One of the toughest hurdles for any startup is demonstrating that the product actually works in a real life situation, and that this new, untried company can handle the job. Even if the entrepreneur’s product is superbly efficient, there are 662,318 companies in the U.S. already registered, up, and running. At least several dozen are prepared to wrest away that initial contract that would provide the startup with a track record.
Greg Thornton, CEO of Competech SmartCard Solutions faced exactly this challenge and decided the answer lay across the pond. But instead of highly competitive Europe, he looked to the Congo - a land unfortunately rich in need and desperate for anyone to even attempt undertaking their fulfillment.
* Congo Connections. Kinshasa, capital city of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, has one quarter of its 7.5 million residents living in poverty. As of 2000, the city had not seen one new major medical facility for 40 years. Enter Diekmbe Mutombo. The seven-foot-two-inch NBA star has proved himself as great a humanitarian off the court as he has a sports legend on. In 2001 he broke ground for a $29 million, 300-bed, state of the art healthcare facility, not far from where he grew up in Kinshasa. He personally contributed over $15 to the facility, and in 2006 the Biamba Marie Mutombo Hospital opened its doors.
In a nation noted for an egregious lack of healthcare professionals, rarely kept patient medical records, and daily power black and brownouts, Mutombo’s dream of cutting edge telemedicine seemed pure fantasy. Meanwhile, Thornton stood ready to take them one step further.
* MediCard Miracle. Back in its Union, New Jersey Headquarters, Competech’s senior staff was having some fantasies of their own. Their researchers had developed the firm’s credit-card-size, amazingly inexpensive MediCard implanted with a secure chip, allowing a patient to carry his entire medical history in his wallet. Armed with his Competech MediCard, a patient could enter a healthcare center or doctor’s office, swipe the card in the office reader, and viola. All his physical history, medical procedures, diagnoses, drug regimen, X-rays, MRI’s, billing histories, insurance data - all of it is reproduced online. Each attending physician adds his prescriptions, charges, diagnoses etc. to this permanent file.
Here in the United States, Thornton’s MediCard was met with praise, immense interest, but no little hesitancy. Heads of both the large hospitals and the major unions’ healthcare programs saw MediCard’s benefit of more data, lower record costs, and greater accuracy. But they also saw the price and inconvenience of installing card readers throughout facilities, and switching accounting methods in their huge organizations. Quite rightly, they wanted to witness MediCard working, before they leapt.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo was far less picky. For their people, this could mean the recording of their first medical history ever. Diseases could be traced. The right medications could be gotten to the right people. Details on difficult cases could be transported to specialists around the globe, and answers shot back in real time. One can barely guess how many lives could be saved.
“You cannot believe the devastation,” said Thornton who was making regular visits to Congo and touring outlying regions. “Families too sick and poor to care for children or older members, leave them by police stations or any official building in hopes that someone will care for them. Often the ill people die there.” The existent medical facilities were small, and overwhelmed.
* “Where Have You Been?” In 2006, Thornton contacted his old colleague, Ronald Harvey, head of the U.S. Aid’s Institutional Capacity Building in the Congo. Harvey linked his old friend with Mutombo’s foundation, and several Congolese ministers.
One sweltering day, Thornton stood before the Minister of the Interior, laying out his proposition for installing MediCard in Kinshasa’s new hospital. The Minister listened quietly, then responded, “Where have you been?” Thornton began to casually answer, “Well, we were at the hotel in....” But the Minister cut him off. “No, I mean where have you been all these years, we have needed you desperately.” With such encouragement, and support from Mutombo himself, Competech got the nod. They showcased their MediCard, and have indeed started saving untold lives in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Since this initial installation, Competech’s rewards have reached beyond the humanitarian realm. With this visible proof of the MediCard in action, Competech won a contract for 25,000 cards and readers, and is now gearing up for a second contract of ten times that many. In the Congo, the government has been so impressed with his Smart Card results, that he has been requested to bid on an $800 million contract for a national ID card.
“The Congo is overrun with rebels from a host of surrounding African nations,” explains Thornton. To sort out these furtive invaders from its own people, the Congolese government seeks to register its bona fide 66 million citizens and issue each an computer-scanable ID card.
In the end of this little business parable, everybody wins. The Congolese people will be given a massive leg up in establishing a nationwide healthcare system. Competech wins with a profitable showcase, which leads to more and larger deals. Even the American patients win, with the launch of a new card that will prevent, among other things, costly redundant testing.
However, all this doing well by doing good, was scarcely serendipity. The Congo is not the easiest business venue. It offers intermittent electricity, overwhelming bureaucracy, immense poverty, and it lies 5,491 miles away. Thornton and his crew showed great vision and courage, and fortunately their gamble seems to be paying off.
They also offer an alternative model. For years young people have labored abroad, making enormous social contributions in the Peace Corps and like institutions. They return from their experience, enriched, brighter, and more aware. Employers instantly see them as an improved product for hiring. Thornton is merely suggesting that businesses can follow this admirable model as set by our young people, and gain what every young business requires. Biz4NJ
Greg Thornton has been the right man, with the right wits and energy, in the right field. Son of a Cleveland mail carrier, Thornton drove a cab for six years to finance his Bachelor’s earned at Ohio University. He jumped right in working on information technology working for several firms in Wilburforce, Ohio. Coming to the Garden State, Thornton then joined the Monet Group, handling their five, historically large servers. Thornton became IT Manager for Merck, Inc. and IT Director for the massive information handling systems of the New York Times. It was here he began to employ a Smart Card system. In 1998, working with Competech, Thornton saw how schools, municipalities and particularly local health facilities were juggling their information flow. Seeing this need, Thornton linked up with a German firm which came up with a prototype style “Medical Security Card Deutschland.” Eventually, Under the guidance of the Thornton team, the Smart Cards grew to the manifold uses of portable records handling provided by Competech SmartCard Solutions today.