Business in Vancouver – Interview with Cogent CEO, Len Grenier

Mission: Develop Cogent Health Solutions startup into a successful commercial health-care industry contender

Assets: Lengthy experience in building technology companies

Yield: CEO and president of a health-care company with global marketplace potential in applying management software to improve the effectiveness of cancer treatments

By Curt Cherewayko

Len Grenier knows a thing or two about the complex business of developing technology companies.

As a founding member of Vancouver success story A.L.I. Technologies Inc. and the current CEO and president of startup Cogent Health Solutions, he has become familiar with the many stages of their development.

It was the lessons learned, mistakes made, and, ultimately, the successes that Grenier experienced at A.L.I. that are helping him guide Cogent through the adolescence of product development to final maturity with a marketable product.

Grenier was introduced to Cogent’s team in 2003 as a potential angel investor. He had recently left A.L.I. after it was scooped up by McKesson Corp. (NYSE:MCK), the largest pharmaceutical distributor in North America, in a $526 million cash deal in 2002.

“When I started doing the angel investing, I had no intention of going back to work,” recalls the mustachioed Grenier.

Cogent, however, which is developing treatment management software for cancer survivors, had other plans for Grenier. He joined the company’s board of directors in 2004.

Two years later, in April 2006, the self-described “laser jock” from Edmonton suddenly found himself CEO and president of Cogent.

“I was the only board member without a day job that had any sort of health-care IT experience,” says Grenier.

Now, with Cogent, Grenier gets the big desk full of paperwork (albeit with a beautiful view of Burrard Inlet from Cogent’s Gastown office) while the technical experts work computers and software in the next room.

“I don’t get to play with the knobs and dials anymore,” Grenier says, recalling his time as A.L.I.’s chief technical officer.

Cogent’s software creates a link between cancer survivors – who often receive little assistance after chemotherapy, but must still continue with treatment routines – caregivers and physicians.

The software automates and updates treatment schedules as they progress through the different levels of treatment, and with an information database, patients can learn about their disease.

Backed by a $3 million round of venture financing from Yaletown Venture Partners and angel investors in May, the Cogent is working closely with the Hospital Corporation of America at its CJW Medical Center in Richmond, Virginia., which recently sent Cogent a letter of intent to become its first customer.

Curiously enough, the centre is where, in the early 1990s, A.L.I. first piloted its PACS technology, used to manage and archive medical imaging such as X-rays.

Many of the parallels between A.L.I. and Cogent are intentional: Grenier is taking the successes of A.L.I.’s business model and adopting them at Cogent.

“One of the things we did better at A.L.I. than most of our competitors was actually trying to find out what the customer wanted,” says Grenier.

“As opposed to the more traditional approach of picking up something in the back room and going and [saying], ‘Here it is, do you like it?’ ”

Grenier had just left Edmonton’s General Systems Research in 1985 to hang his shingle as an independent engineering consultant when he was introduced to other members of the team that would eventually found A.L.I.

His first major job after graduating with an electrical engineering degree from the University of Alberta was in GSR’s research lab.

But it was with A.L.I., working with the company’s original president Chris Hanna and CEO Greg Peet, who joined A.L.I. in 1993, that Grenier cut his business teeth.

“Most of the lessons that I’m applying at Cogent, I’ve learned watching how, first Chris, and later on Greg, ran the business,” Grenier said.

Peter van Bodegom, also a co-founder of A.L.I., joined Cogent as CFO in July.

“[Grenier’s] had the benefit of A.L.I. where he went from concept right to the ultimate sale,”van Bodegom. “So he’s seen the full life cycle of the business.”

Van Bodegom was A.L.I.’s vice-president of finance for its first seven years, before leaving in 1994 when the company went public.

And while the team at Cogent includes part of A.L.I.’s original lineup (as well as Peet, who is a board adviser at Cogent) and ultimately wants to mimic A.L.I.’s successes, they want to avoid some of its mistakes.

“Cogent is focused now very much on a marketplace with a customer and a very clear opportunity,” said van Bodegom.

“A.L.I. had a very clear opportunity, but we were just too early on in the marketplace.”