The Expedia of health care? ABQ startup head aims for ‘a common language’

Ries Robinson is the founder and CEO of Graphite Health. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Journal)

If you’re afraid of the dentist, be forewarned about walking into Ries Robinson’s office — you’re sure to run into his poster displaying dental pliers.

Why is it there?

It’s possible that Robinson’s assistant “checked the wrong box” when ordering office art work, but the man, who’s an engineer, medical doctor and serial entrepreneur, actually likes it.

“It’s a great conversation piece,” Robinson says. “Driving innovation in a health care system is like pulling teeth.”

He should know.

Once the chief innovation officer (and now adviser) for Presbyterian Healthcare Services, Robinson is currently focused on his latest venture, Graphite Health.

The Albuquerque company, which Robinson founded last year, is working to create a common digital language for medical information so health care companies can share patient records in a standardized manner.

The information could be transferred instantly, rather than relying on a fax machine or “a kid with a scooter,” Robinson says. And it would be integrated smoothly into the patient’s electronic file, rather than being “like a footnote in the back.”

Although Robinson compares health care innovation to “quicksand,” he says Graphite’s “big, hairy audacious goal… is absolutely solvable.” Among the members of his non-profit company are Presbyterian, Kaiser Permanente and Intermountain Healthcare.

A self-described “Roswell boy” who once won a Lego contest, Robinson has founded eight companies, resulting in more than 40 US patent applications.

“I’ve had an interesting career in that I think I’ve really created every job I’ve had,” he says. “I’ve never interviewed for a job. It’s kind of an odd thing.”

What do you hope to achieve with Graphite?

“Professionally, I hope it’s my crowning achievement, because health care affects every person. I don’t know about you, but I find health care to be atrociously inconvenient. You and I have been around long enough to remember that when you traveled, you had to call every airline, you had to work through the travel agent, you couldn’t get the information. Well, the reason was there wasn’t any common communication. Every airline had their own reservation system. So at some point, Expedia and other entities said, ‘Well, why don’t we create a common framework…?’ And now you and I have that convenience of being able to access flight information versus calling every single (airline). What Graphite is all about is saying we could improve the quality and the cost and the convenience of health care, if we spoke a common language.”

After getting two degrees in mechanical engineering, why did you decide to become a medical doctor?

“I’m an engineer at my core. But I got very interested in everything sort of in medicine, but not the care (aspect) of medicine. When I was in my sophomore year (of medical school), I started working on noninvasive glucose monitoring at UNM. I got a grant to involve some Sandia scientists, and … there were probably nothing short of 500 articles written on it. So I decided that there was an opportunity utilizing the resources at Sandia, coupled with the university, and recruited a bunch of really bright, capable colleagues from Stanford, and we formed a company called Rio Grande Medical Technologies in Albuquerque. There were five spinouts from it. Everything I’ve done, nominally, is sort of non-invasive measurements in the medical space.”

What do you do in your free time?

“Oh, I have a great life. I’m a pretty avid outdoorsman. I still race mountain bikes. I’m an avid skier. We have a house in Durango, so we paddleboard and kayak the (San Juan or Animas) river.”

Have you gotten any advice that has stuck with you?

“I was incredibly fortunate, I would say through the majority of my 30s, in that I had four extraordinary mentors. Their code of conduct, both in business and personally, was exceptional, and I think that has served as a guiding light. Do the right thing. Conduct yourself the right way. Conduct business the right way. There’s a lot of ways you can conduct yourself that isn’t to the highest standard, and I never saw where they did that. And they were unbelievably successful in their personal and professional lives. I would say the other thing is they were from all different sectors, but all were remarkably curious. And I think that was something that was very important, to have that curiosity fostered in me.”

What has made you successful?

“I don’t know if I’ve been successful. I’ve had a lot of fun, and I’ve enjoyed what I do. I think I work hard. And I absolutely just find it so much fun to work with people who are a lot brighter than I am, because it expands my world. In the process of running a business, there’s a lot of day to day. Just keeping up with email, you get kind of burned out on it. We have a statement, at least in our home, that people get ‘Eeyored’ as they get older. But, what the heck? How could you be grumpy? I mean look outside. It’s a gorgeous day.”

Don’t you ever get grumpy?

“I get tired. I get grumpy, but not very often.”

What keeps you sunny?

Life’s pretty interesting. I like working on stuff. I still have an aspiration of kind of changing the world with my life. So I think that’s kind of fun.”