Opollo Technologies’ Chief Technology Officer Pete Turner knows a thing or two about solving hard problems. A former Microsoft engineer, Pete sees the world in code, and he likes it that way. “Learning to write software was more of a freeing experience into a whole bunch of worlds.” His most recent successful startup exit came from building the framework for augmented reality tools that exist in millions of pockets today (hello, Pokemon Go!).
Now Pete is leading the technology creation behind Opollo’s surgery duration forecasting, but that’s just the start of the ecosystem that he envisions.
Note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
You’ve worked in many different technology fields, from DNA sequencing to augmented reality. Why move into the healthcare technology space now?
Pete Turner: At this point it feels like the gold rush of Silicon Valley is gone. You're not going to make a Perl CGI script where people can put their social lives into an HTML page and make hundreds of billions of dollars. That's not going to happen again. The things that are happening now are hard tech problems. In Silicon Valley you're always fighting for that last couple of percent. You’re moving pixels around on the Google search button slightly to increase your revenue using massive A/B testing, right? That's what we're doing right now. Silicon Valley is looking for those little pockets of innovation that don’t really exist. The only other option is going to the hard technology problems looking for emerging fields, you know. Augmented reality or live fleet tracking and embedded internet-of-things style like the low-power, low-bandwidth, only wake up your chip every 10 minutes and do bluetooth beacons. These are the kinds of things that we're going into now. Just the very, very hard edges of the tech space.
So, normally that's what I do. I go look for the really, really hard tech problems that people haven't solved yet because that's where the new innovation and the new markets are coming from, and it's only going to get harder over time. Whereas healthcare is just kind of this thing that people, especially in Silicon Valley, are scared of and ignore. But what that means is there's huge waves of innovation to happen in healthcare.
I think about how in the US in the healthcare space, clinical innovation is far beyond most places around the world. The rapid response to Covid-19--that's a clinical innovation on a timeline that never existed before. Whereas, operational innovation, that’s still missing. What are the operational problems that you perceive in the healthcare space that really need technological solutions?
PT: I would say a dream of mine is to automate a lot of the things that we're doing manually right now. And I don't know if it's from a regulatory aspect or if it's because the software doesn't exist but, for example, let's say that you have sleep problems. You have apnea. To go and get diagnosed and get the CPAP machine that barrier to entry is so high…a close friend just had to get one, which is why I’m talking about it. So, he had to go to a doctor, get the home sleep test and the bureaucratic barrier to him getting the machine that helped him sleep contains so many manual interactions. And I see that everywhere. I feel like there are a lot of case-by-case things that can be optimized like, you know, doing a sleep apnea test. There are new innovations happening there, but you have to hit them one by one. Every single different healthcare problem requires a custom-made solution. It's much smarter for people to go look at where things are common. All surgeries, for example when scheduling…
Whereas healthcare is just kind of this thing that people, especially in Silicon Valley, are scared of and ignore. But what that means is there's huge waves of innovation to happen in healthcare.
How does Opollo tackle the problems related to surgery scheduling?
PT: I’ve seen a lot of startups in Silicon Valley attacking niche problems, or applying technologies inside surgery rooms for specific tasks. And getting rid of that manual process that happens for us is to especially hit the big one, which is just getting the scheduling down. Google can tell you within two minutes of accuracy driving across Silicon Valley how long it's going to take to drive from one place to another knowing all the traffic patterns. This is an obvious one! This is a very obvious one. I don't know why that kind of data analysis hasn't been pushed into this, because of the obvious market opportunities. I mean, that's why I’m here, right? It’s a good idea.
What does a simpler scheduling solution look like?
PT: It's just scheduling surgeries with some estimated error boundary around them. We know that you can see statistically with data what your margin of error is on a case-by-case basis instead of doing a blanket fix. Just making sure that you have those buffers that are statistically significant in a way that makes sure that you're maximizing revenue, while minimizing the amount of disruption, like when you have to reschedule or cancel.
More and more business problems in healthcare are finding technological solutions. How do you ensure that stakeholders like healthcare providers and administrators that the technology is safe and secure?
PT: I’m a privacy freak. I’ll take AR, for example. There were huge shortcuts we could have taken that would have compromised privacy, especially for that kind of data. I am extremely careful with privacy, especially with what we're doing now at Opollo. We are taking any modern techniques we can, like running machine learning in a web browser in the hospital if we can to extract information there before ever sending that information over the Internet. We’re doing a lot to ensure privacy.
What are the lessons and management leadership styles you’ve learned from previous positions?
PT: I’ve worked for very large companies that have walled off information and I’ve worked for very small companies where everybody knows everything and there's no management structure whatsoever and everybody wants one. There are definitely things that help like opening communication channels I view that are always good. There's a book called Radical Candor, you’ve probably already heard of. The main takeaways I got were to be completely open and honest as much as you can. At some point, there's always going to be information that you won't be able to tell certain people and that's just the world we live in, but giving them that open and honest explanation of things and a constant flow of information that gives them that trust that you're on their side and telling them things early. I want to have a management structure where the only thing that we need to move forward is positive reinforcement because we're not hiding anything. If you have somebody performing poorly the worst thing you can do is not tell them immediately. I like to help them and show them that we're all on the same page and we're on the same team. There’s another kind of power that a lot of management that I’ve seen in Silicon Valley doesn't have, which is being able to jump into a piece of code and help someone. I do rely on that a lot. Like if we have somebody who's running a bunch of machine learning algorithms and doesn't know how to store the data or fetch it in a performant way, proactively talk to that person and make sure that every single piece of the team knows what everybody's working on. We can help each other out to build one thing together. And that involves having a lot of open communication.
It always comes back down to Conway's Law for me. The shape and structure of your product will mirror and shape the structure of your team, and vice versa. And so, in my mind we're not two things: We’re not training a team of people and also making a product. We're making a team of people to build a product. There's only one thing we're building.
We can help each other out to build one thing together. And that involves having a lot of open communication.
What’s your vision for the future of Opollo Technologies?
PT: My vision for the future of Opollo Technologies is to really have all these individual little products and tools that build a larger ecosystem. The biggest challenge for us is actually not going to be technical as I view it. It’s going to be onboarding and the value that we bring to our customers and making sure that the friction is very, very low. I view it like a flywheel-style business model, where you get one thing from Opollo and you love it, but then there's all these other very easily integrated pieces of either tools or products that enable you to go that much further. That’s especially in financing--there's talk right now about increasing revenue. We're just fixing the way that the hospital works internally right now. But then eventually there's going to be a society of hospitals and then you're going to have the insurers and you're going to have the different banks and eventually all these things must work together. And in America we know we have problems with this whole structure, right? You have the hospitals and the insurance companies with lots of little communication between them, but nothing that's concrete—nothing that's one channel where they have one good understanding with each other. Making sure that all those communication channels are designed correctly in the end is going to be the goal of Opollo in my mind.
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