I tend to forge my own path. I was the first in my family to go to college. I got a masters degree, a PhD, a second masters degree, and, finally my dream job: a tenure-track position at a prestigious university. For 8 years, I was a professor, NIH-funded scientist, and sought after advisor. I led clinical trials and published over 90 peer-reviewed papers. I taught, mentored students, residents, post-docs, and junior faculty. I held national leadership positions. I led a team of bright and talented people doing, what often felt like, impossible health tech research. And I was right on the cusp of being tenured (i.e. I’d have job security until retirement).
Then, I did something I thought I’d never do: I walked away from it all. I left prestige. I left my research, my team, and my mentees. I also walked away from a huge college benefit for my kids (70% off tuition at my university or 100% off if at a cheaper college anywhere in the country!). Not many people walk away from a highly-coveted academic position or from tenure they’re about to touch. If they do, it's for another university offering the same benefits, if not more. Instead, I left for a startup, where nothing is guaranteed. Say what?
I’M NOT ALONEBefore starting my new job, I read an article in the New York Times. It was about economists leaving prestigious universities to join Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon, Uber and Airbnb. So, why are people leaving academia? A few reasons:
Less bureaucracy. Academics spend more time jumping hurdles than getting their work done. Tech companies don’t have that red tape.
Big data. Academics waste time, money, and resources to collect enough data to say something interesting. Tech companies collect endless amounts of data by default and need people to leverage that data in meaningful ways.
Impact. In academia, people wait too long for their research findings to change the world. Tech companies move fast to impact the world today. #wearenotwaiting
WHY DID I BECOME A PROFESSOR?
I became a professor and scientist to help people. I wanted to discover, understand, mentor, and have a profound impact. I wanted to help people live healthier and happier lives. For 15 years, I studied how to promote health. I built and tested health programs for people with diabetes. I wanted these programs to work and help as many people as possible. But they helped only people in my research trials, and no one else. Why? Because it takes 17 years for research findings to have any impact in the real world, if at all. That’s just — Way. Too. Long.
Before 2008, I delivered health promotion in the most low-tech ways, with flip-charts, printed materials, and people — like community health workers, dietitians and certified diabetes educators. But in 2008, I realized the world was headed in a different direction. As I held my first smartphone in my hands, I asked myself: “How can I use this technology to help people manage their health? And how can I do it more effectively and at greater scale?” Health apps were just gaining traction, and developing one seemed out of reach for me and my small team. So, we built a website instead.
TECHNOLOGY MOVES FAST & ACADEMIA CAN’T KEEP UPWe built Diabetes MAP, a website to help people stick to their medication schedule, and spent years studying it. But, what you won’t find in my research articles is all the challenges we faced building Diabetes MAP. It was complicated, delayed, and frustrating. My colleagues at other universities all agree: developing health tech in academia is slow and painful. It’s impossible to hire and retain the best and the brightest graphic designers, developers, and tech project managers. Some of the reasons for this:
They’re underpaid. Tech people can easily make six figures in the commercial world. In academia, you only make that much if you have a MD or PhD.
The environment stifles creativity. Tech people would rather work in creative environments and around like-minded people — in coffee shops or co-working spaces with others like them. Being bound to a cubicle from 9-5 doesn’t appeal to them, or anyone for that matter.
They want to use modern tools. Tech people expect to use the latest tools to get sh*t done. Tools like Slack, Trello, Basecamp, and Jira, instead of landlines, Outlook, or pagers (yes, these things still exist!).
Health tech innovations in academia are bootstrapped together, break, and have to be rebuilt over and over again. More headache, more expense, and more time… I came up with the idea of Diabetes MAP in early 2009, and it took 8 years to complete our research on it! In those eight years, there were 15 versions of the iPhone, the launch of the iPad, the launch of the Apple Watch, and multiple versions of Android and PC. In 2009, a website seemed innovative and worth our time and resources. But, by the time we built and rebuilt it (three times!), and learned if it worked, people had moved on. What might’ve engaged people in 2009 is obsolete today. Today, Diabetes MAP would absolutely be an app, and not a website.
ENGAGEMENT IS LOW
Engagement (e.g. responding to a website or app by opening it, clicking around, and coming back) in academic-made technologies is low. We don't make technologies people want to use. It's not our skill set. It's not what we've been trained to do. To develop apps and websites people love, academics have to work with people who DO know how to use technology to engage people: Graphic designers. Software developers. Tech project managers. People who understand design, development, and engagement, but don’t necessarily know how to use those skills to improve health behaviors and health outcomes. We need to team up for the magic to happen.