Dr. Kwok was recently nominated for a “Top 100 Healthcare Visionaries” award for her world-sized vision for the next generation in rehab care. She believes in using the best technology to make high quality healthcare available to all. Before founding PenguinSmart, she had worked in three other socially impactful healthtech startups empowering families and front-line health workers of under-resourced and remote communities in India, Tanzania, and China, bringing them credible medical advice and taking timely actions.
Dr. Kwok was born in Taiwan, raised in New Zealand, and received her medical training at Peking University in Beijing before earning a Master’s of Public Health from Harvard University. Dr. Kwok uses her cross-cultural perspective and sensitivity to bring empathy into her work. Dr. Kwok has built an unlikely alliance of champions and partners across the globe by bringing tech experts and investors from Silicon Valley together with healthcare organizations, academics, and educators from the U.S., mainland China, and Taiwan, all working to serve families around the world and helping each child reach best developmental potential, no matter their starting line.
PenguinSmart is a digital health company that helps families bridge child development gaps (faced by 1 out of every 6 children) and unleash a child’s life potential with family-centered, tech-enabled tools and services. PenguinSmart is an Alchemist Accelerator-backed company and was named one of the Top 10 Disruptive Parenting Companies.
Q: What motivated you to get started with the company?
Prior to becoming a public health practitioner and entrepreneur, I was a medical doctor. I remember treating and saving babies and toddlers with severe congenital conditions. Although I am glad they survived, I felt sad that many of these children were discharged with damaged abilities and would most likely have hindered growth and learning for the rest of their lives once they were left to their own families. This would have been the critical time to transition them into specialized developmental rehabs to help them with targeted training, expedite their healing, and lay the foundation for better learning to give them the best chance in life. Such expertise and services unfortunately were not widely available nor affordable, and these children and parents are often left to fend for their own future. It was faces like these that led me to trek down the path of public health, searching for ways to provide better, healthier lives for families and communities beyond the hospital walls.
It is a bit of a cliche, but I would say PenguinSmart is founded out of love. It was a simple response to realizing that to help the next generation thrive, we must help their families understand how to help them, and the existing technology has mostly hurt rather than helped these families. Our conviction to focus more on the developmentally delayed grew as we learn more about the extreme pressure and struggles that families with developmentally challenged children go through. After more than 150 hours of interviews with parents of special needs children and founders and teachers of special education schools and rehab centers across eight different cities, and consulting seasoned therapists and physicians of early intervention from the U.S., Taiwan and mainland China, we mapped out the disconnect. It mainly comes from three areas：
- Parents were blindsided by the lack of information for effective early detection and they did not know it would take so much time to search for intervention solutions.
- Parents often get lost in the sea of seemingly conflicting information regarding options and intervention models. They need to have guidance from more credible sources of information.
- When parents want to do more than just bus their kids around to intervention sessions and want to be involved in their children’s daily lives, they often are stuck and unable to replicate the exercises that they learn on their own, and don’t really have the bandwidth to figure out how to do them correctly. There needs to be someone that can walk them along this journey.
PenguinSmart and its ecosystem of remote early intervention detections and intervention solutions were born out of key design principles of convenience, customization, and credibility.
We decided to start with the field of speech and language therapy as our entry point, as over 80% of developmental delays impact the ability to communicate. It is also the most emotional and dignifying for the family members to be able to connect with each other and be understood. By implementing a caregiver-centered intervention model, we are empowering parents to turn daily interactions into meaningful engagement that not only stimulates communication development, but actually helps build the communication bridge to meet their children where they are.
The question is, how can technology really help? Technology can be used to do more than track biometrics and make sessions remote. It is the medium where customization and standardization coexists, where we can use AI analysis to help speech and language therapy experts extract more insight from existing information, use data mapping to help therapists and parents agree on goals and track progress together, use user-friendly and mobile-friendly content databases to break down developmental milestones into digestible daily-scenario-based activity plans, use the mobile connectivity to ensure that the support and help from training assistants is within an arm’s length away. Therefore, we can create solutions that address both the universality of human developmental milestones, yet consider the uniqueness and individuality of each child, family and culture.
Q: How have you attracted clients/customers and grown your business?
Since our first beta launched in mid-2017, we have provided training for more than 5,000 families, identified more than 600 functional delays, and have directly helped more than 200 families recognize and improve their interactions with their child to stimulate development. For efficacy metrics, using the special education metric of achievement rate of individualized education plan (IEP) goals, we are proud to have an achievement rate of 86%, which is twice more than the regional average.
Our strength is really three pronged: Our expertise, our technology and our collaboration flexibility.
We started first serving Mandarin-speaking families, utilizing the expertise of licensed US & Taiwanese speech therapists. As there is currently no national standard for speech language therapy yet within mainland China, our online team of 13 clinically licensed therapists makes us the largest and most senior children’s speech rehab team within the country, including local pediatric hospitals, and we were able to offer the first fully digital offering that could quickly service families from different cities across the country. Our continuous pursuit of academic research and publication also continue to put us at a leading position in terms of expertise. Our expertise in early intervention, fundamentally, is why parents would place their trust in us to guide them to behavior and habit changes within their own homes.
With great respect to the expertise and existing best practices, we are using technology to enhance and scale our impact. Our adaptation and digitization of the parent-led intervention model uniquely positions us to address the many pain points facing busy parents, as well as the pain points and gaps identified by many therapy providers. We are the first fully digital early intervention service provider. Our digital evaluations bring peace of mind and practical application and privacy. Our online intervention guidance solutions provide the accommodation and information transparency that parents have not had the luxury of having before, as well as access to a trusted team for personal support. For providers, it is also a unique opportunity to have systematic access to clients and to get a glimpse into how their clients are doing in their natural home environment through the regular upload of interaction videos, recording of behavior changes and real time video calls within the home.
Flexible Collaboration Model
Our fully digital expert solutions mean that aside from being effective standalone full stack solutions, we can also integrate well with existing stakeholders with the goal to be available at every stage of the patient journey for each family. Whether it is providing screening and education by collaborating with pure online platforms or pure offline solutions, or becoming a virtual expert consultant team that can remotely provide customized support for learning centers for special education and post-discharge patient and families, this flexibilty is in line with our vision to create a strong support network alliance from online to offline for special needs kids and their caregivers. Stronger together.
Lastly, we have found engaging with parents and getting their feedback and trust is the tried and true method to continue to build great services that can solve real problems. Since the beginning, we have engaged the online community in answering commonly asked questions regarding child development in various areas and stages. We also provide tools and materials to help parents who are worried about their child’s development to make more informed decisions. The continuous feedback from engaging within the online communities also means our solutions and features will continue to adapt and evolve.
Q: What are your goals for the future?
We are at the cutting edge of many frontiers, including applied AI, telepractice, home-based long-term care and early intervention caregiver engagement. Our desire is to not only make advancement in these areas, but also to fold them seamlessly into the background of what families experience as awesome and humanizing services that show respect and dignity.
We also imagine a world in which we will be the beacon for best practices and standardization. While we continue to optimize and improve on our services and offerings, we are also moving forward with making them widely available by moving forward into the path of regulatory body-approved and academically-vetted digital therapeutics -- evidence-based, scalable solutions that produce consistent outcomes leading to predictable impact. Thanks to COVID, there has been much regulatory advancement in the past few months that opens the door for such innovations.
We already know how we can best help families, but in order to provide solutions at the population level, we need to know how we can fit into the greater picture of the continuum of care. We are partnering with hospital systems, health care providers and health payers to explore how PenguinSmart can bring the most value, both clinically and financially.
Q: What's your advice for female founders who are just starting out?
The main thing I would say is, don’t miss the forest for the trees! I remember in my first product attempt, I had created 15 iterations of the product MVP wireframe before putting it before a potential client. Retrospectively, I should have created one wireframe, and made 14 client feedback revisions. Did I not get feedback for my 15 wireframes? I did, but it was from other designers and other founders, and after getting feedback from anyone and everyone EXCEPT a potential paying client. Why? Because I wanted to be “client-ready.” I was too caught up in the details of how the pages should look, how the flow should work, how other competitors’ products looked so polished already, and trying to figure out what we needed to add to differentiate ourselves. In the end, there were fundamental assumption misses that had us going back to the drawing board, but we could have found that out 14 versions and many tireless nights prior, if I hadn’t wanted it to be “perfect” first.
When envisioning nothing into something, the feminine instinct often means that our minds fill in the blanks with details, thus making an idea come to life. But this also means that we are more prone to get lost in the details and forget the purpose. You may also have heard “don’t make perfect the enemy of good.” The “perfect” and the “good enough” are only at war when there is a time constraint, in which startups should always feel there should be, as iterating fast is the only leverage we have against large corporates who also may have smart people on their team.
So for those female founders just starting out, it’s better to show something “cringy” in three days to your target buyer to get blunt feedback than something “beautiful” in three weeks to get a pat on the back. Just position it as, “I’d love to get your feedback to make this rough idea useful for users like yourself” and bravely ask, “What would make this something you would buy?” earlier than you are comfortable. The results may just surprise you.