Health Tech: Fergus Hay On How Their Technology Can Make An Important Impact On Our Overall Wellness
An Interview With Luke Kervin - March 2020
Identify the problem and solve it — Sometimes people are so excited about creating something new that they don’t really think about the problem it solves. Product market fit, which is when a piece of technology gets adopted by lots of people, is when you’ve identified a problem that people really care about, then they’re willing to pay for it to be solved. And I think that discipline is painfully absent. We need to define real-world problem that we are solving? If it’s not in the top three things people care about, don’t bother.
In recent years, Big Tech has gotten a bad rep. But of course many tech companies are doing important work making monumental positive changes to society, health, and the environment. To highlight these, we started a new interview series about “Technology Making An Important Positive Social Impact”. We are interviewing leaders of tech companies who are creating or have created a tech product that is helping to make a positive change in people’s lives or the environment. As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Fergus Hay, Chairman of Digital Home Visits.
After a successful career in advertising, Fergus Hay left the corporate world to make a positive impact with healthtech innovations. Through healthcare startup Digital Home Visits Group, Hay aims to fix the UK’s care crisis by using technology to improve the quality of life for elderly people — and prevent them from experiencing health conditions that mean they end up in hospital. He’s also on the advisory board of Ryse Health.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory and how you grew up?
I grew up in a family where both parents worked. My mother, Olga Maitland, has a high profile career — she was a woman who broke every single convention. She left school at 16, promptly moved to New York and then Mexico City, returned to London to become a leading Fleet Street journalist, then an MP and consequently a career in international relations.
She stood for a lot of things that were highly principled, such as passing a law in the UK banning the ability to carry knives in the street, she was part of the team who negotiated peace with the IRA and it was disclosed by The Times recently that she played a prominent role in turning a KGB agent against the Russians in the 80s.
My mother is a woman who challenged convention — and we lived an unconventional life as kids. We were exposed to people from all cultures, leaders of different personas, visited conflict zones, and spent time in environments which were out of our comfort zones. So we were encouraged to have broad horizons, to confront challenges, to have conviction in our own beliefs. She instilled the belief that we can change things. Often, she was told the answer was: “It’s not possible” and she always had a contrarian view. As her father said to her, “It’s a great life if you can stick it”.
Perhaps that’s why I have found myself in the healthcare sector — it just seems to me that there are significant entrenched barriers to the elderly and vulnerable receiving care in a society and country that should be setting the global standard. That’s why I invested in DHV and subsequently took on the Chairmanship of the company so that we can work out to use technology to improve the quality of social care for every person. Ageing is a leveller — it doesn’t matter whether you’re wealthy or poor, you will age, become more frail and you will likely need care. At the moment, the care system is elitist. If you are the select few who can afford private care, it’s a positive experience. If like the vast majority this is not an option, then you’re relying on the government-funded care provision and that needs technology to make it more efficient and provide a better quality of care available to more people. It’s a conventional problem that needs an unconventional solution.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
When I left university, driven by social pressure, peer pressure and expectation, I managed to secure an investment banking job. Those jobs were very hard to get, aspirational apparently and particularly challenging for those of us who were innumerate and didn’t attend Oxbridge.
I went to the first training session before we officially started and I just felt incredibly uninspired. It seemed that everyone was there for the money and the real low point was when an unhealthy-looking middle-aged man in a pinstripe suit stood up at a podium and told us we were all there to work really hard and make the bank a lot of money so that we could get juicy bonuses. I sat there and thought: “That doesn’t do it for me.”
Looking around, I felt like there was no-one there with any charisma, any vision, any entrepreneurial spirit or creativity. So I resigned, which caused apoplectic palpitations for my mother. But it felt like the greatest liberation of my life.
Then I ended up taking a graduate job at Omnicom, the global advertising company. It was a good graduate program, and my first task was to shoot an advert for Mates condoms in a sex hotel with actors insinuating lewd things. I sent my mother a box of the product as a peace offering, I think it worked.
I spent the next 15 years of my life in advertising — working for WPP and living in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Hong Kong, Singapore and London. I was exposed to the most brilliant creative minds, given access to fortune 100 Business Leaders, travelled the world and dived deep into cultures and industries with the enthusiasm of an over-excited puppy. It never once felt like an obligation, it was a privilege.
What can we extrapolate out of that? You’ve got to come into work believing you can achieve something that has some sort of impact that you value. Money is a reward, but it’s not a purpose. You’ll only ever achieve success if you wake up every day loving the visceral experience — and for me money in the bank account was not a strong enough objective.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Relationships are so important to me — I value them over anything else. It was pretty clear from a young age that I’m someone who gives and needs empathy. If the world falls apart and you’ve got good relationships around you, then you’ll feel privileged.
I’ve actually accrued a dozen mentors over the years. I’m sure some of them don’t even know they’re my mentors, but I’ve treated them as such. Clearly my mother is an enormous influence on my life and I took three lessons from her: you’re having a successful life if you have autonomy over your own decisions, you have multiple options in front of you and you’re on your way to leaving a legacy. That doesn’t mean a name or a statue — it means you’ve created something that affects what other people do in a positive way in the future.
With this range of other mentors, at the top of that tree would be my wife, Geraldine, who brings an instinctive clarity of thought and courage that I can only marvel at. Professionally I am grateful to Miles Young who is the Warden of New College Oxford and he was the Global CEO of Ogilvy & Mather, to Paul Heath Ex President of Ogilvy and Mather. There’s also Mike Welsh, who was my first ever boss and Steven Stanbrook, who was global CEO of S C Johnson and my ex client. I’m absolutely without ego in asking for advice.
I go to mentors for advice on the direction of travel of my life and my career. For example, when I wanted to do an MBA I took Ray Dalio’s approach, which is where you go to three people whose judgement you really trust that will come at an opportunity or problem from three very different angles. You triangulate their opinion — and that’s where your validation comes from.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“You have to be grateful for what you’ve got, not anxious about what you don’t have.”
From a personal level, I used to fret about where we were trying to get to, what we needed to have and what other people had. What I thought was burning ambition was actually burning anxiety.
I think working in corporations really stimulates that, so it was only once I stepped out of that life that I realised the world could be much more enriching in every way: intellectually, personally and commercially.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
I would say curiosity, courage and empathy. You have to wake up every day being curious otherwise you stop existing. I take my example from sharks — their gills and thus their breathing only work if the shark is moving, if they stop moving they die. Metaphorically that’s how I feel about curiosity — it nourishes our mind, evaluation capabilities, reference points and belief system.
We’ve lived in lots of places — London, New York, Chicago, LA, Singapore, Hong Kong, back to London and now we’re in Amsterdam and I’m culturally very, very curious, which comes from my mother. I think you have to take a huge interest in the world around you. Open your eyes every day and watch what’s happening around you. I love new cultures, I love watching people and I love delving deep into people’s characters. Take that curiosity to explore concepts and challenge assumptions — and develop your own original thinking.
The world is absolutely scarce in original thinking. There are so many glib, generic assumptive statements, which people aren’t applying original thinking to and that is perpetuated by lazy media. Social media platforms are so skin deep, it’s unbelievable. We’re missing original thoughts.
I think moving to New York at the age of 28 when I’d just got married took a lot of courage. When I was at Ogilvy, I really had the confidence of Miles Young, who gave me an opportunity to run a pitch and run a significant piece of business at the age of 28. I needed to have courage to step through that.
It also took courage to leave the corporate world, with its vestiges of having secretaries, being called a CEO, flying business and having a salary that pops into your account every month.
Empathy is so important and I think so much of it is being able to ask questions, be interested and move beyond preconceptions and stereotypes. The explorer Ranulph Fiennes wanted to take two people with him to walk across the Antarctic and he interviewed 1000 people. I asked him how he judged those people and he said every single one was from the special forces, incredibly well trained with all the technical skills, but he wasn’t evaluating that. He was trying to understand what their motivation was. You need to understand what people’s motivations are and what triggers them.
Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about the tech tools that you are helping to create that can make a positive impact on our wellness. To begin, which particular problems are you aiming to solve?
The way the social care system works in the UK is if you’re elderly or vulnerable there are three things that will most likely send you into a hospital: a urinary tract infection, a lung infection, or a fall. These are called an “acute moment”. After that, the hospital will patch you up and you’ll be put into the social care system. You’ll only be released from hospital when there is a carer available, which means someone who can come to your home throughout the day.
If there’s no carer available, you won’t be discharged from hospital and that’s what’s called bed blocking. Just before COVID around 1.4million bed days were blocked in one year because there weren’t enough carers to look after people. Now there is a 100,000 shortfall of carers in the UK, so we’ve got this terrible bottleneck.
People can’t leave hospital, we can’t magic up enough carers so beds are being blocked, which means patients with other critical illnesses can’t be treated.
So what we want to do at DHV is stop people having acute problems.
How do you think your technology can address this?
We want to create predictive analytics, using hardware in people’s homes to monitor them as they move about and identify the very early stages of lung infections and urinary tract infections. If someone starts coughing at a higher rate than normal, that can be an early sign of lung infection, which can be relieved with a simple treatment. And at that age, people don’t really tell you that they’re coughing more — they probably don’t even know — and you probably only really notice when it’s too late.
But if you can get there early based on a microphone monitoring behaviours in the house like an Amazon Echo or Google Home, then you can send notifications to loved ones and carers to say if, for example, someone seems to be coughing at a 25% higher rate than normal. So you can pick up minor conditions and administer medicine so that the person doesn’t end up getting a full-on lung infection and going to hospital which means they go into the social care system and could end up potentially blocking the bed.
Building these analytics takes an enormous amount of research and data, which we’ve been doing for four years. We need to keep adding more data, we need to keep refining the algorithm and the government needs to catch up and be willing to pay for preventative care which right now, they don’t have a budget for. But at some point, the market will converge, the technology will be ready, the government will have identified that this will make a big difference and they’ll be willing to fund it. When it does, DHV will be at the very forefront of the service delivery wave.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
I think if you’re empathetic and curious it’s a no-brainer. At business school, we did a lot of research into this. A lot of people have powerful stories about a parent who needed care, but for me it’s how I work. I’d rather be working on this than another last mile delivery company that’s bringing you groceries.
How do you think this might change the world?
It will help people to live more dignified lives for longer at a higher quality — and free up resources to channel and treat people who are critically ill. We have an ageing population, we need to solve these problems.
If you’re going to have original thought you have to have critical analysis. And so we have to look at the risks. What happens if we make a mistake? What happens if we don’t identify something and everyone thinks we are identifying something? So we need lots of risk mitigation.
But if you’re doing true innovation, you can’t anchor yourself with all the things that could go wrong. And you have to split things between what’s possible and what’s probable. When you search for all the problems you will absolutely find them. But in my mind the best leaders identify patterns, keep it simple, create strategies and then adapt as things change.
Here is the main question for our discussion. Based on your experience and success, can you please share “Five things you need to know to successfully create technology that can make a positive social impact”? (Please share a story or an example, for each.)
1. Identify the problem and solve it
Sometimes people are so excited about creating something new that they don’t really think about the problem it solves. Product market fit, which is when a piece of technology gets adopted by lots of people, is when you’ve identified a problem that people really care about, then they’re willing to pay for it to be solved. And I think that discipline is painfully absent. We need to define real-world problem that we are solving? If it’s not in the top three things people care about, don’t bother.
2. Think about what the future looks like
You have to look at macro-economic data, consumption data, consumers and usage. You have to have a view of the movement. That’s original thinking.
3. Build a sustainable business
What I mean by that is something that generates profit, that can keep the business growing and innovating. And again, I don’t think I see enough of that critical analysis. Because it’s not philanthropy, we genuinely impact the sales. You should be able to deliver profit and purpose together, otherwise you’re always waiting on favours and that’s not going to work.
4. Clearly articulate your vision
It needs to be simple, original and in human language — not buzzwords. Underneath that vision, you have to set a series of targets that are tangible. And for each of those targets you need workstreams to deliver against. This is core discipline that people can forget.
5. Choose your investors very carefully
You need your investors to be really culturally aligned with what you’re trying to do and not bandwagon joiners. They’re your work husbands or wives! Say no until they prove otherwise.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
Why aren’t they already considering it? I would honestly say if I have to persuade you that you should be making a positive impact on the environment or society then we’re in the wrong conversation. That desire should be inbuilt.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)
I don’t think anyone in the world is inaccessible, but the one thing I can’t do is time travel so I’ll say my kids, in ten years’ time. They’ll be teenagers by then and I’d like to see them displaying empathy, curiosity and original thinking. I really want them to be independently minded and not robots dreaming of making money.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
You can find me on LinkedIn — linkedin.com/in/fergus-hay-013a41
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success in your important work.