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Kate Hersov speaks to Workingmums.co.uk about how she co-founded Medikidz, a healthcare education business which has won one of this year's Natwest everywoman Awards.
Kate Hersov was working as a junior paediatrics doctor in New Zealand when a young boy and his parents were given the news that he had leukaemia. She had to give leaflets to his parents providing them with information about having a child with cancer. The boy asked where his leaflets were. “We had nothing we could give him in his language or at his level. At that point you feel as a doctor that you are doing your patient a great disservice,” said Kate.
For Kate the incident was the culmination of a growing awareness that children who were sick had no information written for them which explained their condition.
Kate and Kim Chilman-Blair, a colleague she had been at medical school with, had been talking about the need for material that educated young people about their health over a number of months.
They decided to something about it and set to work researching a business which would provide information about illnesses affecting children in a superhero comic book format. “Our research showed comics were the best format to engage kids. Comics span the age range and work for children with low literacy levels plus they are global and superheroes give a sense of empowerment,” says Kate.
After securing angel investment at an early stage, both women left their jobs and focused on their business, Medikidz, full time. It was a stressful time. “We believed in it so passionately, but there was the uncertainty of not knowing if the funding would come through,” says Kate. It was also hard moving from reading x-rays to looking at spreadsheets.
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Medikidz was launched in 2009, having piloted at Evelina London Children’s Hospital before this, and Kate says her long hours as a doctor were the perfect training for the hard work she had to put into the business.
From early on it was clear the business had a global reach since there appeared to be nothing available for children anywhere in the world.
The pair had worked closely with a Great Ormond Street doctor and one of the hospital’s staff knew Desmond Tutu who gave his support to the project. “It was astounding to find out that there was nothing globally that explained health and medicine to children in ways that they could understand. Medikidz was the first medical education company for children,” says Kate.
Over the last few years the company has withstood a lot of change. Firstly, Kate moved to the UK after meeting her future husband. She persuaded Kim to follow, arguing that the business would do better if it launched in the UK.
They started off working from home with an assistant before acquiring an office and more employees. They now have 30 and an office in Cape Town. Kim has just moved to the US to set up a US office.
Kate and Kim also had children within months of each other around two years after the launch. Kate, who also has two teenaged stepchildren, took three months off, but worked until the day she gave birth and was on her Blackberry soon after. “We had our babies within five days of each other. It was quite a shock to the business to have both CEOs out of action at the same time,” she says. She took her baby into the office where she installed a cot and changing table and staff helped out with childcare responsibilities.
The company has produced over 100 different publications since it started, including ones about illnesses that might affect their parents, such as breast cancer. They also cover medical procedures such as CT scans. “They will have a better experience of hospitals and be less afraid if they understand what is going on,” says Kate.
The publications are written by a team of doctors and the process is very thorough and collaborative, lasting on average seven months for every publication and involving the main academics and patient group associated with each condition. They are based on a real person with the condition, making the children the stars of the publication. The original publications were aimed at children aged eight to 15, but the company has started focusing on six to eight year olds and will bring out publications for preschoolers.
It is also focusing on digitising its content and next year will launch a website similar to NHS Direct for children in a format that is kid-friendly, dynamic and engaging. And it hopes to have some apps available shortly so children can, as Kate says, “access the information from where they are all the time – on their phones”. These will include things like disease diaries and reminders to take their medication.
They are also moving into health promotion, explaining what leads to good health rather than just giving information about illnesses.
Medikidz is now in 50 countries in 30 different languages, working with local affiliate companies. In developing countries it is distributed free to children through a partnership with healthcare companies like Pfizer and through the Medikidz Foundation which was set up in the early days. “We adapt for different cultural issues, but the medical content stays the same,” says Kate.
All this industry has won the business some great feedback and it has also won the Demeter Award for women business owners aged 26-35 in this week’s NatWest everywoman Awards. The Awards were launched 11 years ago to celebrate British entrepreneurship, creating female role models to demonstrate the benefits and rewards of business ownership.
Kate says having such recognition of the company’s achievements has been wonderful, but true to form the ceremony was not the only big event for the company this week. They are moving offices on Friday to a central London location.
“Our ambition is to be the global brand for children’s health and to create a world where children feel empowered, informed and health aware,” says Kate.
They seem to be well on their way.