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PatientsVoices Founder Mary Kay O'Connor Calls Starting Company 'Series of Small Miracles'

Julie Denesha
Mary Kay O'Connor is the founder of PatientsVoices.

In 2009, Mary Kay O'Connor was preparing to restart her consulting business. Her specialty was collecting customers' stories to provide meaningful feedback to her clients. The Affordable Care Act was in the news, and she became interested in the data collected by the federal government — data that showed hospitals performing poorly but without much information on how they could improve.

She may not have been the typical startup entrepreneur – but an idea took hold.

Today, O’Connor is the founder of PatientsVoices, a Kansas City company she describes as “a health care company that allows patients to verbally tell the story of what happened to them during a recent health care experience.”

The company, she says, is “developing technology that analyzes their feedback in a way that provides hospital administrators with priorities for improving patient satisfaction.”

In July, PatientsVoices announcedit had received $270,000 in grants, including $150,000 from the National Science Foundation, $100,000 of credit toward cloud storage space from Google, and $20,000 from Kansas City’s Digital Sandbox. Located in the Bioscience and Technology Business Center on the campus of the University of Kansas Medical Center, PatientsVoices expects to field its first customer-ready application in the fall of 2016.

O’Connor talked with KCUR as part of the Innovation KC series. She spoke about the intersection of innovation and a changing health care environment, and about how startups go about getting the funding they need:

On starting a company late in her career

If someone had said that I'd be working on a technology company at this age, I'd tell them they were off their meds or something!

In some ways, I feel like I wished I'd understood that this was an opportunity way before this. I love being an entrepreneur. I went back to working in corporations after I had my consulting practice, and it's hard, once you know stuff, to set it aside. And I found myself butting heads with people and being frustrated, and so I decided to just go back to running my own business.

On receiving grants as a for-profit business

In the case of the National Science Foundation, the topic we applied for was "business models for user-centered health care," which is exactly what we're working on. Yeah, that was the good news. The bad news is we discovered two weeks before the deadline. I think we received the money from them because, as I said, it's a unique application for some existing technology, and we have take the technology another couple steps to make it viable from a health care perspective. I think that's one reason why we received the funding. As I've gotten to know the National Science Foundation, the other thing that's really important to them is bringing forward ideas that have commercial viability, and my background is business and [profit and loss statements] and making money, and it's clear to me that what we're doing can have a significant positive impact on the financials of health care organizations, particularly as their business models change. So I think that's the reason we got funding from them.

On the advice she would give other would-be innovators

One, it takes a village. And in this case, it's Kansas City. To me, PatientsVoices has been a series of small miracles, and those miracles are because of the people in this town, and the connections they've made, the encouragement they've provided, the dead-on feedback that they haven't hesitated to provide.

And the other thing is persistence. There have been so many noes. So many times when I personally was discouraged. And between my husband and I have a dear neighbor that I walk with in the park most mornings, the two of them are like my cheerleading squad. So persistence, and a community of people that support and believe in what you do.

This interview was part of Innovation KC, a series of conversations about innovation and innovators in Kansas City. To suggest Kansas City innovators for future interviews, send us an email, tweetus, or find us on Facebook.

As a host and contributor at KCUR, I seek to create a more informed citizenry and richer community. I want to enlighten and inspire our audience by delivering the information they need with accuracy and urgency, clarifying what’s complicated and teasing out the complexities of what seems simple. I work to craft conversations that reveal realities in our midst and model civil discourse in a divided world. Follow me on Twitter @ptsbrian or email me at brian@kcur.org.
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