Alumni profile: Shiv Gaglani, A.B. ’10

Wednesday, March 13, 2019 - 2:00pm

A high-tech remedy to make learning medicine more efficient

Keeping up with the dense material and rapid pace of their gross anatomy course was a test in determination that pushed med school lab partners Shiv Gaglani and Ryan Haynes to their limits.

As they pored over lengthy textbook readings and quizzed each other on critical topics, Gaglani, A.B. ’10, an engineering sciences concentrator at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and Haynes, a neuroscience Ph.D. who had taught himself how to code, thought there had to be an easier way.

“We wound up building a tool for ourselves and our classmates to collaborate and create flashcards for each other, and that was the seed for Osmosis,” he said. “We didn’t intend for it to be a company, we were just trying to make learning medicine more efficient.”

Osmosis, an online medical and health education company Haynes and Gaglani founded in 2012, produces animated videos, flashcards, and other tools to help current and future clinicians learn and retain information. Since they went full-time with the startup in 2016, Osmosis has morphed from an online flash card exchange for Gaglani’s classmates to a sophisticated learning platform that has more than 440,000 registered users and 930,000 YouTube subscribers.

The tech platform makes it easier for students to use the most effective, evidence-based study techniques, such as spaced repetition. For instance, while studying sickle cell anemia, a user would receive a push notification quiz question about the disease one day, and then automatically receive another sickle cell question a week later.

In addition, the platform’s machine learning recommendation engine scans a user’s uploaded course documents and automatically recommends related videos, flashcards, and questions based on the content. And if a classmate or instructor uploads documents, every student taking that class will receive the recommendations, Gaglani said.

Osmosis combines that tech-based learning platform with a comprehensive library of over 1,100 educational videos, produced by the former Khan Academy Health & Medicine team—which Gaglani recruited—that cover everything from adult brain tumors to myocarditis to tips for impressing an attending physician.

“You can have the best platform in the world, but unless it has awesome content for learning medicine, no one is going to use it,” he said. “Scale has always been a driving force for me. Being able to conceive of something that now reaches over 1 million people is really impactful.”

As a child, Gaglani felt a strong desire to pursue a medical career, partly due to the example and encouragement of his physician father and physical therapist mother. But he changed tracks toward biomedical engineering after reading about medical inventions.

Gaglani idolized Jonas Salk and Dean Kamen, and dreamed of using his passion for technology to create a medical innovation that could have real impact on the world.

“One invention like that isn’t just making people’s lives easier, it is enabling them to live,” he said. “To me, medical innovations are deeply meaningful, and are what attracted me to engineering and health.”

At SEAS, Gaglani absorbed all he could about health and technology, drawing valuable lessons from courses like Tissue Engineering (BE 125), taught by David Mooney, Robert P. Pinkas Family Professor of Bioengineering, and Introduction to Computer Science (CS50), taught by David Malan, Gordon McKay Professor of the Practice of Computer Science.

He initially followed an M.D./Ph.D. track in pursuit of a biotechnology research career, but changed course during senior year into the M.D./M.B.A. track.

“I realized that there were a lot of things that had been discovered or invented, but weren’t seeing the light of day because there was no business plan,” he said.

That entrepreneurial mindset paid off when Gaglani and Haynes left medical school after two years to work on Osmosis. Gaglani enrolled at Harvard Business School and they went full-time with the startup in 2016 after he graduated from HBS.

As Osmosis took off, Gaglani and Haynes faced other challenges they hadn’t anticipated.

“It is hard to spend most of your life trying to become a physician and biomedical researcher, and then switch into the world of tech and educational entrepreneurship,” he said. “The only way to overcome that is through true belief. You have to really believe it is the right thing to do, and then that belief is infectious.”

The growth of Osmosis has been infectious, too, and the company is poised to capitalize on a rapidly expanding market. Over the next decade, more than 30 million new health professionals will need to be trained, and Osmosis can make that process a lot smoother, Gaglani said.

His goal is to educate 1 billion people—health professionals and patients alike—by 2025.

With Osmosis poised to expand at a breakneck pace, the co-founders face challenges to constantly provide the most up-to-date content, since the stakes in health care are extremely high.

“Whenever we are educating people about the guidelines related to drugs, for instance, we need to consider the ramifications and when things change, we need to be the first one to make those changes and educate our learners,” he said.

Osmosis is using technology to overcome that hurdle. If a video is updated with new content, every user who has watched it receives a notification.

There is a massive responsibility in creating a medical education platform, Gaglani said, but an equally massive opportunity to make the world a better place.

“At Osmosis, our core competency is educating people about health. We are trying to make better clinicians and more engaged patients,” he said. “A better clinician, one who is up to date on the latest treatments, passes medical or allied health professional school, and has a smoother education so they can focus on research, is objectively going to be better for society.”