By the time she enrolled in the Tepper School of Business, Virginia (Ginny) Pribanic had successfully traversed the organizational chart at National Steel. Today Pribanic (TPR'93) is CEO of MedRespond, a university spinoff that responds to users' questions with answers from a database of videos matched to the words contained in the questions. The result is a conversation between a real-life person and a video person—a Custom Conversation®. Although the technology can be used across myriad applications, MedRespond is focused on healthcare, a potential $6 billion market sector.
What made you switch from steel to healthcare information technology?
After a dozen years, ending in the early 1990s, the steel industry wasn't as much fun as I had envisioned [chuckle]. I decided to get my MBA at CMU, where I met some people who were developing a technology they called synthetic interviews. It was a convergence of natural language processing, search engines, streaming media, and machine learning.
Sounds cool. Why healthcare? Why not video games?
At first, we experimented with recreational applications. But when I talked to physicians, they said, "I have eight minutes with each patient. I really don't have time to answer questions." It was an obvious opportunity for us.
An automated system to replace doctors?
It will never replace a doctor. It's an extension of a doctor's time. They don't want to answer the same question 100 times. That's what Custom Conversations are for.
Does it actually work?
In a six-week pilot nutrition program, kids who engaged in Custom Conversation computer games ate more fruits and vegetables and less fast food and sugary drinks than before we started. So I would have to say, yes, it actually works. It's like a one-on-one coach.