From Alaska to Malaysia, ALERT is computerizing health. Its founder, Jorge Guimarães, also intends to help discover the means of prolonging human life. But for the time being, we have “paperless” hospitals thanks to ALERT.
Jorge Guimarães often asks himself about the raison d’être of a company and always comes to the same conclusion: to resolve problems. According to him, that is the characteristic which sets apart ALERT Life Sciences Computing, the clinical software development company he created ten years ago under the name Médicos na Internet (Doctors on the Internet).
At the time he was at Stanford University researching the genetics of blood and thinking about becoming an oncologist. He was 31 and felt tired, very tired. He had just finished six years of intense research and won the Prémio Bial de Medicina (Bial Medicine Award), but it was time for a change. In Silicon Valley, in the middle of the internet boom, there were problems to solve. There was also the opportunity to create something of worth. And the fact that he had experimented with IT in his research (to determine the best programs to explain which genes were new and what their functions were) dictated the path he would take – clinical software development. His next choice, namely to settle down in Portugal, was easier. He felt a greater sense of security there and wanted his daughters to grow up with their grandparents.
Jorge Guimarães covers the different floors of ALERT in Vila Nova de Gaia and highlights the features of the company that started off its life by occupying a T1 (one-bedroom apartment). Today it overlooks the River Douro and employs five hundred people working in many different areas. There are numerous conceptualization rooms with bare white walls for people to stick pieces of paper with notes and diagrams: “Everyone is encouraged to think in terms of diagrams, which we can then turn into an idea. We are developing something that doesn’t exist and it’s a highly creative process. It’s almost like coming up with a new episode of The Simpsons every week”.
Primus inter pares
ALERT is among the best companies of its kind in the world, with sustainable growth, branches in England, Holland, Brazil, The United States, Singapore and Spain, and a product which is distributed in 20 countries. What singles it out is the clinical perspective with which it develops software. Jorge Guimarães experienced firsthand the chaos of a hospital emergency situation and the inability of those working there to solve the problems. As a result of being “on the other side”, he was confronted with the difficulties that come up with a patient who needs a diagnosis: which are the most suitable tests, what dangers result from the use of certain medicines? You need to know the internal workings of a health institution extremely well in order to develop good software for it. Another factor that distinguishes ALERT’s software is its user-friendliness, and the company stands out because of its focus on the design of its product.
Jorge Guimarães highlights another feature of the software his company produces that was crucial when it came to computerizing a region of Alaska (comparable in size to the state of Florida), namely, its ability to enable health professionals to share data.
The entrepreneur moves from room to room, explaining that the voice we hear on the loudspeaker is announcing the time for a “conceptualization retreat”. He also points out the motto “Improving health, prolonging life”, inscribed on the floor and makes a note of the bits in red on the training attendance sheets. We continue on our way, with Jorge Guimarães opening doors of the company and factory, introducing people and telling us about the project.
Jorge Guimarães highlights another series of features that justify ALERT’s success. They include controlled access to information (namely to patients’ clinical data), and the support of psychologists when the product is introduced in hospitals. The latter “ensures that in a high-stress environment, which a hospital certainly is, no one loses their head when faced with a new system that requires them to change their way of working.”
A final feature that distinguishes ALERT is its capacity to monitor the performance of its product 24 hours a day. So if, for example, there is a problem in Alaska or Malaysia, it is immediately solved, often before the end users have even noticed it.
Individual clinical file
For the entrepreneur, it makes sense for people to organise their own clinical file, just as they would a photo album. It would include details such as weight, allergies, chronic diseases, tests, and so on. If all this data is gathered together in an organised fashion, time is saved and it is unnecessary to go over a person’s clinical history again and again.
In the beginning, when Jorge Guimarães was mulling over the creation of the company, he imagined it as a service for citizens, with products such as online individual clinical files and medical advice. However, that was ten years ago, and he soon realised that it still wasn’t the right time to implement such improvements, one reason being that all the information was still on paper. It is only now, he stresses, that individual clinical files are beginning to be taken seriously: “It’s an issue that shouldn’t be left to the State or private companies, but should be in the hands of citizens”. And that is the guarantee that ALERT gives. The information in a citizen’s individual clinical file is their exclusive property and is not saleable under any circumstances. Jorge Guimarães says that he has American competitors who, while maintaining their users’ anonymity, sell their health-related information, such as prescriptions, to pharmaceutical companies.
Ahead of him, as well as the desire to computerize health in Portugal, lies the challenge of growth, and of being able to respond to the demands of software development, which, in 5 or 10 years, will be comparable to those that emerge when new medication is discovered. In other words, there will be no room for amateurs with this kind of software development – it will only be carried out by a handful of companies in the world. Jorge Guimarães forecasts that by 2013 his company will have to invoice 200/300 million Euros a year in order to survive and maintain sustainable growth.
From death to space
“I’m 42 and a half. Yes I count the halves. I think my life is too short” This obvious statement begs the question: Yes, but isn’t that the case with everyone? “Only if nobody discovers the cure for death… I strongly believe that it’s possible to prolong life. A lot of research has been done in this area, and we will be among the last generations to die before the age of 100. The process has been set in motion and I would like to make my contribution”. Jorge Guimarães states that, by the time he is 45, at the latest, he would like to have set up a biotechnology firm doing work related to the ageing process: “I think death is inevitable”. He continues, “It’s a difficult subject. When I speak about this, the reaction I get is either one of great interest or complete unease. In our generation, at this precise moment, a series of scientific advances are being made which will allow for a significant prolonging of life. They might result in immortality in my grandchildren and great-grandchildren’s lifetimes”. In the face of our perplexity, the researcher declares: “It will happen. We are programmed to replicate and disappear. If we can overcome that problem, we can remain alive for a long time. Our cells have the capacity to create everything from scratch again. It’s just a matter of working on the right programs and everything will happen again”.
Another of the entrepreneur’s wishes is to travel to space, but it’s on hold for the time being, until it becomes something more commonplace and less fraught with risks. This is hardly surprising for a man who feels the weight of responsibility of employing 800 people all over the world. And for a father of three daughters he wants to see grow up.