After graduating from Rice University, computer scientist Mohammad Ovais (B.A. ’00) worked for several tech startups in the East and then returned to Houston to set up his own companies in 2008 and 2016.
Growing up in Karachi, Pakistan, his first lessons on running a business came from his grandfather, and then from his father, who established and ran several companies. But Ovais had grown interested in technology, so he majored in computer science at Rice and completed an internship with Microsoft, where he worked on the “Save As” feature for the MS Office Suite.
“That was a turning point for me,” said Ovais. “Being chosen as part of a 10,000-member development team was a great opportunity, but I felt constrained working on such a small feature. I didn’t think that was the kind of work I wanted to do for the rest of my career.”
He joined a startup. When that company was acquired by IBM five years later, Ovais joined another new company. Along with polishing his software skills, the startup environment gave him opportunities develop entrepreneurial skills in presales and marketing.
His niche industry was information management: turning disparate streams of company information into unified portals of analytics. Ovais had helped develop and implement these platforms for his previous employers and watched the rapid surge in demand for the software. Then he recognized a unique opportunity: the deployment of information management tools had outpaced the rise of executives who could collate and decipher their new analytics.
“My co-founder and I knew we could be successful as consultants, advising Fortune 500 companies how to best use their new information management software. But that was in 2008, and the financial crisis was just beginning. Everyone told us to wait, but we launched Streebo anyway,” Ovais said.
He took another risk by launching Streebo in Houston. His niche market and customer base had developed in the northeast, but Ovais chose Houston for cultural and business reasons.
“There were many mosques and a solid Muslim population that would be good for my family,” he said, “and I knew a number of qualified tech people in Houston we could hire as we grew. It was tight in the beginning. We financed ourselves, so it was the two of us and some used office furniture from Craigslist.
“Within a few years, Streebo had more than 50 employees and was consistently winning industry awards. Our customers covered a broad range of industries, from oil and gas to consumer products to financial services. But in 2015, the question I kept asking myself was, ‘Why are we doing this? Are we just working to make money, or are we working for a bigger purpose?’ My co-founder and I decided we wanted to create an impact.”
The Ovais family then faced a health issue. One of their daughters was diagnosed with ADHD in elementary school, and began treatments, including a prescription for a new medication that produced unpleasant side effects.
“The effects of that drug were so frightening and so severe on our daughter that she essentially became a zombie,” Ovais said.
“I would not wish any dad to go through that. I asked myself, ‘Why would a physician experiment with a new drug on my daughter?’ I wanted the physician-patient relationship to be built on trust. I did not want to go to a physician for my parents or my kids, and then have to second guess their opinion. After several weeks, my wife and I were desperate for an alternative. A new pediatrician referred us to a different drug, one that had been around for two decades, has better efficacy, fewer side effects and resolves many of the adverse effects of the earlier drug.”
What Mohammad Ovais discovered was that Big Pharma was not necessarily the villain here. “They wanted to do the right thing…Not just follow the law, but to ethically do the right thing. They just didn’t have the tools.”
The Physician Sunshine Payments Act had begun requiring pharmaceutical companies to disclose payments and other incentives to physicians and teaching hospitals in the U.S. The disclosures were reported to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. In 2014, the database was made available to the public.
Ovais was confident that he and his team had the data skills to mine the public database and produce analytics that could reveal conflicts of interest among physicians, pharmaceutical companies and patients.
“The Sunshine Payments Act was introduced as part of the transparency movement and I wanted to be part of it,” he said. “When I needed to see a physician for myself, my parents or my children, I didn’t want to go to one I couldn’t trust. That’s how our flagship product came into being.”
The first version was free and they shared it with Streebo’s life-science customers. It received good reviews but no one offered to fund the project. So Ovais and his co-founder set it up as a commercial project and spun off a new company – qordata — as a software as a service (SAAS) company.
“It’s been a tough ride,” said Ovais. “Working in a consulting company, there’s always cash coming in. But launching a new product requires a significant amount of investment. We burned a lot of cash in the first two years. In addition to changing our business model and launching a product, I wanted to keep all our employees. One of them has been with us since our early Streebo years. But l feel the relationship between employer and employee should be forever.”
To avoid layoffs, the co-founders talked to their workers who in turn agreed to make sacrifices. Ovais said he had to cut benefits and bonuses in order to avoid layoffs, and he stopped paying himself. Many members of the team had delayed paychecks by almost nine months.
Then qordata turned the corner and squeezed a small profit in 2018. Ovais feels he can accept a paycheck again. More importantly, qordata is making the kind impact he and his co-founder envisioned in 2015.
Ovais said, “Compliance Insights, qordata’s flagship product, has secured 20 pharmaceutical customers, and the transparency movement has picked up momentum. In just two years, qordata has become well-known in the global pharmaceutical industry as a solution provider for pharmaceutical analytics.”