Kyle Braatz’s trek to the summit of the health-care technology field began when he realized that, instead of trying to follow in the footsteps of one of Canada’s greatest heroes, he needed to forge his own path.
Back in 2008, the native of London, Ont., was a commerce student at the University of Ottawa. His first couple of years in university were notable mainly for the fact they were so undistinguished.
“I probably spent more time at Father and Sons, the local bar there, than I did in any of my classes,” Braatz says with a chuckle.
By his own admission, Braatz had yet to figure out his true purpose in life. School was a “stopgap,” a fallback in case his Plan A – becoming a firefighter like his dad, Al – didn’t pan out.
But when his maternal grandfather, Frank Moores, died of liver cancer, his career trajectory changed in an instant.
Braatz, who had been a fixture at his grandfather’s side over the previous 18 months following the cancer diagnosis, suddenly found the inspiration he had been lacking.
“When (Moores) passed away, I decided I wanted to do something to honour his life,” Braatz says. “I wanted to share his legacy and tell his story.”
Knowing the disease had also affected the lives of several of his friends, he suggested that a group of them cycle across Canada to raise money and awareness for cancer research. But after some sober second thought, Braatz concluded his plan was anything but bold and original.
“I might have been in a hot tub drinking some vodka when I had that idea,” he recounts with a hearty laugh. “Terry Fox was inspiring. We are not. But what it reminded me, though, was I still wanted to do something.”
Braatz and his pals ended up putting their own spin on the cross-Canada cancer fundraiser concept, dedicating the 8,600-kilometre journey to average Canadians whose courage in the face of the deadly disease could give hope to others.
With the university’s blessing, Braatz took a year off school to pursue his ambitious project, building a website and securing sponsors that included mountain bike manufacturer Norco and wellness retailer Nutrition House. Meanwhile, his father’s fellow firefighters agreed to cover his shifts so Al could drive the RV that served as the “Typically Canadian” tour’s mobile headquarters for the next 12 months.
The trip was a rousing success, raising $150,000 for the Canadian Cancer Society. Perhaps more importantly, it awakened a sleeping entrepreneurial giant.
“It was just an amazing ride,” Braatz recalls. “After that, I was like, ‘Now I know what I want to do when I grow up.’ It was like every day I woke up and I was so pumped to create this thing, to build the next strategy, to find a way to make it more successful.”
Since then, there has been no stopping Braatz.
The Typically Canadian tour was the catalyst for a career that’s seen the 38-year-old business leader orchestrate one of Ottawa’s most remarkable tech growth stories of the past two decades, earning him OBJ and the Ottawa Board of Trade’s 2022 CEO of the Year award.
Braatz’s desire to do good has driven Fullscript, the health-care software firm he helped launch in 2011, to greatness. The business that began in his guest bedroom has blossomed into a multinational enterprise with more than 900 employees across North America and annual revenues exceeding US$600 million.
The past 10 months alone have seen Fullscript pull off more audacious strategic moves than most software companies accomplish in their entire existence.
Last November, the firm – which then had a headcount of about 500 – landed US$240 million in equity financing, the biggest such funding haul in the nation’s capital since the dot-com boom in the early 2000s.
Just a few months later, Fullscript took a huge step toward achieving Braatz’s ambitious target of a billion dollars in annual revenue when it acquired a major competitor, New Hampshire-based Emerson Ecologics, in a deal that doubled its annual sales overnight.
Indeed, Braatz and Fullscript have come a long way in the past 11 years. It’s a place he probably never imagined ending up when he and longtime collaborator Brad Dyment – who designed the Typically Canadian tour’s website and was so impressed with his pal’s mercurial work ethic that he vowed, ‘If you ever want to start a business, I’d do it in a second with you’ – launched a web development firm as a side hustle while Braatz was still finishing his commerce degree.
That venture morphed into Simple Story Videos, a company that produced short, animated “explainer” videos for corporate clients.
Before long, the startup was generating seven-figure annual sales. But deep down, Braatz knew it wasn’t a business that was going to satisfy his more altruistic impulses.
“I couldn’t see building a service company into something big,” he explains. “Seeing other people’s happiness makes me tick. Brad and I said, ‘Whatever we do next has to be something we can do for the rest of our lives – something that we wake up every single day and we just love what we’re doing.’”
That something came in 2011 courtesy of Dyment’s wife Alanna, a naturopathic doctor who had set up her own clinic. Frustrated with the hassles of stocking and dispensing supplements, she told her husband she wished she could spend more time treating her patients and less time ordering products for them.
Just like that, Braatz and Dyment found their mission.
Along with co-founder Chris Wise, they created an online platform called MD Storefront to help naturopaths, doctors and other practitioners dispense name-brand vitamins, minerals and other supplements to patients.
After quickly gaining traction in Canada, the firm entered the U.S. market with high hopes. But instead of being a springboard to exponential growth, the southern expansion push was, in Braatz’s words, a “complete failure, but probably the most important failure we’ve ever had.”
It soon dawned on Braatz and his team that they weren’t following the No. 1 rule of any successful business: listen to your customers.
They began talking to practitioners, watching them at work, getting a feel for their day-to-day routines. Eventually, they realized health-care professionals were looking for more than just an easier way to get wellness products into patients’ hands.
“That failure allowed us to broaden our vision, because it gave me enough time to really understand where medicine was going – how important lifestyle medicine was going to be, not just for naturopathic medicine … but across health care,” explains Braatz, who lives in Arnprior with his wife of almost nine years, Rachel, and daughters Brooklyn, 3, and one-year-old Blair.
“Doctors didn’t need an e-commerce store – they needed a care delivery platform. So we rebuilt the software from the ground up and we’ve been on this ride ever since.”
With that shift, the firm, by then renamed HealthWave, finally found its footing.
Under Braatz’s guidance, Fullscript transformed its platform into a comprehensive system to not only help doctors, nurses and other wellness practitioners treat patients, but give them the tools to prevent disease and other health issues by creating personalized plans that emphasize the role of diet, exercise and other lifestyle changes in maintaining a person’s well-being.
“We recalibrated our vision, our mission,” Braatz explains. “Everything got bigger and more impactful.”
Still, it wasn’t always a smooth ride.
Braatz recalls Kurt Funai – who joined the fledgling firm in 2013 as a software developer and is now Fullscript’s chief technology officer – questioning early on whether the company’s coffers were sufficiently flush to cover his paycheque. At that point, the bootstrapped enterprise had about $7,000 in the bank.
“He said, ‘Should I cash these?’” Braatz recalls with a grin. “He was starting to catch on. I think it was me or (then-chief financial officer) Taylor (Fantin) said, ‘If you don’t need to, don’t.’”
The firm eventually secured $2 million in angel funding, giving it the financial runway to bolster its offerings with new tools that monitored patients’ usage of supplements and automatically sent refill reminders to practitioners. Later, point-of-sale technology allowing doctors to order products and have them delivered right to their patients’ doors was added to the platform.
Early in 2016, the company rebranded from HealthWave to Fullscript, in part to reflect this more holistic approach to product delivery and patient care. That same year, its steady ascent landed it atop OBJ’s list of Ottawa’s fastest-growing companies, a feat it duplicated in 2017.
But Braatz and his executive team weren’t content to grow organically. In 2018, Fullscript’s agreement with Emerson – then its U.S. distribution agent – was coming up for renewal and the two companies found themselves in the awkward position of being both business partners and competitors.
Surveying the industry landscape, Fullscript zeroed in on another competitor: Arizona-based Natural Partners, which was similar in size but had something the Ottawa company lacked: major distribution channels south of the border. The two organizations merged, creating a new industry powerhouse with more than 200 employees.
“We just figured getting that (distribution) leverage, getting that margin really was the right decision and it played out to be the right decision,” says Braatz, who ceded the role of CEO of the combined company to Natural Partners boss Fran Towey so he could focus on areas like product development and sales as president and chief revenue officer.
Braatz held the dual role for the next three years before moving back into the chief executive suite last summer, a transition he and Towey had been planning for some time.
He says stepping away from the top job made him a more well-rounded executive, affording him the time and energy to really dig under Fullscript’s hood and learn how the company operates from top to bottom.
“I was able to dive in and really become a student rather than having that full responsibility (of being CEO of the combined firm) overnight,” he explains.
Not all founders would be willing to set their pride aside and take a step down from the penthouse suite. But Funai says Braatz – whom he calls a “big-picture thinker who has a bias to action” – has never felt like he’s the smartest guy in the room.
“Even from the earliest days, he tried to run the business without ego,” Funai says. “He invited people to debate. It didn’t matter if someone was an intern or if they were coming in as a seasoned engineer, he wanted to hear their thoughts and he wanted to debate ideas on their merits. That takes a leader that isn’t afraid to be wrong. I think that’s a pretty rare thing.”
At the same time, Braatz’s colleagues say the man they describe as “humble” and “a regular guy” also has a rare talent to sense opportunities where others don’t.
“He’s always been a big visionary – somebody who I think a lot of people would have underestimated just by his lack of corporate pedigree,” says medical director Alex Keller, who joined Fullscript five and a half years ago when it was still a “scrappy little startup” with about 40 employees.
“He’s never made an effort to try to quote-unquote fit in. He’s his own person, does his own things. And he’s always had this ability to envision something that is years ahead of most people around him.”
Keller recalls a day in the late summer of 2017 when he arrived at the firm’s new office on Cooper Street to find a memo from his boss. The “flimsy” vision statement declared that Fullscript’s platform would be handling $1 billion in annual transactions within three years.
“It just seemed so ridiculously ambitious,” Keller says now. “We all kind of laughed and said, ‘Yeah, that will be great if we do’ – mostly believing it, though. He had a way of convincing us that we were going to get there.”
Fullscript’s chief medical officer, Dr. Jeff Gladd, marvels at Braatz’s ability to grasp the intricacies of all aspects of the industry.
“To not come from a medical background but yet to understand the integrative medicine journey from both the practitioner lens and the patient lens and to just be so passionate about advancing this type of health care, it really is incredibly impressive,” Gladd says.
Now, backed by a well-padded funding warchest and a distribution network that spans the U.S. and Canada, Fullscript is cementing its status as the go-to platform for North American practitioners in the burgeoning integrative medicine space.
But Braatz is far from satisfied.
While more than 70,000 practitioners now use the platform to serve upwards of five million patients, the CEO says his “big, audacious goal” is to help push Fullscript’s patient roster past 25 million.
Meanwhile, the company’s suite of services continues to expand. The Emerson deal added new capabilities to the platform, including lab tests and technology that tracks personal eating habits – giving practitioners access to more data that will help them prescribe nutrition regimes and supplements that better suit each patient’s individual needs, Braatz says.
All that means a magical milestone for any tech firm – the billion-dollar revenue mark – is tantalizingly within reach for Fullscript.
Braatz is anxious to get there, but for reasons that go well beyond typical business factors and instead reflect his social entrepreneurial leanings.
“I want to get to a billion dollars in revenue,” he says. “We have to have profits to reinvest. We have to have the revenue growth to create value. But we use that value to create more value for our ecosystem. I think that’s part of why our culture has been successful over time, is staying true to that.”
Profitable and an undisputed leader in its field, Fullscript has the goods to become a global software juggernaut – and Braatz is determined to see it get there.
“I think we’ve done a lot of the foundational work that we need to do to build upon,” he says. “If we drive that innovative mindset to stay ahead of where the market is going and to solve our customers’ needs, I think that we can be the next big business not only in Canada but across North America and further.
“My goal is to grow as fast as I can alongside this business. I’ve never had more fun in my life than I am right now.”