An exclusive Tech Tribune Q&A with Nick Culbertson, the founder and CEO of Protenus, which was honored in our:
- 2020 Best Tech Startups in Maryland
- 2019 Best Tech Startups in Baltimore
- 2018 Best Tech Startups in Baltimore
Tell us the origin story of Protenus – what problem were you trying to solve and why?
Protenus was founded in 2014 with the goal of tackling problems in healthcare that would provide better patient outcomes and increase patient trust in the organizations where they seek care. Hospitals currently spend a staggering $39B a year in efforts to maintain compliance. With that in mind, my team and I wanted to ensure that money could be better allocated to improving patient outcomes and began tackling challenges to innovate the healthcare compliance industry. Initially, the team focused on protecting patient privacy and then expanded to tackling issues of healthcare workers stealing or misusing controlled substances, like opioids, for personal use.
My co-founder (Robert Lord) and I had extensive careers prior to co-founding Protenus. I spent eight years of highly decorated military service as a Special Operations “Green Beret”, having been awarded two Bronze Stars (one of which was for valor for extraordinary treatment of a team member under enemy fire). I went on to attend the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
Robert previously worked at the world’s largest hedge fund, Bridgewater Associates, where he designed and managed systems to analyze global markets. Robert also worked on big data and AI challenges in healthcare, focusing on the financial and functional outcomes of ICU patients. These experiences would lead him to also attend the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
It was while we were attending the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine that the idea for Protenus was first created. We experienced firsthand how digitized patient data could help streamline patient care, but also recognized the increasing threats that having this sensitive data electronically created. We created the first algorithms as a research project to see if we could tackle a problem we had been told was too difficult to accomplish. Those algorithms later served as the foundation for the Protenus platform and have innovated healthcare compliance.
What was the biggest hurdle you encountered in your journey?
When first attempting to tackle this critical challenge in healthcare, we were told numerous times that this problem was too big to solve. This only encouraged us further and in 2014, the user behavior analytic algorithms we created served as the foundation that launched Protenus. In doing so, we took a leap of faith into entrepreneurship, leaving our medical training behind in order to solve an important problem for patients across the country.
What does the future hold for Protenus?
Our team is focused on building a single platform for the purpose of healthcare compliance analytics. The Protenus platform leverages artificial intelligence (AI) to analyze every single time patient data is accessed and determines whether that access is appropriate. This allows the healthcare organizations that leverage this technology to proactively identify threats, reduce risk, save money, and most importantly, better care for their patients and workforce.
What are your thoughts on the local tech startup scene in Baltimore?
Over the past few years, Baltimore has become a notable place for tech startups to grow and thrive because of the vast amount of resources available within the area. When Protenus was first launched, we were often asked when we were going to move our company to Silicon Valley. However, we recognized the talent located in this area, with the three-letter agencies and some of the biggest health systems in the world all residing in the Baltimore corridor. It also has a thriving ecosystem, with organizations that help entrepreneurs gain the experience and resources they need to launch their dreams.
What’s your best advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?
For new entrepreneurs, I would encourage them to focus on hiring the right people to help grow the organization. One of the things I learned as we launched Protenus was that I couldn’t be an expert in all aspects of the business. I had to hire the right people, with the right experiences and expertise to help us grow and strategically maneuver the organization for success. This also means leveraging experience from other industries that can be applied to the challenges we are tackling. Our data science team is a great example of this idea. They have PhDs in particle physics, evolutionary biology, and neuroscience, which may not immediately seem like the perfect fit. However they are used to working with and analyzing large datasets, experiences we need as we work with millions of data points from customers across the country. We’ve also hired team members from Under Armour, NASA, and Google. Try not to focus exclusively on the companies they have come from, but more of the skills and experience you need for your organization.