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Mukesh Bansal and Sumit Sinha
Co-founders, Phable
Phable
Friends Turned Founders Fight India’s Health Gap

The question for Sumit Sinha and Mukesh Bansal in February 2019 was which would come first: The funding for their seed round or the sale of their Hyundai hatchbacks.

The question for Sumit Sinha and Mukesh Bansal in February 2019 was which would come first: The funding for their seed round or the sale of their Hyundai hatchbacks, which they’d already had appraised at a second-hand dealer in Bangalore.

Spoiler alert: Their company Phable would raise a $25 million Series B and now serves more than 3 million patients and over 11,000 doctors in India. The team has grown from 50 employees in March 2020 to over 700 today, and Phable is among the world’s largest medical “Internet of Things” (IoT) integrators with connections for fitness bands, blood pressure monitors, glucose monitors, ECGs, thermometers, and other devices essential to monitoring chronic conditions.

Mukesh Bansal
Co-Founder, Phable
Sumit Sinha
Co-Founder, Phable

Sumit and Mukesh launched Phable in 2018 as a mobile platform for managing chronic illness. As kids, both of their fathers had chronic illnesses; lack of medical care and limited means meant the boys were on the frontline of their families’ survival. After their fathers died just a few months apart in 2016, the friends decided to launch a startup that would fill India’s gap in medical services for the chronically ill.

Born and raised in Lucknow, a city in northern India, Sumit was five years old when his father had a hypertension stroke leaving him partially paralyzed and unable to work. Sumit delivered newspapers and milk and pedaled a rickshaw to help put food on the table, even as his mother and older sister pushed him hard to keep up his studies. In high school, he expected to become a truck driver or serve in the military, but a strong performance on national exams landed him a spot at Bhopal’s Maulana Azad National Institute of Technology, where he studied computer science. 

“There was a certain frequency match that we had,” says Mukesh. “When the other person has gone through a struggle similar to yours, you have inherent respect for each other.”

Sumit sold life insurance to pay tuition and make ends meet for the family. Upon graduating, he was quick to take a steady-paying corporate job in banking and later consulting. Six years later, he joined Borderless Access, a market intelligence firm in Bangalore, where he led business development.

Mukesh has a similar story. He woke up one morning to see medicines spread across the bed as a doctor treated his father for a stroke brought on by an untreated heart condition. Mukesh’s father was a cotton merchant who biked from town to town in southern India, buying from farmers and selling to mills while also running a small store. After the stroke his father kept working and insisted his only son focus on school. 

Mukesh’s parents sent him to a strict boarding school in Hyderabad where the food was awful, the rooms dilapidated, and the students weren’t allowed to phone their families—they could only write letters. Mukesh hated the school but exceled, he says, because there was “nothing else to do.” He was admitted to Birla Institute of Technology and Science in Pilani, where he studied mathematics.

After a failed startup, Mukesh spent six-and-a-half years in a corporate job building market intelligence software. He moved to Bangalore in 2013 to lead product development at Borderless Access, where he met Sumit.

They did not hit it off. They recall those days with headshakes and laughter. Sumit brought in money, and Mukesh spent it. “We always had something to argue about,” says Mukesh. Despite the friction, the two became close friends. “There was a certain frequency match that we had,” says Mukesh. “When the other person has gone through a struggle similar to yours, you have inherent respect for each other.”

When they lost their fathers in quick succession, they commiserated about the lack of care available to their fathers and millions like them. In India, an estimated 21 percent of the population—about 290 million people—suffer from chronic illnesses such as hypertension, diabetes, and heart disease. Health insurance is almost nonexistent, so families pay out of pocket for healthcare, which poor families cannot afford except in emergencies.

Sumit and Mukesh recognized that poor management of chronic disease was the common ground in their families’ stories. They believed doctors and patients needed a shared mobile platform where they could collaborate on disease management. As their thesis solidified, Sumit encouraged Mukesh to leave Borderless Access.

“I told him we could be highly paid executives who enjoy the money we’ve made and let the world pass by, insulated in our own bubbles,” Sumit says. “Or we can take the hard road of building something together to solve a problem that you and I have seen very closely.”

Sumit and Mukesh registered their startup in 2017 and spent the next year visiting health clinics to observe interactions between doctors and patients. And after a search for a brand with an available .com domain, they came up with “Phable,” a combination of “physician” and “enable.”

After three months of coding, Sumit and Mukesh launched a free version of Phable in October 2018. It enabled patients to share biometrics, communicate with their doctors, and manage prescriptions. 

Sumit and Mukesh assumed startup founders did everything together. They coded, visited doctors, and fundraised together. Often, they contradicted each other, which confused the others in the room.

Sumit and Mukesh assumed startup founders did everything together. They coded, visited doctors, and fundraised together. Often, they contradicted each other, which confused the others in the room. 

“We realized that this was the most inefficient way to work,” Sumit says. They divided up duties and forged ahead from their headquarters in Bangalore. However, they weren’t sure how best to generate revenue, and their seed money, raised in 2018, wasn’t nearly enough to fulfill their ambitions. 

Sumit and Mukesh had management experience but didn’t know venture capital investors. They sensed that they weren’t pitching Phable well. Though the platform had over 50,000 patients and 700 doctors, they almost ran out of capital more than once. 

They met SOSV’s William Bao Bean in February 2019, just when they were about to sell their Hyundai’s to make payroll. William ran SOSV’s MOX, which invests in early-stage startups, specializing in helping mobile app startups grow fast. Sumit and Mukesh hoped MOX could help them connect better with investors and build a stronger business model.  

Sumit was the first to go to Taipei, where MOX is headquartered, while Mukesh looked after the office in Bangalore. “We got into the groove of how to sell the company very, very quickly,” Sumit says.

For Sumit, the key lesson was to keep investors engaged in the business. In the year following MOX, Sumit emailed a weekly summary about Phable to his rolodex of VCs. “That gave us so much investor traction,” Sumit says. “It also forces you to think hard about what to do next week so that you have a great story to tell seven days later.” Sumit still writes a quarterly summary for investors.

During Mukesh’s stint in Taiwan, he learned to see Phable like an investor. “The main benefit of MOX,” says Mukesh, “is that they make your thought process very structured and very focused.” As Sumit and Mukesh began to relate Phable as a story and vision—not merely a technology—investors gravitated to their company. The two solidified their revenue plan.

In February 2020, Phable began to sell Bluetooth enabled devices, lab tests, prescription medicine, and more. The COVID-19 pandemic hammered home the value of digitizing these transactions and doctor-patient engagement.

The missing factor, very much on both founders’ minds, is hitting the price points for devices to make Phable more widely available within India and beyond. Smartphones are affordable for almost everyone in India, so there is reason to hope that Phable’s rapid growth will drive down costs for Bluetooth and otherwise connected devices. “Ultimately,” says Mukesh, “I want Phable to be used in the village where I grew up.”

By Richard Ellis
Photos by Ritesh Biswas

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