Jeenie CEO Kirsten Brecht Baker on Raising a Series A for Healthcare Interpreting

SlatorPod #117 - Jeenie CEO Kirsten Brecht Baker on Healthcare Interpreting

In this week’s SlatorPod, we are joined by Kirsten Brecht Baker, Co-founder and CEO of Jeenie, an on-demand healthcare interpreting platform that recently raised USD 9.3m in Series A funding.

Kirsten begins with her journey as a daughter of linguists and how she transitioned from working in international education to co-founding Jeenie. She tells us about the pivot to servicing healthcare in the US and how they grew in one of the most competitive spaces in the industry.

The CEO shares her experience partnering with Transformation Capital, a growth equity fund focused on innovative healthcare IT and services companies, in order to scale through hiring and innovate through technology. She talks about the advantages of working remotely versus a hybrid model, such as direct connections from clients to interpreters in as little as 15 seconds.

The pod rounds off with Jeenie’s technology plans for the future with intentional partnerships and integrations with electronic medical records and electronic health records. Kirsten gives her outlook, where she sees a transition from OPI to VRI, and increased communication due to rising migrant trends around the world.

First up, Florian and Anna discuss the language industry news of the week, with two airports in Canada being ordered to pay CAD 20,000 to serial complainant Michel Thibodeau. Thibodea said the airports failed to provide online communication in French, violating the country’s Official Languages Act.

In M&A news, Toppan Digital Language, the LSP subsidiary of Singapore-based Toppan Leefung, expanded its London presence with the acquisition of TranslateMedia. Meanwhile, Down Under, the Australian Judicial Council on Cultural Diversity launched the second edition of its national standards for legal interpreting.

Florian talks about Amazon Transcribe’s no-code workflow, which enables video subtitle creation directly within the service. The product competes with transcription providers and is aimed downmarket to the non-technical crowd.

Transcript

Florian: Give us the elevator pitch for Jeenie. What does the platform do? How large is the company now? Where are you based? The company in a nutshell. 

Kirsten: Jeenie is a mobile platform for interpreting that connects you to a live interpreter on nearly any device you already own for on-demand access to language and cultural assistance. You simply open an app on your tablet or your phone or an URL on your computer, if you will, and you select a language that you need help with. You decide whether you want a video or an audio call. In about 30 seconds, you have a live interpreter on-screen to help you. Our average response time right now is about 15 seconds. We are proud to be the first real true shared workforce model in this space. Literally accessing over 11,000 interpreters all over the world in over 150 countries who we connect directly online to people who need that language and cultural assistance at the tap of the button.

Florian: It is really mobile-first? You have mentioned the link on a desktop, but is that a secondary mode? 

Kirsten: What we are seeing is that all of these modes are still necessary, so whether you are using a smartphone or a tablet, or whether you are still on a computer or even a landline, we integrate with you. What we do see is the device that most people are gravitating towards so quickly is the smartphone because traditionally in this space most interpreting platforms have not worked on platforms like a smartphone where you can have the interpreter on video, not just audio, on-demand at the tap of a button. It has not really worked like that, so that has become unique here. Especially when you are looking in medical of all places and doctors need to go from surgery to a patient room, to an assisted living facility, to a clinic. All of a sudden the mobile capability of the interpreter going wherever you go becomes helpful. 

Florian: What got you into this space? Tell us a bit more about your background and how you came across this opportunity. 

Kirsten: I would first say that I am the daughter of two linguists, so I grew up with the love and appreciation for language in my DNA and my father was a Professor of Slavic Linguistics at Harvard University and my mother was a German professor her entire career. They would take us on trips and we would travel around the world. It was pretty clear at a very early age what the ability to communicate with other people in their language and to understand and respect their culture did for building relationships. They put me into a French immersion school in elementary school so I started my education learning in two different languages and it was quite a treat too. I entered that school in sixth grade, not first grade, so I was the only one in my class who did not already speak French and you got detention if you spoke English, so I learned very quickly. I have been very fortunate to be able to explore that overseas and spend time studying abroad, but also in my early career coming out of college, working in international education. I was responsible for what were language and education exchange programs, so we were helping students, teachers, and research scholars from the US to go abroad, to learn and study other languages and study other things in other languages, as well as bringing people from all over the world to the United States.

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Florian: Tell me more about the origin story of Jeenie. How did that translate into the idea of starting the core genie business model? How did you come up with the idea? What were some of the milestones? 

Kirsten: This was born out of my last company where we were matching employers to candidates who had global competencies. They would speak other languages but they were crossed with domain experience, so we needed to help a company staff up an entire marketing department in China, or we needed to find Pashto-speaking chemical engineers and we were doing a lot of work there. I was traveling abroad in Japan and I was going to a meeting and my Japanese is not very good, and neither is my Kanji, so I was in the taxi and the taxi cab driver and I were struggling to understand where I was going. We had to go back to the hotel, we got some assistance, and when he dropped me at the corner, I saw all of these different signs in Kanji on a corner in Tokyo and I was trying to understand which restaurant was the one I was going to. I was like, wow. I could be accessing all of these different candidates right now who are already in my database. If they could only see me and know what I was doing, one of my Japanese English speakers could be of assistance. On the way back from that trip, I made a stopover in Berlin where my parents were. Again, my mother is a native German speaker, I had her on my hip for two days and I did not have to order my food by picture or number and I had everything I needed. If we only had somebody, a live person, whenever we needed them to understand the language and the culture where we were, how much more business could we do? How many more relationships could we build? How much more fun could we have? 

Florian: Basically, it was a travel-related original idea? 

Kirsten: When we first launched our MVP, our minimal viable product, in 2019, there were 320 million Mandarin-speaking travelers at the time, so travel and tourism was one of the first faces that came looking for us. We are a system where it is just as easy for a consumer to set up their account on this device, as it is for a business. In just a few minutes, you are a consumer, you are traveling, you put in a credit card and you could be using Jeenie and getting access to your interpreter, so at that moment, there was a lot of need for travel and tourism. In fact, we had an agreement with the Japanese tourism bureau to provide interpreting at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, which sadly did not happen, but when COVID came along we decided to make a very big pivot into healthcare. 

Florian: That is a huge market in the US. I think people in Europe tend to underestimate the size of the US healthcare industry and how also in a sense easy it is to scale across the healthcare industry, as opposed to the 25 countries in the EU which all use very different standards and metrics and everything. Talk to me a bit about that pivot and how you evolved from the original idea to what you are doing now and the clients you have now and the types of services you provide.

Kirsten: We always figured we would be getting into medical interpreting because it is so fundamental and it is so important. We just did not know we would be doing it so quickly and part of that was it is one of the most competitive spaces in our industry and so we see a lot of interpreting companies vying for the space in the medical industry. We were a little surprised when we made the pivot at how much our value proposition still resonated with the market that was already being so served. Ultimately we figured we will go into markets that may be lesser. We have a perfect value proposition for what we said at the time was the SMB space, the small, medium business space. We are super fast to set up whether you are an individual or a business. It takes minutes. It does not take long. You do not have to buy new equipment or install things. You download an app, you type in a URL, and it is easy to use. You make two choices and the person is on-screen without call centers, without operators, and we are super affordable because we work directly with our interpreters. We are at the lowest end of the pricing point of the market. When we went into healthcare it was quite a pleasant surprise to find that we were resonating in the healthcare market too, as I said, which already had so many options. We went to the SMB where we are working with a lot of doctor’s offices and clinics and we have been pulled up that customer pyramid very quickly into larger hospitals and healthcare systems now because they are looking for a solution. Now most hospitals have one solution for over-the-phone interpreting, one solution for video remote interpreting, one solution for in-person, maybe another solution for ASL, and very little for what is mobile. What we said was, that other than in-person, we can do all of that by providing that mobile point of access to them. Again, where you have caregivers who can now take the interpreter wherever they went really resonated. The other piece that we were surprised to see resonates so much is the rare and indigenous languages that we provide and we have been able to spin those up given our flexible workforce model very quickly and respond to client needs where they need lesser diffused languages. 

Florian: Tell me a bit about sourcing those hard-to-source indigenous languages and ASL. How is it different to source these languages versus Chinese, Vietnamese, and Spanish, the more common languages?

Kirsten: I will start at the end of the story and go backward. We are super fortunate at this point to find that the greatest source of referrals for us or the greatest source we have right now are referrals from our other linguists. I think it is because we are paying at the highest end of the market and we have a flexible workforce model that does not mandate interpreters to sign up to an eight-hour scheduled day for a year or six months without an ability to change that. You toggle on and off whenever you want. You are just obligated to make sure that you can stay on for an hour to take that call and then we have very sophisticated coverage boards and sophisticated technology that monitor all of that to make sure that we are never missing anything and as supply and demand shifts over time, we can go out to the market and get more people online. We have solved a lot of those other problems with technology, but also with sourcing American sign language interpreters, and sourcing rare and indigenous. It has been very important to us to take a grassroots level and to use other interpreters in those spaces to source for us and part of that is telling other interpreters the experience they have. One of the classic rumors that you hear about this industry is that it has not necessarily valued interpreters and they do not necessarily feel very valued and we are taking a very anti-gig economy mode approach, in which interpreters are our assets. They are the heart and soul of our company. We want them to feel when they come to Jeenie that they are in the most exclusive community. They are taken care of. They are cared for. We grow their education, skill sets, and I think that the classic model with the industry has always been like a balloon. You are either squeezing the customer by charging them more or you are squeezing the interpreter by charging them less and one of the things we will say to a healthcare client is to be very careful when you get these low prices because for people to charge you such low prices in VRI or OPI, it probably means that they are paying their interpreters poorly. We are taking a very different model and part of that is cutting out the middleman and going direct to interpreters, which allows us to pay only them and not two people in the process. That gig economy model being in 150 countries, we have people on the ground, so when we needed to source Mayan and Guatemalan dialects, let alone others, we were able to do that pretty quickly. 

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Florian: Did your background with your previous role in staffing influence the mindset that the sourcing is at the heart of it?

Kirsten: I love that and on some level that is correct. When you start with the appreciation for what the asset is, when you start for the appreciation that it is not a bunch of smart people sitting in offices and running companies very well, and I am not saying that is how competitors feel, but when you start from the realization that it is all about these amazing multilingual people with so much talent who are willing to give their time to help other people solve problems through languages, you just want to pay a lot of respect to that. It is an honor. Most of the world is multilingual. We do not always appreciate that in the United States, but most of the world is multilingual. 

Florian: It is very hard to make sure that people are available at the time they need to be. That is such a complex part of this. Especially, where it is time-critical to get the person on oDesk or Upwork now. You can wait for the web developer to respond to you in two or three hours, but in your business, the person needs to be online immediately. 

Kirsten: That is correct. Especially in medical settings.

Florian: You recently closed a 9.3 million dollar Series A round. When you spoke to the people at Transformation Capital, what part of the business did they need to understand in particular? They have the marketplace model, maybe they have the tech. Correct me if I am wrong, but which was the hardest part to explain to them?

Kirsten: It is interesting. One of the reasons we ended up working and partnering with Transformation Capital in the end, relative to some of the other firms we were speaking to at the time, was because they understood so much about the problem, not just the technology. The pain point in healthcare was real to them. One of the partners there is a physician. He was a resident at Mass General Brigham in Cambridge and he had the experience of serving patients at two in the morning and needing to call his wife who is a Spanish speaker in order to be able to speak to a patient. There was a very visceral connection to the problem and their insight into healthcare and the fact that they have gone very deep into healthcare has also prompted them to see a lot of the problems in a much less superficial way. They have gone into the core to say, what is causing so much of the inequity? What is causing so much of the lack of equal access to quality healthcare? They want to solve that problem and as we know, there are lots of fundamental, deep-rooted problems contributing to health equity and patient literacy but language is one of the things you can solve today at the tap of a button.

Florian: Are they actively supporting or are they taking a bit of more of a passive investor approach? 

Kirsten: They are very active. I am in communication with members of their team multiple times a week. They have been fantastic. They are doing a wonderful job as an investor of making introductions and helping to open doors. Again, especially because they know healthcare so well, they have a fundamental belief that putting us in front of portfolio companies that they have or partners that they know is helping those companies and so I think that it is an easy match for them to make. They also bring other expertise around organizational structuring and compensation and they have got just a rich background and team that understands a lot of different components that help us.

Florian: Now that you raised the funds, what are your top 1, 2, 3 priorities going forward in deploying the money?

Kirsten: It is hiring for sure. We are hiring staff across pretty much every element of the business. We have tripled the size of our engineering team and we are hiring for our product team and our client development and success. Technology in innovation is a big part of that. We are very focused here. With Jeenie, we have taken technology very seriously from the beginning. Obviously, we built something that we think is rather elegant. It is certainly innovative in the sense that we have been able to use mobile in a way that some of the older companies, that did not have access to that technology when they first were created, were not able to. We see the integration with other platforms as one of the fundamental directions that the industry is going to go in. It is very important that we are built to integrate and it is not a multi-million dollar venture for us to integrate with a telehealth system or an electronic medical record system. We were built to do it, so it is a much simpler system. We are working with Zoom right now. We will be launching our in-app function for Zoom, which is not the typical backend calendar plugin that some of our competitors have, but it is an in-app, embedded, in-product function where we will be on a call like this. You will have the home screen on the side of the Zoom app. As soon as you pull up your Jeenie app on the side of the phone, you pick the language, you pick an audio or video call. That person enters your Zoom call right at the time that you are having the call or you can schedule it in advance, so exploring those integrations with other platforms is going to be a big part of where we are spending those funds.

Florian: That is a big win getting Zoom and getting a deep integration with them already at this stage, right? 

Kirsten: We saw a huge amount of potential given the amount of activity, especially, during COVID, but still that is not going away. Jeenie is never going back in the bottle as we joke, but Zoom’s commitment to telehealth is very aggressive and they really mean it. This gives them the ability now to be able to commit to multilingual telehealth and now you are serving all patients.

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Florian: Are the other platforms like Microsoft Teams, Google Meet important as well, or is it primarily about Zoom in healthcare?

Kirsten: Certainly, any platform where people are seeking medical assistance from others, let alone nonmedical. They just need to have conversations. We need to converse with our business partners overseas or family members. All of this is important and Jeenie has for a while the ability for our enterprise clients to use their dashboard when they go to schedule a call in advance and copy and paste a link from any upcoming third-party call that they are going to have. Whether it is Teams, whether it is Meet, it does not matter and if they cut and paste that URL into that scheduled call on our platform, our interpreters will join that call at the scheduled date and time. We think all of these platforms are doing something fantastic and we are built for integration with all of them if it is possible. 

Florian: When you are talking about the interpreters dialing in, they are usually dialing in from a location of their choosing. In the past companies have run big interpreting hubs where maybe 500 Spanish interpreters would be there. Is this something in your roadmap or is it fully remote?

Kirsten: That is correct. We think that this speaks to not just the world trend of people being more remote, working remote, serving remote, but we also think it speaks to the philosophy of what we are trying to do, which is to take anybody anywhere in the world and connect them to anybody in any part of the world at any time that they need assistance. If you are not in a hub and you are at home, you have more flexibility of when you can be online, as long as you have been qualified by our very rigorous qualifying process and your backgrounds are all professional. We think that there is a big advantage for interpreters in that and that flexibility is attractive to them. We also see that we are not then at risk for things that can happen in the world. COVID hits and all of a sudden being in a call center is not a safe place to be anymore and that can be problematic. The other issue with hubs versus more of a distributed model is whenever you have a hub of any sort, you are still being funneled into this process of an operator before an interpreter. There is still a funneling or channeling process and no matter how fast you make it, that costs you time as the client. For us, getting answers in healthcare quickly, direct to the interpreter, saves us an enormous amount of time. 

Florian: Talk to me about some of the technical challenges on the mobile side and the latency. Is that an issue? Do you feel it is a solved issue? Basic things like unstable connection, are these solved, or do you see them on a daily basis?

Kirsten: It is interesting. We see mobile as a blazing new opportunity and a bit revolutionary in this space, that people can take the interpreter with them wherever they go. Are there connectivity issues to be dealt with? For sure and we are very fortunate that there are very large companies working on those problems every day in order to solve them and make them better and hotspot technology. There are a lot of ways in which that is being addressed right now.

Florian: On your tech roadmap, can you give us a bit of an outlook for the next one or two years? What are some of the key things you are working on right now? 

Kirsten: To the point of platform integration again, we have loved this process with Zoom and we are looking to do more serious deliberate intentional partnerships there, so we are talking to a couple of electronic medical record (EMR), electronic health record (EHR) partners now about integrations with them. Where we can not only help them to serve a greater population of patients with language assistance and help them to mitigate the risk of their healthcare providers with language assistance, but we can also help them with things like billing and reimbursement. We have got lots of different process integration ideas there that we are super excited with so part of the innovation is not just looking internally at our own processes, which is important and we always do, but it is also looking at the customer’s process. Not just their language needs and understanding, but how do we just make it easier for the customer to experience this. We are super focused on user experience and user interface for our customers, our interpreters, our linguists, and it is important that we give them the best process as well. We are going to be making huge improvements on what their interface looks like and their dashboard and their ability to work with us. Again, making them feel that they are very special, which they are, and they belong to a community that believes in them. 

Florian: For the interpreting industry as a whole, maybe 2, 3, 4 years, where do you see this going? How do you see the market grow? What are the good pockets of growth for you? What is your general outlook for the industry there?

Kirsten: The first thing I will say for interpreting is it is growing. It is going to keep growing and it is going to grow faster than it has been growing. We have been at a point where we have been able to say one in five people in the United States do not speak comfortable English at home. For all the obvious reasons and migrant trends in the world right now, that number is going up faster in the United States than it has ever been before. It is also going up faster in other countries than it has ever been before. Migrant patterns in addition to just increased trade and increased global communication are going to make it more and more necessary that we are all communicating with people who speak other languages and come from other cultures. A couple of the other patterns that I see in interpreting is migration from over-the-phone interpreting to more video interpreting. One industry after another, especially healthcare, is recognizing how much more effective it is when we can look at each other. You can see if I am saying yes or how I am feeling. You can see in my eyes if I have understood your question, let alone if I am answering confidently. There is so much visual and the nuance that gets conveyed in that is so fundamental. Many healthcare clients are contacting us because they have been using over the phone and now they see a huge value in migrating to video, maybe with the exception of call centers. Even in those cases, they want eyes on the people that they are communicating with and there is trust.

We do a lot of work at the border in immigration and refugee support in clinics and shelters and there is also a real big trust built with the person that you are communicating with. If they are able to see someone who speaks their language, someone who understands their culture online while they are having another conversation, it helps to diffuse. Then we are seeing more virtual. Especially as COVID taught us that virtual interpreting works and can be very effective. There are plenty of cases where we do not want to substitute in-person interpreting. What has been interesting is the service that they have done with patients and families where predominantly, with probably the exception of the deaf community, patients feel that it is less intrusive or less invasive to have a virtual interpreter than it is to have somebody right there. You are robing, you are disrobing, you are not sure if they are local and you will run into your interpreter at the grocery store. There have been many concerns conveyed by people who have said that virtual interpreting is comfortable for them, especially in a medical setting. We certainly see cases, especially in surgery, where there is a fast-paced need for somebody there to have an in-person interpreter. It is so fundamental to the process as well but virtual care is definitely here to stay. The virtual contribution of interpreting in that platform and in that industry is here to stay as well.

Florian: That is a very interesting point that you raised now with people feeling that sometimes it is a lot more convenient to have somebody on a mobile or someone on an iPad as opposed to somebody being physically in the room. I never really thought about that. 

Kirsten: We were surprised too and there are a number of different kinds of hospitals doing studies on that but a lot of it was around just having the moments where you can just stop. You can take someone off-camera. You control that situation more yourself as the patient or the caregiver and that makes a difference.