This Founder Left Med School to Build a Subscriber-Based Study Platform. It Paid Off

December 18, 2018

By Suzy Strutner(opens in new tab), managing editor at Grow Wire
⏰ 5-minute read

In short: 

  • The founders of healthcare education company Osmosis(opens in new tab) started building the business while in med school after observing the study habits of fellow students. 

  • At first, Osmosis was mostly just a platform. The founders worked on that for two years before realizing the company needed a content play.

  • Co-founder Shiv Gaglani shifted from med school to business school. Osmosis got funding through an incubator and grants, then venture capital. It is now also building new lines of business as it focuses on patient education. 

Two years ago, Shiv Gaglani(opens in new tab) put med school on hold to become a full-time entrepreneur. It wasn’t a popular choice with his parents nor roommate then, but they’d be hard-pressed to say the bet hasn’t paid off now.

Gaglani was a first-year medical student at Johns Hopkins when he and Ryan Haynes, his classmate and best friend, dreamt up what they considered a more efficient way to study. Their classmates were skipping lectures in favor of streaming them online, then supplementing with third-party study tools like Picmonic(opens in new tab), which makes mnemonics to help students memorize concepts. Gaglani and Haynes thought they could do better with quick, explanatory videos that drove home class concepts. 

That idea is now Osmosis(opens in new tab), a subscription service that offers access to a library of more than 1,000 videos breaking down medical concepts from sleep apnea to focal segmental glomerulonephritis(opens in new tab) (a common cause of kidney disease).

The company recently raised $2.5 million(opens in new tab) in venture capital, much of it from the illustrious Greycroft(opens in new tab) firm. It has over 20,000 subscribers to the official Osmosis platform(opens in new tab) and 860,000 on YouTube(opens in new tab), where the company posts some of its videos.

The core audience is medical students, who use the videos to study. Osmosis also makes videos aimed at students studying for the MCAT, practicing clinicians and caregivers. All together, Osmosis videos have 50 million views.


The platform

Osmosis videos explain medical concepts on a background that looks like a whiteboard, with doodles and a friendly-sounding narrator. (The style is a current trend in instructional videos.) They’re generally 7-10 minutes long. Osmosis features roughly 350 videos on its YouTube channel, but most are featured on its proprietary platform. 

Gaglani says the choice of platform was critical. 

“If you view one of our videos on YouTube, we have no way to reach you because we don’t own the platform,” he said. “But if you watch on the Osmosis platform, we know who you are, and when we update the video, anyone who’s ever watched it on Osmosis gets an email. That’s pretty important for health professionals … In medicine, new drugs are always being created, and new discoveries are always being made.”

The platform began--and still exists--as website with embedded videos, organized first by topic (i.e. anatomy and immunology) and then by subject (i.e. the upper limbs and the pathology). Each subject section also includes notes, flashcards and multiple-choice questions. 

Videos, review notes and flash cards on the Osmosis platform are organized by topic and subject. (credit: in new tab)) (opens in new tab)

The product

For the first two years of their foray, Gaglani and Haynes worked on Osmosis concurrent with their medical studies. Osmosis had fewer than 40 original videos at the time, and most of the site’s content was user-generated. Users uploaded curriculum and submitted flash cards and review questions.

At this point, Gaglani and Haynes thought the platform was the highlight of their company. They soon concluded otherwise.

As they got to know customers beyond their school, it became clear “the market cared deeply about content above platform,” Gaglani said. “So we realized we needed a strong content strategy.”

They hired a team of producers who made medical videos for Khan Academy(opens in new tab), the popular hub of educational YouTube videos. The team knew what worked and what didn’t, from the style of illustrations (Khan’s blackboard style vs. Osmosis’s whiteboard) to video length (“seven minutes is ideal,” said Gaglani). Osmosis’s in-house production team now includes 42 script writers, editors and practicing clinicians who produce at least 10 new videos per week.

In 2015, Osmosis produced 13 new videos. In 2016, after hiring the Khan Academy team, the team produced 160. The total number for 2018 will be around 550, Gaglani said. 

Osmosis subscribers can access the full library of videos on its platform. Osmosis also posts hundreds to YouTube. (credit: in new tab))
(opens in new tab)

Now, with a near-complete library of videos for standard med-school students, Osmosis is expanding into other sectors. 

“We are basically at the ideal number [of videos] for medical student education,” Gaglani said. Now, the team is “adding modules to fill out our libraries for nursing, dentistry and many other professions, including our first set of videos for current and future veterinarians. 

"... Our brand represents approachability,” he added. “It has all the info a medical student needs to know, but it’s done in a simple and not boring way.”

The potential pain point

Which begs the question: Could videos like Osmosis’s ever replace med school? And even if not, might we ultimately harm healthcare by aiding future doctors in learning, in shorthand, from the couch? 

“I think [Osmosis] can replace parts of [med school],” Gaglani said, pointing out the first 1-2 years consist of preclinical training, which is largely “didactic and lecture-based. But for patient care, you need to do clinicals(opens in new tab).”

He’s not alone in his vision for web-based learning: Harvard’s online HMX program(opens in new tab) features whiteboard-style videos very similar to Osmosis’s which are included in its traditional med school curriculum(opens in new tab).

Testimonials on Osmosis’s website suggest students indeed use the videos to supplement lectures, rather than replace them. Select reviews refer to Osmosis as a tool for “reviewing lectures” and “streamlining study time.”

“I LOVE that videos and flashcards are linked directly to any lecture that I'm working through,” reads a review from UCLA student. “I can get to the 'heart' of the content from a reliable source.”

The business model

Aside from videos, an Osmosis subscription includes perks(opens in new tab) like flashcards and customized study schedules, which are hot commodities among med students. A one-year subscription to Osmosis Prime(opens in new tab) costs $159. Two years is $239, and four is $399. Osmosis also sells bulk subscriptions to medical schools, who offer logins to their students.

The goal is to engage students early and stay with them throughout their careers, Gaglani said. 

“Our base audience is students, but as those students are becoming professional clinicians, they keep using us,” he said. “We want to have a relationship from day one of med school until they retire. And now we have MCAT content, so maybe it’s day one of undergrad.”

Gaglani said doctors play Osmosis videos in waiting rooms and show them to patients when explaining complex diagnoses. He cites a YouTube viewer who wrote that he sent his brother, who’d been suffering unexplained weight gain for years, to the doctor after watching Osmosis’s educational video on Cushing syndrome(opens in new tab).

“We’ve grown our YouTube audience so we can reach patients, family members and caregivers,” Gaglani said. “The goal is that ‘everyone who cares for someone’ will know about Osmosis.”

The funding

While in med school, Gaglani and Haynes completed a program with Dreamit(opens in new tab), a tech incubator in Philadelphia. They got $50,000 in seed funding(opens in new tab) from Dreamit, which they supplemented with a $20,000 grant.

Gaglani went to business school, during which he bootstrapped(opens in new tab) the company with revenue. After business school, his professors lent him money. Finally, this year, the duo closed a round of venture capital funding with Greycroft, whose founder Alan Patricof(opens in new tab) was famously an early investor in America Online and Apple. 

“The mentors and advisors on our team(opens in new tab) are incredible,” Gaglani said. “I learn so much from [Patricof]. In a ten-minute conversation, he could save me a month of doing the wrong thing.”

The future

Gaglani estimates Osmosis will hit 1 million subscribers in the first quarter of 2019. The associated big, hairy, audacious goal(opens in new tab) is to collect 1 billion views by 2025. 

The company also plans to rev up production of “patient education” videos, tying videos to current events and medical concepts in the news. For example, Osmosis has recently published videos on wildfire smoke, flu vaccines and Crispr, a gene-editing tool that made headlines last month. Osmosis packages some of these pieces as “knowledge shots(opens in new tab),” consumer-friendly videos that are shorter and easier to understand than a typical Osmosis video.

Gaglani sees them as a core product of the future.

“We have a goal to educate the public more actively,” he said. “That’ll be a big part of what we do.”

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