As a modern-day nomad, it’s difficult landing in a new city and trying to find doctors, chiropractors and dentists. I can’t remember the last time going to the doctor was as easy as making a phone call, and wasn’t accompanied by the anxiety of entrusting my health to a stranger whose payment protocols were hazy at best. Baby boomers understand this difficulty when migrating to warmer climates or to be by their kids. Or maybe you’ve lived in the same town your whole life but have a new injury or diagnosis that requires a brand new set of doctors. It affects everyone. Medicine is a complicated business, but one that is finally beginning to shift.
Lisa Maki and Ted Tanner, founders of the Silicon Harbor and Silicon Valley company, PokitDok set out to “transform the business of health,” Maki said. PokitDok’s website and mobile app enable you, the patient, to shop for healthcare like you would a book on Amazon, shoes on Zappos, or a flight on Priceline. You can search for doctors by their name, specialty or by your condition and the results will be specific to your location. In an industry of old business models and lots of paper, PokitDok is digging into the data and digitizing the patient-as-consumer experience.
PokitDok has compiled the fifty most common treatments and services nationwide into the most extensive, cloud-based healthcare graph of physician treatments and costs. Health insurance companies are turning to them to digitally track their various patient paperwork systems. The service helps both physicians and patients keep track of treatment options and how much they cost. By the end of the year, their service will provide same-day prices for those top fifty medical services.
PokitDok: Your Practice, Your Way
How do the new-kids-on-the-block break into the old boys club of healthcare, I asked myself. After speaking with Maki and Tanner, however, I no longer wondered. Maki said “there will be resistance on some level because it requires change,” but the shift is inevitable, and PokitDok is leading the movement. Like every other industry, healthcare is going to become increasingly dependent on technology in every realm of the business. Companies like PokitDok will start getting bought out by the grandfather institutions who didn’t make the investment in research and development that small startups have. PokitDok already has one investment from the industry with more on the way.
Maki and Tanner met at Microsoft. Tanner was there after making the rounds of Silicon Valley, including working for Apple and a handful of successful startups. Maki served as the Director of Program Management for all Microsoft consumer products. Before starting PokitDok the pair cofounded BeliefNetworks—a semantics and machine learning platform that deals with reasoning through inherently uncertain problems like anomaly detection, natural and man-made disaster prediction and medical diagnostics. They sold it to the health and employee benefits company, Benefitfocus. BeliefNetworks was a front runner in the big data, deep learning and cloud architecture movement, which prepared them to continue innovating at this intersection of healthcare and technology. Maki and Tanner realized the potential for healthcare to evolve at scale with big data technology. Their PokitDok service “removes the friction and improves innovation in connecting consumers and providers more effectively,” Maki said. This service is crucial in the face of healthcare reform as patients become more engaged in the system as consumers.
Maki moved out to Silicon Valley where she raised capital and built the business-oriented portion of their now 28-person team. Will Stewart of Rogers Ventures—a strategic fund founded by Rogers Communications of Canada—one of their first investors, had been looking to invest in a capable healthcare tech team. When Stewart started to see people like Maki and Tanner migrating into healthcare he knew it was a good time to get in because “they’re going to attract other great talent,” he said. Stewart was looking for survival skills and an idea with global potential, and found both in PokitDok. “I invest in people, I don’t really invest in the idea,” Stewart said, knowing that it will change over time through globalizing and more backing in the healthcare industry.
Charleston, and the Southeast in general, has a substantial healthcare foundation, which makes it a great ecosystem for PokitDok. While their presence in Silicon Valley is crucial for them to find funding, they have discovered a great benefit to maintaining a good portion of their engineering business in the less inflated Charleston. “There’s amazing talent in Charleston,” Maki said, and they’re having no problem attracting the same high quality talent outside of the Valley’s tech epicenter.
Although Tanner’s professional DNA is mostly in Silicon Valley, he is a native Charlestonian and it shows in both his demeanor, and the office itself. When you drive off the Charleston peninsula out on the Savannah Highway just past the famed Glass Onion, you’ll see a sparsely populated one-story brick building with numerous offices. Through an alley, and off a courtyard you’ll find the Charleston PokitDok gang in what used to be a doctor’s office. For one of Charleston’s more authentic and disruptive startups they have some humble dwellings that represent the company’s homegrown feeling. While it bears a striking resemblance to my college library’s basement, you can hear the grind of problem-solving through excited chatter in the company living room.
Even if their technology were not being applied to healthcare, PokitDok is making something completely new. “We’re doing a lot of really intense computer science,” Tanner said. When you’re in the business of making new things the work paradigm becomes something different. PokitDok is paying their team to innovate, which can sometimes look reckless. Tanner said “if you’re not breaking stuff you’re not working hard enough. It’s ok to break stuff, just make sure you let everybody know that you’re breaking stuff and that you’re trying to cure it as fast as possible.”
As we spoke in his office Tanner was craning to hear his team hash out problems in the living room. A big computer screen streamed a team member from Silicon Valley into their presence. Tanner said, “There’s like three different conversations going on and everybody’s really into it… it isn’t contrived. We don’t have a dress code, we want you to be comfortable.” The living room is essentially their conference room and is furnished with a few couches and bean bag chairs, a skeleton wearing a tie, and a huge monitor for video conferences. Tanner himself sat semi-reclined in his desk chair wearing board shorts and Vans.
Tanner isn’t a fan of the “culture” discussion. “If you’ve gotta talk about culture you probably don’t have it deep within the company,” he said, believing it has to occur organically. When PokitDok was first launching, the team gutted and redid their own office, then went to Costco and bought plastic tables. There’s nothing stereotypically “startup” about their office and they aim to hire people who share this earnestness. They find these people in the oddest ways, which is a talent all its own. When I asked Tanner what he’s looking for in a new hire he said, “It’s hard to put your finger on it. It’s a faith thing.” Ted hired one of his programmers, Jeffrey Hoekman, fifteen years ago when he was barefooted with salty hair after hitting the surf. They’ve been working together ever since. Their front-end developer Gini Harrison, a graduate of the College of Charleston, got hired the night before her graduation when her roommate, who was working for PokitDok, woke her up at 11PM asking if she wanted a job. “I was interviewed in my pajamas” she said.
Maki and Tanner are the perfect complement to one another. They balance each other out in skill, personality and geography. PokitDok is doing some remarkable big data engineering that will change our experience with healthcare, and they’re doing it largely from Charleston where the sweet tea is flowing and the best po’boys in town are right next door. They’re doing it from a space that looks like your living room. At one point someone’s kid came running through the back door saying, “Daddy!” If you’re doing what you love it should feel like home, a place where, “You think instead of fixing the world you can create it,” Maki said.