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IUPUI Magazine

Business Issue, Summer 2007

Animating the Future of Health

Article by Ric Burrous

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Imagine you're sitting in a doctor's office, listening to your physician describe the potential benefits and pitfalls of an operation you need to undergo. The fear of going under the knife, coupled with a dash of confusing medical terminology, is petrifying.

But what if that doctor could use his computer to show you a 3-D model of that same operation - let you "see" what he will be doing, showing you the danger spots and what the positive outcomes might be? Imagine that - because Harlon Wilson and a band of fellow IUPUI graduates from the IU School of Informatics can. And they do on a daily basis at a downtown Indianapolis company called Medical Animatics.

Wilson and Kurtis Rush, one of those fellow new media grads, launched the company a little over two years ago with two other graduates who have since left the company. Their work has already generated a lot of publicity - not to mention recent investors - which means the future is looking bright for Medical Animatics and its sister entities, Legal Animatics and Sports Animatics, even in the always-choppy waters of entrepreneurial technology companies.

Getting started

For Wilson and Rush, the world of 3-D technology and animation was a logical step after graduating from Informatics. They launched the company, with Wilson as president and CEO; Rush eventually opted to sell his portion of the company to Wilson and now heads up graphic design and creative development for the firm.

The two also created permanent positions for fellow Informatics graduates Stephany Shankel, Medical Animatics' lead 3-D animator, and Tony Cardinali, a video production expert. The company also has brought another IUPUI alumnus from Informatics, Jason Silverman, to fill multiple roles. Wilson plans to stay in touch with his old school when new positions emerge within the firm.

"We had the passion to start a company and see if what we had learned the past four years of college could actually be applied to the 'real world,'" says Rush. Thanks to "a few small projects" that kept the company afloat, things improved.

"We were working crazy 16-hour days and bringing our pillows to the office so we could sleep under our desks," he says, adding with a laugh that it "was exactly what I was doing my junior and senior year. In a weird way, it felt normal."

For Cardinali and Shankel, the opportunity to apply their new media skills in the work world "is a dream come true," according to Shankel.

"When I saw the movie Toy Story, I became fascinated with 3-D animation," she says. "What I love most about it is the versatility of the medium and the learning challenges it brings."

For Cardinali, like the others a central Indiana native (Wilson is from Indianapolis, Shankel from Carmel, Rush from New Palestine and Cardinali from Whiteland), a career with Medical Animatics is in many respects an extension of his learning curve.

"It wasn't so much what I learned at IUPUI, it was how I learned," he says. "Don't get me wrong; you learn a lot in new media and informatics. But even more, you learn how to grow, to adapt, to keep learning in an ever-changing digital world."

Wilson knew where to look when it came time to find talent to create his new company: IUPUI and the School of Informatics.

"From my first class in Informatics, I was blown away by the talent I saw around me," he says. "What the school was teaching us was new and mysterious, and most of all exciting. I'd dropped out of high school because I just wasn't ready for that experience, but when I got to IUPUI, the academic experience really opened my eyes!" He became so impassioned that he became one of IUPUI's top 10 male students during his senior year.

For Wilson, it was vital that he create a company culture that fostered the same spirit of creativity they all enjoyed while at IUPUI.

"I spent 14 years in the corporate world, and I know how hard it can be to stay energized and creative in that environment," says Wilson. "I vowed I wasn't going to let that happen at Medical Animatics!"

Not a typical college student

Those 14 years had a profound impact on Wilson and his vision of the future.

"I wasn't your traditional college student," Wilson says with a chuckle. "I was a high school dropout, grew up in the back room of a bakery, and I'd spent 14 years in the corporate world. After 9/11, company layoffs hit and I saw that I needed to go in a different direction if I wanted to reach my goals."

A portion of his time in the "real" world was at Riley Hospital for Children, sparking an idea that information technology could "revolutionize health care," according to the Indianapolis native.

"The biggest reason we chose the health-care field for our company is that the system is broken," Wilson says. "But I think we can help educate people about their health and their bodies, and an educated public is a big step toward reducing the cost of health care."

But the path to entrepreneurial success is never easy, as Wilson found out as he tried to provide solid financial footing for his fledgling company.

"About last Christmas, I was really thinking about getting out of it," he admits. "I knew we had the skills and the focus, but it takes more than that in the technological world. We needed to capitalize the company, and I feared I wouldn't be able to find the potential investors we needed. It was daunting."

Perhaps not surprisingly, Medical Animatics' future was assured thanks to a long-standing Wilson technique: when in doubt, network! While a student at IUPUI, Wilson had eagerly tackled any internship he could, often turning them into mentorships. The mentorships became relationships and even friendships. And in the end, two of those relationships - with former Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield executives Jane Niederberger and Barb Kew - became partnerships. Those partnerships paid off in May as the two health-care experts became Medical Animatics' "angel" investors.

"I've never hesitated to play the 'student card'," says Wilson. "The executives you work for as an intern usually expect you to use the opportunity to learn, to ask questions, to absorb information. For a lot of them, that's how they got started, and I've found most business leaders are happy to share with a student who is eager to learn. But you HAVE to be willing to ask."

Besides Niederberger and Kew, Wilson credits other mentors such as Roy Dunbar (retired CIO of Eli Lilly and Company, now with MasterCard International) and Dr. David Lee (vice president of health-care management with Anthem) with playing pivotal roles in his career.

His own experiences with internships have made him passionate about creating similar opportunities within Medical Animatics' world. He stays in constant contact with IUPUI's Solution Center, with the School of Informatics and other campus resources to make sure that students know about the possibilities his company has to offer.

Solid foundation

Wilson, his fellow grads and his investors know that the information-driven 21st century is Medical Animatics' best friend.

"We're betting our business on the idea that society wants more information, no matter what the subject," says Wilson. "People have an insatiable desire for more when it comes to knowledge, and the technology and software is there that allows us to give it to them in ways that will make it easier for them to make decisions about their care."

He estimates that 3-D modeling and animation "save doctors 20 percent" of the time they have to educate their patients. Already, he's heard from clients that people feel a greater level of comfort in what doctors are doing, and better follow-up after procedures and office visits.

Using technology to fill the gaps in knowledge is a logical step, according to Wilson.

"We're constantly getting messages and information from TV, radio, the Internet," he says. "The old paper format just doesn't cut it. With us (Medical Animatics), people get audio, video and even kinesthetic (hands-on) messages; the information is processed much more readily."

Other fields to consider

While most of his company focus is on the health-care industry, the company hasn't ruled out the possibility of working with law firms and already is working with USA Diving through its Sports Animatics identity.

The latter project is one of the success stories that earned the company the media spotlight. Wilson's creative team used 3-D modeling and animation to develop biomechanical representations of specific dives. Competitors can use a computer or iPod to watch a dive "done correctly," then apply those mental images to their next attempt at that same type of dive.

"Our work impressed USA Diving enough that they named us the official sports performance enhancement training technology provider" for the organization, Wilson says. "That was a big breakthrough for us, because it garnered us some attention that made others take notice."

The concept is the same, whether the field is health care, the law or sports.

"It's simply using technology to turn information into a visual representation," Wilson says. Such representations can overcome language barriers, technical jargon and much more. It could enhance the continuing education and distance education classes that enable doctors and nurses to stay abreast of state-of-the-art treatments and health-care tools. It could even enhance public awareness and support for research projects.

"In research, we can help describe difficult and detailed concepts to audiences that might not otherwise grasp what they're being told," says Wilson. "And whether it's data on a large scale or on the cellular level, the process is the same: make the information easy to grasp," whether the topic is HIV, smoking cessation, or potential cancer clusters.

The Medical Animatics crew shares a common belief: they're on the greatest technological thrill ride going, and they plan to be in it for the long haul.

Wilson's email signature, containing a quote from the German author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, may say it best: "Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now."

"I truly believe we are witnessing a paradigm shift in the way our world works, the way business is run," Wilson says. "What's exciting is to sit in meetings with CEOs and make presentations to business leaders who get that, and who share that feeling!"

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