By Andrew Patterson
For two kiwi doctors the idea of starting a business had never really dawned on them until necessity made the opportunity too obvious to ignore.
The idea was simple. Produce specialist medical information for children – written in their own language – that would allow them to better understand the nature of their various conditions.
What began as a simple search for information has led to the launch of a highly successful global publishing business called Medikidz.
With more than 40 titles in the series covering a range of medical conditions from haemophilia to cystic fibrosis, Medikidz now operates in 48 countries, has been translated into 28 languages and recently saw its two millionth book roll off the printing presses – all in the space of just three years.
London based pediatrician Dr Kim Chilman-Blair and fellow kiwi Dr Kate Hersov hit on the idea while studying medicine at Otago after discovering there was almost no literature available specifically for children that explained the nature of specialist medical conditions in language they could easily understand.
While most adults often struggle to come to terms with the complexities of medical conditions and their associated technical lingo, imagine what it’s like for a child trying to understand the basis of a recently diagnosed illness or dealing with a parent who has just been told they have a potentially life threatening disease?
However, the decision to pursue the business venture wasn’t an easy one for both business partners as it meant having to effectively give up their medical careers for which they had studied long and hard.
Dr Kim Chilman-Blair says that it was the case of a young girl with epilepsy she came across while working at Starship Hospital that was to eventually force her hand.
“Her mother asked me where she could go to get information for her daughter that explained the nature of her condition. So I searched around and I just couldn’t find anything that was written for children about epilepsy.”
“In fact, the more I looked around, the more I came to the realisation that this wasn’t just a problem in New Zealand. There wasn’t really anything available in any country, specifically for children, which explained the condition of epilepsy. Instead, everything I found was directed at the parents or the caregivers.”
“What really struck me was that this young girl was going to be expected to take anticonvulsants for the rest of her life, turn up to medical appointments and learn to live with her condition without being able to gain access to information about epilepsy that she could understand. That just seemed crazy to me, staggering in fact, that we hadn’t attempted to talk to young patients at their own level and that was really the impetus to start Medikidz.”
However, the more the two doctors searched the more they came to realise that it wasn’t just epilepsy but children with conditions such as haemophilia, cancer, diabetes were all living in the same information vacuum.
The opportunity was just too great to ignore.
But why had no one thought of the idea previously?
“Often you’ll find in a hospital that a particular nurse or a doctor feels very strongly about a specific aspect of medicine and they’ll produce something locally for young patients but when they move on so does the information. What we found was that [prior to Medikidz] there was no real standardized source of information for children to explain what they’re going through."
Just three years on from making the decision to form Medikidz business is booming with the publication of the two millionth book in recent months.
“I didn’t think the demand would turn out to be as significant as it has been and it’s great that it’s been a kiwi initiative by a group of doctors who are impacting the lives of more than two million kids around the world. That really has been quite humbling. There was a degree of trial and error involved in coming up with concept for the books."
“Originally I had tried out the idea initially with a picture book that I had written myself and I freely admit that it just didn’t work. In fact, when I think back now I think the kids would have seen straight through me because they know when an adult is trying to write in their language.”
“So on the advice of a friend, who suggested the idea leant itself to a comic format, I ended up going to Marvel Entertainment [the global character entertainment company owned by the Walt Disney Company] and it just took off from there."
The format for the books also lends itself to digital possibilities for the production of tablet versions, an option Medikidz is actively developing.
“We’re now moving into digitizing the comics so there is more movement involved but we’ve decided not to move into full on animation because you end up competing with the likes of Pixar and kids have a very high expectation of animation these days. What we’ve done is develop these very cool swipe through animations designed for the iPad and other tablet devices.”
Staying connected and hooked in with the young users of the books is obviously vital and Medikidz has established its own medical youth advisory board of children with a range of medical conditions aged 6 to 15 to provide direct input to the process of developing the publications.
“This group comes together once a quarter and they let us know what they like, what they don’t and what they feel needs to change. We also go to the specialist charity foundations or the representative organisation for the disease itself seeking direct input from younger patients, so they are actively engaged throughout the whole process."
With the business growing by more than 50% each year since its inception Medikidz may well still have its best years since still to come.
“I actually feel like we’re only just getting started. We’ve just begun moving into the United States and the feedback there has been fantastic.”
“But what’s also important is that not only do children need the medical side of their conditions explained to them, but children themselves need to be advocated for throughout this whole process. We want to expand the offering in the future that allows them to understand the different dimensions of their medical journey they’re going to have to face.”
“For instance, if you have type one diabetes, the information requirements will change as the child gets older and when they become a young adult they’re going to start wanting to know what impact alcohol, for example, will have on their condition.”
The decision to establish the business in London rather than New Zealand was based on necessity, according to Dr Kim Chilman-Blair.
“At the time we were starting the business we realised we had a global offering on our hands and my business partner’s husband, who was already established in London, convinced me that basing ourselves in London was going to be the best option.”
However, the company retains a New Zealand connection through a shareholding held by Sir Stephen Tindall’s investment fund K1W1.
“We’ve been very fortunate that we’ve had no difficulties raising capital because what we have here is a business that really does a lot of good for the world.”
“So we’ve had a lot of interest from many people who were in a position to put up the money because they saw that not only was it a valid business, but that it was also the chance to be associated with a start-up that is helping sick kids and their families come through a very difficult time in their lives.”
Despite the laudable goals of Medikidz, the medical profession is well known for its conservatism in some quarters, which has meant there have been a few sceptics along the way. “I’ve always been the sort of person who likes to push boundaries so for me that comes fairly naturally.”
“Every so often we do come across some fairly conservative elements within the profession who say that you can’t possibly explain medicine to children but the very fact that they’re saying that probably means that we’re actually on to something.”
Refreshingly, the books may have actually done the profession a favour by introducing children to medicine at a young age thereby potentially recruiting them into the profession in the future. “I’ve heard of doctors suggesting to their younger colleagues that they should read the books themselves so they can learn from them.”
The next five years looks like being a busy one for the Medikidz team with plans to expand the Foundation that sits alongside the business. “We’re going to be focused on expanding in the US. following the establishment of our new office there as well as building the capacity of the Foundation which is designed to support the provision of medicines and health supplies for children in third world. A percentage of our profits goes directly into the Foundations accounts so as we grow so does the foundation which is really what gives me the most pleasure."
“That was always my objective: To be able to help kids in the third world without having to go and fundraise the money. So to establish a business, that was self-sustaining that would help build the Foundation as it went was always my ultimate goal.”
“So now to have had the idea, successfully set up the business, watch it become profitable and now see the Foundation grow as a result, that’s really what gets me out of bed in the morning.”
|Staff:||20 (London & US based)|
|Annual growth rate:||50%|
|Fastest growing market:||USA|
|International offices:||London & New York|
|Recent Highlight:||Establishment of new office in New York and publication of the two millionth book in the series.|
|Ownership:||Private (Founders hold around 25% with the balance held by associated interests including Sir Stephen Tindall.)|
|Likely to IPO?:||Yes|