Health Tech: Dr Bob Lindner On How Veda’s Technology Can Make An Important Impact On Our Overall Wellness
Identify a true problem that others have not been able to solve. — As mentioned before, the hackathon that my co-founder and I attended was a major turning point for us as we became aware of a major issue that we could help solve. We realized that the healthcare system is running on infrastructure that is over 20 years old, with an annual $1 trillion spend on administrative overheard. It was complicated to modernize and leverage automation for efficiency, and so many had not tried.
In recent years, Big Tech has gotten a bad rep. But of course, many tech companies are doing important work making monumental positive changes to society, health, and the environment. To highlight these, we started a new interview series about “Technology Making An Important Positive Social Impact”. We are interviewing leaders of tech companies who are creating or have created a tech product that is helping to make a positive change in people’s lives or the environment. As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Bob Lindner.
Dr. Bob Lindner, Chief Science Officer and Co-Founder of Veda, empowers and guides the company’s scientific and engineering teams. He provides strategic vision, builds innovative core data science technologies, and connects Veda scientists to its Scientific Advisory Board. Bob applies his background in astrophysics to solving healthcare’s biggest problems.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory and how you grew up?
I grew up in a small town called Rome in central Wisconsin. It’s a quiet town full of beautiful lakes and forests, with plenty of animals also calling it their home, like turkeys and whitetail deer. The clear view of the stars and the Milky Way galaxy in Rome are what initially inspired my interest in space and physics. In high school I continued on this path by learning programming (on my trusty TI-83+ Silver Edition graphing calculator, for those who might remember that tool). My favorite subject was geometry, I competed in math competitions, and I worked at the local golf course in the summers. So in addition to becoming a subject matter expert in math and science during the school year, I also got something of an education in customer service every summer.
After high school, I studied physics and mathematics as an undergraduate at UW-Madison and worked in a plasma fusion laboratory and an X-ray astronomy rocket lab, as well as in the dorm cafeteria, where I further honed my service skills. I received my PhD in astrophysics from Rutgers University, where I studied galaxy formation and observational cosmology, and I began specializing in computational techniques and AI to help make new discoveries in the messy data of radio astronomy. I like to think that my early jobs in service contributed to my ability to relate to the customers I help build products for today.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
In graduate school I was sent to collect data at the Australia Telescope Compact Array (ATCA) in the remote town of Narrabri, Australia. This was an amazing learning opportunity that also involved a number of memorable animal encounters.
Upon my arrival there was commotion at the observatory because a woman had recently been bitten by a brown snake while inside the control room. We never found the snake, and the control room was my new home 12 hours a day every day for the next week! Then, one night when I wrapped my observation shift, I biked back to the dormitory and was almost knocked off my bicycle by a group of kangaroos hanging out on the bike path. I didn’t initially see them because it was so dark out in the outback where we were located–we had to minimize the use of lights and other electronic equipment that produces radio frequency interference. After finally returning to the dorm and getting a snack, I heard a tapping sound in the kitchen. I looked over and saw a spider the size of a catcher’s mitt walking around on the floor. It was so big I literally heard its footsteps before I saw it. It scampered away into the kitchen and I went back to my room. My entire time in Narrabri was punctuated by these types of encounters, which I always found interesting, if a bit nerve wracking at times.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that person?
I’m particularly grateful to my parents, Jim and Gail Lindner, for supporting my early interest in physics despite its lack of an obvious “fast path” to a full-time job. I’m also incredibly grateful for my graduate school advisor, Dr. Andrew Baker, who taught me so much about science and exposed me to skills and experiences that I still draw on to this day. Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention my partner, Meghan Gaffney, who is brilliant and ambitious. She taught me not only to see the human impact of using data to solve problems, but also to strive to create solutions that make that impact.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
It’s a simple quote, but it rings so true in all that I do–”Knowledge is power.” This is particularly relevant in AI, where in order for our solutions to work well, we need to have a deep understanding of the problems we are trying to solve, the stakeholders impacted, what success means for users, how success is defined, and where the data we’re working to automate comes from. With higher levels of knowledge, we become better equipped to solve problems within their constraints, even when those constraints are annoying or unfair.
In business in general, having more knowledge means that you are able to not just win the game, but also to actually change the rules. In AI specifically, the phrase “knowledge is power” is also a direct rephrasing of the philosophy of supervised machine learning. This is an important technique behind many AI solutions, wherein “knowledge” refers to the training data and “power” refers to the model’s predictive power.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
Non-traditional thinking and problem-solving
I think successful business leaders have to remain open to doing things in different ways. My success, and by extension, the success of my company, is in large part due to me coming into healthcare as an outsider and approaching long-standing data problems from brand new vantage points, without any preconceptions or allegiances to “the way we’ve always done things.”
As industry outsiders (I came from the field of astrophysics and my co-founder and partner from political consulting), we brought fresh perspectives to healthcare. We take a scientific approach to data accuracy and how to measure it. Even the word “correct,” as it relates to data sets, has a history of being poorly defined in the healthcare industry. That makes it hard to measure data accuracy, much less change outcomes. We found, for example, that the word “attested” has been used interchangeably with the word “correct” over the years. However, Veda has proven over and over again that “attested” to data is frequently not “correct” or “accurate.” With this nuanced understanding, we’ve been able to help clients prepare for their upcoming data quality audits.
Passion for the work
The second character trait that business leaders need is passion. You can’t do great work unless you’re driven by a personal desire to fix a problem. When my co-founder and I discovered that there’s an estimated $1 trillion spent every year in healthcare on repetitive, administrative tasks, we both had an emotional reaction. We funneled those feelings into solving that problem, and that’s how our business was born.
I remember when we first learned about the healthcare industry problems related to provider data management, cost, and accuracy. We became aware of these issues at a hackathon, of all places. We were so driven to fix the data problems we encountered that we stayed up and coded most of the night, designing a basic framework that deviated from the status quo at the time. We won the hackathon, and we have been growing as a company ever since.
The third character trait I’d put forward is knowing what kind of culture and team you want to build. My co-founder and I knew that we wanted to create something different from the typical Silicon Valley mold. And that’s shaped how we’ve done everything in our business — we hire people from diverse backgrounds, we bring scientists in to tackle healthcare problems, we offer benefits that we believe provide our team members with the flexibility that is so important in the workplace today.
One specific hire we brought in when Veda only had about five employees was Carlos Vero Ciro, who I worked with when we were both postdocs at UW Madison. Instead of vetting someone new, I recruited him away from his role in academia to join Veda as someone I already trusted who I knew would fit with the culture. Carlos was actually one of the few I could think of for the job — I knew he would not shy away from the big problems we tackle. Our team saw that his background is a bit unconventional for a health tech startup, but it’s part of our culture to embrace “outsiders” and his talent matched our vision. We vowed to always have a place for innovative thinkers like him to help us build what we want and find what we need to create change.
Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about the tech tools that you are helping to create that can make a positive impact on our wellness. To begin, which problems are you aiming to solve?
I alluded to it earlier, but it’s a big problem and so one worth restating! There is an annual $1 trillion administrative spend in healthcare that I believe is avoidable. How do we decrease this spending? How do we do things like increase the accuracy and speed of data processing? We use smart automation. Veda has built tech that allows health plans to redirect their staff away from manual, cumbersome, and time-consuming processes and toward what really matters — patient care.
How do you think your technology can address this?
We have a deep understanding of what health plans are up against when it comes to the huge mountains of data coming to them every day from the providers in their network. Our technology is perfectly suited to addressing this data processing problem because it sits in between disparate systems and acts as a translator. Neither the plan nor the provider needs to “blow up” their existing infrastructure. They can simply add Veda’s platform and see tremendous improvements in both the accuracy of their data and their ability to process it. We’re promoting interoperability in a way that works with our clients’ current tech. We take away the blockers to societal impact.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
I was introduced to my co-founder through a mutual acquaintance. She comes from the political arena and had been in DC while the Affordable Care Act was being developed and legislated. Meghan saw how much administrative waste there is in the current healthcare system and felt personally driven to find a solution.
I had been working in a totally different industry — I was actually an astrophysicist using AI and machine learning for NASA. I started talking to Meghan about how my approach to automation could be applied to healthcare.
We decided to test our partnership by attending a hackathon as a team, as I mentioned earlier. It was actually one of the major health plan’s dental offerings. All the other teams were fixated on patient-facing tech and apps, but Meghan and I looked at the provider data that the plan had and that’s where we immediately turned our attention. We saw so many errors in the data, so many inconsistencies. And we figured out that smart automation could be used to correct these problems. It was a huge lightbulb moment where we realized that we could apply this solution across the industry. Both of us strongly believe that fixing the “backend” of healthcare is what’s needed to power the patient experience that today’s consumers demand, and quite frankly, deserve.
How do you think this might change the world
There’s a lot of chatter right now about a possible future healthcare metaverse, where health data is owned by individuals, not EHRs, and the number of stakeholders in the system becomes smaller and smaller. Eventually, in the health metaverse, consumers will have a completely seamless experience with the healthcare system.
Companies like Veda are crucial to getting to this future ideal state. If you think about Lyft, and wearables and telehealth, and a hundred other things residing in, say, a single app, you have to consider all the data and how it will be handled. All that data has to be attributed to you, the individual consumer, and also connect and be understood by that web of providers that will make up the metaverse. That’s where we come in — as a translator and intermediary. We’re a central building block to this vision of a consumer-friendly, efficient and cost-effective healthcare system.
Absolutely — it’s almost unheard of to have a discussion about automation that doesn’t at least touch on the potential downsides. It’s rarely as extreme as “robots taking over humans,” but that phrase does capture the underlying concern, particularly in healthcare where the currency we’re dealing in is human lives.
At Veda, we’ve spent a ton of time thinking about this. And as a result, we developed what we call “human in the loop automation.” That means that we are not removing humans from critical decisions. Quite the opposite, we are taking them away from aspects of data processing that don’t require deep thinking and freeing them up to come in at critical points in the process to drive decision-making. Our tech, for example, may flag that a provider has a licensing issue. A human absolutely comes into the picture to deal with that — in fact the system is built to trigger an alert in these types of cases.
AI and machine learning are not intended to replace humans, not in healthcare or any other sector. Automation is here to superpower humans, to elevate them and improve their ability to wield real influence.
Here is the main question for our discussion. Based on your experience and success, can you please share “Five things you need to know to successfully create technology that can make a positive social impact”? (Please share a story or an example, for each.)
Identify a true problem that others have not been able to solve.
As mentioned before, the hackathon that my co-founder and I attended was a major turning point for us as we became aware of a major issue that we could help solve. We realized that the healthcare system is running on infrastructure that is over 20 years old, with an annual $1 trillion spend on administrative overheard. It was complicated to modernize and leverage automation for efficiency, and so many had not tried.
Talk to the people who are experiencing the problem to gain their insights and ensure your tech addresses their concerns.
At Veda, some of our most important solutions were developed because we remain determined to find new ways to solve stubborn problems that our customers want addressed. We don’t just create products that we think are cool. We ask our customers about the real pain points they experience, and that’s the basis for building solutions that we hope will evolve the industry.
Get familiar with the tech that already exists in the space and understand whether your tech should “play well” with it or replace it.
People in tech today are constantly trying to build the next great solution, but many of these platforms require users to blow up their whole IT infrastructure. This is truly disruptive in healthcare, and not in a good way. That’s why we created something that works with the current technology that exists in today’s world. Veda’s tech is the translation step in data integration across the industry’s systems to bridge data connectivity gaps, both now and in the future.
Find a partner in crime — or maybe it’s partners in crime — so that you have multiple points of view going into your build.
In the first year that Meghan and I were working together, we realized two big things. First was the machine-learning tools I was building could help solve problems across many industries. Second, we really enjoyed working together. Our backgrounds complimented each other well and we trusted each other to be a team working toward one goal together.
Pilot your tech with a small group of users before officially bringing it to market.
Once in a demo, we were showing users how our tool works. The file was processed so quickly that they asked if “it” (our automation) had happened yet. “It” had, but it had happened so fast and gone so smoothly that it wasn’t apparent to users used to seeing this process traditionally taking days or weeks. From this we learned we need to work on our demo, slow things down, and explain what’s happening step by step.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
I would tell them that one of the most satisfying feelings in the world is solving a complex problem and knowing that in doing so, you are helping hundreds, if not thousands of people. I’ve always followed my passions and gravitated toward mission-driven work, whether that’s furthering our country’s ability to understand galaxies beyond Earth, or solving long-standing problems that bog down the healthcare system and make it difficult for the average person to get the care they need. There is nothing like feeling that you have solved a big societal problem, or that you have had an impact that’s larger than yourself. I truly feel like I have never worked a single day in my life by pursuing this type of work.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I would have lunch with Jeff Goldblum. I loved growing up while Jurassic Park became one of the most popular movies and Jeff was always interesting to watch. His effortlessly cool persona broke the usual stereotypes of how scientists are portrayed in film and television, changing how children saw scientists in movies and created an interesting profession. After bringing that energy to multiple roles, I imagine he’s like that in real life.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
We’ve been doing more blogging, and we’ve also been speaking with media more, so I encourage readers to check out our news page: https://vedadata.com/news/
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success in your important work.
Health Tech: Dr Bob Lindner On How Veda’s Technology Can Make An Important Impact On Our Overall… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.