Don Brown: From software innovator to immunotherapy visionary
IU School of Medicine Jun 12, 2017
A few years ago, Don Brown, MD, decided it was time to pull his teenage son away from video games and his regular perch on the couch.
“I said, ‘Get up. We’re going to the local airport. When you were a kid you talked about wanting to fly airplanes. We’re going to learn to fly,’ ” Brown recalls.
There was only one problem: Brown, an Indiana University School of Medicine alumnus and tech entrepreneur, is terrified of heights. As he sat buckled into the back of the little Cessna—the wind whipping the plane around like a kite—his heart leaped into his throat.
But rather than walk away, Brown decided to face his fear. First, he set a goal of taking off and landing the plane on his own. Once he accomplished that, he focused on getting a pilot’s license. Soon he was flying turboprops. “Before long I was flying my kids and people in my company at 28,000 feet on cross-country trips,” he says.
That’s quintessential Don Brown: The bigger the challenge, the more determined he is to conquer it.
Now, at age 61, he’s taking on one of the biggest challenges of all.
In December, Brown made a $30 million gift to Indiana University School of Medicine to establish the Brown Center for Immunotherapy. His vision—and the center’s mission—is bold: harness the power of the human immune system to cure some of the most deadly and difficult-to-treat diseases.
And just as with learning to fly, he’s determined to be successful.
“It’s so easy to talk yourself out of something, because you look at the end and it seems so far away,” Brown says. “But if you just take little incremental steps with intermediate goals, it’s just wild where you can get to ultimately.”
“There’s no question Don stood out among the rest”
Don Brown knows a thing or two about accomplishing goals. He founded and ran three booming tech companies, the last of which, Interactive Intelligence, sold for $1.4 billion in late 2016. He’s now working on his fourth venture, a start-up called LifeOmic that offers physicians and hospital systems a cloud-based platform to store, analyze and utilize complex patient data to inform health care decisions.
He’s one of the most successful software entrepreneurs in the Midwest, but he wasn’t always destined for a career in computers.
Brown was born on an army base in Maryland, the third of six children. His parents hailed from deep Appalachia and had eighth-grade educations. His dad mined coal before joining the army. After Vietnam, he moved the family to Indianapolis, where he got a job at a gas station. Later, Brown worked there pumping gas to make extra money as a teenager.
Growing up, Brown was riveted by science. At an age when most kids idolize professional athletes or musicians, he considered scientists his heroes. He imagined one day becoming a laboratory researcher. He certainly had the brains.
Robert Einterz, MD, a wrestling teammate and classmate of Brown’s at North Central High School in Indianapolis, remembers Brown as the brightest kid in calculus class. “Even in a class of high achievers, there’s no question Don stood out among the rest,” says Einterz, who is now associate dean for global health at IU School of Medicine.
Brown was accepted to Princeton University but chose IU Bloomington instead in pursuit of his high school girlfriend. While he is clearly brilliant, he is also unassuming.
Joe Adams, a longtime friend and business partner, recalls a time early in college when he spent the night at Brown’s dorm. The next morning, he answered a knock at the door to find a newspaper reporter who wanted to interview the “prodigy” who lived there. Adams knew Brown as the good-natured friend he listened to albums with—not as some genius. Clearly, he thought, the reporter had the wrong address.
“I told him there was no prodigy here and sent him away,” Adams recalls. “He came back an hour later and said, ‘I’m here to talk to Don Brown.’ ” Brown downplayed the visit—and the ensuing interview—but an article appeared about a week later that highlighted Brown’s sky-high IQ and likened him to Leonardo da Vinci and Albert Einstein.
“After that, we nicknamed him ‘Nardo’ after Leonardo da Vinci,” Adams says.
After earning his undergraduate degree in physics, Brown enrolled in a dual MD/PhD program with the intention of studying biochemistry. Back then, MD/PhD students would finish the first year of medical school, then take a break to complete their doctoral studies. But when it came time to begin his PhD, he started having second thoughts. He remained fascinated by science, but he couldn’t picture himself toiling alone in a laboratory for long hours.
Still, he liked the idea of a dual degree.
“I went home one night and got out the graduate course catalog and leafed through,” Brown says. “I came across computer science. I hate to date myself, but it was a relatively new discipline at that point. I started reading about it and was really intrigued. I said, ‘That’s what I’m going to do.’ That summer I took my first programming course down at IUPUI and just fell in love. It was like having a laboratory without all the noxious chemicals. You could do anything that you imagined, but you were doing it in a virtual world. I really felt like, ‘This is the field for me.’ ”
Three years later—with a master’s in computer science in hand—Brown returned to medical school to finish up what he had started. But the computer science bug had bitten.
So Brown didn’t hesitate when his buddy came calling during the second year of medical school and asked him to write a software program for a family car dealership. After long days of class and studying, Brown would plunk away at his Apple IIe computer, working on a program that could calculate monthly loan payments for customers financing cars. He didn’t know much about business math, so he’d sneak off to the business library and read anything he could.
Brown continued to make enhancements to the program and eventually spun it into a business, Dealership Programming, Inc. Brown wrote the software, and Adams hit the road selling it to dealerships throughout the Midwest.
“I moved up to Indianapolis from Bloomington for my third year of medical school,” Brown says. “You’re working 12 hours a day at the hospital. I remember coming home at 10, 11 at night, jumping on the computer, programming for three or four hours and giving my friend a disk. He would drive some place, to Des Moines or Detroit, and demonstrate the software. I would sleep three or four hours and go to the hospital and start all over again. That’s how I got into business.”
His course was set.
Though he graduated from IU School of Medicine in 1985, he didn’t continue on to residency and has never practiced medicine.
Brown looks the part of a Silicon Valley tech titan. He eschews the suits and ties typically worn by most Hoosier CEOs, instead opting for jeans, a casual shirt and brightly colored trail running shoes. Though his hair is graying, he’s still in peak physical shape, aided by his obsession with rock climbing, skiing and other outdoor adventures. He drives—what else—a bright blue Tesla, a machine that melds innovation and style.
While he’d likely fit right in on the West Coast, he never gave much thought to moving that way.
“I love to travel, but there is just something about Indiana—the people who are here, the openness, the friendliness,” says Brown, a father of eight. “On a business or academic level, I think there’s just a real attitude toward cooperation and long-term commitment. It’s part of the reason that I’ve stuck around, because I enjoy that sort of atmosphere.”
In 1987—just two years after graduating from medical school—Brown and Adams sold Dealership Programming to Texas-based Electronic Data Systems. They used their profit as seed money to launch their next start-up, Software Artistry. It went on to become the first Indiana software company to go public in 1995 and was acquired by IBM in 1998 for $200 million.
By that time, Brown had already moved on to his next challenge, founding Interactive Intelligence in 1994. Back in those days, corporate call centers relied on various hardware to manage different forms of communications. There might be one system for phone calls, separate servers for email and still other equipment to allow for faxing. “When you would go into a telecommunications room in a big corporation, there would be wires everywhere, boxes as big as refrigerators that were computers,” Adams says.
With Brown at the helm, Interactive Intelligence sought to replace all of the clunky hardware with a seamless software package that allowed businesses to engage with customers through every conceivable channel. Nowadays, we think nothing of the fact that a voice mail message pops up in our email inbox, or that we can easily transfer incoming calls from our office phone to our cell phone. Brown and his team at Interactive Intelligence were at the leading edge of making that possible.
Their products took off. What began as a startup with a handful of staff grew to a national leader in call center and communication technologies with some 2,000 employees. Interactive’s list of clients included major corporations like Capital One, CarMax, Kohl’s and Lockheed Martin.
Jeff Gerardot worked for Brown beginning in 1992, first at Software Artistry and later at Interactive Intelligence as vice president for development. He says part of what makes Brown such a successful leader is his ability to absorb and synthesize huge amounts of information, then talk knowledgeably with colleagues from all areas of the company. “He’s a sponge,” Gerardot says.
At Interactive, each of the company’s 300 to 350 software developers was required to file a status report every Friday. They would highlight any problems they were facing on a specific project, what hurdles they had overcome, and what they were working on in the week ahead. Since projects might take five years to complete, these reports were often filled with minutiae of little interest to anyone beyond their immediate team.
“Don would read them voraciously,” Gerardot says. “He had a StairMaster in his office. He would read them while pumping away. He would read them when he was traveling. That’s how he knew so much about every project. He could pop into a developer’s office and say, ‘I heard you’re working on such-and-such. I have a thought on this.’ He’d go to the white board and draw out what he was thinking. They would sit there and say, ‘I can’t believe the CEO knows about my project.’ ”
The next chapter
Brown might have laser-like focus when it comes to work, but part of what makes him so fascinating are his diverse interests outside of the office.
As a college student, he spent a summer in France earning a language certificate. Later, just as he launched Interactive Intelligence, he packed up his still growing family and moved to Southern France for a year.
In his spare time, you’re most likely to find him outdoors, particularly in and around his second home in Park City, Utah. He’s an avid hiker, skier, and snowshoer, and he took up rock climbing years ago as a way to entertain his active brood of kids during Indiana’s long winters.
The family got started climbing in gyms but soon upped the ante. “I’ve gone with several of my kids onto remote Indian reservations and places where there are no power lines, no roads, no cell phone signals, no vestige of civilization,” Brown says. “We actually have to talk to each other. Sometimes we have to plan in order to stay safe, hundreds of feet up a vertical rock face. I’ve really come to enjoy that element of just being out in astounding wilderness and beauty, being away from modern society, taking on physical challenges—but also mental challenges—and doing it with other people, especially my children.”
And, not surprisingly, the man who was a brilliant student continues to learn whenever and however he can. In 2013, he enrolled in a master’s program in biotechnology at Johns Hopkins University. More than a quarter century after graduating from medical school, he found himself once again studying biochemistry, molecular biology and cell biology.
His coursework, coupled with his own reading on advances in the life sciences, piqued his interest in the emerging field of immunotherapy. Just as he jumped into the software industry at a time when the field was taking off, he’s betting on the fact that immunotherapy is also at an “exponential inflection,” and that his gift can be the fuel IU School of Medicine needs to develop therapies that save people’s lives.
Brown has received a litany of awards. He revolutionized the way businesses communicate and helped establish a thriving tech ecosystem in Indiana. But he’s hoping his most important contributions are yet to come.
“As the father of eight children and now the grandfather of a 6 year old, I’m intimately aware of generational change, the passage of time,” he says. “I’m hoping to do something with the immunotherapy center that is able to make a difference for many, many years to come. That’s what gives me the sense of greatest joy, the fact that we’re going to be able to make a contribution that outlives me and that can serve as an enduring legacy.”