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Johns Hopkins Medical Students Create Startup to Protect Patient Privacy

“It’s not too often the right opportunity with the right person at the right time comes about, and sometimes you just say, ‘This is one of those shots I have to take or I’m going to regret it for the rest of my life,’” said Robert Lord, a co-founder of Protenus, when I sat down at the company’s office. It’s a surprisingly simple yet powerful sentiment, one echoed by Lord’s friend and Protenus co-founder, Nick Culbertson.

Protenus was founded in early 2014 by Lord and Culbertson, both originally members of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine class of 2016. The company — named for the Latin word for “onward” — uses a combination of expert knowledge, statistical inference and machine learning techniques to help hospitals protect patient privacy in the era of electronic medical records.

Robert Lord and Nick Culbertson

Protenus co-founders Robert Lord (left) and Nick Culbertson (right).

In a world dominated by HIPAA, where hospitals are held responsible for privacy violations and where thousands of employees are at risk of committing said violations, Lord and Culbertson found a successful entrepreneurial idea through casual chats over coffee and lunch during their first two years of medical school. As part of their training, the two learned the appropriate way to transfer patient information in the medical setting. And, as it turns out, knowing how to do it correctly makes it much easier to understand how and when it is being done incorrectly.

But Lord and Culbertson didn’t always work in health care. Lord worked for a hedge fund for several years, and Culbertson served in the military as a Special Forces operator. Even with their diverse skills, they still needed help to get their new project off the ground. So after raising $1.2 million in the fall of 2014, they hired a team of data scientists, engineers, developers and designers from varying backgrounds, who helped them get further off the ground and make the company the success it is today. Now, a year after winning a DreamIt investment, the company is taking on its first client, the Johns Hopkins Health System.

Lord and Culbertson told me that as a whole institution, Johns Hopkins was absolutely supportive from multiple sides, including the medical school, business development office, IT office and legal office. In fact, they emailed several Johns Hopkins executives, who were more than willing to take the time to talk to students and connected them to other thought leaders and industry experts.

“Hopkins really has worked with us to take the reins on becoming a world leader in protecting patient privacy,” Lord says. “They really are dedicated, and that’s why this has become an interdepartmental effort. Protenus is something people could get behind and be excited about.”

“Hopkins is changing,” Culbertson adds. “We’ve seen that. It’s a great place for people who have great ideas and want to make a big impact. We encourage other students to look into these options, whether it’s an entrepreneurial boot camp or an informatics fellowship.”

The two friends and founders were genuine and effusive in their praise for Johns Hopkins, citing Christy Wyskiel and Peter Greene, among many others, as huge supporters. They commented on the collaboration between different parts of Johns Hopkins and the innovation they know the institution wants to foster.

And Protenus intends to continue moving forward. Outside of the overarching goal of improving patient trust in health care, they are hoping to eventually expand from hospitals to other venues, including outpatient clinics, pharmacies and perhaps even health care exchanges.