Sam Glassenberg was riding high from winning a technical Emmy award for his work at Microsoft in developing cutting edge video game graphics. That was until he got on the phone with his anesthesiologist father.
“Without skipping a beat [my father] goes, ‘Sam that’s very nice, but in this family we only recognize Nobel prizes. You’re not yet 30 years old, you can still go to medical school. I’ll pay for it,” Glassenberg tells Chief Executive.
Glassenberg comes from a long line of doctors—both of his parents and his grandfather were doctors and his wife is one as well. He was a self-described “black sheep of the family.” That was until he designed a video game to help his father train his colleagues on doing a fiberoptic intubation procedure. “It’s a tricky procedure that even an experienced anesthesiologist can mess up, so [my father] said, ‘Make something that can run on their iPads. I don’t want to drag anybody to a simulation or training center.’”
Instead of making it on a system which would have people to get a new graphics card to run the game, Glassenberg developed the game, uploaded it to the app store and essentially left it alone. Two years later, his dad asked him to find out how many people had uploaded the game. He found it was roughly 100,000 doctors, nurses and healthcare specialists worldwide. What had been a short project to overcome some familial guilt suddenly became a viable product addressing a need. That was the birth of Level Ex.
A few years later, Level Ex has more than 350,000 medical professionals in the U.S. alone playing its games. It has games designed for anesthesiologists, gastroenterologists, colorectal surgeons, pulmonologists, critical care specialists, cardiologists and numerous other specialties. Chief Executive spoke with Glassenberg about how the company has been able to grow, how they’ve gotten video game developers to design games for doctors and more. Below are excerpts from this conversation.
What has been Level Ex’s secret to success? It’s hard enough getting medical practitioners to adopt EHRs—so for them to adopt a video game is surprising.
I’d argue it’s not surprising at all. There’s a huge gap between state of the art in entertainment and state of the art in healthcare. You see this across the board. If you look at a character’s eye in a “Call Of Duty” video game, where you have to look past 20 characters to get a view of this guy’s eye. And that one eye in a video game looks way better than a $250,000 ophthalmology simulator. And once you graduate, the way you’re learning is on live patients or you’re watching a boring lecture or reading an article and doing a multiple choice tasks, right? That’s how you earn your [continuing medical education] credit by renewing your license. With Level Ex, you can earn CME credit by playing really difficult cases, which are levels of video games on your phone.
We treat doctors like people. They want to know, ‘How come I go home and play games on my phone or on an Xbox and they are amazing and then my training is like read an article and do a multiple-choice test?’
Doctors are burned out. You spend the majority of your life training and hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical school. A huge portion of your day is typing data into a computer that looks like it’s from 1992. You’re treating the same conditions over and over again. Once a year, you get to encounter that super rare, interesting, difficult case? And that reminds you why you went into medicine. But it’s so rare and what we give you at any point, pick up your phone and be reminded why you went into medicine because you can really stretch your skills and play really hard cases and you can earn CME credits while you are doing it.
What are some of the challenges Level Ex has encountered?
The challenge we have is always around hiring the best talent. I’ve been surprised by that video game developers are finding this kind of work appealing to them. Video game developers are like doctors. For doctors, there’s medicine and then there’s everything else, right? For video game developers, you’re either making video games or you’re writing bank software. There’s nothing in between. Video games are creative and fulfilling. We’ve been able to like really attract video game developers because they have the opportunity to use all their skills and you use the most advanced game design technology. We don’t compromise on any of that. You are using all your skills as an artist. And you’re able to do something that has broad reach, hundreds of thousands of medical professionals that are treating tens of millions of patients.
Talk about the culture you’ve built at Level Ex.
We’re trying to capture the best of both cultures, from healthcare and video games. Gaming is an incredibly passionate, creative, collaborative mindset where your realize that no one person can make a game. Its artists working with engineers, working with designers, working with data people. Everybody’s working closely to go and create something that’s ultimately this creative storytelling medium. Everybody in the games industry is there because they want to be there. You can always make more money elsewhere. You’re there because you’re passionate, you’re excited about doing something creative that’s going to reach lots of people and entertain them. And healthcare, you’re very mission driven. You want to improve the patient’s quality of life and you want to potentially lives. So we tried to combine all of that.
What advice do you have to other CEOs?
I don’t understand how folks can spend the majority of their waking hours doing something they don’t find fulfilling and meaningful. My entire career has been spent trying to find ways to enable people that are more creative than me and more talented than me to unblock them. I started out at LucasArts and my job as an engineer was to make sure that the limitations of the hardware don’t get in the way of their vision. Now I’m the CEO and that [mentality has] parlayed to the rest of my career. I’m not an engineer anymore, I’m a manager, but now it’s how do we make sure that the business and the operations don’t get in the way of incredibly talented people and their vision.