MDU student members can access free MCQs from the Oxford Assess and Progress series on Synap. James Gupta, Synap founder, talks about what inspired him to create a revision app while completing his medical degree at Leeds University.
Why did you create Synap?
My roommate and co-founder, Omair and I were just looking for a better way to revise. You go to medical school and you need to learn a huge amount of information in a pretty short amount of time.
The original version of Synap was a simple app that let us and other medical students create, practice and share multiple choice questions (MCQs) online. Having MCQs on your phone means you can study whenever you get the time, even if it’s just a few minutes a day. This is particularly helpful when you’re on placement. You don’t know when you’re going to get time to study, and the chances are you won’t have your textbooks with you when you do.
What attracted you to tech innovation?
I’ve always been a massive geek. I first got into programming through a Lego product called Mindstorms. It lets you build robots with sensors and motors and then program them using a drag and drop interface. It was a great way to learn the fundamentals of coding. I eventually started developing websites and apps for myself and others.
I think there’s a lot of parallels between software development and medicine. They’re both about problem solving, especially in tech when you’re ‘debugging’. There’s a process of diagnosing the issue, trying to rule out causes, and then fixing it. I also find history taking skills come in very handy when we’re speaking to clients. Again there’s a lot of overlap because we’re trying to understand their needs, concerns and expectations.
What was it like setting up a business while doing your degree?
It certainly had its challenges! A big issue was obviously time management, between medicine and the business we had two things that would eat up as much time as we could throw at them. On the other hand, Synap was genuinely something we relied on heavily for our own revision. Because we were constantly using it to revise and noticing areas that could be improved, we would just switch into development mode to make those improvements, often several times a day. I think this is one of the main things that has made it so successful. A lot of educational products are developed in isolation without much involvement from the students themselves. Synap’s development process was the exact opposite of that.
Evolution of Synap
Photo credit: Synap
How did you get started?
I built the first version in a couple of days. It wasn’t anything fancy but it did the job and it was good enough for Omair and I to use.
It grew very naturally. We started to get our friends involved and then more people from our year, so we very quickly had a bank of questions which people could use to revise from.
After a couple of years we agreed a partnership with Oxford University Press (OUP). As well as producing the seminal Oxford Handbooks, OUP produce a series of medical student self-assessment texts, and we were able to put around 3,000 peer-reviewed questions on Synap.
By the time we graduated, a quarter of all UK medical students were using the platform. So we got in touch with the MDU to support even more medical students.
Who helped you in the early days?
For a long time, it was pretty much Omair and myself. It’s a relationship I feel very fortunate for. We both have a good understanding of the tech, so when we started out, we were both working on developing the app itself. Since graduating we’ve divided up our roles, Omair heads up research and development and manages a team of three developers, and I manage our sales and marketing team.
We’ve had great support from Leeds University, in particular the team on its starting a business (SPARK) programme, a department set up to help student and graduate-led businesses get off the ground. Quite early on in our journey, SPARK set us up free co-working space and put us in touch with people who could help us with the legal paperwork.
Now we’re more established, we go back to the university to advise medics and other students interested in exploring how they can bring together their passion for tech and medicine.
We’ve taken on investment through crowdfunding and more recently from some Leeds-based private investors.
We’re very proud to be working with the Medical Defence Union. Medical education is something close to our hearts and with the MDU we’re able to offer Synap and OUP materials to more students, and at a lower price than we could have done previously.
Tell us about the challenges you had to overcome
One major challenge that’s really hard to appreciate from the outside is just how complicated it can be to keep a platform like Synap going. Technology works well most of the time, so it’s easy to forget how much is going on behind the scenes to keep it that way.
Medics will appreciate this in their own field. You learn about all the things that can go wrong with the body, what to look out for when prescribing medications, and the things to keep an eye on during surgery. Technology is very similar. Behind everything that ‘just works’ from a user’s perspective, there’s a complex chain of things that make it happen. And when things don’t work, it could be any one of those things that has gone wrong.
Photo credit: Synap
What’s the most fulfilling part to you?
Creating jobs is incredibly rewarding. As we’ve grown, we’ve been able to create jobs for five people. The people we’ve hired we’ve also trained into different roles.
Secondly, we get to work with some really amazing clients. We’re very proud to be working with the Medical Defence Union. Medical education is something close to our hearts and with the MDU we’re able to offer Synap and OUP materials to more students, and at a lower price than we could have done previously.
We’ve also worked in completely different industries. For example, one of our very first clients, MyTaxi have been using Synap to train a new generation of drivers to pass a stringent area knowledge exam. They have now trained and employed over 1,000 drivers as a result of using Synap.
Do you miss clinical medicine?
Yes and no. On one hand, I did really enjoy the patient contact – it’s the reason I got into medicine in the first place, I was working at my dad’s GP practice doing bits of healthcare assistant work prior to applying and really enjoyed it. In an ideal world it would have been great to do a couple of years’ practice after graduating. However, I haven’t looked back since committing to Synap full-time. It’s not really anything to do with medicine, it’s just that I get to work on something that I started, we’re training our own team, and we get to work with some amazing people, a number of whom are in the healthcare space. Every day is different and it’s really exciting to be a part of it, so I can’t imagine doing anything else.
James Gupta trained as a medic at Leeds University. Once he graduated, he decided to move into Synap full-time, a company which he and his colleague Omair started. Together, they built an app to help medics learn more effectively. James took an intercalated MSc in health informatics, and has been developing software for a number of years. Synap is now used by companies, schools and universities across a wide range of disciplines, and James advises several health tech start-ups on their technology and growth strategy.
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