T.J. Muehleman is never short on ideas. While keeping on top of a steady flow of outside projects, the Atlanta-based programming shop has also been its own test kitchen — with lines of code as the ingredients.
But Standard Code’s creativity hasn’t always been a strength. While they were fun to build, products like the Atlanta Database of Nachos, an online thank you note service or a SMS-based virtual assistant weren’t destined to become commercial blockbusters.
They did, however, help pave the way to the company’s first big hit, a data collection tool now used in 50-plus African countries by some of the world’s largest public-health institutions.
“We did not want to become (and still don’t want to become) a full-fledged agency. We want to be a product company, so we started taking every project we could where we could build a product,” Mr. Muehleman told Global Atlanta, describing the company’s journey among the plywood walls and pingpong tables at the Switchyards co-working space downtown.
It wasn’t easy to leave money on the table. But Mr. Muehleman had learned about his weaknesses through earlier ventures that had fizzled. Now he knew how to guard against them.
“It was a hard lesson to learn,” he said, painting that moment as the culmination of a period of soul searching in his 30s. “There was a long time there when I was like, ‘Damn, man what am I doing?’ That was really instrumental for me. It was almost like a pilgrimage of sorts. ”
Soon, Standard Code would stumble upon the answer.
Little Project, Big Organization
It started as a 10-hour-per-month gig, a tiny project referred by an acquaintance who was in the process of selling his company.
“It was literally a friend of a friend of a fiancé of a friend kind of thing,” Mr. Muehleman said.
But this little job was for a huge organization: The Task Force for Global Health, the Decatur-based group that fights “neglected tropical diseases” and other health scourges by delivering drugs and training epidemiologists around the world.
One of the largest nonprofits in the nation, the Task Force is just now starting to garner recognition befitting its size ($2.7 billion in revenues.) That’s partially by design, as its ethos is built around solving problems no matter who gets the credit.
Mr. Muehleman found himself enjoying the work — and getting more of it after he met Alex Pavluck, who was known as the go-to guy at the Task Force for using technology to solve public health problems.
Health work, it turned out, was just the type Standard Code wanted: heavy on product development, light on the sales slog.
“We said, ‘There is a ton of work here, very few people are actually doing it, and health care in general is just ripe for disruption,’ so we actively chased that,” Mr. Muehleman said.
Mr. Pavluck, an epidemiologist with a background in technology, said public health organizations aren’t brimming with tech-savvy staffers, and they often lack the resources to hire them. A field steeped in medical knowledge is still lagging the tech adoption found in just about every other sector.
“It’s not really a space that’s very catered to,” said Mr. Pavluck, who is now working in Atlanta with RTI International.
Mr. Pavluck had built his own data collection system based on an open-source product called Open Data Kit. But when the Task Force started doing cross-border electronic data collection, sending off specimens to labs in a lymphatic filariasis study, it became too difficult to manage. That’s when Standard Code came in.
“They came along at a time when I had already proved the value of the tool but didn’t have the resources to scale it myself,” Mr. Pavluck told Global Atlanta.
Soon, the team was being called into consulting projects in places like Kenya and the Congo. Mr. Muehleman, who briefly flirted with an international affairs degree while at Georgia Tech, was fascinated by African culture.
His team noticed that with the available patchwork of tools, health workers on the ground were struggling to collect data and make use of it.
That’s when Secure Data Kit was born, promising a software-as-a-service model that took the management of the servers and other tech headaches off organizations’ plates.
‘Data Collection Is Broken’
Available through a monthly subscription, Secure Data Kit lets health workers digitally collect survey responses and other data on smartphones, tablets or computers in the remotest corners of Africa, even when an Internet connection isn’t available. Where smart devices are scarce, feature phones can send information via text message. Everything is tagged with a location, adding a vital tracking function.
Once uploaded, Secure Data Kit makes the data usable through maps, graphs and charts, providing personal support to help agencies figure out how best to present what they’ve collected — and saving hours of time manually creating reports in spreadsheets.
Better data and visualization benefit all stakeholders, from the World Health Organization on down to donors and non-governmental organizations.
NTDeliver, a customized version of Secure Data Kit, was created to improve the logistics of drug delivery, especially that elusive “last mile” from the port to the patient. Working with a consortium of drug donors, logistics providers and health agencies linked through the Neglected Tropical Diseases Supply Chain Forum, the software has tracked more than 2 billion tablets from factory to final destination in just over a year.
Drug donation programs aren’t new. The Task Force itself was created to distribute malaria meds offered up by Germany’s Merck & Co. in the 1980s. Secure Data Kit just makes it less cumbersome to scale up accountability: the process of making sure doses are getting to the right people.
Standard Code’s leaders have been integrally involved in designing the processes, traveling often around the continent to see how the technology works — or doesn’t — on the ground.
The product itself was an evolution, not a revolution, Mr. Muehleman said. It’s more practical than purely innovative, and that’s reflective of his company’s philosophy: Standard Code wants to be the auto mechanic rather than the car maker’s R&D lab.
“We’re not mechanical engineers. I’m not here to invent a new internal combustion engine. I’m here to make what you’ve got work.”
A More African Future
While it’s also being marketed to private companies, Secure Data Kit’s immediate future will increasingly be centered on Africa. In March, the company announced that it would partner with Merck to put a permanent office in Nairobi, Kenya, to gain insight that will improve the product. It could also help compete with the many data-collection tools now on the market.
Working in the shadow of the CDC, the Carter Center and the Task Force in Atlanta is only serving one of its core constituencies, Mr. Muehleman said in a blog post announcing the move:
“While it is great being so close to one of the centers of gravity in global health, it’s still a world away from where the technology we developed is being put to use … Our software is now used in nearly every single country in Africa (that sounds kinda cool, doesn’t it?). We love racking up the SkyMiles, but the 20-hour flights back and forth means we can’t be on the ground as often as we’d like.”
Each full-time team member is planning to spend time in the country. That started with co-founder Jared Malan, who took his wife and three kids there for three months to kick-start the office.
“Understanding the people and environment make us better and more empathetic builders,” Mr. Malan told the local tech news site Hypepotamus in an interview a week after he settled in.
In his Global Atlanta interview, Mr. Muehleman agreed. “Africa is in terms of technology where we were 25 years ago, so there’s so much opportunity and the people are so fantastic,” he said.
Nairobi, meanwhile, is a thriving tech hub of its own that some are calling the “Silicon Savannah.” And it blends that entrepreneurial energy with a concentration of humanitarian groups.
“Our goal is to interact more with African developers, hiring people over there,” Mr. Muehleman said. Mr. Malan said he will seek out people who know how to form the partnerships required to work successfully in the public-health sphere.
That’s what drives Mr. Muehleman, Mr. Malan and their technical co-founder Jonathan Nesbitt every day.
“It’s fun working with mission-driven people,” he said. “They’re not in it for the glory. They just want to wake up in 10 years and know that trachoma is gone.”