How this Toronto entrepreneur is advancing HIV prevention
With the help of his impactful education at UBC Sauder, Amaan Banwait transforms his technical training into creating accessible health solutions.
If you ask Amaan Banwait what lesson stuck with him while earning his Bachelor of Commerce degree at UBC Sauder School of Business, he will tell you it’s the Parable of the Sadhu.
Taught in business schools as a way of exploring the tension between individual and corporate goals and other ethical issues, the parable is a true story of a group of hikers on Mt. Everest who encounters a sadhu–a Nepalese holy man who is freezing and near death. After debating whether they should backtrack to seek help for the man, the group decided to continue with their goal of climbing Everest. They left the sadhu along the trail and never learned his fate.
The lesson showed Banwait that even people who see themselves as innately good can do bad things when conflicting interests are at play. “When you get into high-pressure situations, it can be very tempting to do things that stray from your values and ethics,” says Banwait. As a founder in the healthcare space, he often encounters decisions that require him to weigh his company’s needs with those of patients. “We decided very early that one of our values was to be patient-first. Always.”
Finding that internal guide wasn’t hard for Banwait, who says he had big goals starting from childhood to make a difference in the world. “Helping other people and helping the world has always been core to who I am. My mom tells me that when I was younger I would ask questions about why some people are disadvantaged and what we can do to help. It’s how I’ve always thought about things.”
When he decided to attend UBC Sauder, Banwait thought it would give him the tools to work in the non-profit sector. But what he learned instead was how much potential there was to make a difference via the corporate world. “UBC Sauder really taught me how to make business a force for good. The program taught me how to leverage business skills to address not only business problems but social problems.”
After completing his degree in 2009, Banwait moved to Toronto to work as an associate consultant at Bain & Company, a foundational experience he says would have been hard to come by if not for his UBC Sauder network. But it was time spent working with The Clinton Foundation in Uganda that inspired his vision for the healthcare organization PurposeMed.
Launched in 2020, PurposeMed builds virtual care companies that improve access to care for underserved communities. Their first brand, Freddie, primarily serves the LGBTQ2S+ community, with a goal of preventing HIV infections by improving access to PrEP (Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis) medication. “Our North Star was improving access to care for underserved populations,” Banwait says. “We wanted to address gaps in what we call complex care which entail health conditions that require multiple visits with specialist clinicians.”
“HIV infections are really costly to treat and we realized that Canada is really behind on prevention. We have one-seventh the number of people on HIV PrEP on a per capita basis as Australia,” he says. “Our goal is to prevent 1000 HIV cases and save the Canadian government more than $500 million dollars in the process because HIV is so expensive to treat.”
Freddie’s success showed Banwait and his co-founders there were even more opportunities to deliver new solutions that would meet underserved healthcare needs. “We sent a survey out to our PrEP patients and asked them what other services they wanted us to deliver. The biggest response was mental health.”
Further discovery revealed that services around ADHD were notably lacking. “A million and a half Canadians have ADHD and fewer than half are diagnosed,” says Banwait. “Meanwhile 70 to 80 per cent of people with ADHD also have anxiety and depression.” After a successful pilot the team recently launched PurposeMed’s second brand Frida, a standalone service providing ADHD diagnosis and care.
Banwait maintains close ties to the UBC Sauder community, but he now calls Toronto home. “Toronto really is the epicentre of tech and entrepreneurship in Canada,” he says. “It’s where the talent is, it’s where some of our investors are.”
While his current priority is scaling the Frida clinical team to keep up with demand, Banwait isn’t done leveraging his UBC Sauder learnings and network to meet his childhood goal of making the world better.
The UBC Sauder professor that taught him The Parable of the Sadhu, Irfhan Rawji, is now an investor and advisor to PurposeMed.
“I love what I do every day,” says Banwait. “I hope as an organization we can continue to build new solutions that solve people’s problems. There are so many opportunities in our healthcare system and we believe there’s a role for us to play.”
First published in Toronto Life on April 14, 2022.