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A father’s love is like no other- and that can serve as an explanation of the drive that fueled Mohammad Hammoud along his entrepreneurial journey. When his son was suddenly diagnosed with a serious chronic condition in 2015, it led to a turbulent journey that left a lasting mark on the whole family. As an associate computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar, Hammoud pondered whether the research and work he did could be leveraged to help others going through similar experiences and help navigate the complexities of their cases as well as the healthcare systems they were a part of.
But Hammoud’s entrepreneurial spark was truly ignited after he found out that his son was being bullied by other kids owing to his illness. “Out of frustration, my son drew Avey, a superhero that he wished and hoped could cure him,” Hammoud says. “I felt his frustration deeply, and the match was lit once and for all. Since that day, it has been my mission to leverage my expertise in computer science to make the wishes and hopes of not only my son, but whomever Avey can reach come true for a better health journey.”
Out of frustration that he was being bullied due to his illness, Mohammad Hammoud’s son drew Avey, a superhero that he wished and hoped could cure him. Source: Avey
This is how Hammoud, in 2017, came to launch Avey, a self-diagnostic system that makes use of machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms and techniques in its offering. As a holistic AI healthcare solution, the startup aims to offers any patient around the world with an instant, accurate, and fast health assessment by simply asking a couple of questions through an interactive session. The platform then recommends and ranks doctors for the patient based on their individual case, and the dynamic profiles of the doctors on its system also accumulates over time, following which, the platform is able to refer selected doctors to the patient, with whom they can interact either in-person or virtually. Having Avey built as a self-diagnostic system was something Hammoud was especially keen on, given that he knew -from firsthand experience- that people often have difficulty understanding and managing their health cases due to a lack of access to quality healthcare and safe and accurate information.
Incubated at the Qatar Science and Technology Park, Hammoud and his team spent around three and a half years developing in stealth mode to research, design, and develop Avey. “This is because creating an AI algorithm that mimics clinical reasoning and diagnoses patients accurately is an extremely challenging problem that has already eluded many giants in the technology industry,” Hammoud says. And while Hammoud and his team faced plenty of issues of their own while attempting to create their solution, they were able to soft-launch Avey’s AI-based self-diagnostic algorithm (which the team calls its “check” feature) as an app available on Google Play and App Store last year. Following that, they released other components of Avey in mid-2022, which include its “connect” feature to match and connect patients with suitable doctors, its “commune” feature that offers users with a social hub to exchange ideas and experiences on health and lifestyles, as well as its “claim” feature that processes patients’ insurance claims and automating claim processing using AI.
At present, Hammoud and his team are getting set to launch Avey’s “cure” feature, which would allow doctors to prescribe medicines to patients digitally, and the latter can get them delivered to their homes as well. By putting together such features all in one app, Hammoud’s vision is to offer users with a “tailored health journey” with Avey. Its self-diagnostic algorithm covers all major body systems with over 450 diseases, and Hammoud points out that Avey has recently recorded a world-leading diagnostic accuracy of 91% through a comprehensive scientific study (available online on health science manuscript publisher medRxiv) that is currently under review by the peer-reviewed medical journal British Medical Journal Open. This should explain why the healthcare ecosystem is taking notice of it- at the time of writing this piece, more than 20 hospitals and clinics, 300 doctors, and 1,000 medical services are available on the Avey platform, and it has also inked partnerships with 63 healthcare providers in Qatar.
Avey won the 2022 Private Enterprise Tech Innovator Competition organized by Big Four firm KPMG in Qatar. Source: Qatar
In addition, Hammoud says that the app has also exceeded a million downloads from over 175 countries, along with approximately 150,000 monthly active users. In March of this year, it beat over 130 startups to be recognized both as the best solution and the public favorite at the InsurHack MENA 2022 competition, a hackathon organized by Qatar Insurance Group. Following that, in October, it also won the 2022 Private Enterprise Tech Innovator Competition organized by Big Four firm KPMG in Qatar, and as a result, Avey is now set to compete in the KPMG Global Tech Innovator Web Summit 2022 that will happen in November in Lisbon, Portugal. But such wins shouldn’t be taken to mean that Avey hasn’t faced its own fair share of hurdles as a startup. Hammoud says, “We have faced them wholeheartedly, and without complaints- we welcome challenges.” According to the entrepreneur, the startup ecosystem in Qatar is evolving, but it is still far from being a mature one- for instance, he points out that though there is commendable support for pre-seed and seed financing rounds, higher rounds are almost non-existent. “Qatar still lacks a true venture capital (VC) market that can support innovative startups to scale and succeed throughout their lifecycles,” Hammoud says.
In Avey’s case, the startup has been able to raise US$4.71 million in pre-seed and seed rounds from angel investors, and it is currently fundraising for its Series A round, with Hammoud and his team reaching out to VC firms in the US and Europe for the same, many of whom, he says, have “expressed a huge interest” in the enterprise. “We believe that the healthtech ecosystem in Qatar and the MENA region is on the precipice of a truly exciting renaissance,” Hammoud adds. “We have observed several startups that present ambitious solutions with great potential.”
From an operational point of view, Hammoud says that while the average user in Qatar is keen to adopt new tech such as Avey’s app, he and his team have been able to witness firsthand that many businesses still either struggle or are indifferent when it comes to adopting technology. “For example, in more advanced economies, businesses compete in fast-paced environments, where the law of the jungle is to be quick or be dead, and innovation is the only way to stay ahead of the competition,” Hammoud says. “Business in Qatar, for the most part, is business as usual, and so, that affords them time for a deluge of bureaucracy that drowns innovation.” In addition, businesses in the country are more accustomed to importing true-and-tried technologies, as opposed to adopting emerging local options. “At a national level, this means that the private sector, as a late adopter of technology, will always be technologically behind [compared to] the rest of the world,” Hammoud says.
A change in culture is needed, Hammoud says, and this can be realized only if a company or two take the plunge and lead the pack in disrupting this landscape- and that’s the strategy he’s making use of at Avey. “We have recently begun partnerships with visionary companies here in Qatar, and we are excited to announce these partnerships in the coming months,” he adds. Hammoud is thus clearly hard at work with the plans he has for his startup, and top of the list is growth. He reveals that he and his team are aiming to expand Avey’s operations in more countries and regions, and they are hoping to work with more healthcare providers, insurance companies, technology companies, and governments in the MENA region and North America.
But what’s even more exciting to see is Hammoud’s vision for Avey’s future- the founder and CEO notes how the platform currently “reasons” through its AI self-diagnostic algorithm, but that “in the upcoming years, Avey will ‘listen,’ ‘speak,’ and ‘feel.’ This will transform the experience of people with Avey, and transition it from a text-based platform to one that’s conversation-based, rich in emotions and empathy. People will genuinely feel that they are talking to a human being rather than an algorithm, a human being who is extremely caring and exceptionally accurate in diagnosis and prognosis.”
At the end of the day, the goal, says Hammoud, is for a patient to say, “Hey Avey, I am not feeling well,” and Avey will respond with, “Oh, I’m sorry to hear that. Can you tell me what’s wrong?” Avey will continue having a conversation with the user, giving them a sense of care and comfort, and once the possible diagnosis is presented, it will continue to support the user by giving them information and advice on their case, connecting them with the right doctors, and delivering their medicine as fast as possible. “For Avey, we understand the gravity of our commitments, and as such, customer centrality is our North Star,” he says. “We do not fear the dark or getting lost, as long as we always follow this star.”
This vision thus exemplifies Hammoud’s end goal for Avey: to have it function as a universal digital hospital that knows no boundaries or prejudice, thereby, completely democratizing healthcare. “As Google is to information, Amazon is to e-commerce, Microsoft is to productivity, and Apple is to elegant and smart technology, so will Avey be to health,” Hammoud says. “It’s just a matter of time.”
Mohammad Hammoud, Founder, Avey. Source: Avey
‘Trep Talk: Avey founder Mohammad Hammoud’s tips for entrepreneurs in the MENA healthtech space
The entrepreneurial road isn’t easy “The road ahead will be bumpy. Sometimes, you will be on top, and other times, you will struggle. Startups do not fail, but founders give up. Remember, you are in a precarious but promising moment in the history of MENA healthtech startups. You are setting a precedent.”
Know your why “Whenever you find yourself in doubt, always recount your guiding principles, and realign yourself. Hold yourself to those high standards, and always act accordingly. That way, no matter what the outcome is, you can be sure that you made the right decision.”
Choose your team wisely “Your greatest asset will be your team. You will rely heavily on them, and they will define your company’s culture. Pay very close attention to whom you recruit, and to their subsequent developments. Make sure to always empower them, and nurture the founder mentality in all of them. They want to contribute and feel a sense of ownership in their work.”
Make sure your startup is solving a real-life problem “Your solution or product should always serve a purpose, and not be the purpose itself. Having impressive technology is all well and good, but if it does not solve a specific problem or vastly improve a current situation, the road to success will be doubtful. Remember to always start your solution or product development from the end user, and work backwards. The customer should be at the center of everything you do.”