For some, running a profitable business is just as important as making an impact in people’s lives. That’s the motto of Dr. James Luther, owner and founder of Luther Consulting, LLC, which was recently ranked #1 small business in the Best Places to Work sponsored by the Indiana Chamber of Commerce. Luther Consulting’s innovative technology platform has had an impact not just the lives of their employees, but the public health of those around the world.
Founded in September 1998, Luther Consulting has 26 full-time employees, many of whom work on the company’s cornerstone product: a web-based data collection and reporting application for the public health industry.
Luther Consulting created and utilizes their public health software to collect data for a variety of sexually transmitted diseases, such as HIV and hepatitis C. That information is then packaged up and shipped to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), which eases the CDCs burden of figuring out how to collect the data and cleans the data with validation rules so the CDC has the cleanest data set possible. This allows the CDC to focus on data interpretation and using the data to make decisions to prevent the spread of disease, instead of figuring out how to collect the immense amounts of data needed to do their job accurately.
From licensed psychologist to software builder
The path to tech innovation is never cookie cutter, and Dr. Luther’s background proves just that. In 1980, he graduated from Purdue University with an associate degree in computer science, which was quickly followed by a bachelor’s degree in psychology also from Purdue. He then continued on that track by earning his doctorate in psychology from Indiana University Bloomington in 1992.
Dr. Luther began consulting and teaching behavioral science for HIV Prevention to community based organizations in 1998 for the Indiana State Department of Health and realized he did not want to continue doing clinical work full time. What he didn’t realize is that he would soon find a way to bridge his computer science background to his current profession.
In 1994, AIDS became the leading cause of death for all Americans between the ages of 25 and 44 (Source: CDC). “In the late 90s, we were just beginning to understand how HIV was transmitted. The CDC was given a mandate by the federal government to start collecting data on what was being done with the prevention funds they received as a result of the Government Results and Performance Act (GPRA),” Dr. Luther said.
“I happened to be in the Indiana State Department of Health at the time, using my behavioral science background to teach basic behavioral science for use in changing health behaviors because we were starting to uncover the root causes of how HIV was transmitted. I was the only one in the department with a behavioral science research background, so ISDH asked me to look at the CDC requirements and help them figure out how to meet those reporting requirements.”
Dr. Luther reviewed what research the CDC was requiring community based organizations to collect, such as gender, race, ethnicity, and risk behaviors for HIV (such as sex without a condom or sharing injection drug equipment). Most organizations doing HIV Prevention work in 1997 were small not-for-profit organizations that did not have computers, so no software currently existed to tackle this problem.
“I thought this would be a really cool web database project, so I wrote a core system over a holiday weekend and then presented it to the Indiana State Department of Health,” said Dr. Luther. He quickly realized the profitability of such a platform, and decided that instead of selling it to health departments outright, he would lease it to them. This was well before software-as-a-service was a concept or business model, but the health department said yes and signed on board.
Dr. Luther continued to develop a core system for the product beyond what he put together in one weekend. He was still doing all of this by himself, and other states were beginning to contact him to see if they could sign on as well. Eventually, Dr. Luther got up to 10 states to use his platform.
While he was building the core system, the CDC decided to hire a technology company to come in and create a competing system that would be owned by CDC. Unfortunately for them, the project failed after lots of money was spent with the other company. In 2012, the CDC approached Luther Consulting to take over the data collection and reporting and gave them full reigns to do what they do best.
Now, Luther Consulting is working with every state in the U.S. either by providing their system or assisting larger, more sophisticated states with the systems they currently use. They aggregate all of the data and provide a cleaned data set to CDC on a semi-annual basis. This allows CDC staff to stay focused on prevention and research.
Investing in employee well-being
It takes a team to provide such support across the country, and Luther Consulting works hard to create an atmosphere where people choose to stay for the long term. “We really try for work life balance. Having lived through a number of circumstances in my life, as well as practicing therapy for five years with many people, it’s important that I work hard at running a company that both makes money but is also focused on helping people improve their lives and be able to enjoy them to the fullest,” said Dr. Luther.
That attitude, coupled with great office perks, is what led Luther Consulting to receive the Best Places to Work award from the Indiana Chamber of Commerce. Beyond a flexible work schedule, the Luther Consulting office is built out just like a home. There’s a full kitchen that staff use to cook together frequently, a coffee bar, regularly scheduled social activities, two dogs that come to the office daily, and unlimited time off. A mentoring program connects employees to supervisors that aren’t their own to discuss work life balance, making sure that all employees understand the emphasis on having a successful career and a successful life outside of work.
The future of Luther Consulting will focus on utilizing their new public health platform which is currently under development and scheduled for initial release late this fall. Their new product utilizes graph databases to help public health officials make connections between individuals and infections — much like Facebook or LinkedIn. This technology will help focus prevention and intervention to prevent the spread of disease.
“We see a big need to take these newer technologies and translate them into something that can be used on the ground by public health workers who are trying to locate those in need of help,” said Dr. Luther.