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Azran Rani was the CEO of AirAsia X. Image credit: Azran Rani

Talking to Azran Osman Rani is like running a mental marathon. You need stamina to follow him as he shifts from discussing one aspect of a business to another – all within a few seconds.

That’s not surprising, considering the former AirAsia X CEO is an Ironman triathlete who can achieve what he sets his mind to do. His exuberance is contagious.

Rani’s CV contains the who’s who of the corporate world, and he references it often. He made his mark while working at Astro, Malaysia’s largest state-owned news network. He helped take the company to the Malaysian stock exchange and acquired businesses for it globally.

He was then approached by Tony Fernandes, the founder of AirAsia, who presented an offer he couldn’t refuse. “He had this crazy idea of launching a long-haul low-cost airline,” recalls Rani. “He was rejected by his own board members and shareholders, who said that AirAsia would never risk their balance sheet to do this ‘foolhardy’ venture.”

Being a self-professed “crazy guy,” Rani accepted the challenge of heading the new project. “Six years later, AirAsia X went from one rented airplane to an initial public offering that raked in millions,” he proudly adds.

Iflix comes calling

This was also around the time when Malaysia Airlines was undergoing a turbulent period in its history, with the disappearance of flight 370 in 2014.

“The entire airline industry was in a bit of a shock. I wanted to bring in some radical strategies to shake up the aviation sector, but the board wouldn’t have it. So I decided it was time to part ways,” he says.

Around 2015, a friend approached him at that time with an even crazier idea. “Patrick Grove (co-founder of Iflix) heard that I was leaving AirAsia X and told me he wanted to take on Astro and Netflix,” says Rani.

It seemed absurd – to anyone but Rani, that is.

His cardiologist called him a ticking time bomb.

“I remember traveling to Jakarta and waiting for hours outside an Indonesian telco giant for an appointment. Those were really humble beginnings,” he shares. “When we first started, it was just a few people with MacBook computers and no product. Now, Iflix is seen as a company valued at US$500 million with over 700 employees.”

As we continue our chat on a rainy day, the themes of disruption as well as insurmountable challenges and how to rise above them kept recurring. It’s as if Rani is a David who’s constantly seeking out the next Goliath to conquer.

Image credit: Azran Rani

Which brings us to Naluri, a term that means “instinct” in Malay.

As the conversation turns towards his own startup, the corporate Rani quickly fades away to reveal a vulnerable version of himself. And as we dig deeper into Naluri’s origins, Rani’s personal struggles emerge.

“I lost my father to diabetes and cancer,” he says. Not taking any chances, he did a DNA test and found himself prone to diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and obesity. His cardiologist called him a “ticking time bomb,” saved only by his active lifestyle.

Rani is not alone in facing such health challenges. Last year, the Economist Intelligence Unit’s report on obesity named Malaysia as the country with the highest obesity prevalence in Southeast Asia. The report noted that the overweight and the obese make up nearly half of Malaysia’s 30 million population.

“It’s an insane number. So, for me, this is a personal cause to make a difference because I experienced it. I’ve lost a lot of loved ones; I’ve seen a lot of loved ones struggle with diseases,” he says.

Rani’s own difficulties with weight loss was another motivator. “I was that quintessential fat kid,” he remembers. “I took it upon myself to look after my health 12 years ago. And after surrounding myself with the right, positive people, I turned into an Ironman triathlete.”

The product

What is Naluri?

At first sight, it seems like any health app targeted towards people who want a lifestyle change. But Rani claims to have gone further than that: by using machine learning and artificial intelligence, Naluri is designed to prevent hospital visits by helping people make better choices before a disease hits them.

“Studies have shown that lifestyle changes are only made after people receive a major surgery or treatment. And of those, 80 percent of patients don’t make these changes at all. So the re-admittance rates are higher, and they’ll have the same symptoms again and again,” he adds. Rani’s team includes doctors, psychologists, dieticians, and health coaches who provide online counseling as well as develop modules on healthier, mindful living.

“When you’re trying to get healthy, you have to surround yourself with the right people because if you try to do this yourself, it’s incredibly lonely. And that’s why people’s effort gets derailed,” he explains.

Founded in March 2017, Naluri has raised some seed funding which gives them a runway for the next 12 months. But Rani admits that it has just begun product development. Revenue is something he’s not expecting soon.

As he points out, “Current revenues do not even cover the costs of our psychologists, so revenue is immaterial. At this early stage, we’re focusing on getting the right product features and services that deliver health outcomes.” The money will follow once that is achieved.

Data, the real goldmine of the app, will be collected in the months to come, and Rani’s team is planning a larger round of funding next year.

“Word of mouth will build up, and we will have a stronger basis to form the business partnerships with employers, insurers, and healthcare providers. We expect the bulk of future revenue to come from these partnerships,” he says. The startup already has a partnership with AXA Affin Life Insurance.

So far, Naluri is set on solidifying its business model in Malaysia first. The rest of Southeast Asia will have to wait. But when it’s time to expand, “Singapore and Brunei are the most logical immediate markets because they do not require additional localization,” notes Rani.

The craziest ideas come when you’re totally desperate.

In Asia, while there is a lot of focus on improving one’s physical health, mental illness still carries a stigma. Naluri is addressing this head-on.

“There are only 200 practicing psychologists in Malaysia and 13 million people who need help. That’s a large gap to address,” he elaborates.

Naluri is attempting to digitize the approaches that psychologists use to treat patients. The goal is to allow these professionals to have 10 simultaneous online conversations. So, instead of serving 40 clients a month face-to-face, they can reach up to 400 via an app.

So what made Rani leave behind the stability of a corporate job and leap off a cliff into a more unnerving adventure like Naluri?

“The craziest ideas come when you’re totally desperate, but you can’t walk away from your idea as you don’t have another job,” he replies. “Your kids’ education is invested in this company, so somehow, you need to find a solution.”

This post The AirAsia X CEO who left the corporate world to be his own boss appeared first on Tech in Asia.

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