It started with a Palm Pilot

In­ge­nious Med chief named En­tre­pre­neur of the Year

Modern Healthcare - - Physician Affairs - Meghan Streit Meghan Streit is a free­lance writer based in Chicago. Reach her at meghanstreit@gmail.com.

DEdi­tor’s note: To read the full-length ver­sion of this pro­file and to learn more about this year’s Physi­cian En­tre­pre­neur of the Year pro­gram, please visit our sis­ter web­site Mod­ern­Physi­cian.com.

r. Steven Liu, founder of In­ge­nious Med as well as the orig­i­nal cre­ator of In­ge­nious Med’s flag­ship soft­ware so­lu­tion, is the re­cip­i­ent of

Mod­ern Physi­cian’s fourth an­nual Physi­cian En­tre­pre­neur of the Year Award.

For 10 years he was the com­pany’s CEO and pres­i­dent and now is ex­ec­u­tive chair­man and chief med­i­cal of­fi­cer.

Liu, 41, who con­tin­ues to prac­tice as a hos­pi­tal­ist physi­cian in San Diego, par­layed his ex­pe­ri­ence into a mul­ti­mil­lion­dol­lar busi­ness whose de­vices are now in the hands of more than 9,000 users in more than 800 U.S. health­care fa­cil­i­ties.

The road to his cur­rent suc­cess was not al­ways a clear path, how­ever. When Liu was an un­der­grad­u­ate at the Univer­sity of Vir­ginia in Char­lottesville, he was study­ing en­gi­neer­ing, a field in which he did not want to pur­sue a ca­reer, and he de­scribes him­self back then as a bit of a “wild child.” The very things he viewed as li­a­bil­i­ties at the time—an en­gi­neer­ing de­gree and the ten­dency to take risks—have, in fact, turned out to be two of the crit­i­cal fac­tors in his suc­cess as an en­tre­pre­neur.

His par­ents, who em­i­grated from China, were both en­gi­neers. Liu says he felt pres­sure to fol­low in their foot­steps. But in his fi­nal year of col­lege, Liu de­cided he wanted to be a doc­tor. So, he buck­led down, im­proved his grades and de­voted him­self to ac­ing the Med­i­cal Col­lege Ad­mis­sion Test. “If some­thing is re­ally im­por­tant, you don’t want to short­change your­self,” he says. “I knew medicine was re­ally im­por­tant to me.”

Liu’s hard worked earned him a spot at the Med­i­cal Col­lege of Vir­ginia in Rich­mond, and later an in­tern­ship and res­i­dency at Bar­nesJewish Hos­pi­tal at Wash­ing­ton Univer­sity Med­i­cal Cen­ter in St. Louis. In 2000, dur­ing the last year of his res­i­dency, Liu made a pur- chase that ul­ti­mately would change the course of his ca­reer: He bought a Palm Pilot.

At a time when most of his peers were doc­u­ment­ing their work on 3-by-5-inch note cards, Liu started to use his Palm Pilot to track pa­tient vis­its and ser­vices per­formed for billing pur­poses. One day, Liu found one of his col­league’s lab jack­ets with an old stack of those note cards in the pocket. The doc­tor had for­got­ten to sub­mit the charges, and as a re­sult, the hos­pi­tal lost about $150,000 of rev­enue. At that mo­ment, Liu knew he had to cre­ate a tech- no­log­i­cal so­lu­tion to help his col­leagues to more ef­fi­ciently track and bill their work. He re­calls talk­ing to his fam­ily about his idea and his fear that he had no busi­ness ex­pe­ri­ence. His par­ents en­cour­aged him to pur­sue his goal.

Armed with the en­gi­neer­ing and com­puter pro­gram­ming skills he thought he’d never use, Liu set out to cre­ate a hand­held and desk­top soft­ware so­lu­tion that his fel­low physi­cians could use to au­to­mate charge cap­ture and the billing process.

Af­ter his res­i­dency, Liu was tapped for a job as the di­rec­tor of the hos­pi­tal­ist group at Emory East­side Med­i­cal Cen­ter, Snellville, Ga., and also be­came the di­rec­tor of med­i­cal in­for­mat­ics at Emory Hos­pi­tal Med­i­cal Group. He re­cruited three Emory col­leagues to work with him and in 1999, they of­fi­cially formed In­ge­nious Med, pro­vid­ing their newly cre­ated charge cap­ture and billing soft­ware to only a few dozen physi­cians.

Things be­gan to change for In­ge­nious Med around 2005 when Mark Buff­in­g­ton, a man­ag­ing part­ner at Atlanta health­care IT in­vest­ment firm BIP Op­por­tu­ni­ties Fund, heard about the soft­ware startup. “When I vis­ited hos­pi­tal­ists, they said they used (the In­ge­nious Med soft­ware) ev­ery day. One of them told me, ‘You couldn’t pry it out of my cold dead hand,’ ” Buff­in­g­ton says.

That col­or­ful tes­ti­mony per­suaded Buff­in­g­ton to take a closer look at In­ge­nious Med. As he got to know Liu, Buff­in­g­ton says he be­came con­vinced that In­ge­nious Med would be a wise in­vest­ment. Buff­in­g­ton has been a board mem­ber at In­ge­nious Med since 2006.

With an in­fu­sion of $7 mil­lion of cap­i­tal from 2004 to 2011, In­ge­nious Med has grown from just a few em­ploy­ees to a staff of nearly 70 peo­ple, and rev­enue has grown by more than 300% over the past three years.

As his com­pany ma­tured, Liu got mar­ried and made plans to move to Cal­i­for­nia. He knew he could not con­tinue to man­age In­ge­nious Med in the same man­ner from a re­mote lo­ca­tion, so he de­cided to hire in­dus­try vet­eran Hart Wil­li­ford as CEO in 2008.

“We re­ally clicked and I knew I needed to put in a CEO to take my place,” Liu says. Liu trav­els fre­quently to In­ge­nious Med’s Atlanta head­quar­ters and re­mains ac­tively in­volved in the day-to-day op­er­a­tions of the com­pany as chair­man.

Wil­li­ford de­scribes Liu as “a pas­sion­ate leader.” He com­mends Liu for hav­ing the in­sight to hire sea­soned ex­ec­u­tives to help grow the com­pany, but Wil­li­ford says Liu’s con­tin­ued hands-on in­volve­ment is one of the things that sets In­ge­nious Med apart from its com­peti­tors. “Prob­a­bly the No. 1 thing that dif­fer­en­ti­ates us is what Steve orig­i­nally put into the com­pany—we are physi­cian-led and physi­cian-driven,” Wil­li­ford says. “No code goes out of this place that Steve does not have his hands on.”

JEREMY ADAMO

Af­ter study­ing en­gi­neer­ing and veer­ing into medicine, Liu used both to build In­ge­nious Med.

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