Dream big and stay humble

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Carl Wu’s commencement speech at the University of Hong Kong Faculty of Medicine graduation ceremony

Dear Vice President Professor Ian Holliday, Secretary of Health Prof Lo, Dean Professor Lau Chak Sing, Professor Rosie Young and Professor Felice Lieh Mak. Dear esteemed faculty members, graduates, families and friends. Good afternoon.

I am deeply honoured to be here on this very special day. Firstly, I would like to express my heartfelt appreciation for this invitation and extend my warmest congratulations to all the graduates, as well as the proud parents and family members.

As graduates from this world class institute, I have no doubt that many of you will go on to become very successful doctors, nurses, pharmacists, researchers, playing vital roles in building and advancing our healthcare system.

Today, I would like to start by sharing my personal journey. I grew up in China and studied economics in university in the UK. After my undergraduate study, I started my career in investment banking. As a young investment banker, my biggest client at the time was Blackstone, one of the world’s leading global investment groups. After being tortured on many sleepless nights assisting Blackstone on their corporate acquisitions, I joined the firm and spent 10 years working from London to Asia, and helped build Blackstone’s investment platform in Hong Kong, Beijing, and Shanghai. While I had a mildly successful investment career, I felt something was missing. I had an increasingly strong urge to roll up my sleeves and build something that I felt could make a bigger impact.

In 2016, exactly two weeks after I was promoted Managing Director at Blackstone, I handed in my resignation. Some of my colleagues and friends were shocked: I had a relatively high paying job in a reputable global company with a good career path. Why leave? Why did I make that choice to sail into the open? Against many friendly advice: my instinct told me it was something I wanted to do.

But I felt so anxious and insecure. As an entrepreneur, I would pay myself almost no salary for the first few years. Fortunately my girlfriend now wife Janice told me I must look forward and follow my dreams, and if this entrepreneurship thing didn’t work out, she would take care of the bills at home. Thank you dear.

So I did. But quitting my job was the easy part. What would I do next? At that time, my grandmother was 97, and I felt there had to be health solutions dedicated to people like her. China was aging rapidly, a social issue that we felt we could try to address head-on with innovation in service model. Yet, I had zero experience in healthcare.

After raising a small amount of seed capital, I decided to go to Shanghai, a city with arguably the most rapidly aging population in China. Our initial plan was to try to build nursing homes. However, we soon found out we didn’t have enough money and that Chinese families are reluctant to send away their elderlies.

This revelation prompted us to pivot. Instead of asking the patients to come to our nursing homes, why don’t we send healthcare workers to their homes? This approach was not only culturally more acceptable but also a cost-effective solution to addressing the needs of China’s rapidly aging population. We believed the future of healthcare should extend beyond the four walls of a hospital, and that more than 90% of the senior citizens could be cared for at home.

Fast forward to today, our home health services reach approximately 60,000 home patients daily across 43 cities in China. Our offerings have grown beyond providing care and nursing services. We use wearable technology and sensors for remote monitoring and chronic disease management, run training schools for care takers, provide senior-friendly home modification services and even build our own home health software. Shanghai recently published the latest data from home health services which we helped pioneer: every rmb invested in home health services resulted in 8.6 rmb reduction in overall healthcare expenditure.

While developing our home health network, we kept asking a daring question: surely, China had enough 3A hospitals, but why was the healthcare system so congested? We analyzed the data and found out that almost 80% of total healthcare expenditure in China occurred within acute hospitals. What China really needed was a rehabilitation system that accelerated the safe discharges of patients from acute hospitals.

Our team decided to embark on building our first rehabilitation hospital. We hoped to create a transformative environment where most patients admitted in debilitating conditions post surgery could regain their strength and walk again.

I remember our conversation with the landlord of our first rehabilitation hospital in Chengdu. They were so sceptical that a group of young entrepreneurs wanted to rent their 200,000 sqf former shopping mall for 20 years to build a “modern” rehab hospital. But we kept going: 7 years later, we now operate a network of 20 rehabilitation hospitals across China encompassing 8000 beds. Last month, Ailibi China released its ranking of the top 30 private rehabilitation hospitals: eight of our hospitals made the list.

While we were starting to gain momentum in post acute care. We were intrigued by the prospect of extending our network into acute care. We wanted to dip our toes by building outpatient clinics, which I presumed would require minimal investment and provide an ideal starting point. However, we were wrong: establishing an acute care setting was far more complex.

The prerequisites for success were multifaceted and demanding: a competent medical and nursing team, comprehensive service offering, standards in clinical quality and safety, allied support, good reputation, IT systems encompassing imaging to pharmacy, and ideally, in an optimal location. Unfortunately, our first attempts were unsuccessful and we had to write off our entire investment.

Despite this setback, we convinced our board to give it another try. In 2019, we decided to participate in an auction to purchase the land and building of a half built hospital in downtown Shenzhen. We opted for Shenzhen because there was almost no private healthcare in the city at the time. We had also wanted to avoid our biggest major competitor, United Family Healthcare (UFH), which already operated successful hospitals in Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou.

Upon winning the bid for the building, I was immediately filled with apprehension. In retrospect, this was a bold move. We were about to embark on the construction of a 28-storey comprehensive hospital but we had neither a team nor experience in operating and building such a complex structure.

Fortunately, that same year, the shareholders of United Family were contemplating selling the group. Seizing the opportunity, we initiated the largest healthcare acquisition in China at the time and successfully completed the acquisition of United Family Healthcare in December 2019. After taking over UFH, we integrated our capabilities and further expanded the UFH health system from 6 to 11 hospitals and have also recently extended our reach to Hong Kong with Heal Medical. The Shenzhen hospital also successfully opened last year.

Two years ago, we realized that to be a truly effective provider, we also needed build a delivery system linking service provision to health payment. Therefore, we decided to launch our own health insurance solutions company, which has become one of the fastest growing health insurance platforms in China and now caters for about 200,000 members across the country. Many of our members benefit from our innovative primary care physician and 24×7 primary care manager program, leading to improved patient experience, health outcomes and reduced costs.

While we have much challenges and opportunities ahead of us, we are proud that over the past 7 years, we went from a start-up idea in Hong Kong to a company with 11,000 employees, operating a network of 30 hospitals and more than 200 home health and outpatient centers nationwide. We offer a wide spectrum of services, from corporate and individual health insurance plans, primary and virtual care, to general and specialty hospitals, rehabilitation hospitals, and home health services. This week, we announced our plan to construct a 1.5m sqf tertiary hospital to date in Beijing—our fifth in the city and largest in our system—which will serve as our teaching and research hub, aiming to not only provide world class clinical services, but also support the translation and commercialization of innovative drugs in China. This year, we are on track to service more than 10 million patient episodes in China.

Now, let me share with you three things that I’ve learned throughout my journey:

First, be humble:

You are among the most privileged graduates in Hong Kong, and it’s natural to be proud of your achievements. Before I started my entrepreneurial journey, I too had a high opinion of myself.

While it may appear from the outside that the entrepreneurs did most of the work and therefore deserve the glory. It’s not true. I am deeply humbled by how much it takes beyond an individual to make this work: my co-founder Antony for his relentless support, our fellow entrepreneurs and colleagues who left their successful careers to join our company because they believed in our cause, our investors who saw the opportunity in China’s private health sector, our clinicians and staff who believed these young entrepreneurs could make it work despite our lack of experience, our patients, the government and many of the esteemed professors here have so generously shared their time and energy to help New Frontier along the journey because perhaps they also believed we might be doing something special. While we were able to seize some of the right opportunities, we were also just in the right place, just in the right time.

I wish you remain humble and understand that success in healthcare isn’t just about individual accomplishments—it’s about working collaboratively and advancing together. It’s not just about you.

Second, get out of your comfort zone

Despite having no healthcare experience, we kept pushing ourselves to venture into the unknown. I always find that when I am put in a situation that feels uncomfortable or daunting, whether it’s quitting Blackstone, building our home health platform, acquiring and taking over management of our competitor United Family Healthcare, moving to China during covid, I am almost always awarded with the greatest opportunities for learning and growth. Sometimes, living life on the edge (career-wise, not medically) can lead to unimaginable accomplishments and incredible satisfaction.

Third, keep dreaming big and learn to trust your instincts

When we founded New Frontier, we had little idea what we were set out to do. Healthcare was not something we were focused on. We didn’t have a strategy to build what we have today, nor did the vision exist from day one. We simply saw the challenge of China’s rapidly aging population and decided to jump in, starting with home health, and then rehab, and then United Family, health insurance followed, and many opportunities popped up along the way and we ran after them because it made sense at the time. As we were growing, our heart just told us where we should go.

So don’t be afraid to dream a little bit. Trust your instincts—they are more powerful than you might think. I am confident that the next time you hear from New Frontier, we will have pushed our boundaries further and built something new.

Looking back, this entrepreneurship endeavour is by far the coolest thing I have ever done my life. I recently spoke to one of the first investors of New Frontier. When he decided to invest, we didn’t even have a name for the company, not to mention all the developments I just talked about. I asked him: why did you invest in us? If I were you, I probably wouldn’t have.

Hongchen paused and then quickly replied. He said, because I saw that fire in your eyes. Because of that fire he saw, he believed in us before I believed in ourselves.

As I was coming into this grand hall today, I saw many graduates along the way. I can see that fire in many of your eyes: the youth, the energy, the passion, the will to make an impact. I hope that as you embark on your new journey, you can continue to light up that fire. Push yourselves beyond your comfort zone, dream big and trust your instincts, but be humble. And don’t ever doubt that you can make a difference in this world by doing good by doing well, with love.

Congratulations once again to all the graduates, and thank you so very much for having me here today.