Lots of people have ideas for companies. Lots of people can operate companies. But there are very few alchemists who can do both.
Ramu Potarazu, 55, is on his third turn at it.
Potarazu has helped create a business around collecting the experiences that patients have with their hospitals and doctors. He has turned it into McLean, Va.-based Binary Fountain, generating more than $6 million in revenue and employing 135. The employees are spread between India and Tysons Corner.
“There is always a difference between ideas and reality,” said Potarazu, who spends his weekends as an emergency medical technician in Rockville, Md. “A chief executive’s job is to make ideas into reality. That is what taking an idea and turning it into a real business is all about.”
Binary Fountain (go figure that name) is more timely than ever, with the Trump administration zeroing in on a radical reworking of the Affordable Care Act and with millions of baby boomers reaching retirement age.
“As medicine moves toward pay-for-performance, our business is going to be more important,” he said. “Health care is like merchandise. People are buying it the way they buy a TV set … shopping and going online, figuring out what others are saying about the products they are buying. We are helping hospitals sell to those shoppers.”
Potarazu didn’t go into Binary Fountain lightly. When a couple of investors came to him and asked him to consider taking on the challenge, he did his homework.
“I did 90 days of due diligence to see if I really wanted to do this. I wanted to understand the market, understand the technology,” he said. “I wanted to understand the different nuances of the business.”
I like Potarazu because he is more workhorse than show horse. He rolled up his sleeves, visited potential customers and even went to India to talk to engineers working on the technology he planned to use.
Three months later, “I came back and said there is a business here.”
He raised $5.5 million from investors, friends and family members to turn the idea into reality.
One hundred fifty-two customers and 40 million pieces of data later, Binary Fountain is on the edge of turning a profit.
So what does it do?
“We collect data from everywhere possible — surveys, online, social media, mobile devices, medical records,” Potarazu said. “We gather all this information and create sophisticated algorithms and engines that give deep insights of what patients are saying about their experiences in hospitals and with doctors.”
The surveys are broken down into 32 categories of patient experiences.
What do you think about the emergency care?
What do you think about the doctor?
How was the doctor’s bedside manner?
What did you think about the front desk?
Was parking easy?
Binary Fountain’s customers can be small practices with one physician all the way up to some of the largest hospital systems in the country, such as Providence/St. Joseph’s, based in Seattle and encompassing more than 40 hospitals.
Like all my subjects, I wanted to know how Potarazu got to where he is. No mystery there. It was education.
He grew up in Oxon Hill, Md., the elder of two sons born to parents who migrated from India. Potarazu’s father was a meteorologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. His mom raised the boys.
His years growing up in Oxon Hill instilled a certain grit that has served him well in his business career.
“When I was in school in Oxon Hill in the ’70s, you quickly realized the way you were going to get out of that environment was education,” he said. “My parents, coming from an Indian background, were all about education. If you didn’t have a basic college education, it was going to be tough to excel.”
He worked at math and core science courses at Potomac Senior High School (“It ain’t Potomac, Maryland.”). His father, who has a doctorate in physics, supported Potarazu’s push into math and science. He played sports, which taught him how to work with others and be part of a team.
Potarazu studied math and computers at Oklahoma Christian University. He hoped to play baseball at the college level, but that didn’t work out. He earned a master’s in electrical engineering at Johns Hopkins University in 1985.
After marrying and working at a telecom firm, he became a computer contractor at Intelsat, one of the largest communications satellite providers in the world. Intelsat was then based in Northwest Washington. It turned out to be a career-maker.
Intelsat was formed in 1964 by 11 countries that used the system’s geostationary orbit above the Atlantic Ocean as a way to transmit communications in the early days of satellites. By 2001, Intelsat had 100 member countries.
Potarazu performed a wide array of functions at Intelsat, eventually becoming president and taking the company out of government hands and turning it private in 2001. At the time, it served a global network with nearly $1 billion in revenue and 2,000 employees. The company is now listed on the New York Stock Exchange.
“The privatization of it was my achievement,” Potarazu said.
He left Intelsat in 2006 to found a company called Vubiquity, which helps deliver on-demand video content to home television screens. He helped Vubiquity raise money and expanded the business into more than $200 million in revenue and 500 employees in London and Los Angeles. The original investors were Columbia Capital and Valhalla Partners. Potarazu left in 2013 and retains an ownership interest. The Carlyle Group is also a shareholder in Vubiquity.
He planned on taking some time off after leaving Vubiquity. But within a couple of months, friends and business associates approached him with a new opportunity.
The offer: Take their idea for collecting patient experiences in the hospital and physician field, and see whether there was a business there. It had the clunky name of Binary Fountain.
Potarazu knows health care from volunteering as an emergency medical technician and as a board member at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington.
Binary Fountain sells subscriptions to doctors and hospitals in return for telling them how they are doing with their customers, or in this case, patients. Subscription costs range from $10,000 for a small physician practice to $800,000 a year for a large hospital.
Potarazu raised $18 million, most of which was used to buy out the founders. The money came from several sophisticated players in the investment field, including Pioneer Venture Partners — which owned a stake in Vubiquity — and Providence Health and Services, both of Seattle. HLM Venture Partners in Boston also owns an interest.
I asked Potarazu about the common denominators that run through his management style. Something must be working. After all, he has been successful in three distinct industries: satellite communications, media and health care.
It sounds obvious, but he said it comes down to diversity and teamwork, which he grasped from his days playing sports in Oxon Hill.
“When I look at a team, like basketball, you can’t have everyone be a shooting guard. You need a power forward, centers, shooting guards, playmakers,” he said. “You can’t have everyone like you. The key is having people who complement you and push you and look at different ways of how you put businesses together.”
Potarazu wouldn’t tell me about his wealth. He has done well, no doubt. He owns a chunk of Binary Fountain, and he had nice exits from his other firms. “I earned enough to put four boys through college,” he said.
Education, after all, is the key to success.