Isaac Holeman was recently named one of the top social entrepreneurs under 30 by Forbes magazine for his work in setting up Medic Mobile, an organisation which helps remote health workers to coordinate care using mobile phones.
Isaac Holeman  was named one of the top social entrepreneurs under 30 by Forbes magazine for his work in setting up Medic Mobile, an organisation which helps remote health workers to coordinate care using mobile phones. However, far from resting on his laurels, he has since become interested in investigating how new technology works in practice and how it can be made more effective.
His PhD, which he starts this autumn, will build on his masters dissertation on how people use technology on the ground and how technology alters people’s behaviour. Isaac focused in particular on the use of a system for plugging a thermometer into a mobile phone so healthcare workers could monitor if the temperature where vaccines were stored rose to unsafe levels due to power outages. If the temperature rose too high the whole batch of vaccines would have to be destroyed.
Isaac found that many of the healthworkers were often far away from the vaccine facility so even if they used the technology they had to get hold of someone who was nearby to check the vaccines. “You can have award-winning technology, but it becomes very apparent in challenging settings that it won’t work unless people are well organised,” says Isaac, who is still on the board of Medic Mobile.
His achievements at such a young age suggest a certain level of confidence. In fact, he admits to being “painfully shy” for most of his school years. “I felt awkward about learning from the teachers,” he says. “I was very tense around the other students. I didn’t like school.” That social awkwardness meant he didn’t enjoy school despite the fact that both his parents were school teachers. Indeed his mother was his kindergarten teacher and his father taught him maths at high school in Oregon. Isaac loved the books that his mother would read to him, his older sister and adopted brother, but he was so shy that he did not learn to read himself until he was around nine.
At that time his parents moved him and his brother to a smaller school in the countryside because he was refusing to learn and was being picked on. Coincidentally, he developed an obsession with birds of prey at about the same time, and his mother wouldn’t read non-fiction books to him. So, in order to find out more about them he had to learn to read. Within two years, he was reading at the level of an 18 year old. “I found reading a release,” he says.
In middle school Isaac began attending a larger school in town and he discovered that he could win instant credibility through sports. He started doing a range of sports, but it was wrestling that he excelled in. “It became my life,” he says. “I trained for 60 hours a week and checked my weight all the time. I didn’t focus on my studies and would sleep in class because I was so exhausted, although my grades were fine.”
He competed at regional level and was sixth in Oregon as a junior in high school. He was expected to win the state tournament in his senior year, but just three days before the competition he sustained a compression injury in his neck after slipping on a patch of sweat. He couldn’t turn his head and had to pull out of the competition. He was absolutely devastated. He felt his whole life had been leading up to that tournament and the injury forced a complete rethink, even though he had recovered within a month.
“I realised I didn’t have any other goals and that I had failed through trivial circumstances rather than a lack of effort or skill,” he says. “It forced me to acknowledge just how much I was leaning on wrestling as a source of attention and recognition and a sort of shallow self-confidence.”
From that moment he ditched spectator sports, focusing instead on outdoor sport and developing a broader intellectual life. In 2004, he had the opportunity to do an extra year at high school as an exchange student and went to the Netherlands. He describes that year as “a life-changing experience”. “It gave me real freedom to reinvent myself,” he says. “I could pretend I had never been shy and choose who I wanted to be.” The year taught him independence and gave him time to reflect on his life in an environment which was cosmopolitan, liberal and open.
Before leaving Isaac had planned to study medicine largely for the salary and respectability, but when he returned his focus had changed. He still wanted to be a doctor, but his interest was more in healing and caring rather than in getting a good job. Upon returning to Oregon, Isaac chose to study liberal arts and biochemistry at Lewis & Clark, in large part due to the university’s active study abroad programme. He went to Honduras one summer to study Spanish, Guatemala the next summer and in his third year he spent a term in Havana working on a research project at a walk-in clinic. His focus was on doctors’ views of their work, how they coped with bureaucracy and interacted with managers. He found a great pride among Cuban doctors in their healthcare system, with many blaming any problems on the US blockade.
At university Isaac became involved in a number of other activities. He joined an a cappella group and describes singing as “the only realm of endeavour where I have always felt completely confident”. In his fourth year, one of his housemates was regional coordinator for Students for Barack Obama. Isaac was also an ardent supporter and got his a cappella group to create an a cappella rendition of the campaign’s “Yes we can” theme song. Barackappella was loaded on Youtube and became an instant success, garnering more than half a million views.
Isaac was also one of the first community organisers for The Archimedes Movement, a health care reform initiative led by Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber. It was with this group that Isaac developed an interest in public policy, helping the organisation draft and lobby for health care reform legislation, parts of which were passed into law by the Oregon legislature and are now being implemented under the Affordable Care Act, also known as “Obamacare”. Isaac also helped manage the Archimedes Movement’s online presence and became fascinated with how Facebook and Twitter (very new platforms at the time) were changing grassroots organising.
With a college roommate Isaac cofounded a social enterprise that aimed to apply pattern matching algorithms to these new social tools. The idea was that people interested in one charity or cause could more easily find like-minded people and causes, much in the way that Amazon recommends new books based on a customer’s previously purchased books. “We did end up selling an iPhone app for not very much money, but the real benefit of that venture was how much I learned about technology entrepreneurship,” he says.
On graduating, a Compton Fellowship provided start-up capital for Isaac to co-found Medic Mobile, a social enterprise that uses communication technologies to improve the health of underserved communities. Isaac met co-founder Josh Nesbit online via a global health mailing list, and although they did not know each other or have any mutual friends, after a few months or brainstorming they decided to take a leap of faith and work with each other.
The risk paid off: in just three years, the organisation has grown to 25 staff and works with over 40 health projects in 25 countries. Isaac was named an Echoing Green fellow, mHealth innovator of the year, inducted into the Better World by Design hall of fame, and more recently named by Forbes magazine as one of the top 30 social entrepreneurs under the age of 30. Until the autumn of 2012, Isaac was based in east Africa and was largely focused on the internal operations of the team, while his partner Josh was externally focused, speaking about their work, initiating new partnerships and fundraising.
Originally the company staff worked remotely from coffee shops and other places and it was only after they had 15 staff that they set up an office in San Francisco.They now also have offices in Nairobi, Kathmandu and Mumbai. A lot of Isaac’s job involved giving strategic advice. but he had never given up on his academic ambitions and both teaching and bridging the gap between academia, practice and policy appealed to him. He decided to return to university, but needed a transitional masters to move from biochemistry and genetics to a PhD in Management Studies.
He applied to the University of Cambridge after coming into contact with a Gates Cambridge Scholar who was working on global healthcare. For his PhD, which begins in the autumn, he plans to further his masters research on human behaviour and technology in relation to Medic Mobile’s work on child and maternal health. During his PhD he will continue to conduct meetings with Medic Mobile via Skype. “I’ve never been employed in a normal job,” he says. It doesn’t seem to have held him back.