DC: What’s your names, majors, minors, and graduation years?
Andhavarapu: My name is Sanketh Andhavarapu (May 2023) and I’m majoring in Health Decision Sciences and Neurobiology with a minor in Innovation and Entrepreneurship.
Shah: My name is Veeraj Shah (May 2021) and I graduated from the University of Maryland with degrees in Health Policy & Technology and Neurobiology. I’m now pursuing a PhD in Public Health at the University of Cambridge in the UK.
DC: Which Dingman Center programs have you been involved with?
Andhavarapu: With Vitalize, we completed the Terp Startup Accelerator in 2020. We also frequently participate in Dingman Fridays to receive coaching. I also participated in the Pitch Dingman Competition earlier this year with my nonprofit STEPS, where we were awarded 2nd place in the Main Street Track.
DC: In two to three sentences, how would you describe your startup?
Shah: Vitalize is a digital wellness platform tailored to healthcare providers to improve their well-being and reduce burnout. We offer clinician-focused cognitive behavioral therapy through a mobile app, and robust analytics and actionable insights on staff well-being trends and app engagement for hospital leadership.
DC: At what point did you know you wanted to create your own startup?
Andhavarapu: In high school, I had the opportunity to be the Chief Human Resources Officer of a nonprofit organization. I learned that I really enjoyed leading and inspiring teams to collectively achieve social impact. This experience directly motivated me to found STEPS, a revenue-generating education nonprofit. In this role, I realized how important it was for me to take on an irreplaceable role in anything that I put time and effort into. I liked knowing that as a founder, there is no one more knowledgeable about your idea and innovation than yourself, and that you’re leaving a unique footprint on the world. I didn’t find this same sense of personal fulfillment when looking at the different clubs I could join when I first came to UMD. This is why, when I had the idea for Vitalize, I knew I had to take action and it was a no-brainer that I wanted to invest my time and effort into making it successful.
Shah: Early in my time at UMD, I dove into the field of public health. My sophomore year, I worked with the Chief Administrator of Health & Human Services for Prince George’s County as a health policy intern, and began to see the world of local public health in action. But what I saw was a landscape full of opportunities for innovation, and how policy alone would not be able to tackle some of the most pressing health disparities and equity gaps present right in my backyard. That summer, I worked as a business analyst intern at IBM Watson Health, spearheading health technology efforts that would improve the state-level innovation capacity of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. I quickly saw how simply innovations had the opportunity to improve the quality of healthcare delivery and prevent the burden of disease.
From that summer on, I knew that my interests lied as a health technology entrepreneur, where I was able to connect my interests in technology to solve critical problems in healthcare and public health. As a founder, I also soon realized how exciting it was to begin building a team and to truly become a subject matter expert on a topic you care about. Vitalize directly reflects these passions – leveraging technology to improve the wellbeing of healthcare providers, and building an incredible team of students committed to this mission.
DC: What or who is your biggest influence for your startup?
Andhavarapu: Both of us have had mentors and family members suffer from burnout as healthcare providers. We saw how people who committed their professional life to helping others were constantly emotionally exhausted, had poor wellbeing, and in some cases wanted to leave healthcare completely. As aspiring healthcare providers and entrepreneurs, we wanted to ensure that healthcare providers had all the resources necessary to achieve the best wellbeing. We see Vitalize as the first step towards creating lasting cultural transformation surrounding wellness and stigma in healthcare.
DC: How have the effects of the pandemic changed your company’s focus or ideas?
Shah: The idea for Vitalize was actually born prior to the pandemic. Burnout among healthcare providers is a decades-long issue. The onset of the pandemic exacerbated the problem and also highlighted the dire need for new solutions, motivating us to pursue Vitalize as a company. The added free time that came with online classes and being in quarantine also allowed us to put more time into Vitalize.
DC: What updates or significant accomplishments can you share with us about your company from the last six months?
Andhavarapu: The last 6 months have been very exciting for Vitalize. We are just about finished the development of our product, which we will be launching through a public beta with over 100 clinicians in the next couple weeks. We also secured a hospital pilot with Midland Memorial Hospital in Texas, which we will be conducting as a research study in November to evaluate the efficacy of our product and collect data. Finally, we’ve also garnered interest from two hospital interests in larger scale pilots (1000+ providers), which we’re hoping to execute in early 2022.
DC: If you could give advice to any aspiring entrepreneurs, what would it be?
Shah: Don’t underestimate the importance of customer discovery. If you have an idea that you are looking to pursue, it is important to conduct several unbiased interviews with all the potential stakeholders (customers, payers, partners, etc). Customer discovery is a great way to validate assumptions and de-risk your startup before investing too much money and time into a potentially flawed concept. It’s also important that you build a strong team with diverse skill sets who are all passionate about the problem being solved and are willing to commit long hours to see the company come to fruition.
For more information about Vitalize, please visit the website here.