Emory Public Health Forum - Recap

Garrett Peterson spoke on the important issues in public health


Recently our very own Garrett Peterson participated in a public health forum at the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University. Read on to see the questions that were asked and the answers he gave (all questions and answers are paraphrased from a private recording of the event). 


Question:  What do you think is the definition of Public Health & how did you get into this industry?

Garrett’s Answer: I didn’t really start out in public health, instead I'd say I was a science geek that liked to write software. I started out industrial hygiene laboratory/air quality in the work force, doing sampling prep. My  under graduate degree was in Computer Science, so I helped out the computer guy at the industrial hygiene lab, and  that launched me into laboratory IT.  Most of  my early career was in waste water treatment laboratories, environmental laboratories, and clinical laboratories, and then working with a consulting firm that focused on medical instrumentation and science technology. After that, I went back to school and got my MBA,  then took a position at the State Public Lab where I was lucky to have several great mentors that introduced me to public health and taught me the tenants. I'm also a member of APHL.


Question:  What are the current issues right now in public health?

Garrett’s Answer: As both a vendor and a consumer of public health I see over and over again the public health resourcing is an issue, there are two main factors, with the fist being financing. Financing coming from the government -grants or non- profit, those types of financing work well for the initial financing but are challenging in the ongoing operational financing.  Operating costs of IT Systems are generally 10 to 20 times more than the initial financial fund raising, it costs you a lot more to own the system than it does to acquire it, but yet the streams only cover that initial acquisition or development.  Secondly, even if public health entities can get the technology and funding they need the workforce is generally not staffed correctly either in terms of skillset or appropriate team size to support the technology, so that is becoming huge need now.


Question: I would like you to touch on the coming trends, where will the investors be investing in 20 years? What strategies are key in developing products or companies that are in the states to prepare for the market down stream?

Garrett’s Answer: One of things that public health has done uniquely well is collaborate. I have worked with many IT projects in the public health domain and I haven’t had one that wasn’t cross collaborative, sometimes even internationally. In addition, public health has been extremely good at building partnership- both private and public partnerships.  So, if you are going to work within public health, engaging in the community is key - you need to be part of the community to be successful in this arena.  In laboratory technology, there is a major trend of genetic testing, and that requires big data techniques to support the research.  Many other public health problems will be solved using big data and machine learning technologies in the near future and this is where we should focus our technology learning at this point.


Question:  Can we talk about strategies to monetize data, what does that look like, and how data can actually be used? 

Garrett’s Answer:  In healthcare, science, and most other businesses data needs to be released in a proprietary way. For example, no one wants to release their own personal health information, so it is difficult to find ways to universally monetize data without de-identifying it in some way.  However, there are many services you could provide as an entrepreneur that would support clients as they segment, de-identify, and segregate data so it can be shared effectively. Honestly, there is a lot opportunities to solve the issues involved in just getting data where it needs to be, let alone into the right format for analysis.  So, I don’t know how to monetize data, but I do know there is a lot of opportunity to monetize support of the “movement” of that data.


Question:  What are the concerns for the commercialization of public health text and cyber security concerning data?

Garrett’s answer:  The consent process to be able to use patient’s data has blown up in its complexity. In some ways, the rules are too complex for the amount of data really available. The public health community has traditionally been “fiercely prideful” of our ability to take care of our own issues, and there are definitely examples in which commercialization has had an adverse effect on the public health community.  However, you have to be careful not to group all commercial engagements in this negative light. The fact is that we need to partner with commercialized vendors to develop certain types of assays or technology. It is easy to look at commercialization as only profit driven but it is usually much more complex than that. For instance you will find that most biotech companies partner with public health laboratories not for the revenue streams that those labs represent, but rather because of the ability of public health laboratories to help them develop assays with “real world” testing, managing it correctly is the challenge but it is an important component.


Question: What advise do you have for students that are looking to get into public health?

Garrett’s Answer:  What you are learning school right now is applicable to public health and other fields. If you are a good project manager you have almost guaranteed ability to get a job, in public health or otherwise.  It really takes a team for startups and they need to be engaged differently a typical company. In a startup, you need to have someone who is good with the money, you need to have someone who knows the go-to-market strategy, you need someone who can handle the day to day operations, etc.  Finding partners that are coming from outside of your public health experience can be helpful, and remember that many public health issues can be solved with technology from other arenas.  At Yahara, for example, our biggest public health project success is being solved using technology that came from the trucking industry.


Question:  Could you clarify startup vs. business, would you consider your business a startup, and would you consider alternatives to the startup model?

Garrett’s Answer: There are a lot of areas where you can be part of a startup community without being in the startup, and that is only one of the many career paths you can take.  Many of the companies I have been a part of we didn’t have an exit strategy, and the company I am with now doesn’t have a specific exit strategy.  We know the value of our company, but it is not our stated goal to sell.  I think 90% or more of business are really organized primarily to make revenues by serving a customer segment and not to be purchased.  Really, there is no wrong way to do it if you are providing value.  There is a potential downside to being funded and growing too fast.


Question: How do you meet partners that aren’t public health minded?

Garrett’s Answer:  It isn’t as hard as you might think, within a university there are multiple disciplines that would be willing to start a dialog.  As you go out into the workforce it isn’t that much harder, business communities “meet ups” are a good place to start. It is a matter of getting out there and telling your story and hearing other’s stories.  Breaking the initial ice is the hard part at conferences, but there hasn’t been a conference where I haven’t had multiple really good conversations.  A tip that I have found useful is to work with a coworker and even find a way to build some friendly competition into the event.


Question: In the public health space, what is the common challenges in terms of adopting technology, the common thread you are seeing in the general space? 

Garrett’s Answer :  Understanding that in the public health space the medical data is valuable but may not the sole source needed to support public health goals.  Please listen to the public health partners as you attempt to merge those streams to serve both needs.