Interview by Marija Butkovic @MarijaButkovic
Kateryna Portmann is a Product Manager at a digital health company, Medopad, where she uses her vast experience to embrace the role of ‘intrepreneur’. This increasingly popular business term is defined by the American Heritage Dictionary as "a person within a company who takes direct responsibility for turning an idea into a profitable finished product through assertive risk-taking and innovation.”
Kateryna, tell us a bit about your background and your projects so far.
I’ve always had a dream to feel independent and have the ability to live and work everywhere in the world. This is why I studied International Business and later got an MBA degree, learnt English, German, Spanish, French, and Cantonese. My biggest passion is learning new skills and creating meaningful products. That’s why being in product management is the right place for me. My background is very diverse, I have been working in London, Hong Kong, Ukraine, the Middle East, and even in the South Caucasus. There is something in common in all the jobs I have - I was leading in digital transformation and innovation of the products.
The first startup that I founded back in 2010 was transforming education by digitalisation and personalisation. Later, when I have made my first exit, I joined the American Embassy Employees Association. Here, I fully transformed the Duty-Free store – and provided an online platform for services which originally had to be provided manually After a serious car accident and 9 months bedbound, I understood that it’s very important to change the way how doctors and patients connect. It’s impossible to imagine but patients have no way to talk to doctors and share their symptoms in real time. Customer needs have been heard in retail for a while, but in health services we’re still following old rules where neither patients voices or needs reach the digital world.
How did you get into this industry?
I have understood all the pain points of the health industry through my own example and realised that there’s a huge business opportunity. I was thinking about how Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality, Remote Health Monitoring and Digital Health, Telemedicine and Artificial Intelligence could transform this industry for better. Health is the most important part of the longevity and quality of life. Being forward-looking, open-minded and innovative I decided that it’s important to develop cross-functional skills to communicate with all major stakeholders in any business, including tech, data, research, development, clinical, finance, marketing, and operations. I joined the fastest growing startup in Hong Kong as Senior Business Analyst and learnt from scratch everything about data and a/b testing, programming in Python and R. I was lucky that prior to that I completed 6 months of Statistics at the University of Hong Kong as part of my PhD in Social Sciences. I had to make a very tough decision about my academic career because the combination of PhD research and startup work was not possible anymore – even if I could work 24/7! I decided to give a chance to my entrepreneurial nature and it was a “win” choice. I feel fulfilled and happy creating daily innovative solutions that would improve the quality of lives for billions of people.
What does your current job role entail?
My current job includes research, market analyses, product management, and strategy. In every project, I need to gain a deep understanding of customer pain points, insight and ensure that we meet all their needs in the most innovative way in the market. To work in product is easy and difficult at the same time because we have a lot of responsibility for the decisions we make. My daily routine includes identifying product-market fit, prototyping, and testing solutions – talking to multiple internal and external stakeholders in 3 different continents. When we do it right and it works, there is nothing more rewarding for me. That what makes me smile and drives me every day. It is important to follow new trends and be innovative in all possible ways. Product validation and field testing are my favourite parts because after that we do a product launch where the rest of the world can see the difference between past and future, almost like a time machine.
What projects are you working on at the moment?
We have recently started a groundbreaking project with Dr Morton’s for perimenopausal women. Women of 50 are the backbone of society, just at a time when the menopause hits. It hits some women very hard and they do not get the help they deserve. Dr Morton’s and Medopad are on a mission to validate their problem through data collection and sharing, and then provide them with a convenient, affordable solution. Women’s health needs can be poorly served within an overstretched NHS, and Dr Morton's mission is to provide affordable, convenient access to gynaecologists and GPs who share their view about the importance of women’s health. Together, Medopad and Dr Morton’s aim is to evaluate the benefits of collecting data to inform women’s choices on managing menopause symptoms, through a new app.
The study aims to show that individualised data collection and sharing with gynaecologists produces better outcomes. During the study we’ll provide Medopad’s remote monitoring solution, offering access to peri- and post-menopausal women living in the UK, to monitor and collect data about their symptoms and allow them to manage and track their treatment benefits objectively. This study will assess whether women between the ages of 45 and 65 find collecting detailed symptom and general health data – for their own use and to be shared with their gynaecology team – useful and empowering. Two hundred women will be recruited over a three month period. They will be offered a free consultation with a gynaecologist at the beginning of the study, and then monthly for three months. Each participant will download and use the Medopad App, which has been customised for data entry on a full range of menopausal symptoms. Women will be able to see the patterns of their menopause symptoms, monitor treatment, and share it with their gynaecologist. This will give an objective view of how treatment is working. And hopefully will empower women to take data-driven care of their health.
How has your career progressed since your degree? Has it been an easy industry to get into or have you had many challenges?
It is important to be an expert in what you do and with technology it is much easier now. I have learnt product management in General Assembly and constant improve my skills with online courses from the Yale University, Google Digital Academy, and Coursera. All challenges are manageable if you have the motivation to learn new skills quickly. The world is changing so fast and what I studied back in 2003 at University is not that relevant today. That’s why only those who can adapt and accept the challenges ahead will succeed. I can see that when my Mum studies digital marketing. I’m looking at studying the Augmented Reality experience – I have no choice but to study and I’m lucky that I enjoy it so much.
I have many degrees, including MBA and not-yet finished PhD. I was studying business, economics, and social sciences. Three Masters Diplomas do not stop me from applying for more courses in the meantime. I always wanted to study at the University of Oxford when I was a child, and recently I was accepted for a Prevention Strategies for Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs) course in order to increase my understanding of the burden of NCDs, their risk factors, determinants and prevention strategies, develop specific skills in designing and evaluating prevention strategies, and provide a forum to share knowledge and experience with participants and faculty. NCDs kill 41 million people each year, equivalent to 71% of all deaths globally. My focus is to use technology to prevent or postpone these disease.
How long did it take you to be where you are now?
I started my career back in 2007 when I joined a law firm in Kyiv. Starting as an Assistant, in four years I became the Global Head of the Business Development department. After that, I was an entrepreneur for a while and started my own business. When it reached break-even, I decided to make an exit and join a government organization to learn how to work in an established environment. By working for the government, I learnt how important innovation and speed is, because the world is constantly changing.
After 2 years I joined a scaleup where I discovered agile and lean methodologies. In total it took me 12 years of cross-functional experience to be where I am now. Everything from my previous jobs has built a solid foundation for my current role of Product Manager.
What was the biggest obstacle?
The biggest obstacle is usually unconscious bias in society. We need overall transformation and acceptance. I have heard so many times from my female colleagues about different forms of bias and stereotypes. For example, simply changing the terminology could help in overcoming some obstacles:
I have been personally called “cold” when I am focused. I was simply concentrating on my goal and not wasting my time and energy on other, not related things.
Other women are called “too emotional” or “being dramatic” when they are passionate and have strong feelings or beliefs.
Another example is being called “pushy” for being persuasive.
If we all work together on awareness that would be a big step forward. Hopefully, women themselves will support each other at work, and mentorship will become as common as corporate parties and drinks.
What are your biggest achievements to date?
I’ve been very lucky to work with outstanding people. I could never have achieved so much without my managers and teams. My husband is very supportive, he has huge experience and often leads by example when it comes to demonstrating empathy and human relations at work. In my early career, I thought that achievement was measured exclusively in monetary terms, but now I’m convinced that achievements are measured by behavioural change.
I think, and hope, that my biggest achievement is still to come, but some highlights include co-developing a way for less active people to become more active and creating a space in which people in later life stages can socialise and learn new skills. I’ve also been nominated twice as a mentor for the Healthtech Challenge at the London Business School in 2018 and 2019, and for SuperConnector MedTech Accelerator in the UK in 2019. I’m really proud of all these achievements because all startup founders that I have been mentoring are amazing ladies that have shared with me how I upskilled them, helped them to be more confident, and played a big role in the development of their self-esteem.
What does the #WomenInTech movement mean to you? What are the challenges of being a woman in health tech and fem tech?
The #WomenInTech movement is a part of my life. I was always involved in different awareness programmes, participated in Women Deliver conference with Melinda Gates, wrote a book about diversity, joined a reality show about female empowerment, and mentored female founders. I think that support and recognition of what has been done already for diversity in tech is very important. Now there are many more courses in STEM, Hiring Managers and HR create less gender-biased job descriptions, a lot of companies are practising flexible schedules, retention and returning programmes for women after pregnancy, mentors and coaches inspire women to try tech careers. We can see big campaigns for recognising gender pay and gender investment gaps. Women openly talk about fertility, pregnancy, and menopause at work – at least in the UK. It is time to do even more – every company, every person, should feel that it is their responsibility to make a change. Everyone has challenges and it’s important that women have the right to follow their dreams and work in tech. Statistically, mixed gender startups receive more funding. I would highly recommend and encourage every male founder to find the best ‘wow’ female and make them part of the founding team. I am very happy to see how many new startups in femtech (female technology) are founded by mixed founding teams. I’m always happy to help with advice and sharing my experience to all founders.
In your opinion, what will be the key trends in the health tech and fem tech industry in the next 5 years and where do you see it heading?
We will see increasing VR/AR/MR solutions. Healthcare is leading the charge to widespread adoption of virtual reality. As VR, as well as mixed reality and augmented reality, continue to find a place in the mainstream public consciousness, more and more healthcare applications are developed all the time. There is a great deal of money to be made helping the sick, and it’s for a good cause, and so the top developers and innovators in technology are flocking to the industry. With virtual reality, the greatest surgical specialists can treat patients all over the world without ever stepping on a plane. It can also be used as a education and awareness tool, for example with VR everyone could understand how people feel when they have dementia by attending a Virtual Dementia Tour developed by Second Wind Dreams founder, P.K. Beville, the Alzheimer's and related dementias sensitivity training program. It is a scientifically proven method of building a greater understanding of dementia through the use of patented sensory tools and instruction. The same application is possible to use for a baby delivery course to prepare women for such important roles, as well as reduce postnatal depression by explaining and showing women what to expect.
In the future, we could see blockchain evolve so that one has ‘HealthCoin’ and ‘CareCoin’, not just BitCoin. We could be looking towards the emergence of a ‘social score’, similar to a credit score. This already exists in China, where if you help the elderly and volunteer you are more likely to get a promotion or a mortgage. If executed properly by a transparent government, this could be a great idea.
It is already possible to dramatically reduce falls in the elderly by identifying their behaviour and providing specific strengthening exercises. It’s also possible to find out long in advance how likely people are to develop different diseases. Sensors and speech recognition can facilitate a reduction in family conflict, depression, and behavioural disorders – and it is possible to empower people with disabilities to work and the elderly to be healthier and independent for longer. Digital biomarkers will be part of our lives very soon. They can be used to identify if women during menopause are developing osteoporosis by analysing gait even before they develop symptoms and it is too late.
All this is possible with new access to and analysis of data that is collected by wearable devices, sensors, and monitors. Our phone will become our medical device and remote health monitoring solution for everything from contraception, pregnancy, chronic disease to wellbeing.
Robotics and automation are changing the future, and this needs to be reflected in education. Critical thinking, creativity, wellbeing, self-esteem, mindfulness, socialising, and anti-loneliness exercises should become part of the mission of our schools, in addition to better tech and social science education.
All these changes could happen much sooner if global education of data science became accessible from kindergarten level, all the way up to retirement villages. People should know what data they own and what benefits they could create by sharing it. More feedback is needed from companies, universities, research organisations, hospitals, and governments regarding the value of data in the improvements of lives.
Looking to the future, I believe it will become increasingly clear that more flexible and effective work environments will be created if healthcare professions could follow the freelance model already embraced by designers and developers. I envision developments such as remote and telemedicine medicine, personalised health, and DNA tests becoming as ubiquitous as smartphones or electric cars. Everything will be integrated and data would be collected passively – we will get daily advice what to eat, when to exercise, what doctor to call, how to change our lifestyle, how long to sleep, when to do an operation if needed, or how to avoid it by changing habits and behaviours.
You may remember how WannaCry struck the NHS in May 2017. Cyber and cloud security must become daily topics, but they still feel taboo. One million SMEs have suffered a cyber attack in the last year, and only 26% of UK IT professionals believe they have adequate experience in cloud security. £820 is all it would cost a dark web scammer to take over your entire personal identity online, yet two in every five people at the board and C-suite level don’t feel responsible for the repercussions of a cyber attack. Whilst unbreakable security is an impossibility, the goal needs to be to minimise the threat while still taking advantage of modern technology. Prescription information is routinely delivered using email or even Whatsapp, so we need to increase internal communication security as well as educate people to understand what they should do if they fall victim to a cyber attack.
Who are your 3 inspirational women in health tech and / or fem tech?
I’m very lucky to be friends with loads of fantastic women from the industry, including founders, industry leaders, and influencers. It’s tough to pick just three, as so many of these women are a huge inspiration to me, and to the next generation of female intrepreneurs. Here are some that spring immediately to mind:
Karen Morton - Founder of Dr Morton’s
I met Karen last year and immediately felt that I’d known her for ages. In my mind, she is one of the most inspiring and hardworking entrepreneurs (and women!) that I know in London. She founded Dr Morton’s to help women, and corporates, address the gender pay gap. Karen has swiftly become a great friend and a truly inspiring role model.
Aleksandra Kutas - Co-founder of CityMaaS and world’s first runway model in a wheelchair
We are very good friends with Aleksandra, she is the world's first runway model in a wheelchair, a disability and social impact advocate, and now an entrepreneur. She relocated to London and joined Zinc, a social venture incubator. Now she is the co-founder of CityMaaS. CityMaaS Assist helps disabled people to achieve spontaneous and inclusive frictionless travel. It uses a self-adapting UI/UX and an intelligent algorithm at the back end to continuously learn users travel behaviour to provide optimal options to users in real time. Aleksandra has been recognized by the media for work in fashion and disability awareness, most recently by the Chou Ta-Kuan Foundation of Taiwan. It’s awesome to see what Alexandra is doing and I am very proud to be her friend.
Devika Wood - Founder of Vida
Devika’s personal story and charisma is extremely powerful. Her inspiration for Vida came from her background of being a young carer for her grandmother, and she translated her personal experience into the most extraordinary company. Devika has also worked on the development of two award-winning health tech startups in the UK: Babylon and Medefer, and was featured on the Forbes 30 under 30 list in 2018, for healthcare and science. She’s amazing, and it’s been a privilege to work with her.
This interview was conducted by Marija Butkovic, Digital Marketing and PR strategist, founder and CEO of Women of Wearables and co-founder of Kisha Smart Umbrella. She regularly writes and speaks on topics of wearable tech, fashion tech, IoT, entrepreneurship and diversity. Visit marijabutkovic.co.uk or follow Marija on Twitter @MarijaButkovic @Women_Wearables @GetKisha.