As the son of anti-apartheid activists in South Africa, Joe Kahn learned about the importance of service to others from an early age.

“My dad used to talk about what it meant to be an observer in a system that was unjust, and the moral imperative that would create,” said Kahn, A.B. ’18. “Resolving injustice for others has always been part of my identity.”

Pursuing that passion, and after being accepted into Harvard, Kahn planned to study economics and work on policy in South Africa to even the economic playing field for the nation’s disadvantaged residents.

But in the midst of moving to the U.S., Kahn was struck by a devastating and persistent illness. The active and outdoorsy teen was now losing weight, in constant pain, struggling to eat, and falling into a deep depression.

Resolved to keep working towards his goal, he battled the illness while completing his studies. Kahn was soon mired in what he found to be a fragmented and dysfunctional health care system. He struggled to coordinate his care among specialists at half a dozen hospitals, and could only imagine how difficult navigating the system could be for someone who was more severely ill, or lacked access to the same resources.

“Getting sick really gave me a renewed sense of purpose,” Kahn said. “I started to look for ways to improve my life and the lives of other patients by trying to make the health care system better for everyone.”

After conversations with peers and professors, Kahn felt that technology provided the best means to make an impact, and chose a computer science concentration at the John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

But after spending a summer interning on the Google health team, he felt disheartened by the pace of change at a large company. So Kahn decided to launch a startup.

Recalling the fear, isolation, and uncertainty he had felt as a patient, Kahn and Yasyf Mohamedali, a friend and MIT student, conceptualized a tech-focused patient advocacy tool.

“The thing I wish I had when I was sick was a guide or a friend in the health care system who could advocate for me, reassure me, or answer questions,” he said. “What would it look like if we gave every patient an ally to guide them through this crazy journey of being sick?”

“Getting sick really gave me a renewed sense of purpose. I started to look for ways to improve my life and the lives of other patients by trying to make the health care system better for everyone.”

With the guidance of Jim Waldo, Gordon McKay Professor of Practice of Computer Science, and drawing on lessons from the SEAS course Startup R&D (ES 95r), Kahn and Mohamedali got to work. They spoke with 400 individuals—health care executives, investors, researchers, and providers—and zeroed in on an ideal niche: care management organizations.

Care management organizations are teams of empathetic social workers and nurses who guide vulnerable patients through the health care system. They perform a wide array of tasks, from teaching patients how to take medications, to managing side effects, to riding public transportation alongside patients to medical appointments.

“Care management is really impactful, but it is so expensive and inefficient that there is only a business case to make it available to a tiny handful of patients,” Kahn said. “We looked at this and thought there had to be a way to augment the capacity and impact of these groups with technology.”

So they developed Karuna Health, a messaging platform combined with a sophisticated task management system that improves the efficiency of care management teams.

Karuna Health enables a health guide to set a goal—reminding a patient to go to an appointment, for instance—then the software takes care of the leg work, sending messages, reminding and following up with the patient, and collecting after-the-fact data. The software allows a patient to communicate with the care manager using any channel they prefer, from direct mail to WhatsApp.

The software automatically collects health status information from a patient and, if something is out of the ordinary, triggers a module to streamline communication with the care manager. For example, if a patient reports he or she is suffering from severe back pain, Karuna Health alerts the care coordinator with information on past responses, recommended medications, and coping mechanisms.

“The care manager just selects the most appropriate response and sends it back to the patient. We removed all the time they would have to spend doing research, searching through past messages, or writing messages,” Kahn said. “We can build out modules which abstract away any of the complexity so care managers can focus exclusively on building a relationship with the patient.”

Things have moved very quickly since Kahn graduated in May. Now in San Francisco, he and Mohamedali are preparing to launch the first pilot of their system with a health care partner in late October. They are also rapidly growing the team as they focus on product development, and plan to bring on two or three more pilot organizations in the winter.

For Kahn, the biggest challenge of taking the startup from concept to reality has been changing from a research mindset to an execution focus. The fast-paced world of startups is exciting, but with so many decisions to make amid constant time pressure, it is difficult to avoid becoming paralyzed by the amount of information at hand, and everything at stake, he said.

But despite the challenges, and the uncertainty of where Karuna Health will go from here, Kahn is excited for the chance to make a difference.

“The opportunity to take something that at times has been crippling in my life and transform that into impact for other people is incredible,” he said. “I am so grateful to be able to take experiences that have really been some of my darkest and use those to empower others.”