Updated: Aug 17, 2021
Themes: embracing the life cycle of a solution, celebrating the entrepreneur/learner’s journey, encouraging reflection around transitions in the entrepreneurial journey
A conversation with Christopher Tse, Co-Founder and COO of MedLit.
Description of MedLit
MedLit, a scientific literacy platform, began as a sister project of an initiative pharmacists Chris, James, and Roshni had already created called the COVID-19 Drug Evidence Initiative (CDEI), which shared evidence behind COVID-19 therapies. The initial mission was to filter scientific data and curate summaries of randomized control trials to aid pharmacists, doctors, and nurses. The team stayed up to date with vaccine progression and COVID-19 medicine coverage. As knowledge and the initiative progressed, the MedLit team noticed that the phenomena of “fake news” and “alternative facts” were making scientists and other experts very frustrated. The team then developed MedLit to provide the public with information on scientific research and methodologies behind COVID-19 vaccines as part of their solution.
Q: What have been some of the pivotal moments in your entrepreneurial journey?
A: Initially, we had a couple of different ideas floating around with the project. In the beginning, we had six or seven team members within CDEI; we cut it down to three members for information on Moderna vaccines. Eventually, we knew that the project would last, and we had to change its direction. We did not know whether to target more public audiences or more academic audiences as different ideas circulated. That was a time when we had a central split between members of the CDEI team. I guess the pivotal moment was deciding on who our target audience would be. MedLit ended up deciding on more of a public-focused audience as there was more potential in that space. We found that with academics, there is a lot of red tape. Any time you try to make a product within academia, it is hard to advertise in that space.
Q: Reflecting on your experience during MedLit’s development, what worked and what didn’t? What were some of your successes and challenges along the way?
A: Our success was that we did manage to launch our initial project at least and we did have it up for a couple of months. It successfully reached out many audiences. We had some excellent feedback on how it represented COVID vaccine information for the average reader. We did feel like that we made some impact. I don’t have a strict number on how many people were convinced to get the vaccine, but I do believe that the way we broke down vaccine research data made understanding easier for people. Our major challenge is that we had a hard time stay up to date with vaccine data. Between different responsibilities on our team, it is just too much information to navigate. We did not have a proper resource to draw back the research and leverage better connections from the other CDEI project. There are many connections among the faculty and pharmacy student body that we should have probably used to delegate some knowledge translation efforts. Many folks struggle with a startup in the growth phase; the challenge has been the team’s capacity.
Q: What was your initial process of developing MedLit and ‘fact-checking’ at early stages of the pandemic given the significant volume of data? What are some of the filtering techniques that you used?
A: We spoke to our local librarian at the University of Toronto. They helped us sort out a great filter on PubMed, a platform where scientific research is published. After the search, we were able to build a better understanding and cut down all the articles to five to six a day. There is a hierarchy of scientific knowledge, and at the top of a hierarchy of knowledge is the randomized controlled trial. Essentially, our searches included randomized control trials that had properly addressed their own biases. For example, some randomized controlled trials didn’t have a proper comparison and were studying one drug before making an unfair comparison to another drug. Through MedLit, we would indicate to readers that there wasn’t a fair comparison, even if their initial conclusion about the drug was positive. Part of our process then became ensuring that our initial search would do most of the work in helping us understand the methodological approaches before doing the manual work of combing through articles.
Q: How did your team measure MedLit’s impact along the way or gather insights on the kind of impact you are having on your audience?
A: We mainly used Google Analytics, which was very helpful for our website, and sent out multiple surveys. Essentially, we use this platform called Hot Jar, which launches a pop-up survey when users visit the site so they can tell us directly how valuable the information was. Using both tools, we measured the success of the website over time. But, we found that we could not keep updating the website as much as we would like. That was when we decided that we did not want to continue with this project. Additionally, we had little time and capacity between our team members and a problem with delegating tasks and collaborating. We had considered other routes of collaboration/delegating tasks, but accumulating data was a major hurdle for us.
Q: When and how did your team come to the decision to exit the market?
A: When we launched the website and were receiving feedback from the public, one of our team members got married. Then, I started a full-time job as well as Roshni who started another full-time job at one point. We did not think that we would be so busy until beginning these new jobs. So, our respective work slowed down our priorities at MedLit. We took a step back and re-evaluated what we wanted from our original scientific literacy project. If we continue on this current path of knowledge translation around COVID-19 vaccine information, we won’t be meeting our end goal. We decided that this path will not get us to an interactive platform that teaches scientific literacy. Currently, it is not feasible for our team. We do not want a kind of half-alive product that does not meet our standards and that was when we decided to close it down Lastly, I guess we realized the landscape of other products and services that promote vaccine knowledge and uptake, and everyone is doing a good job of promoting it. Canada is leading in vaccine uptake, and we felt that our product wasn’t contributing enough to the impact.
Q: Are there any learnings from your experience at MedLit that you will be carrying forward into your next steps?
A: Probably learning to better delegate tasks and be a little bit less prideful of my product, because I think it's hard to give up control over a product you are making. I am not sure how much you can delegate your respective projects, but if there are any mundane tasks then you can try to leverage the connections you already have, whether that be with previous team members, your friends, or your community. We had so many resources that we could have leveraged because, as I mentioned, one of our primary advantages was that we had a good relationship with the Faculty of Pharmacy. We could have leveraged our connection with the faculty to get students to help us out. We didn't do that enough. In future, if I were to do any other project, especially within the pharmacy field, I would see whether other students or alumni are, hopefully, on board to help us out.