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Thursday, August 8, 2013

Medical Crowdfunding Attracts Top Silicon Valley Investors

Alice in Kenya received $205 through Watsi to pay for the safe delivery of her baby. (Watsi)

Alice in Kenya received $205 through Watsi to pay for the safe delivery of her baby. (Watsi)

Watsi has become the first charitable company to raise over $1 million in funding from traditional “angel investors” in Silicon Valley.

The non-profit had already made history when it received backing from Paul Graham‘s elite Silicon Valley incubator Y Combinator.

Chase Adams is a co-founder of Watsi, which crowdsources medical care. (Watsi)

Chase Adam is a co-founder of Watsi, which crowdsources medical care. (Watsi)

Graham wrote, “After about 30 seconds of looking at the site, I realized I was looking at one of the more revolutionary things I’d seen the Internet used for.”

Watsi — one of the fastest growing non-profits in web history — puts up pictures and profiles of people around the world who need money for medical care.

“I think the simplest way to describe Watsi is we are essentially Kickstarter for medical treatments,” Watsi co-founder Chase Adam told Here & Now. “Anyone can go on our website, donate as little as $5, and 100 percent of that donation will directly fund medical care for a specific person somewhere in the world.”

Adam came up with the idea when he was riding a bus through a small town in Costa Rica called Watsi.

A woman on the bus was asking for donations for her son’s medical care. She had a red folder with her filled with photos of him and his medical records. Adam had an epiphany.

“We have websites like Kickstarter where we can fund movies, we have websites like Kiva where we can directly give a micro-loan to someone anywhere in the world,” Adam said. “Why isn’t there a website where we can essentially show this woman’s red folder to the entire world? A website where we can directly fund medical care for people that need it?”


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Tech Crunch “It’s not a group of investors one would typically find contributing to a non-profit fundraiser. Watsi founder Chase Adam explains that the reason the company opted for this approach is that the traditional mechanisms for non-profit fundraising sometimes act as a counterproductive force by undermining the social movements they’re trying to support.”

VentureBeat “Adam hit on the idea that a website and crowdfunding model could help people in need. He recruited a few developers to help him build a basic website. The key differentiation from other charities is that 100 percent of the donations directly fund medical treatments, and there are no administrative costs.”

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  • marion leary

    In Philadelphia, the organization Sink or Swim Philadelphia uses medical crowdfunding and social to help raise funds for people who are uninsured or underinsured. Every month they focus on a new person struggling to pay for medical bills and raise as much money as they can to help them pay those expenses. Their website is http://www.sinkorswimphiladelphia.org.

  • Amber

    Please mention on the air how to spell Watsi. It was challenging to find online. Thanks! Great story.

  • Martin

    What a fantastic idea! I suggested this for my company “dress down day”. We all donate to an organization and wear jeans that day. It always has a good turn out!

  • guest

    i think this is great, i truly do, but can i also have the option of helping an american family? our country’s health care system is about as broken as it can get.

  • guest

    I have a relative who is a missionary in the Phillipines. She had surgery last Nov. in the Phillipines and has had complications that have caused crippling pain. In July she came home to the U.S. because her brother committed suicide. She will be here for months and has sought a consultation with a stateside doctor. Her insurance will not pay for any medical procedures stemming from her operation while she is in the U.S. She needs a CAT scan and laproscopic surgery. I wonder if this organization helps people here in the US.

  • Dap2158

    Be careful when jumping on the bandwagon with ideas like this. This doesn’t actually do anything to solve the real issue, that people in the developing world do not have access to affordable health systems. This doesn’t strengthen their access to care, or their health systems, or their quality of care. This basically uses the same unsuccessful foreign aid ideology of the past 50 years. “Tell us what you need and how much it costs, and the Western World will give you money for it”. I understand that there are good intentions behind this, but you have to look at the whole picture and ask “is asking for online donations a sustainable way for people to get healthcare?” Please don’t let your desire to help and feel like you’re making a difference cloud your judgement. This is essentially very high-stakes Kiva.

    • chaseadam17

      Watsi is working to change healthcare systems. We work exclusively with medical organizations that:

      1. Establish public / private partnerships, which strengthen existing systems (many procedures on Watsi are subsidized by local governments)
      2. Cross subsidize (whereby wealthy patients subsidize the cost of care for poor patients)
      3. Train local doctors and staff (residency programs)

      By partnering with organizations that take these approaches seriously, we’re helping to build the future of healthcare. We believe very strongly that the best way to change systems is to support the amazing organizations that are already thinking about long-term change in their own communities while providing healthcare to people who need it.

      • Dap2158

        Some fair points about the medical organizations that you work with. However, my concern (and I stress concern, this is not an attack on your company) is more about the end point of your company. With any type of charitable work, particularly in the developing world, shouldn’t the real goal be to remove the need for charity? To put in place a system where you are no longer needed, by empowering people to handle these issues on their own, thereby solving the problem you addressed in the first place. Without that goal, don’t you just perpetuate a reliance on donations from middle and high income countries? I guess to me it seems like the approach is, “tell us what you need (money for health care), and we’ll get it for you (money)”, instead of “tell us what you need, and lets figure out a way for you to get it for yourself, so you don’t need us anymore”. I feel that the latter mentality is how sustainable solutions occur, and this approach kind of seems like inflationary charity, as opposed to a permanent solution. Again, I am not trying to disrespect your company, but as an RPCV myself, and with several years of global health experience in the developing world, I think these are important things to consider. How does this system not promote the ideology that the solution to developing world issues is Westerners sending money? I’d love to have my mind changed!

        • chaseadam17

          Great points. But I think there might be a difference in how we think about systems at scale.

          There are roughly 200 countries in the world, and of those, approximately 40 have what we’d consider to be a functioning healthcare system.

          In each of those 40 systems, the cost of healthcare is subsidized (i.e. one group of people add more value than they extract, and vice versa).

          It has always seemed strange to me that in the developed world, we’re content with systems that are predicated on subsidy. And yet, when it comes to the developing world, we expect countries to invent autonomous healthcare systems (i.e. no international subsidy and highly “sustainable”), despite the fact that they have access to a *tiny* fraction of the resources we possess.

          In my opinion, it borders on neofascist to justify letting innocent people die of easily-treatable conditions in the name of “sustainability,” when we’ve yet to build an equitable healthcare system in what is arguably the wealthiest and most powerful country in the world.

          I believe we’re all global citizens, and just because a 12-year-old girl was born on the wrong side of an imaginary line doesn’t mean she should die for lack of funds that we, who happened to be born on the lucky side of that line, might blow on a weekend in Vegas.

          Our hypothesis (and we might be crazy) is that a global healthcare system is going to emerge before each of those 160 countries independently create their own functioning systems. We’re already seeing this happen with access to information (e.g. Wikipedia vs. libraries) and education (e.g. Khan Academy vs. local schools).

          We have a pretty ambitious plan for how to put ourselves out of business. But that plan starts with solving one of the most difficult problems in healthcare. How do we get the richest people in the world (who aren’t all “Westerners,” there are many donors on Watsi that live in the developing world) to subsidize the cost of the poorest people’s relatively expensive healthcare?

          Honestly, if we can solve that problem, we might just have a shot at reinventing healthcare on a global scale.

          • guest

            First off, I really appreciate that you’re willing to take the time to respond, and I think it’s great that there’s a forum where we can discuss these incredibly important issues with sensible discourse.

            There is no doubt that the vast majority of countries in the world have poorly functioning health care systems, U.S. included. In the developing world Sri Lanka is actually an interesting case study of a country whose health care system has been pretty effective given minimal resources and a prolonged civil war. Granted, their system was established by the British, so they weren’t starting from scratch post-colonial rule as many countries are.

            So I think if I’m understanding correctly, you see your company as more of a global health care subsidization program, wherein anyone who desires can subsidize the cost of care for another person. Actually very similar to how health care in the United States worked pre-WWII, and almost a socialist approach to getting people care (not that I think there’s anything particularly bad or good about socialism). In which case, I would be curious as to how you choose the countries and communities you work in, just from an economical standpoint. Obviously the cost of a procedure in Chad will not be the same as in Laos or Mali, so do you target areas where donated dollars will go the furthest, to maximize your quality of life return on investment?

            I think it might be a bit of a stretch to say that by thinking the focus should be on homegrown, sustainable solutions, and strengthening access at a national level that one would inherently be accepting of the death of someone in need of care. And while using a “12 year old girl” as an example is an effective, if anecdotal, way to garner sympathy for your case, you and I both know that these issues are not as black and white as that.

            Having some experience with development, I’m sure you’re familiar with the work of Dambisa Moyo, Teju Cole, and many others who speak about the “white savior industrial complex”, and make the rather convincing case that aid can cause dependence, and actually increase poverty. I think that’s where my concern comes from, because while this is no doubt a new idea, it seems like the end result is still the same. We will raise money from people who have it, and give it to people who don’t. So it seems like the only “new” part of this model is that you’ve created an innovative way to fund raise.

            Your heart is clearly in the right place, and you obviously have support from the tech community. Perhaps we just have different ideas for reaching the same goals. But I’ll be interested to see if you can get the same support from the academic and development communities. Again, thanks for being willing to talk about these things. Take care.

            p.s. I’m the same guy who posted as dap2158, just logged in with an old guest name!

  • Ramesh

    Dollars has more effect because the health care outside US is cheap. That is why I think this is very good method. Even a small contribution helps a lot.

  • Helen

    This is an amazing philanthropic venture. It is great to be able to donate to a cause that can do so much with so little money. To all naysayers regarding assisting citizens of foreign countries that do not have strong healthcare systems: You are lucky to be living in the United States with all its imperfections. I ask you what is more humane – to help a person right now if you are financially able or to opt out as you preach about the political ramifications of doing so?

  • Nick Sophinos

    Wow, thanks for doing this, Watsi.

  • Cherrie

    There is a program similar to this in central Indiana. It is called Simply Soda Children’s Foundation. They have various fundraisers and even a weekend long music festival called Soda Fest. The money raised goes to medical bills and transportation costs of local children. A lot of the children I have seen working with the foundation have a form of cancer or have been involved in a car accident.

  • Denis Lecavalier

    Great story. Crowdfunding is a terrific way to help individuals in need. It would be nice if there were a not-for-profit crowdfunding site for medical research since this can potentially impact large groups of individuals. To date only Microryza.com has crowdfunding for scientific research and they are a for profit entity. I recently posted a short expose on medical crowdfunding on my blog at http://artjockey.wordpress.com and also have an epilepsy research project on Microryza (https://www.microryza.com/projects/childhood-epilepsy-it-s-no-laughing-matter-or-is-it).

    • BostonDad

      Agreed, but there is at least one more and it’s non-not-for-profit: startacure.com

      • Denis Lecavalier

        Ansolutely correct but unfortunately it is limited to only cancer research.

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