It started with a Palm Pilot
Ingenious Med chief named Entrepreneur of the Year
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.”
After studying engineering and veering into medicine, Liu used both to build Ingenious Med.