most.– Bryan Koh, founder and CEO of WhiteCoat
Bryan recalls that when they first thought about WhiteCoat, Natalie had a heart full of hope to bring about change for people who needed it most.
“She told me, ‘Let’s not even think about launching in Singapore, let’s launch in third-world and rural countries where they don’t have access to doctors.'”
However, with no experience to speak of at the time, he knew that they needed to start with the basics. This meant getting validation in their own home country first, before trying to convince anyone else to use their solution.
WhiteCoat has certainly made its strides in Singapore since then. The time is now ripe, and expansion plans are already in the works for this year.
Among a few markets they’ve earmarked, Bryan shares that some of them are “countries where this solution would make a huge impact”, where doctor-to-patient ratios are low and not everyone can get access to healthcare.
They will also consider countries where “tech and medical maturity levels are high” so they can come in relatively easily to add value to the existing healthcare systems.
Ending off with a few words of wisdom, Bryan shares a lesson that he has learned from other founders who inspired him on his journey.
The key is to build a product of real value, with solutions to a real problem. Develop it with good people, and ultimately refine it with good partners.– Bryan Koh, founder and CEO of WhiteCoat
Despite all he has achieved in these past four years, Bryan follows his own advice closely and is aware that there is still a long way ahead of him.
In anything that he does, his greatest hope is that his actions and decisions will make WhiteCoat a company that “everyone, from people on the street to Warren Buffet, would feel proud to be associated with”.
Entrepreneur Of The Month is a monthly Vulcan Post series that identifies the ‘unsung heroes’ of the business world, where we zoom in on successful entrepreneurs who stand out. From pioneers to disruptive startups, this series gives us an exclusive insight into their business journey and what it takes to be a game-changer.
Featured Image Credit: Vulcan Post