Here is Ingenious Med Founder Steve Liu’s early story, yet another instance of a very successful company being built in the bootstrapping using a paycheck mode.
Sramana Mitra: Let’s start at the beginning of your story. Where are you from? Where were you born and raised, and in what kind of circumstances?
Steve Liu: I was born in the United States. I was born in DC and lived in Virginia my whole life. My parents were immigrants but not your typical immigrants. My father came to UVA for his undergraduate studies. I grew up pretty typical with Asian parents. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about.
Sramana Mitra: Tiger mom and all that?
Steve Liu: Yes. There’s this clique of first-generation kids who have their culture and who are also trying to fit into America with their friends. I think you end up breaking up a lot of ice. That’s where a lot of this came from. I grew up in Virginia and essentially, ended up going into engineering just like my dad.
I wanted to be a physician, but I got a little lazy and decided that engineering was the easier route. I ended up going to UVA. I was focused on electrical engineering. It wasn’t until the very last year of engineering school that I realized that I hated it. It was horrible.
Sramana Mitra: Why was it horrible?
Steve Liu: It’s one of those things where you really have to want to do something. You have to have a passion for what you’re doing.
Sramana Mitra: It just wasn’t for you, I guess.
Steve Liu: It wasn’t for me. There are plenty of engineers who love it. It’s a great field. It just wasn’t for me. It hit me when I was about to graduate.
Sramana Mitra: You switched majors?
Steve Liu: I ended up deciding, at the last minute, that I don’t want to be an engineer. Literally, a few months before graduation. I decided that I was going to take an extra half year and get my pre-med courses done and go for medicine because that’s what I really wanted to do. It was a big scary thing. I did that and ended up doing really well. I got into a great residency program.
Do you remember PalmPilots? That was when I graduated from residency. Palm Pilots had just come out. I still remember that I was the first resident who went out and bought one. If you took the batteries out, you lost all your data. There was no Internet or anything like that. I started playing around with it. It was right between getting out of residency and going to a job. I knew I needed to build a system that helped me to capture data and do all these good stuff you need to do to run a physician practice. That’s how the company started actually.
Sramana Mitra: What year are we talking about?
Steve Liu: It was around the summer of 1999.
Sramana Mitra: What was your thought? What were you going to do with this?
Steve Liu: Honestly, I don’t think I had any thought. It was one of those things where life drives you down a path rather than you driving it. You’re pushed in a position, I guess. I remember building something. What happened was we thought we had something that maybe people might want to buy. I was lucky because at that time, there was a niche market that I was focused on. It was a thing called hospitalist. I don’t know if you know what that is – a hostpitalist physician?
Sramana Mitra: No.
Steve Liu: It’s a semi-new term. It’s been around for about 15 years. They’re hospital doctors basically. They just practice in the hospital. That’s what I was. It was really new and I built something for myself. I remember presenting a paper about it. I got mobbed after the lecture. People were asking me if they could use the product.
Sramana Mitra: What did you develop for yourself?
Steve Liu: It was a system that you used on the PalmPilot where you would go around and you would capture your bills. When a physician goes to a patient, you have to go through all these complex decisions in order to choose what you charge the patient or the insurance company. You have to look up all these codes and process data. I built something fairly simple way back then to do that.
Back then, it was groundbreaking because people were doing it on paper and no one was using technology to do this stuff. That’s where the mobile PalmPilot was helpful because physicians in hospitals running around everywhere needed something to replace these three by five cards that physician walked around with.