Watsi founder and CEO Chase Adam talked to TechRepublic about searching for the most meaningful startup idea, and transforming medical treatment with his crowdfunding platform.
A woman got on the bus at a stop on a winding road in Costa Rica. She asked the other riders for donations for her son's medical care. It wasn't an uncommon occurrence, as many people beg for money every day. The difference was how much money she received. She had her son's medical records and photos with her. She passed them around the bus, answered questions, and gained trust, so the people offered up funds.
Chase Adam was on that bus, and at that moment, watching these people give money to this woman's cause, he had an epiphany. In 2012, Watsi was born, named for the town in which the bus stopped.
Watsi is a global crowdfunding platform that allows anyone to donate money to fund life-changing medical treatments for people in need. Give as little as $5, or fund the entire project, and receive an update of the outcome of the treatment.
"I've always wanted to work on a problem for an organization that I really and truly believe is more important than I am," Adam said. "Watsi matters more than I do, and that is inspiring. I care so much so I'll never quit. I've been faced with a lot of hard questions [in life], and Watsi has never been one of them."
Adam said he was always searching for a project to be extremely passionate about. Throughout his time in school, he had side entrepreneurial projects, the most successful of which was a screen printing company. But he found his true love, traveling, in college as well, when he studied abroad in Chile and traveled around South and Central America. A big reason he went to Chile to study was his passion for the water and surfing, which has always been an important part of his life. After Chile, Adam studied in Barbados to learn about Caribbean culture (and of course, surf some more in his spare time). He interned in Washington D.C. after college at a private sector intelligence company.
"It was very intellectually stimulating work, but I didn't feel like 100% happy with the company and project I was serving," he said.
He thought a non-profit was where he should head next, so Adam moved to Haiti, where he started a non-profit healthcare program that imported multivitamins and used loan officers to deliver them to people around the country, particularly expectant mothers and children. The program is still in place today, something that gives him great pride.
After that, he joined the Peace Corps and served for two and a half years in a tiny town in Costa Rica, where he became fluent in Spanish and worked for several microfinance institutions. But during that time, he started to become disenchanted with the non-profit world.
The traveling gave him an enormous amount of perspective, but it finally wore on him.
"The reason I was traveling is that I was searching for something. I'm kind of a romantic in that sense, I guess," Adam said. "I think Watsi is that thing, and I'm not sure if it found me or it was because I was searching."
After the idea for Watsi was born, Adam wanted to go back to San Francisco. The non-profit and non-governmental organization (NGO) world moved too slowly, he said, and there was too much bureaucracy. Meanwhile, he viewed the tech world of Silicon Valley as the opposite — an ever-changing environment filled with incredibly smart people who were motivated to change the world.
Watsi was designed to model a startup, but as a non-profit. Eight volunteers on three continents built the platform. After two months, they were accepted into Y Combinator and became the startup accelerator's first non-profit, raising a $1.2 million philanthropic round. Adam quit his finance job, and by 2013, Watsi grew 10 times what it originally was, and is sustaining off of the funding and donations by people through the website. It has since raised over $2 million for patients, who have life-threatening ailments that always have a high probability of success and cost less than $1500 to treat. They are posted by trusted medical partners on-the-ground that Adam and the Watsi team have forged close relationships with.
"In the early days, I knew the first 50 or 60 [patients] by name, I recognized them by face, I helped write their profiles," Adam said. "Those first patients always stick out in my mind."
Especially one 12-year-old girl from Nepal, who needed hand surgery because of a severe burn. She looked very angry in her photo, Adam said, and they contacted her to see if she wanted to upload another. She said no. Her $830 surgery was funded, and in her update photo, she was beaming, looking like a completely different child. She told the Watsi team: "I used to not like school because I had no friends, but now I have friends because I have all my fingers."
That was only the beginning. To date, there are hundreds of profiles on the site, asking for often simple procedures that drastically improve lives. For instance, Paul, just needs a treatment for his leg fracture infection so he doesn't have to have it amputated. Amni, a six-year-old from Guatemala, needs a $1,200 surgery that would prevent long-term damage to her kidneys.
The Watsi team travels around the world to visit hospitals and patients who are using the platform, and Adam went along at first. He has since taken a break, trying to hold down the fort in San Francisco, but he said he's starting to get the itch to travel again.
"I think [I'm] extremely fortunate to work with such smart and passionate people on something we all care deeply about," he said. "It's such a rare opportunity in life."
Now he just has to scale it. Adam can never see leaving Watsi, but he wants the company and its mission to outgrow him — in his mind, that would be the ultimate success.
In his own words...
What are some of your hobbies?
"It's always been surfing, everywhere I've lived except for DC. It's the one opportunity where I can turn my brain off, which is needed from time to time. My dad and brother are surfers, they started teaching me when I was 10 or 12. It really started when I was 16 and I could drive myself to the beach. My family takes an annual trip to Mexico, a surf trip every year."
What is some of the best advice you have for aspiring entrepreneurs?
"The best jobs are when you find something that you work on that you care about more than yourself. And I'm stealing this quote...The best way to make money doing something you love is just start doing it. I've always wanted to start a startup, an organization that matters. You don't have to quit your job and raise money, just do it on the side. Never give up."
How do you focus on a project?
"One of the unique things about my role at Watsi is I'm always doing something different, and that's really motivating. There's always a different challenge, so I try to learn things the hard way."
How do you unplug?
"I try [to meditate] and I'm terrible at it. I tried to get into it in the Peace Corps. Two and a half years in a tiny community where no one speaks English, you can go crazy. Surfing is my form of meditation."
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