Watsi Is Using Crowdfunding To Treat The 1B+ Worldwide Without Access To Medical Care

Entrepreneurs are inherently risk-takers. But, the tech industry today needs more of the type of risk-takers who go against the grain by actually tackling big, difficult problems. I mean the type of big, honking problems no one likes to talk about and take years to solve.

Like this: Today, we live in a world where more than one billion people are unable to afford (or do not have access to) adequate medical services. Viewed in juxtaposition with the intelligent device/computer you’re reading this from, this fact is unsettling. So, Watsi, is trying to do something about it — by tackling that outsized problem on a smaller and more approachable scale: The individual.

The newly-launched startup (which was first covered by my former colleague Devin Coldewey for ABC after some buzz on Hacker News) offers anyone and everyone the ability to fund low-cost, high-impact treatment for those who lack access to necessary care.

Drawing on the recent explosion of crowdfunding, Watsi is applying a familiar model to global healthcare. The startup wants donors (i.e. anyone, as the minimum allowable donation is $5) to be able to make a direct personal connection with their beneficiaries in developing countries. In other words, it’s trying to put individual faces on a statistic. It does this by presenting profiles of those who are sick and describing what kind of care they need and the cost of offering that care.

These profiles, or cases, include pictures and synopses provided by the startup’s health care partners in the developing world. For example, take Cheru, whose case appears on Watsi’s homepage. Cheru’s case offers his picture, where he’s from (Ethiopia), who his medical partners are, a description of what treatment he needs and the cost — and a donation button that lets you donate via PayPal (whose fees are included in the cost of treatment).

Watsi’s first batch of cases went up last Friday and has since added a handful more (20-year-old Tilahun needs surgery to correct a rheumatic heart, for example) — 17 cases in all are listed on the site and 15 have already been funded, with over $11K being donated just last weekend.

In its literature, Watsi makes reference to the “high-impact, low-cost” donations can make, which, given the nature of some of the treatment needed (heart surgery), may feel a bit disingenuous. But Watsi founder Chase Adam says that the startup is fighting high costs by working with medical providers and doctors, who are donating their time, equipment, or materials, helping to keep overhead low, and because the procedures (and medical bills) just don’t have the same flat cost they would in the U.S.

Of course, while it’s easy to get wrapped up in the humanitarian vision, the donation model (of which Watsi is one of many to use) has long been taken advantage of by scammers. You often see them pop up after disasters to hoodwink people who are trying to donate to disaster relief. It’s pretty sick, but it happens all the time. It’s also hard not to be reminded of the famed Nigerian Scams.

Obviously, donors want to be sure that the people appearing in Watsi’s cases are real and that their money, even if $5, is going to that person and not a hacker. This is why, as Devin points out, sites like Charity Navigator and GiveWell exist.

Naturally, the founder has been spending a lot of time thinking about transparency. Right now, all cases are verified by Watsi and multiple third-party organizations, like Partners in Health, Givewell, CNN, ABC and HBO. Visitors can also click on the person’s “Medical Partner” or sponsor, which opens a lightbox with further info on the partner, though clearly Watsi will have to go further. (Adam also has plans to add a map, financials, photos, data, etc. to the list.)

The founder says that he wants to stay dedicated to being 100 percent transparent about where the money goes and has said on its website that it will make its tax return available for download on the site as soon as it files one with the IRS. In the meantime, the founder posted a Google Doc on Watsi’s FAQ page that keeps track of the patients, donations, who approved the patient profile, Medical Partners, and so on.

Watsi’s team, which beyond Adam is composed of five former Peace Corps Volunteers and an international doctor, is currently working on the site part-time and, even so, don’t seem to have any immediate plans to take on additional funding. Right now, they want to keep the design and UI simple, and focus on accountability, transparency and bringing in more cases.

The startup has also been approved as a 501(c)(3) organization (non-profit) in California, which means that donations will be tax-deductible, another move in the right direction. That said, there’s a lot of work left to do to ensure transparency and to ensure potential users that it can live off the donation model — or support itself from alternatives. Perhaps that could be monthly donation subscriptions, or recurring donations, or moving Watsi to become part of corporate social responsibility programs, or establish a type of adopt-a-patient program for businesses.

There are options, and Watsi is hardly the only company that’s trying to do good by way of crowdfunding, Kiva being the largest and most familiar name that comes to mind. (Or there’s the recently-beta-launched MedStartr (a young Kickstarter for health projects.) Watsi has its own staffers who work at Kiva, and it can build on the headway it and similar companies have made in the space, or in particulars, like due diligence.

Watsi has the ability to do a lot of good and really help people in need — incrementally at first, and potentially at scale down the road. So far, Watsi seems to be playing a lot of the right cards, but it faces a tough course as it expands. Healthcare is a difficult space to play in even if it is a fundamental human right, because, while we may complain about the U.S.’ crappy system, it’s a walk in the park compared to many third-world countries. In fact, according to the WHO, in 2010, 79 countries devoted less than 10 percent of government expenditures to healthcare.

More on Watsi at home here.