We met Sophie Chung to talk about her company Qunomedical and how medical tourism changed over the years. For her it is a way to send a message, especially on how to treat patients.
ILI.DIGITAL: Sophie, thank you for inviting me to Berlin. I am curious regarding the interview. You have already been doing a lot of things in various areas. Maybe you can tell me what your identity consists of at the moment?
Sophie Chung: I think, when looking at my professional identity the area of medicine or health care runs through all of it like a golden thread. I always wanted to become a doctor. Since I was a little girl it has actually always been clear to me. This is why I studied medicine. I did not stay in the field of medicine as a doctor though, but rather moved on to economy and worked as a consultant. Subsequently I have been in the startup area where I now founded a business in the medical and digital sector. But I have always been working on medical topics in the broadest sense, also while being in consulting. This is why I would say at least my professional identity can strongly be deduced from the medical field. My personal or private identity is quite multicultural and diverse. I am actually Austrian. My parents come from China and Cambodia, I now live in Germany. I studied in the U.S., in China, and in Australia. So this is a wide range. And I believe, all these impressions I gathered in my life up to now have not just been shaping me personally but have also been influencing what I am doing professionally.
Was the field of medicine a topic in your family too?
Yes (laughing), I come from an Asian family so becoming a doctor is something parents appreciate in general. But I also come from a family of doctors. My maternal grandfather was a doctor and pharmacist. Many of my mom’s elder brothers were about to become doctors. My mom grew up in Cambodia; there was civil war in the late 70s. This is why unfortunately a part of my family did not survive. So, the question was whether I would just continue the tradition or if I also want it myself? And I think it’s both. I think the tradition is beautiful. But the subject and the profession are also incredibly fascinating to me. This is why everything goes well together for me.
So, you were born in Austria?
How was your initial situation? And from where did you get the idea of leaving Austria?
So I was born in Austria in the early 80s. Times were different back then. I was born in Linz. This is in fact, I think, the third or fourth biggest city in Austria but only has 120,000 inhabitants. So this is rather a town. I had a beautiful childhood, but it was quite a homogeneous society there. For me it was obvious from an early age that I would not stay in Linz because I wanted to go out into the world to perceive more, see more variegation, and experience more. Austria definitely still is my homeland and I love returning each time. Vienna, where I have been studying and living for a long time, is one of my favorite cities. Right now, professionally and personally I find myself and advance much better outside of Austria, though.
Among the places you lived, could you tell me something about Australia and New York?
I went to Australia right after my graduation from college. This is where my first attempts of being a doctor took place; I was in Brisbane. It was incredibly fascinating to get to know a different health system in another country. It was really exciting for me to get out there and work independently.
Many years later I moved to New York. I chose New York because I was able to gather my first impressions about the startup-life there. For that regard only the U.S. came into question because they are simply five to ten years ahead compared to what we have in Europe. And I basically wanted to see how big the thoughts get there, how you work there, how the investment community is, and all these issues. New York as a city itself has always been one of my favorite places to go to and to live there. I ended up being there for almost three years. And it was an incredibly intense time where I learned a lot. I would not want to miss these years.
You just said you wanted to integrate into the Start-Up community. Then there was the area of economy you entered, too. When was this?
That was after leaving Australia, so at the very beginning. I have not been a doctor for long, came back, and had not planned to leave the medicine sector. I always wanted to become a doctor, work academically and carry out research, and all these things. It was incredibly pleasing to work with patients. It was rather coincidentally that I crossed the pass of consulting. I received an offer. It was incredibly fascinating for me to work on medical topics dealing with the health system not directly as a doctor but with a strong economical aspect. I learned incredibly much. So, my actual plan was to make an excursion into economy and return to medicine. The way life plays out, everything evolved differently, so I am in the Start-Up sector now. This is how it ultimately developed.
But I use to say, in life many opportunities open up for you and sometimes you just have to grab them and take a different path than originally planned.
How did the step to Qunomedical come about?
During my time at consulting I realized that there is another option after consulting for me. It was the time when the topic of Start-Ups came up and expanded a lot in Germany, especially in Berlin. There was not only the way back to a hospital or to a large business but there also was the opportunity to do something yourself and make your own idea happen. And that was absolutely fascinating to me. The problem I always wanted to solve was how a patient would be able to choose the doctor who fits best to him.
This would have been my next question. Could you sum up Qunomedical in one sentence?
Yes (laughing). Qunomedical is a digital platform that helps patients from all over the world to find the right doctor at any possible place in the world. This is what we do. The right doctor is not always the one where you can schedule an appointment and who is your neighbor. The right doctor with the right specialization can sometimes be in another country. So, our aim is to create transparency, so no one is ever insecure whether they are getting the best medical aid.
So, you founded in Berlin?
You said you went to the U.S. because they are five to ten years ahead. Would it have been possible to launch your business there?
Absolutely. I considered where to found very well. I could have founded in New York or the Silicon Valley. I consciously choose Berlin because when I launched in 2016, the startup community there was already developed very far. It was not the same like in 2013 when I went to New York. Currently there is no reason not to choose Berlin, in my opinion, but a lot of reasons to choose it. First, it starts out with low living costs. You can go much further with the given financial means, like funding, compared to New York or the Silicon Valley. Second, by now there are incredibly huge talent pools on the European labor market that you have access to. It means you get really good people in Europe right now. Third, the investment community changed a lot. Some years ago, you had a hard time receiving funding in Germany or Europe. This completely changed. Today the venture capital community established. It is no issue at all to get early stage financing anymore. What is indeed a difference between the U.S. and Germany: If you approach someone with a new idea, people in Europe and Germany are pretty skeptical. And last but not least a personal reason: I do appreciate the European way of living more than the American one. These were the reasons that spoke for Berlin a lot.
Was there something what went in your way at the beginning?
We did not have any total road blocks. I had the idea of establishing a global platform for all people of this world and as many doctors as possible to help getting ideal medical aid. Most people said, “Sophie, you are crazy.” when I spoke about it. “This is too huge, too complicated. Take one little problem you want to solve.” The challenge was mostly that a lot of people did not believe in my idea. But it did not keep me from doing these things anyways.
Let us go into your service really quick. How exactly does it work? Is everyone allowed to sign up? How does it work regarding health insurances?
Our system is designed to work with every patient who needs our help. This means everyone can sign up. We also have no hidden information. Everything is transparent. We work with the patient the way which is best for him. If it is a direct payment service, so if it is a treatment the patient needs to pay themselves, it is working out. If it is a treatment processed by health insurance, it works as well. In this case we cooperate with the health insurance. So, our goal is to operate system independent.
Medical tourism is a term that just now evolved into a positive one. Do you still need to fight about that, though, when approaching decision makers or people who support you financially?
Less and less; it is really interesting to observe that when I started 3 years ago the term ‘medical tourism’ still seemed a bit dubious. But I mentioned it recently, when you think of it, medical tourism is excellent! It offers a patient more options. We see it as our task to positively connotate the term. I believe that we made a big contribution to the fact that medical tourism is not seen as skeptically anymore as it used to. People start to understand the value added by medical tourism for each singe person. We continue working on it; we are not even close to where we want to be. The good thing is that the resistance towards this topic drops noticeably over time.
How do you finance yourselves?
We are traditionally funded by well-known venture capitals from Berlin and the U.S. We are also funded by a few German family businesses. These are wealthy German families who are fascinated to invest in young companies. And this is an absolutely pleasant mixture of entrepreneurial mindset deriving from families of entrepreneurs and professional mindset from VCs. This combination is something I incredibly enjoy.
Your company grew a lot within the last one or two years. Could you tell me a bit about it?
We have doubled our numbers every six to nine months. This is strong growths but there are companies growing even stronger. We could have grown stronger, but we are in a field, namely in the field of medicine, where fast or unlimited growth is not always positive because quality and trust are very important to us. And these are topics that cannot be scaled in infinite speed. This is why we are really happy about growth and we push it, but not at all costs.
You are 60 people?
Can you foresee to detach from venture capital at any time?
To detach from them is not the main goal for us right now. Our goal is to grow fast and strong and, I use to say, attain world supremacy. Aggressive growth is expensive and resource intense; financially as well es the amount of work. This is the reason why we actually fit well to the venture capital community. Of course we want to be independent sometime in the far future. This is where the topic of profitability and all related topics emerge. But you have to decide in each stage what you focus on and what is important.
Do you know if you want to stay in Berlin or will you establish other offices?
I am a big fan of centralization. We will stay exclusively in Berlin for as long as it is reasonable. But of course, we are a global company and we will have other offices and locations in the future. So, it is not a question about whether it happens but rather a question about when it happens. We already take a look at where the next big market could be for us. Probably we are going to make a decision within the next six months.
What is necessary for you to be able to reach a certain goal within the next years? What has to happen for this whole project to be success eventually?
I am sorry (laughing) there is no easy answer to this question. I wished there was one, though. There are of course a few things that work out in favor of us. Internal factors are to carry on our organizational growth while keeping a high quality. It starts by employing more qualified people while being able to keep those we employ. It also heavily depends on which financial resources we have at our disposal. So funding is significant for us. But it also depends on external factors we cannot control much. It depends on how politics are progressing, where geopolitics lead to. We are a global company, so it is always exciting for us how health policies develop in various countries. We think that brands and trends all speak for us: globalization, the fact that health is getting more and more expensive, the fact that humans get older and older, and the fact that transparency of data is more and more in demand, also data from patients. We have already been thinking about it intensely. So, a great number of internal and external factors have to occur today and in the future.
How did your service change since you began?
On one hand it got more international. We launched at the Britain market and by now we have patients from more than 50 countries. And it got more diverse in the sense of which treatments get booked on our platform. Meanwhile it ranges from direct payment services like dental treatments and plastic surgery to highly complex treatments in the field of oncology, cardiology, or orthopedics. This has changed a lot.
On the other hand, what has also changed is the question “who is Qunomedical?” “What are you doing?” “Can I trust you?” In the beginning it obviously was very difficult to gain trust from users. We notice how it gets increasingly easier and today we can thrill an increasing number of people for our services. This is a really favorable trend.
How about your personal development? You studied medicine, worked in this area for a short period, then moved on to economy. What will your next challenge be?
My next challenge is to continue growing personally as well. The subject ‘leadership’ is important to me. Leadership or direction is not just personnel responsibility. For me it starts way earlier in your mind, how you think about certain things, how you communicate with people, how you inspire them and guide them respectively. These are important topics for me.
Qunomedical is also a way for me to send a message. Especially on how to treat patients – and I do not mean medically but along the whole interaction with the health system. I think that patients deserve a better treatment than they receive at the moment in a lot of places worldwide. I would like to spread this message way more. You can only do that by having your own voice and with a supportive base. These are the key challenges which are currently on the spot for me.
Health is an elementary part of our lives.
And we care about it.
Health is an elementary part of our lives.
And we care about it.