A conversation with Kyle Robertson

08/02/2014 11:15 PM

08/08/2014 2:40 PM

Wichita native Kyle Robertson was a lawyer with a major Boston law firm when a TV advertisement helped send his career in another direction.

The ad asked people to donate to hurricane victims by sending a text message through their mobile phones.

Robertson read the fine print and found that the cellphone companies were taking half of the money, he said.

“That really made me mad,” he said.

So Robertson, 32, left the law firm to start a business called iCare. It allows donors to give directly to charitable causes and disaster relief programs through their phones – but without any fees.

“I felt like I was contributing to society,” he said. “And I learned a lot about entrepreneurship.”

He sold the company in 2013.

In November, he and business partner Senem Guney cofounded NarrativeDx, a company that uses computer software to help hospitals learn from their patients’ comments on social media and elsewhere to improve care.

Hospital surveys are often vague and don’t give a true picture, he said.

“Patients are saying what they mean, but the hospitals aren’t listening to those conversations,” Robertson said. “They’re not monitoring that. We’re monitoring it for them. And we make sense of it for them.”

Robertson built the computer system and his partner is networking with hospitals.

“We’ve been able to get three clients in the last two months,” he said. “The hospitals that we’re partnered with are the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center and NYU Medical Center.”

NarrativeDx, based in Philadelphia, has received venture capital funding from the University of Pennsylvania and from DreamIt Ventures.

Robertson, 32, grew up in Wichita.

After graduating from Bishop Carroll High School, Robertson earned degrees in computer engineering and economics with a minor in math from Iowa State University.

After college, he moved to Austin for a job as a software engineer.

He worked there nine months – long enough to conclude that a career in software engineering wasn’t for him.

So he applied to Boston College Law School and was accepted. That was 2005.

After graduation he was hired by WilmerHale in Boston, a law firm focusing on intellectual property law.

“I was very fortunate to get that job,” Robertson said.

When not working, he likes to jog, play basketball and take walks around Philadelphia with his dog, an 11-month-old Siberian husky named Nova.

At the law firm of WilmerHale you became involved in the patent wars between Apple and Samsung. It also led to your dissatisfaction. How so?

They were suing each other. It’s a massive sprawling case across multiple countries. That’s what led me to get out of the law. It’s hard to feel like you’re making a dent in it. It’s such a big machine. There’s so many people that I didn’t feel like I was contributing too much to society overall. ... I liked working at the law firm. It’s intellectually stimulating. It’s also at the same time very constrained. Running your own business, especially a startup, is one of the best forms of education. You’re out in the wild, and all the problems are real, and you have to figure them out for yourself.

Was leaving the law firm difficult?

I was 27 and on the partner track, and I walked away. A lot of people think you’ve lost your mind if you do that. ... To tell you the truth my mom and dad were also like, “Did you think about this?” Yes, I thought about it. There’s also a certain level of impulsiveness in this. Sometimes you have to do it. It’s very safe in a large corporate machine. It’s not safe in a small company by yourself.

So was starting up a business kind of scary at first?

It was scary the first time. The good news is when you start a company, you always make a lot of mistakes. But if you learn from them, then it gets a lot easier the second time. The first time, everything comes at you so quickly, it can be hard to manage it. I was very fortunate. The law firm prepared me for that level of hard work.

Any advice for someone wanting to open a business?

The value of hard work. There’s just no supplement for it. No matter what, you have to do these things. No one is going to do them for you. There’s a lot of accountability. For some people that’s not what they want. For some it is.

What’s your biggest challenge in the new business?

The biggest challenge is getting hospitals to pay attention. They’re very risk adverse. They move slowly, and that’s what you want from a hospital. That’s a good thing because you want your health care to be scientifically proven and safe. But at the same time, they need to balance the need for innovation. ... Their hands are somewhat tied by bureaucracy.

You helped one hospital that had low nursing scores become better. Patients said the nurses weren’t listening to them. But you figured out the underlying cause was something different. What happened?

We looked. The patients were getting cold at night, but there were no blankets. They said, “The nurses don’t listen to me.” The hospital was going to fire all these nurses, but the nurses weren’t doing anything wrong. They bought more blankets instead.

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