Founders / Health / Q&As / Startups

‘Don’t do it alone’: 10 questions with Handl Health cofounder Ria Shah

In this RustBuilt Pittsburgh Q&A, the exec shares lessons from growing the healthcare price transparency platform from "passion project" to scaling startup.

Ria Shah. (Courtesy photo via RustBuilt)
This Q&A was originally published on RustBuilt's website and is republished here with permission.

Handl Health launched in 2021 with a mission of “ensuring everyone has access to healthcare that is transparent, inclusive and affordable.” The Pittsburgh-headquartered company, which makes a healthcare price transparency platform, has participated in the AlphaLab Health accelerator’s third cohort, and was recently accepted into Techstars Healthcare’s spring cohort.

RustBuilt Pittsburgh recently caught up with cofounder and COO Ria Shah to talk about Handl Health’s trajectory from “passion project” to scaling startup, her strategy for building a team, and the best advice she’s received so far. Read the full Q&A below.

1. How did you come to do this work and why is it so important to you personally?

I fell into healthcare as a happy accident. I started my career as a strategy consultant at Ernst & Young, and my first project was in digital health. After that experience, I never looked back. Before then, it never occurred to me that I could make an impact in healthcare without being a caregiver with a medical background. Coming from an immigrant family, I’ve seen the toll the US healthcare system takes on people, as it has high literacy and financial barriers to access. The work we’re doing at Handl is near to my heart because we’re trying to make sure that the people that hurt the most have access to the tools to effectively manage their health and stay well without breaking the bank.

2. What was your lightbulb moment for Handl Health?

It was around the time we saw a wave of healthcare price transparency legislation come out, mandating hospitals (and soon health insurers) publish their prices for the healthcare services they offer. For the first time in US history, the healthcare industry was required to publish their negotiated rates for all services. We’ve seen the impact of that in other industries and the power of democratized access to information. We knew then that this was a once in a lifetime, market opportunity to completely change how people interact with the healthcare system and in doing so, improve accessibility and affordability of care.

3. What is the elevator pitch for Handl Health?

We aggregate data to drive smarter healthcare purchasing. Our software analyzes healthcare service, insurance, and patient data to personalize out-of-pocket cost predictions and guide patients to high-value care. We see ourselves being the intelligence layer that connects the payer, provider and patient, and supply our data via APIs that can plug into any application or portal.

4. Talk through your strategy in building a team around you.

Building the right team is probably the most important thing you can do for your company and it can be the difference between success and failure of a startup. My cofounder and I brought on two employees within the first month of founding Handl, a research strategist and a digital marketer. The four of us went way back as friends and coworkers, so we knew what we were signing up for. From there, we looked for technical talent, particularly in Pittsburgh (where we’re headquartered) because of the richness in skill coming out of CMU, Pitt and tech bootcamps.

As our team grows, I like to play an active role in the recruitment and interview process, because I am a big believer in creating the right culture and mix of people that we can be vulnerable around, speak our minds, have fun with, and challenge. We all come from pretty diverse backgrounds, which is particularly important when solving problems in healthcare — no experience is the same and we need to represent that as best as we can.

5. What has surprised you most about starting your own business?

As a first-time founder, I didn’t really know what to expect coming into this — it honestly started more as a passion project between me and my cofounder and turned into this amazing, full-fledged startup! I would say the most surprising thing has been the power of having a network. Some of our first team members, customers, and investors have been introduced to us by our immediate network, aka people who believed in us as individuals and who we have personal relationships with. It really is about who you know and who knows you (at least at the start).

6. Talk through one of your daily rituals.

I have a really sweet bath setup, equipped with my Beats Pill for music, candles and bath bombs. Evening baths have become my go-to way to unwind and de-stress.

7. What is a recent challenge you’ve faced as an entrepreneur and how did you overcome it? What lesson(s) did you take away from it?

There’s never a dull day in our world, but one of the challenges I face repeatedly is feeling like things might be slipping through the cracks. There are always a million things to do and somehow they all feel like priority #1. I’ve been working on letting myself off the hook for the things on my to-do list that don’t see the light of day for a bit, and lean on my team to help me focus on the priorities at hand.

8. What does the next year look like for Handl Health?

The next 12 months are all about scale — we’re focused on solidifying our place in the market and expanding our capabilities. We’re especially excited to join the spring cohort of Techstars Healthcare for the next few months to further our momentum.

9. What is a key piece of advice you’ve received that you’d want to share with other founders?

One of my mentors told me early on: Don’t do it alone! The founder life is extremely rewarding and oftentimes just as brutal. It’s important to have people you can lean on in a meaningful way. My founding team has been my rock through all the small and big wins, and especially on days when I really just need a beer and a long rant. I’d say, find your people and brace yourself for the long ride.

10. How can our regional startup community help your efforts?

As we head into the next quarter, we’re eager to meet like-minded folks in the Pittsburgh startup space and continue to grow our home base in PA, specifically our development and data engineering teams. If you’d like to refer someone, connect with us, or nerd out about all things healthcare and data, please reach out.

Companies: RustBuilt / AlphaLab Health / Techstars

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