Soga Oni is the co-founder of Medical Devices as a Service, an African medical equipment services firm.
Knowledge at Wharton: Tell us about your company, MDaaS.
Soga Oni: MDaaS is an acronym for Medical Devices as a Service. We are a medical devices services organization whose mission/vision is to make medical devices more accessible and affordable in Nigeria and across the African continent. We do this by providing flexible acquisition options to hospitals. We also train biomedical technicians who service a full range of medical devices and make sure that the devices don’t break down.
Knowledge at Wharton: It sounds like there are two key functions. Part of it is the acquisition of medical devices and the other part is service and maintenance.
Oni: That is correct. I think one of the biggest challenges hospitals in Nigeria and all African countries face is, No. 1, medical devices are capital intensive. Unfortunately, there is not a lot of financing out there. No. 2 is the maintenance and repair of these devices. A lot of African countries, Nigeria included, lack skilled biomedical engineers who could service these devices. I know a doctor who bought a new US$50,000 machine that broke down in six months and they had to fly in someone from Korea to fix it. That shouldn’t happen. So that’s the problem we’re trying to solve.
Knowledge at Wharton: How long have you been in the business? What stage is your company in?
Oni: We are still early in the process. It’s been a one-year journey for me from ideation. This came originally because I visited my dad. He is a medical doctor and I visited his hospital. I saw the way he had this equipment, stuff that he just threw away. I worked with some of my classmates at MIT to look at the problem and I realized that this was a huge problem across the continent. I started working on it, eventually got some support from the African Leadership Network and decided to move back in February to launch in Nigeria.
“I know a doctor who bought a new $50,000 machine that broke down in six months and they had to fly in someone from Korea to fix it. That shouldn’t happen.”
Since February, it’s been setting up the processes I needed, doing more interviews with doctors to see what they really want. The idea evolved with me just talking to people, getting feedback. Right now we have a pilot; we’re in the process of shipping the devices in.
Knowledge at Wharton: Tell us a little bit about your background. You grew up in Nigeria?
Oni: I grew up in a small town, a few hours from Lagos. I spent most of my formative years there. Then did my college in Nigeria. After that, I went to the U.S. for a master’s degree. I worked for a few years as a software engineer in the U.S. And then I went through this midlife crisis: I wanted to move back and I wanted to know what I could do to help back home.
That led me to apply to MIT. I got in. I had studied systems engineering in Nigeria. That deals with big social technical problems. This is a big social technical problem. It has a technical component and a social component. That allowed me to see things from a bird’s eye view. It also enabled me to see how things work in the trenches. That made me want to contribute back.
Knowledge at Wharton: Was it an easy decision to come back?
Oni: In a lot of ways, I’m privileged because I still have my family back there. When I moved back originally, I got support from my family.
Knowledge at Wharton: Going back to the pilot that you’re doing now, what are the medical devices that you’re bringing to these hospitals?
Oni: We’re bringing about 12 devices of six different types. We had a conversation with them about what their needs are, what their requirements were and what they wanted. Then we made that decision to bring in those devices for them.
Knowledge at Wharton: When you look at the medical device industry, are you bringing in technology that exists in the Western countries or are you looking at some of the innovations that have been made where some of these technologies and devices have been adapted for the developing world at a much lower cost?
Oni: Our approach is we bring in technologies that are cheaper. We bring in X-ray devices and ultrasound equipment, for example, from the early 2000s. They are well maintained and refurbished. They cost about a tenth of what the new ones would cost. That’s our approach.
“This is a big social technical problem. It has a technical component and a social component.”
I think it’s interesting though, your question, because there’s been this approach to strip down devices and reposition them for Africa. That works in some cases, but a lot of hospitals, especially in growing cities like Lagos, want the good stuff. They don’t want the stripped-down version; they want all the features.
Knowledge at Wharton: Just to push back very gently, you don’t feel like you’re going to replicate a very high-cost medical system in Africa at a time when it’s running into problems in the West?
Oni: We will replicate what they have there. We will make ours in the end. We have to be realistic about these things. The devices that we’re bringing in are trade devices; they will be useful for the marketplace. What we’re also doing is training people on the ground. We’re not trying to bring people in from outside.
Hospitals will look at all the options. They’ll have to make the decisions themselves. We need more approaches to solve this problem. In the end, there’s a place in the market for people like me and also dirt-cheap Chinese products. It’s a huge, huge market.
Knowledge at Wharton: I’d love to hear about what you’ve been learning in the process of building this company over the past year, the major turning points and lessons for you.
Oni: I’ve learned a lot. Originally, I wanted to start a company that leases medical devices. But you need the ecosystem to support leasing. Until we have that ecosystem, leasing is just me giving you money. I would never be able to be sustainable.
Knowledge at Wharton: Let me make sure I understood that. Your first approach was to…
Oni: Lease the equipment. But we learned that big banks have a problem financing equipment, financing doctors. If you finance a car and don’t get paid, you can get the car and sell it. But even if the big bank gets an X-ray machine back, what do they do with it? There’s no second market to go to.
Knowledge at Wharton: At this stage in your early development, is MDaaS all Soga Oni, or do you have a team working with you?
Oni: I’ve had teams. I’ve had people work with me throughout the whole process. But we finished in May from MIT. Now [my friends] have got good jobs all around the world.…
Knowledge at Wharton: Where do you hope to be in a year?
Oni: I want the pilot to be successful. By that time, I would have moved out to all the hospitals across the country. One of the big components of my organization is the training — biomedical training. So I’ve asked for a set of biomedical technicians good to go, ready to work.