To say that central New Jersey pharmaceutical entrepreneur Sajid Syed comes from a family of physicians is almost an understatement. Among his medically inclined family he notes his great-grandfather and grandfather, general practitioners; his father, a psychiatrist; one sister, a New York pulmonologist; three nieces, one doing a residency in sports medicine, and two in medical school, at Columbia and Cornell, respectively; and finally his son, Zahid, a junior at Georgetown University in pre-med and government.
And to top it off, his wife, Simin, has two brothers who are opthalmologists and a sister who is a pediatric psychiatrist. “A family of overachievers,” Syed says.
Syed himself did not become a doctor, but he did remain within the medical community, studying pharmacy as an undergraduate at the University of Mysore in India, then coming to the United States, where he earned a master’s degree in pharmaceutical marketing at St. John’s University in New York.
But Syed was influenced not only by his family’s choices to become doctors, but by the type of doctors they became. He remembers in particular his grandfather’s exemplary approach to medicine. “My grandfather’s rule was that he saw everyone,” Syed says. “The 10 percent of people who paid subsidized his living; 90 percent of people in India are too poor to afford medical care.” Patients paid what they could. “Farmers would bring chickens, eggs, and mangoes, in lieu of payment,” Syed says.
Community involvement continues with Syed. He got involved with the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen nine years ago, has been on its board for the last seven years, and recently was elected to be vice chair. “That exposed me to poverty in our neighborhoods,” he says. “I had always wanted to give back, but I thought ‘How do I give back in healthcare — because that’s what I know.’”
So in the tradition of his family Syed decided to take a respite from his for-profit endeavors and move into the nonprofit world to create a mechanism that allows specialist physicians to see a uninsured and underinsured patients free of charge, with all the logistics taken care of. His idea was to do this in partnership with a federally qualified health clinic. Syed figured that, with his experience, he was the one to pull together this nonprofit startup. He says, “Why? Because if I don’t, who will?”
The idea has just become reality in the form of the recently formed Medina Community Clinic, which has taken up space in the Stone House, the landmark Route 1 building on the edge of the Carnegie Center that Syed bought late last year (U.S. 1, January 7). Syed serves as chairman of the board of the Medina organization, which has entered into a partnership with the Henry J. Austin Clinic (www.henryaustin.org) in Trenton. Medina has begun a three-month pilot project in which a group of 10 specialists will see about 100 patients to work out any kinks in the process. During the trial, they will capture the data to determine its effectiveness.
Syed had actually started thinking about this idea a couple years ago, and because health clinics were not within his considerable realm of expertise, he joined the board of Greater Philadelphia Health Action (www.gphainc.org), a federally qualified health clinic in Philadelphia, similar to Henry J. Austin, but bigger. “I wanted to learn the business,” he says, noting that the Philadelphia clinic has been very supportive of his Medina venture.
Last summer Syed invited several physician friends for dinner and pitched his idea, asking them, “Do you want to give back to the community?” Their response was clear: “Yes, if there’s a structured organization that allows us to give back. If you can figure out a way for us to provide free care without significant malpractice issues, we’d love to participate.”
So Syed did the necessary due diligence and hired lawyers to help him out. Morgan Lewis, a firm he has used for the legal work in all his businesses, provided pro bono legal advice to help him get 501(c)3 status for Medina Community Clinic, and it was approved in November of last year.
After a quick market scan, he found a partner in Henry J. Austin, the largest clinic in Trenton and a federally qualified health center (to be so designated a clinic must serve an underserved area or population, offer a sliding fee scale, provide comprehensive services, have an ongoing quality assurance program, and have a governing board of directors). “They get grants from federal monies, and they provide charitable care to the indigent,” Syed says.
But this care is primary care only. That means, for example, if a diabetic person with no insurance goes to Henry J. Austin and needs specialty care, Syed explains, “at that point Henry J. Austin can’t do anything, and the problem will grow and the person will end up in the emergency room.”
Syed reached out to Henry J. Austin’s chief medical officer, Kemi Ali, and its chief executive officer, George Stokes, explaining that he wanted to start an inter-faith group of physicians who want to give back and asking whether Henry J. Austin would be interested in partnering with them.
They liked the idea, and a memo of understanding was followed by a contract stating that Medina would provide specialty care and Henry J. Austin primary care.
Medina has hired a patient navigator, Ja’ron Morgan, and is subsidizing a position for him at Henry J. Austin. Morgan will get patients from a charity counselor at Henry J. Austin who will screen patients from the three clinic locations clinically and financially. Then he will check to see how many free visits are available for a particular specialty, and if a slot is available, Morgan will make the appointment. Once a doctor takes on a patient, he or she will provide any necessary follow-up.
Medina has also hired a part-time executive director, Arshe Ahmed, whose husband, Sohaib Sultan, is the Muslim chaplain at Princeton University.
Transportation was another issue Syed had to figure out, because poor, sick patients will likely have difficulty getting to a specialist on their own. So Syed applied for a $10,000 transportation grant from First Choice Bank, where Marty Tuchman serves as vice chairman. Tuchman is a former transportation executive who sits on many nonprofit boards and oversees the Tuchman Foundation for Parkinson’s disease research.
Syed emphasizes that the Medina Community Clinic is a team effort. Irwin Stoolmacher, whom he got to know through TASK, has helped him put together strategies and given him introductions, where necessary. “He was instrumental in getting this off the ground,” Syed says.
Another central member of the team is Abdul Mughal, a Trenton oncologist who is a religious man and actively involved in the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen and other faith-based initiatives. “He is the seer of our group,” Syed says. “Any effort takes a seer and a person to execute: I am the executor; I am the guy who gets it done; but others from behind scenes are supporting us, strategically and in other ways.” The third member of the core team is Zahid Baig, a Hamilton gastroenterologist.
Three key people have joined the Medina board: Linda Schwimmer, vice president of the New Jersey Health Care Quality Institute, who will analyze the data from the trial; Dennis Micai, executive director of Trenton Area Soup Kitchen; and Faria Abedin, who brings the experience of having served numerous nonprofit boards including Trenton Area Soup Kitchen, Princeton Girl Choir, Habitat for Humanity, Meals on Wheels, and Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom.
Noting that other similar initiatives exist in the United States, Syed says, “Medina is groundbreaking for specialty care.” He has more physicians who want to join and invites all interested doctors to visit www.medinahealthcare.org for more information.
He wants to keep this effort “very inter-faith,” which to him is natural and normal, given the diverse society in India. “I grew up as part of a minority but we had a very diverse and open society where we celebrated each other’s holidays, whether they were Christmas or Hindu festivals, and they celebrated our Muslim holidays,” he says.
Following graduate school Syed, whose plan had been to get started immediately as an entrepreneur, realized he needed a steady source of income and went to work at Bronx Lebanon Hospital, where he developed the necessary management skill sets and was eventually promoted to director of the hospital’s pharmacy program.
After about six years, says Syed, “I decided to pull the plug and started my first business.”
While at Bronx Lebanon, he had seen how hospitals were having to push patients out sooner because of changes in reimbursement policy, and he decided to create a home infusion company, InfuRx, to provide injectable products for patients at home. For example, if a patient needed an intravenous antibiotic and wanted (or needed) to go home earlier, InfuRx would provide the antibiotic, the bag to hold it, and a nurse to set up the infusion, supervise it, then leave. The company also did mail-order pharmacy for high-cost injectables.
After just 18 months in business InfuRX had sales in the millions and two branches, one in Memphis and the other in Wilmington. Syed sold the company to Priority Healthcare (PHCC on NASDAQ), the largest company in the specialty pharmacy industry. He worked for the buyer for six years, as vice president for managed markets, managing C-level relationships with health insurance companies across the country.
Working for Priority Healthcare gave Syed new kinds of experience. With an office in New York City, working for a public company, he gained exposure to public markets and how to deal with investors and Wall Street. In 2005 Priority was acquired by Express Scripts (www.esrx.com), a large prescription management company. Syed was no longer an owner, but he did hold stock in Priority Healthcare.
Syed’s next venture was a small technology company that used decision-based logic to automate the prior authorization process for health insurance companies. He called it Sanovia, Latin for “way of health.” The idea came from his neighbor’s son, Shabbir Ahmed, during the dot.com era. The young man, in college at Rutgers University at the time, asked Syed what he thought of an app he had built for the Palm Pilot. “I loved it,” Syed says. “I took it and seed funded it and took it to the next level and got venture capital funding.” Ahmed became his chief technology officer.
The company expedited the prior authorization process for health insurance companies. “We took all of the criteria for prior authorization, put all the forms on the Web, and built an automated system that would help insurance companies determine who should be receiving therapy, if it had to be approved,” Syed says. Information entered about patients might include, for example, whether a person is a smoker, how long they had a specific disease, or whether there was a cheaper alternative for therapy. The company was sold to the venture capitalists who had funded it, and it is now part of Health Information Design (www.hidesigns.com).
In 2007, after his non-compete agreement had ended, Syed started another company that was in the specialty pharmacy business, Acro Pharmaceutical Services (www.acropharmacy.com), from the Greek “acropolis,” meaning, “at the top of a city.” “I had done this business before and was a known entity,” says Syed, who was the company’s president and CEO. In 2011 Acro was sold to a German company, Lincare Holdings (LIN: XETRA). Syed worked for Lincare for three years, resigning in August of last year to dive into his work on Medina Community Clinic. “I have been really fortunate, blessed by God, done well, and was at a point where I wanted to give back to the community,” he says.
In his new offices at the Stone House, in Carnegie Center next door to the Hyatt, Syed has also formed a new marketing company for high-cost specialty pharmaceutical products, DataPharm Analytics, which will provide health insurance companies and pharmaceutical companies with data analytics including aggregate sales data, sales trends, and analytics. “The idea is still germinating in my head,” he says.
Syed’s future wife, Simin, was born in Lucknow, India, but her family immigrated to Lexington, Kentucky, when she was seven, after her father became a tenured professor in the department of social work at the University of Kentucky.
Simin’s father, the first in his family to leave India, “saw the opportunity in coming here,” says Simin. He retired as dean of the department of social work, the first non-white dean at the University of Kentucky.
Simin’s mother earned a master’s degree in library science when Simin’s youngest brother started first grade and then worked as a university librarian.
Syed and Simin met through a common family friend, in the traditional way. As Simin describes it, “You meet many eligible bachelors, but the homework has already been done for you — education, family background, someone you can get along with.” Syed’s parents were visiting him in the United States one summer during graduate school, and he and his parents visited Simin’s family in Kentucky for a week. “They were coming with the intent of matrimony,” Simin says, adding that the decision was theirs after the introduction. After getting to know each other, and their families getting to know each other as well, they were engaged one month later.
The Syeds, who have been married 27 years, got married after Simin’s second year of law school. They stayed together for the summer, but because Syed had one year left of his master’s and Simin another year of law school, they lived separately for nine months. Then Simin moved to New York and learned the ropes of immigration law with Neil A. Weinrib, where she worked from 1989 to 1991. In 1993 she opened her own practice in New York, where she does corporate immigration law on helping people with bachelor’s, master’s, and PhD degrees get H1 working visas. The Syeds moved to West Windsor in 1996, when their son, Zahid, was two.
Simin and Sajid have been active in strategy and the development of new programs at the West Windsor mosque, the Institute of Islamic Studies, which she describes as a “community-based center” with a basketball court and ping pong tables, to draw in teens. Simin has also mentored a girls’ youth group. Together the couple initiated an annual Thanksgiving community interfaith program, which is in its seventh year. Simin is on the boards of Habitat for Humanity of Trenton and Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom.
Salaam Shalom is an organization promoting relationships between Muslim and Jewish women, primarily through women’s groups that meet monthly for mutual learning, socializing, and developing friendships. “We always felt that everybody is the same, but to hear it, especially during turbulent times, is nice,” Simin says. “You develop a bond that comes with time and trust, and you realize that everybody is the same and worry about the same thing. All that is going on outside — nobody stands to gain from that. It breaks everyone’s heart.” (Full disclosure: This reporter, a member of the Jewish Center of Princeton, also participates in the Salaam Shalom group.)
The commitment of Sajid and Simin and their extended families to helping people grows out of their Islamic faith. “To serve people is to serve God.” she says. “That goes along with our faith; I think all faiths teach you to do good and stop evil. We are blessed to live in this country — democracy is at its best in the U.S.”
Their son, Zahid, volunteered one summer in a mobile clinic — a huge van with doctors and nurses, run by Syed’s father in the poverty-stricken Indian neighborhood featured in “Slum Dog Millionaire.” Syed’s father was written up in the Times of India regarding charity work he is doing. “He is retired, but not retired from helping people,” Simin says. “Our goal is to pass it on to Zahid. Since he was 12 he has been in and out of the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen. Growing up it has been ingrained in him — be involved with everybody; human life is all sacred.”
“At the end of the day, we have been very lucky to be blessed,” Syed says. “It could change in a New York minute. I could be on the receiving end of TASK or Medina.”