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May 11, 1999


Medsite Prescription: Take Risks, Big Risks!

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Anil Sivakumaran

from the left to right, Pingle, Kapoor (in a 
blue shirt, and no jacket), Bhan (standing) and Shariff (sitting, with 
glasses). Little more than eight years ago, a pre-med student about to submit his term paper faced an emergency that had no treatment: the spell-checker did not recognise most medical terms in his paper.

The student got angrier when he realised the spell-checker did not even recognise most of the words that he had spelt right. Words such as ependymoblastoma, zygotene and coracoideus would not, simply would not pass through the spell-checker.

"I cannot remember how many times I had to hit the ignore button," says Sundeep Bhan. He would soon decide to give up medical studies for a business and communication degree from the University of Pennsylvania.

"The spell-checker had little to do with it," he says with a chuckle. "But I could have never known then that experience would be remembered -- and it would play a key role in what I am today."

For Medsite Publishing, which, among other things, owns and which 26-year-old Bhan runs with three of his college mates -- all of Indian extraction -- owes a lot to his anger with the spell-checker.

About three years ago, when Bhan and buddies Sanjay Pingle, Rajnish Kapoor and Sameer Shariff were set to start a business, Bhan proposed creating a medical spell-checker.

"We had tried to sell another software program," he says. "We are too embarrassed to name it. The product was good, but it had no market."

In some despair, he thought of the medical spell-checker.

Within a few months, with the help of publishers of medical books, the four men based in New York City had created The Medical Spellchecker with over 60,000 medical terms.

Even as they sold their discovery to Mosby, a large publisher of medical books, they knew they had established connections with medical book publishers -- and they should use it to advantage.

"And with one thing leading to another, we started Medsite," says Pingle, the firm's vice-president in charge of marketing.

Medsite today owns not only but is also host to, the premiere medical search engine; and, a free Internet e-mail for the medical community. Subscribers and browsers include students, educational institutions and libraries from more than 60 countries. Medsite provides busy medical professionals with an easy and efficient way to expand their professional repertoire.

Launched in July 1997, offers more than 90,000 medical books, CD-ROMs and electronic titles which can be purchased online. The most comprehensive collection of medical books and software available anywhere on or off the Internet, is currently accessed by more than 4,000 people per day and orders are delivered to customers in over 64 countries, including India, Japan, Romania, Egypt and Botswana.

Stories about the four entrepreneurs in major magazines such as Forbes tell about how the browsers appreciate the concise book reviews, visual images, sample chapters and tables of contents when perusing book selections.

Visitors can comment on the books, creating a log of reader reviews and opinions for each title.'s web enabled e-mail service,, has more than 56,000 medical professionals as users. The Journal Tracker is an exclusive service allowing physicians to receive e-mail updates from more than 3,000 medical journals as they are published.'s specialized services include electronic publishing and conversion services.

In the past year, has become the "official" medical bookstore of a growing number of organisations, including the American Medical Association, Nursing Spectrum, and Physicians Online.

Through these professional partnerships, Medsite organises chats with prominent authors based on medical trends and viewer interests. Medsite is adding a medical equipment and instrument store as well as a hospital infonet in a few months. sites will be accessible by the public free via the Internet and such vehicles as Web-activated kiosks located in hospital waiting rooms, employee lounges and libraries.

Medsite's monthly double-digit sales growth necessitated a recent multi-year contract with Complete Business Solutions, Inc, (Nasdaq: CBSI) to be their premier information technology service provider for Website design and development activities. This partnership gives access to an accomplished development team.

"The testimonials we receive from such associations as the American Medical Association have helped us a lot to build our credibility," says Shirin Bhan, Sundeep's sister, who is the firm's publicity director. "And of course, there is client satisfaction."

Among other things that built MedSite's reputation was the virtual bookstore the firm put up at large medical conventions. "Booksellers simply loved it," Pingle says. "There was a time when a particular bookseller brought about 100 copies of each of his titles. But now he had to bring just one or two copies of each title. The buyer could glance through the book, and place the order online. We would have the book delivered to his home or office even before the convention got over."

"There was a time -- and not too long ago -- we had to explain to doctors and medical schools who we were and what we are up to," Bhan says, with a tinge of pride. "Not anymore." The company was capitalised at $ 3 million last year. "Now the target is to raise about $ 10 million within the next year, so that everyone in the medical field in America is aware of us."

Among MedBookStore clients now are Merck & Co, INET, and the MD Andersen Cancer Center.

Upon graduation, the four friends had gone their separate ways and began careers in the business world. Bhan, for instance, worked as a project manager at a software company.

"But we wanted something of our own," Pingle says. "When we decided to start the bookshop, we had little money, which meant we had to borrow from our friends and parents. But we all had the crazy drive many young people have. What more did you need?"

After many late-night discussions, the four decided to quit their jobs and began Medsite in a small Manhattan loft. They still operate from a loft today but it certainly is a larger loft, for it has to accommodate the 20 people who take orders for books from doctors, medical schools, nurses and students, libraries and pharmaceutical companies.

The loft looks like a warehouse but the partners make no apology. It is the brainpower that is on display, they are prone to say. The employees, like the four founders, are in their 20s. Most of them are from the nearby schools including New York University.

Being involved with medical business was natural for the four partners who have many medical doctors in their families -- and like most Indian parents of that generation, ambitions in that direction were encouraged at home. Also, the industry was full of opportunity and not as much competition, margins were higher, the customer base was highly educated, very much online with the Internet, had high incomes. Then there is the whole pharmaceutical sector which spends $ 10 billion a year trying to reach these doctors. "It made a lot of sense to be in this business," says Bhan.

As a group Bhan, Pingle, Kapoor and Shariff represent a microcosm of the rich diversity of the Indian community in USA. Sundeep came to the United States from Kashmir after eighth grade while Sameer and Sanjay, high school friends in Kodaikanal, came to Philadelphia to attend school in UPenn, where their paths intersected with Sundeep and Rajnish, who came to UPenn from Hong Kong.

Living in the same dorm as students fostered close interaction and the four became good friends who shared with each other their thoughts and ideas as well as the entrepreneurial drive that was a common trait which they all had.

"We used to sit together and share ideas, write business plans and talk about what we were gonna do," says Bhan. "One of the ideas was a technology company."

"We went to India, hired some programmers there, came back to NY and started reselling these programming services," Bhan says. Despite a few initial setbacks, they did not want to deny themselves chances of doing something "outrageous" and "unique," Bhan says. Pingle and Kapoor coordinated the whole India development effort in Bangalore before coming back to assist in the launch of Medsite.

'These days if you are a technology company and you don't have Indians it is a disadvantage'

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