A Q&A with Doug Meil, Cleveland's data-driven entrepreneur
 


IBM bought his company and kept him to run the engineering team, which sparkles with Case talent. 

Doug Meil, MS ’98, strode through his offices high above downtown Cleveland in blue jeans and kung fu slippers, drinking in panoramic views and pointing out cubicles populated with Case Western Reserve graduates. The lanyard looped around his neck was spangled with buttons that said things like "Nice Cohort" and “My, What Big Data You Have.” His employee ID read IBM.

Meil, 49, is a Distinguished Engineer for IBM Watson Health, which sprang from Explorys, a healthcare analytics company he co-founded with Steve McHale, Charlie Lougheed and Dr. Anil Jain in 2009.  IBM swooped in and bought Explorys in 2015, making it the foundation of its Watson Health division. Today, Meil's startup employs about 250 people on the top floors of the former Eaton tower. Soon, everyone will move into a newly-built headquarters at the edge of the Cleveland Clinic campus.

As co-founder of one of Cleveland’s most successful med-tech companies ever, Meil has uncommon insight into entrepreneurship, data science, and the value of night school at the Case School of Engineering. He sat down recently with Case Alumnus magazine to answer some questions.

You co-founded Explorys when healthcare data analytics was brand new. What was that like?

You’ve heard the phrase, ‘Flying an airplane and building it at the same time?’ Every week seemed to have an existential crisis (laughs). Plus the fact that three of us were brand new to healthcare. We were product software people. So we were fortunate to partner with Cleveland Clinic (where Dr. Jain was on staff). I recruited and built the engineering team in the beginning, and defined the technical architecture and design of the products.

 

What do you do as a distinguished engineer for IBM Watson Health?

I provide technical guidance to the Value-based Care engineering team. Explorys was heavily into population analytics for healthcare. Now we’re connecting to the next phase of the care continuum, like care management. It’s the ‘And then what?’ part of the process. So I found people with care gaps, now what? It’s great to identify areas that need improvement, but you do want to take action.
 

Do you recommend entrepreneurship?

You need to know what you’re getting into. It’s not for the faint hearted. Startups are a lifestyle.  They are a tremendous learning experience. The upside is you get exposure to more responsibility than you typically get in a big company. But they can be wild rides. You need to find an outlet to lower your blood pressure. For me, it’s Jiu-jitsu.

At the beginning, everything’s an adrenalin rush. But you have to remember, it takes a lot more than 16-hour days to make it work. You do need other experience to draw from to make it a survivable experience.

What was your other experience?

After college, I was a software engineer for Key Bank (from 1992 to 1999). After Key, I was out at a software startup called Model N in California. I learned a ton out there. Then I worked at Everstream with Steve (McHale) and Charlie (Lougheed). And I had my training at Case.

Tell us what brought you to Case Western Reserve?

I was an applied statistics major at Miami of Ohio—what they called decision sciences. I wasn’t a computer science undergrad.  So one of the things I did with my master’s was to take a lot of CS classes. I was trying to backfill a lot of things I didn’t catch. (Laughs).

One of the things I really liked about Case was that most of the people in my program made things. They were engineers for Bridgestone, chemical engineers for GE. I wanted to get myself into an area where I was uncomfortable. I was working for Key Corp, writing software by day. My classmates were from completely different professions.

I remember one time, the instructor was trying to cite a simple example, and he said something like, ‘Let’s say you’re making tires.” And someone from the back of the room yells out, ‘You have no idea how complicated that is!’ I loved it.

Were there any advantages to being a night student?

I took one class a semester for three and a half years. So I figured out where I could park and not pay for a permit. I knew where to get the fastest food on campus. Because I went right from work, I had to figure out all that stuff. It was a three-hour class and I had to eat. I had to be much more logistically savvy.

How has Case shaped you?

 Actually, the more formative experience has been working with Case the last 10 years, through Explorys and Watson Health. That’s made a huge impression on me. I’ve been active in recruiting Case students. The year-over-year experience of coming to career fairs, attending hackathons, and having Cleveland Big Data meetups at Case has been both educational and personally rewarding.

Back in early 2010, we met with the career center and co-op directors. We were a four-person company. We were talking about all the great things we were going to do. They could have been like, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah…’  and dismissed us as the crazy dreamers we probably sounded like. But they helped us. They gave us the nod when we needed it. ‘They’re good guys. Consider working with them.’ That’s important. Everybody at Case was 100 percent supportive and an integral part of making Explorys a success. 

Do you hire Case graduates because they’re good or because you are loyal?

Both.

You founded the Cleveland Big Data Meet-up nearly eight years ago, and you’re still running it. Why is that important to you?

One of the lessons for students—and I know this sounds cliché—is that you never stop learning and you need to keep networking. Networking is essential. It’s the opportunity to meet, to exchange ideas with multiple ages, with multiple professions. Software people have the advantage of crossing industries.

Becoming involved with the Apache HBase open-source community was a huge influence on me. I first met the open-source community in Silicon Valley, after we launched Explorys. I thought, ‘I want that here. I want that spirit here.’

How do you run a good meet-up in Cleveland?

Rule number one, you have to offer good content. We get good speakers. Number two, it has to be well-organized. My shtick is, I have a kitchen timer for each speaker. When it beeps, you’re done. When people have limits, they speak better. Rule number three is, everyone gets fed. There’s always pizza. We average 120 people at our meet-ups.


About two dozen Case graduates work in the Cleveland offices of IBM Watson Health, mostly as data scientists, software developers and computer engineers. Here are the alumni we were able to muster on a recent work day.

Clockwise, from the bottom: Olivier Izad, Nicholas Hudek, Shelley Murphy, Joe Fennimore, Matt Sargent, Michael Kechisen, Aishwarya Ravindran, Andy Johnson, Curtis O’Neal and Paul Whitten.
(back row) Devyn Spillane, Zach Scott, Ricky Patel, Joe Peter
(front row) Darian Pazgan-Lorenzo, Doug Meil, Austin Hacker, Abby Walker