As part of their Open Lecture series, Gtec Berlin recently invited Inga Bergen to the picturesque Mindspace coworking office, introducing her as “the next chairwoman of a multimillion dollar enterprise in Germany.” She humbly smiled at that prediction and continued to present her personal story, as opposed to the typical keynotes she usually delivers on eHealth and digital health.
Despite the ironic technical glitch of her slides not showing, Bergen shared a compelling narrative of how her life led her to not accept failure, and to work doggedly because of that. Alongside a steadfast and quirky demeanor, her resilience has paid off. Bergen’s insights captivated this group of attendees.
Her story follows a similar arc of tech mavens who dropped out of formal education to pursue passions. Her early school colleagues thought she would end up unemployed and are continually surprised by her success. She does not yet see herself as a mentor, despite friends asking if she will talk to their daughters. But this crowd certainly wanted to know more about her path and what she sees in the future.
I’ll recap highlights and learnings for you in this piece, and you can watch a video here.
Inga Bergen’s insights are valuable to anyone curious about best practices in the business of digital health, and the nontraditional trajectory of a successful career.
From Bart to Lisa Simpson
Bergen was best-in-her-class until age 14, when she suddenly found her teachers inadequate. Thus began her ‘riot’ phase which she now considers her Bart Simpson period, culminating in opening a business organizing parties at age 18. Despite initial success with that, her parents strongly urged her to complete her studies.
She chose the German vocational program of working 4 days a week and studying 1. Deciding to work in a travel agency ( incentive: 10% off flight tickets), she adventured in Asia but returned with the feeling of wanting to create a lasting impact. In essence, she now wanted to be a do-gooder like Lisa Simpson.
Back to School
Returning to academics, Bergen went to school in the colorful neighborhood of Kreuzberg Berlin, mastered enough Turkish to get by, made new hard-working friends, and dove deep into politics and management. She was so driven not to fail, she completed 7 internships in 4 years, and sold her thesis to a consultancy.
When Opportunity Calls
Based on Bergen’s entrepreneurial spirit, a friend lured her into a role at Sony Pictures in mobile business development. From London, she found it possible to discover and create for the German market with substantial liberty. This was 2007 — before the market was saturated in iPhones.
After Sony she joined a product team in 2010, which was geared towards user experience, design thinking, and building human-centered projects. In a way, they were ‘selling a dream’, something untouchable but experiential –the same way one does in the travel industry.
This led her to crave a team and, having seen her father deal with an ongoing heart condition, coincided with her urge to enter the healthcare industry.
Everything in this company is broken = Perfect Situation
Bergen joined a diet coaching company which was on a rocky path. But the remarkable thing they did have was a major contract with a big health insurer. Everybody in Germany will understand this is hard to get! Despite not knowing what a CEO actually does, Bergen joined in that role. She literally Googled everything about what a CEO does in order to surf that wave. She went from flying solo to having 120 employees overnight, and took a hard look at the company numbers.
The first thing she had to do as CEO was fire half the staff. Ouch. That was a challenging and emotional period for all, made worse by having no time to have built the trust of her employees. But it allowed her to ‘pheonix’ the situation, burning it down to build it back up. She hired a Chief Technical Officer, CTO, whom she trusted and completely changed the strategy and business model, and name. It was now Welldoo.
Gamechanger: Hire Good PR
Sidenote: I visited Welldoo back in 2015 for a Meetup on technology in hospitals and noticed their clever and engaging approach to healthcare consultancy. In fact, I still use their business card holder and branded bag to this day.
Part of Bergen’s success at Welldoo was that she hired a good PR person to spread the word about the incredible digital team she was creating. This made a real-world difference: it inspired confidence from team members and staff and motivated them to be even better. Through that 1 critical health insurer contract and an inspired team, the company grew. Finally Bergen decided to sell it to merge with another company, in order for it to achieve bigger things. Her job done, she took a chance on some soul-searching involving yoga.
When she returned to the work world, she had a realization: “Managing stakeholders and building a network is the best way to understand the complexity of the healthcare market.”
Her next adventure was with Magnosco, building hardware for early detection of skin cancers, using AI and a technology that evaluates cell structure. She also became a consultant for the pharma industry and an Ambassador for Health 4.0. In this way, she learns, stays curious, and humble.
10 Questions for Inga Bergen
Q1: What have been the major learnings in your journey?
A: Fix what is broken rather than build from scratch. Bergen questions EVERYTHING and loves conflict. This allows for actual change. Her pattern is seeking out this conflict zone and wading through it. The problem she mentions is that the healthcare market is ‘political’, so it doesn’t follow other markets.
Q2: How do you see innovation affecting the healthcare industry?
A: Bergen admitted she is unsure as there is so much innovation happening and she is focused on her current dermatologic challenge. Obviously she says, the patient moves to the center, we use data, reduce costs, and make health accessible to all. But change is slow because of the complexity of multiple stakeholders.
Q3: What’s the biggest block to innovation?
A: Two parts: 1) Since regulatory affairs are so difficult, you need someone on your team who deeply understand regulations. Or you need to hack the system by working in smaller countries like Israel or Estonia which are more flexible. 2) Stakeholder Structures & Politics: You need to adapt your messaging depending on specific players in the market. I.e. You can sell the use of AI to an investor, but don’t think for a minute that a doctor wants to hear they are replaced by AI. In other words, find a way to tell how your story benefits all players.
Q4: What does digitalization mean to companies?
A: In digital, you need people who are intrinsically motivated to figure things out. For best practice, try 2 things: 1) Give people who work with you a clear purpose so that they understand how they will improve other people’s lives. 2) Set clear objectives and goals followed by liberty to to achieve those. For example, she can’t be an expert laser specialist for skin care, but she can coach those that are.
Q5: Your ascent is rapid so what’s your next challenge?
A: Bergen enjoys her evolving role and shaping things. She is not a typical careerist but that early school ‘failure’ made her committed to success. She says one needs a certain power to change things, especially as a chief digital officer.
Q6: How do we in Germany get along with the problem of data security?
A: She shared a poignant story from her experience at Welldoo: They had a data protection officer who was hated. Nobody wanted to collaborate with him. So the team would wait until a project was completed, and then learn what that they had to redo to comply. Ridiculous but familiar, right?
Bergen changed the model. She said to the officer, ‘you need to provide guidelines up front. Take a risk. We won’t fire you if your predictions are wrong, but you need to be brave enough to make those decisions.’ With some speed gained you can avoid problems. As with data security, AI, and regulations, you need to conduct a study if you change an algorithm, but that study needs to somehow be quick.
Q7: How do you approach getting venture capital funding for eHealth?
A. In short, she doesn’t recommend this. She says for the long term, it is better to have private investors who support the specific topics you are working on.
Q8: Are regulators for, or against, the industry?
A: Some projects easily meet approval but most not. It can depend on the luck of which regulator reviews your product, how well you researched relevant regulations, or if your presentation is well-prepared to explain your point.
Q9: What about incentivizing companies to encourage healthy behavior? Consider the way the California got water companies financially incentivized to help people save water…
A: Pharma is already preparing for outcome-based healthcare. At some point, even if 10 years from now, health insurers will pay for healthy people to avoid hospitals etc.
Q10: Is big pharma in favor of innovation?
A: Bergen acknowledges some conflict here: Pharma needs to keep their business model running yet make deep changes as well.
Author’s note: Here is where I must interject; I nearly burst out my own answer during the event, which would have been odd. In my experience, Bayer, Pfizer, and Amgen are all deeply entrenched in innovation. They have teams and departments devoted to encouraging it in-house and across houses. Examples include Bayer’s Grants4Apps, Pfizer’s Healthcare Hub, and Amgen’s incubator as well as new initiatives with startups.
To close, I leave you with 2 related quotes from Inga Bergen:
“If you grow, know who your enemies would be.”
“Building a product is not enough; you need to build relationships.”