Talking about Keas

December 22, 2007

I’ve started a new company, Keas Inc with a partner, George Kassabgi. Since a lot of people have asked about Keas and it is too early to be giving specifics, let me talk about the vision and the culture we’re dedicated to at Keas and the people we’re looking for.

What is the Keas vision? If you are one of the many at risk of losing your health, Keas will help you keep healthy. If you’re recovering from an illness Keas will help you to recover and stay well. If you suffer from a chronic disease Keas will help you be as well as you can be. Today no one helps you. You can’t assemble your health data to get the best care possible. Even if you can, your doctors rarely help because the system doesn’t pay them to keep you healthy. You don’t have tools that work online to help in these situations, partly because insurance doesn’t pay for them. Because of these problems people suffer both personal hardship and fear and economic deprivation, sometimes irreversibly. What is more we all pay enormous medical costs for this, and there are costs to society and to the competitiveness of our companies in lost productivity. It is our mission at Keas to fix this for you. Clearly it isn’t an easy mission or a short-term one. While we think we have some great ideas about how to make this possible, we have a lot to learn in the course of this adventure.

What is our culture? We are all focused on making a great service that the customers love and that truly helps them. We want to have fun and make a difference and get it right. We want to build the service with love and care. Every day, we want to make sure that our customer experience is as good as it can be. This doesn’t mean trying to get it perfect out of the gate. Heck you don’t know until people use it. See my talk on intelligent reaction. What this does mean is pouring resources into constant improvement once the service is out of the gate and steadily learning from the usage patterns to make sure that the service quickly and surely evolves in the right direction. This requires great listening skills and great empathy and great patience and data analysis skills and, oh yes, some creative design insight. It requires the humility to realize that it isn’t your vision for how the UI should look that matters, but what actually works for the customer.

What kind of people are we hiring? We are hiring people who are really good at what they do, relaxed, persistent, pragmatic and fearless. It is important that the people who come fit this profile because in a start up everything is uncertain. You have to roll with the punches. You have to expect that your plan will change as the data starts to come in. Success in most start-ups isn’t instant. If it were easy, it would already be done. You have to keep trying. Some ideas work. Some don’t. What we’re trying to do at Keas certainly is hard. We need great people who aren’t afraid to try hard things but are willing to also look at the facts, see when something isn’t working, chalk it up to experience, and try the next hard thing. If you want predictability go to a big company.

Who are we still looking for? Engineers. We intend to keep Keas small until the ideas are proven (we’re self-funded). There is room, however, for a few engineers and for a proven development lead. In general people need to be able to get to San Francisco (we’re by Mission street and 1st Street close to everything), but we could use an engineer or two in the east coast as well or one or two willing to be there for significant periods of time. What kind of an engineer do you need to be? Well, in a word, excellent. More generally, productive, fun to work with, willing to tackle any problem, willing to work in Java or PHP or RubyOnRails, use machine learning or whatever language makes sense for the job, careful to avoid Not-Invented-Here when possible, good-humored, and burning to do something that really matters. It will be a small elite engineering team and we need it to really rock.

Why would you join? If we get this right, literally 100’s of millions of people who currently are on track to get ill or have chronic diseases and are at risk of getting still sicker will live longer and better lives because of you. In addition the ideas are genuinely interesting, hard, require thought, insight, and creativity. There is almost nothing easy in what we need to do. That means almost all of it is challenging and fun. You get to come in at the beginning of this adventure and that is always a blast. You’re going to get to work with wonderful people who care and want to make a difference. Ever since I moved into helping out in the health arena, I’ve met people I’m in awe of, people who are brilliant, caring, somehow hold down 4 jobs at once each of which would be full time for many of us, and still have happy personal lives. These people are going to love you because if this works, you’re going to be letting them run like no one else has. All you’ll have to do is work with them, listen carefully to them, and then be brilliant and quick. What more could you ask?


Health and the Aspen Institute

November 26, 2007

A few weeks ago, I went to the Aspen Institute which just held an astonishingly good symposium on health. Special thanks to Michelle McMurry. It was particularly amazing and interesting to hear the talks of Peter Agre and Michael Bishop whose stories about winning the Nobel prizes were fascinating because both started in many ways as outsiders to the world of biology and without the relentless pre-professionalism of today’s kids and perhaps because of this initial distance changed science and medicine as we know it.

The obvious focus at the conference was on the train wreck that is US health care today. It became clear at the conference that if things continue as they are right now, we will manage to be spending $4.4 trillion dollars by 2015 or almost the entire Federal budget and still be delivering less than high quality health care and probably not solving the new epidemics of obesity and diabetes in this country. Clearly, this can’t go on. We are currently spending over 16% of our GDP on healthcare whereas France is around 8% and our overall health is worse. To go to the projected 30% would be a disaster and it was telling that not one but two heads of the congressional budget office (one past and one present) were attending the conference. One of the moments I found most unintentionally ironic was Bill Frist saying that of course we needed universal insurance as an obviously frustrated Elizabeth Teisberg pointed out with her usual lapidary clarity that insuring all would actually be cheaper because we would have preventative medicine rather than disaster handling, clinic care rather than ER care, and much less money spent by insurers trying to duck covering people since all would be guaranteed coverage. Where were the Republicans on this during the last eight years? But there was a thoughtful discussion about how this, all by itself, isn’t a solution, and we need to alter the system to actually reward people for good overall care and wellness of patients and good outcomes rather than paying doctors for procedures. It short we need the system to help keep people well rather than only treat them (at best) when they are sick.

There was an interesting talk given at the conference where it was claimed that of the four things you want from insurance:

  • Access for all
  • Affordable by all
  • Quality care
  • Constant innovation

you can only get two. The European system was held up as one that delivers on access and price, but not quality. Frankly, while I’m aware of some of the long and even unacceptable waits in the UK and the limited access of cancer patients there to new drugs, it isn’t clear to me that Europe isn’t in general getting three out of four while we get only one (innovation).

The most striking and shocking graphs at the conference were about type II diabetes and its rise in this country from a rare occurrence to a national epidemic in just 16 years due to an epidemic of obesity. Watching the time lapse graphs of this spreading across the US is like watching some terrifying science fiction movie about aliens taking over the country except that this is real and has happened. The terrible cost of this disease will dwarf that of cigarette smoking which, even now, kills 440,000 US citizens a year or ten times as many as breast cancer for example and compared to all coronary disease killing about 2,400,000 a year including those due to cigarettes. As it is, we cannot afford Medicare and as I said above, within eight years the cost of the current health system is projected to approach the total cost of the entire Federal government and we haven’t saved any money for this. Furthermore, incredibly, despite these crushing expenditures we are getting worse outcomes and longevity than countries spending half of what we do such as France and Japan.

So the focus was largely on why do we have this catastrophe and how do we do better? I’ll talk more about this later. While sitting at this conference it was depressing to watch the Republicans fighting and Bush vetoing the proposed extensions to SCHIP where the states are trying to extend to just guarantee medical coverage to poor kids who otherwise aren’t getting it where again the alternatives are ER room, much more severe problems, years of illness (these are kids!), or families going deeply into debt to keep their kids healthy.

It was fascinating to learn about how much genetics is now able to play a role in diagnosing illnesses and in even predicting high risk, but my overall take was that while it is amazing what we do now know, it is still a very very long step from here to actual drugs which take advantage of what we know to cure the diseases in question. What genetics clearly can do for us, even today, is start to inform us about when we need to live our lives with particular care because of an unusually high risk of diabetes or breast cancer or ventricular fibrillation.

Overall, I was struck by two very basic points:

  1. We need to work much harder to help people stay healthy. The epidemic we face is largely avoidable. If we could reach out to the huge number of people currently at risk of type II diabetes or in the early stages and just get them to eat better and slightly less and exercise 30 minutes a day, we’d literally save this country hundreds of billions of dollars or thousands of dollars for every man, woman, and child in this country not even counting the terrible costs in lost productivity and illness and poor quality of life for those who suffer.
  2. If we can just agree that the job of medical care is to keep people well or get them better and reward people for doing this well rather than paying insurers and middlemen and doctors for procedures, we would save even more not even counting again the terrible costs in lost productivity and the damage to our overall competitiveness.

I was asked in some comments since I restarted blogging to discuss what I learned while running Google Health at Google. It is a delicate subject because I’ve publicly blogged about a fair amount of what I learned and some of the rest I think is now Google’s business. So, I’ve added a sidebar listing the talks I did give publicly on health while I was still at Google. This is a starting point for learning what I learned while working on health during the last two years.

Lastly, while I was at the conference, Microsoft launched HealthVault. I want to commend Microsoft for launching HealthVault in Beta. The web desperately needs an ATM networks for health records so that we can find and connect to the expertise we need online with our health data as context be it interpreting our labs or warning us about medicine issues or helping us recover from an illness. I read a snarky blog complaining that they were copying Google Health. I don’t see it that way. They launched. They are doing a good thing. Consumers need to be able to take charge or their health data and control it. Not the federal government. Not the hospitals. Not the insurers. Us. Even if Google does launch something similar, competition is a good thing for all of us. That being said I certainly hope that Microsoft follows the principle that our health data is our data for us to control and allows those of us who put data into the health vault to easily take it out of the health vault or copy from it electronically if we so choose and provides an open doorway to those who have programs to help us make sense of our health data. But I bet they will and if so, congratulations to them.