There’s nothing we love to see more than someone’s hard work, passion and success compound over time. Emily Casey’s journey is a perfect example of this. Emily has gone from studying medicine to a finance internship, participating in the SheStarts program, Startmate Women’s Fellowship and our Explorer program. Then there’s her work building the What the Health community and media brand from scratch, as well as joining Side Stage Ventures at the start of this year.
Emily’s achievements and network span the startup ecosystem, but it’s her expertise and interest in healthcare and technology that distinguish her. The healthtech industry is notoriously hard to crack and therefore doesn’t get the attention, resources or capital it needs to thrive. While others have shied away from building or investing in this space, Emily has leaned in, and the healthcare space has been all the better for it.
Here’s Emily’s story.
Tell us a bit about your background. How does an aspiring medical doctor enter the startup world?
I was nearly a medical doctor, and I loved it at the start. Then I started to realise, as a clinician, you’re a cog in a big system. While you’re doing amazing work, the real scalable change is happening at the business and systems level, as that’s where the money is.
I hit pause, fully intending to finish my studies, and took a finance internship. But life had other plans.
I came across the SheStarts program, where anyone with an idea could enter and learn how to build a startup. I submitted my idea and got into the program. It was an awesome experience. But I quickly learnt that I wasn’t keen on dedicating my life to building a fintech company.
Thankfully, I landed a role at Stone & Chalk as a Community Manager, looking after about 80 startups across all verticals. I spent a lot of time helping startups raise funding, commercialise and scale, which was a great learning experience.
Then Covid hit. Healthtech became front and centre, and VC money started to follow. A lot of startups that had been in the shadows or neglected started popping up on people’s radars. People in the healthcare industry were coming to me and asking questions. I realised there was so little knowledge and access to capital in the healthtech space, so I lent in and learnt as much as I could.
That all led me to start my blog, What the Health. It was a sanity project while I was recovering from surgeries. I wanted to share resources and insights that are relevant and useful in a fun and accessible way, as healthcare is often quite dull. From there, it’s grown into a media brand and a community of over 3,000 people.
From there, how did you get involved in angel investing?
I guess it was a happy accident.
Angel investing seemed somewhat elusive and intimidating. I thought it was just wealthy people putting significant amounts of money into startups, which it often is. As someone still early in their career, I didn’t think it was an option for me.
Through What the Health, I was talking to a heap of awesome founders and investors. Rohit, one of the original Explorers, kindly tapped me on the shoulder and said, “You’ve got all these awesome companies that you’re helping and speaking to, and all these investors who are keen to learn more. Why don’t you look into angel investing?”. That’s how I found out about the Explorer program.
From there, one thing I kept hearing about angel investing was to start doing the job before you actually do it. When I started the What the Health community, I wanted to help as many people as possible, but I genuinely didn’t think I had all that much to offer. The more companies I spoke and spent time with made me realise I could add value by giving them an insight into how the health system worked, how to build a community or brand, and how to think through the commercial models and timelines in the health system.
I inadvertently started playing an advisory role. Companies began to approach me and ask if I wanted to become an official advisor, and I’d get equity in exchange for providing my time and help to companies.
Now, I write micro cheques and work in an advisory capacity.
How did you figure out how much equity your advisory work in a startup is worth?
It was a big learning curve. If you Google it, there are a lot of unknowns, especially between how it works in the US compared to Australia.
I’ve been lucky because I've built an awesome network. After I was sent an advisory agreement, I went to a few Explorers for help and asked, “What on earth should I be looking at, and what should I be asking for?”.
Always crowdsource knowledge!
What did you get out of the Explorer program?
The Explorer program was perfectly timed for me. It was a bit like drinking from a fire hose–a lot of knowledge coming at you really fast–but that was helpful to get to know the basics and have a network of people to tap into.
I think I’ve always been insecure about my lack of a traditional finance background compared to other people I see in the space. I definitely have a lot more confidence after working through a few companies with the help of other Explorers. I realised this was something I could do.
Don’t get me wrong, I still have a heap to learn. But I realised that I can easily learn what I don’t know. I know more than I give myself credit for. It sped up my confidence and learning curve.
What’s your investment thesis?
It’s a work-in-progress, but one thing that’s always super important is an impact focus–not just through a health lens but also environment and sustainability.
With health, all these awesome ideas are great in theory, but the reality of finding commercial viability is often the hardest part. They need to be creating a scalable commercial model. I want to see founders solving an actual problem that they’ve looked at through multiple stakeholder lenses: patients, professionals and anyone else who may be involved.
You’re a self-professed community builder, medicine defector, and content and brand guru. How do these skills play into your angel investing?
My biggest insecurity has always been that I’ve done multiple things and never just stuck to one track. But I’ve come to realise that the magic is in that mix of things.
What I consider to be a little bit of knowledge on healthcare has turned out to be valuable for the work I do with healthtech startups and stakeholders. I have a heap of experience on the patient side, too–I had six surgeries during med school alone, and now I’m easily in the double digits. I intimately know the problems of the systems.
If it’s hard for someone like me who has direct access to health professionals and services, how on earth does anyone else stand a chance? All my experiences have come together to give me a diverse picture of the ecosystem and how things work. I bring a balanced view and voice to it.
The network I’ve built through the What the Health community is super useful to tap into. I know very little in the scheme of things, but you can almost guarantee that 5 people in that network will know the answer. It’s a beautiful community where everyone is keen to put their hand up and help each other.
Through content and marketing, I’ve created a go-to place for what’s happening in the health ecosystem. Distribution is one of the hardest things startups face in the early days. They need to be able to get in front of investors, customers and anyone else who may be relevant to their business. It’s a big hurdle, but I can help amplify their messaging, which is a value-add as an angel.
What advice or guidance do you give healthtech startups looking to commercialise their work?
Health is tricky because it covers a huge range of things: health technology, medtech and biotech.
There’s a blurred line amongst them all, but each has a different commercial model. There’s no one size fits all. It sounds simple, but I always encourage founders to do some basic research to start with on what’s already out there to understand if and why companies in this space have failed.
Even if something in healthcare saves someone money or can make someone money, there are other barriers that founders need to look at. If a healthcare company wants to be VC-backable, they need to ask themselves: How will this be a billion dollar company? At the end of the day, the healthcare market in Australia is small. Look at your business model and prove it can be a billion-dollar company if you do want to go after VC funding–and it’s fine if you don’t!
One of the key things to consider with healthcare is the patient, the payer and the target customer. Sometimes they’re all one and the same, but quite often they’re not. Talk to your target demographic and listen to them. I think companies fail when they don’t hear the customer or stakeholder and take their advice.
What’s happening in the healthtech space that founders should know about?
A heap of great stuff is happening right now. You’ve got accelerators like MedTech Actuator, ANDHealth+, SynBio at UNSW and Brandon BioCatalyst’s CUREator. They’re all a total wealth of knowledge and resources.
MTPConnect is the go-to for all things MedTech and pharmaceutical in the country. A few healthtech-specific VCs have come onto the scene: Medical Angels, Tenmile and Venture Crowd also have The HealthTech Fund.
As an angel investor, what do you see as your role in a startup?
It’s completely up to the founders. I’m here to support them if and when they need it. Sometimes it’s just moral support. Other times it's connecting them with people who can help or have been through something similar.
My unique differentiator is being able to share their story in a way that would be interesting to the What the Health audience.
Tell us about Side Stage Ventures and how you got involved.
I was lucky enough to start talking to Matt Allen, also an Explorer and Co-CEO of Tractor Ventures, about What the Health and how I was keen to eventually creating a community-based funding vehicle, which is our long-term vision. Somehow, it led to, “Well, do you want to come do some stuff with us?”. I started on a contract basis, and then I was lucky to officially join the team as employee #1 in January. It’s been a fun journey so far.
Side Stage Ventures is a syndicate of founders, operators and creatives backing awesome companies, and more importantly, awesome founders. As founders and operators ourselves who have been through the journey, we try to bring more than just a cheque and help however we can on the founder journey. We’re industry agnostic, but there’s often a connection to creativity and technology. We’ve invested in startups like Heaps Normal, Qsic, Mr Yum and Tixel. And currently do ~$500k cheques.
What does your role at Side Stage Ventures look like now?
My role has been a bit of everything. I’ve gotten to see everything from setting up the formal business and syndicate, to talking to founders and going through the investment process, and managing our PR launch & community.
The team is unique because there are 6 directors and me, and we all have our own networks, connections and investment theses. We go through deals weekly and when we’re keen to invest in a startup, I’ll work with the team on the investment memo and get all the docs in order. There are usually two rounds of meetings with the founder, and then if 50% of the team has conviction to invest, we take it to the next stage.
If a founder’s reaching out to you for the first time, how should they go about it?
A slightly tailored email would be great. If you’re sending a mass email where I can see all the other investors, that’s a bit of a red flag.
I want to see a detailed but concise description of their business, evidence of traction, what they’ve achieved and what they’re looking to achieve.
They should also be aware of what I invest in–it’s not a great idea to reach out to me if you’re a fintech startup specialising in loans. It creates rapport if you do know a tiny bit about whoever you’re reaching out to. Don’t get me wrong–every company is awesome and deserves the time of day–but it can be hard to get cut through. A little bit of effort makes a difference.
What advice do you have for a first-time angel?
Surround yourself with awesome people who have done it before and you can learn from. Angel investing is very much a team sport.
Find the things that spark your fire. For me, that’s health. But I think you’ve got to go through the motions and look at lots of deals to learn the ins and outs. You build on your skill set with every deal you look at or go through. It’s definitely an art, not a science.
What does the future hold for What the Health?
I’m figuring that out as we speak! What the Health is a startup itself–I’m sure we’ll fail a lot and learn a lot.
We’ve launched the first cohort of a private community that is specifically for experts, founders and investors in the health space. It was a little experiment, and we got inundated with amazing applications.
While we continue to build the community and content machine, we’ll look at creating a more formal vehicle to financially back the companies and founders that we have in the community to help accelerate their journey.