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Benjamin Lefever Shares the Certintell Startup Story at Square One DSM

September 30, 2015

"I've always had a passion for entrepreneurship," Benjamin Lefever said as he explained why he left a successful career in the comfortable corporate confines of industry giants like Eli Lilly and Genentech to launch a business in the emerging and yet highly congested field of telehealth. Lefever, Founder of Certintell, and September guest of Startup Stories, a presentation of Square One DSM, recently sat down with Mike Colwell, Executive Director of Square One DSM to share his story.

"With my experience in health care, and knowing how things were changing, the thought of starting something on my own was always in the back of my head," he explained. A six-week paid sabbatical in the fall of 2013, a perk of his position at Genentech, gave him the time he needed to "get his ducks in a row" and make the decision to launch Certintell in January of 2014.

Connecting Patients to Providers

Certintell, a HIPAA compliant Skype-like platform that facilitates virtual consultations between patients and health care providers, builds upon and utilizes Lefever's 13 years in the healthcare industry. He leveraged his observation about the growing trend and need for platforms to connect patients to providers. This need is particularly significant in those cases where specialty providers are scarce and located primarily in larger cities leaving rural residents struggling to get the care they need and often having no options.

Competition in the Heartland

Knowing that telehealth was becoming ubiquitous in the health care industry with many major health care providers now offering some manner of remote care as a matter of routine, Lefever sought two distinctions that would define a niche for Certintell. First, they would target private mental health providers, and secondly they would do so in the heartland. He also wanted to solve a common problem for private mental healthcare providers — the high percentage of patient cancellations. Remote counseling works to lower that cancellation rate. An Indiana native and a Drake graduate, Lefever came back to Iowa to claim the fertile, but less cultivated market of the Midwest. "This is becoming a very competitive space, but not so much here in the heartland," he observed, explaining that particularly with people suffering from mental health challenges, long drives to sparsely located providers often serves as a major deterrent to seeking help.

Certintell and the Square One DSM Accelerator

Lefever, who earlier this year became the inaugural client of Square One DSM's Accelerator, spent much of the hour answering questions from a curious audience of fellow entrepreneurs, investors, members of the health care community and more. He explained that Certintell, a web-based software-as-a-service product, is really not about the technology as much as it is about healthcare. While early forms of telemedicine required proprietary and expensive software and hardware, the industry has adopted the readily available open sourced technologies of the internet and mobile technologies, reducing the costs to a nominal level and allowing the entrepreneur to focus on providing a value proposition beyond technology. "Telehealth is not about technology anymore, the company that is going to be successful is the company that knows how to navigate the healthcare landscape," he explained.

In the healthcare realm this means a continual focus on the changing character of legislation and insurance regulations, particularly as insurance providers are coming to increasingly endorse telehealth, as these services lower claims and overall health care costs. Beyond having years of experience in the field, Lefever has an advisor for this very purpose and admits to spending as much as two hours a day reading to keep abreast of issues relevant to his business.

With Certintell preparing to scale its penetration of the private mental health provider market under the tutelage of Square One DSM mentor-ship, Lefever is looking to several market segments. With 200 million work days lost per year in this country due to depression alone, employers have a vested interest in making mental healthcare readily available to employees. Whether that is through Employee Assistance Plans provided by third parties, or, as in some cases now, facilitated directly from the place of employment, Certintell sees great value in developing relationships with EAPs and employers to facilitate a connection that will be a win-win-win for patient, provider and employer.

Even more lucrative is the insurance industry itself. "If I had the money for another full-time person right now, I would have someone to focus on the payers (insurance companies)," he said of the most promising direction for an emerging telehealth provider to expend their energy. "With payers now partnering with telehealth companies and their network of providers to allow reimbursement, we need to focus on the payers."

When the questions stopped, Lefever took the floor for one more comment. "For the entrepreneurs out here, I came back to Des Moines for the opportunity, but the mentorship you get and the people who want you to succeed is what I love about being here. It has been a great experience." Arguably Des Moines can say the same of Lefever's return.