Mahesh Kalva: leveraging technology to solve mission-critical challenges.
A technologist with a background in business, computer science, biology and chemistry, Mahesh Kalva has harnessed technology innovations for greater healthcare access in projects as diverse as the Affordable Care Act, modernizing electronic health records systems for the Department of Veterans Affairs, and advocating for the mental health needs of Native American veterans. Mahesh talked to our content team about everything from Web 1.0 to building a bespoke think tank of Silicon Valley innovators to solve the federal government’s toughest problems.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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A business technologist with a background in the sciences
The first thing that really jumps out at me about your experience is that you’re a technologist, a computer information systems engineer, but you have a background in biology and chemistry.
Originally I was trying to go the medicine route, or pre-med, if you look at it from an American perspective. So I went into that area, but it wasn’t meant for me. I was more of a technology buff. After doing biology and chemistry, I jumped into business management. And then when I came to the U.S. from India, I studied computer science. So that’s how it evolved. And low and behold, probably 15, 20 years later, I leveraged some of my biology and chemistry knowledge to get into the healthcare industry, or more precisely, into healthcare technology.
When I was CTO for Lockheed Martin’s IS&GS Civil (Information Systems and Global Solutions), Lockheed got into the healthcare business and we acquired a couple of companies. Then they offered me the position of CTO of the Health and Life Sciences Group. I was able to pull that knowledge base, and it was certainly helpful.
You really utilize a trifecta of skill sets as CTO and President at AI-Vets.
All of these three things came to confluence, if you will, from having that business management experience. Now, with my role as President of the company, I can leverage both my experience running the technology department as CTO, and my science background, since we focus on the health and life sciences domain. So all of these three things came together well in my role as CTO and President of AI-Vets.
Did you ever want to focus more on one of those areas?
I definitely tend more toward my technologist skills, and that’s where most of my professional career has been. But my business sense compels me to focus on the organization’s goals: don’t do technology for the sake of technology; do the technology to further the organization’s mission. How does your technology help achieve a business goal or the mission of a particular company or agency?
Because I’ve worked in the federal government sector for most of my life, I’ve seen that most organizations tend to say, “Oh, this looks like a cool technology. Let me dabble with it, let me work with it.” But I take a different approach. I look at the specific problems of the government agency and use technology to solve that problem.
In the early ‘90s, I worked with the Department of Justice. The program that I was involved with was called NCJRS, the National Criminal Justice Reference Service. We provided information to researchers from different agencies, for example, the Office of National Drug Control Policy, to help them reduce juvenile crime and reduce substance abuse amongst teenagers. Before the advent of the World Wide Web, we used to distribute periodicals, catalogs, and books to libraries or churches across the country. We leveraged new technology and the internet to disseminate the information appropriately so that it reached the end constituents, researchers, and communities that could benefit from this information.
Transforming information technology to Web 2.0 and beyond
You entered the technology field at the exact right moment, when there’s this major transformation of how information is distributed, from physical media to online.
Exactly right. And then we started to develop the e-commerce engine aspect of it too. At Lockheed, we were able to connect our back-end systems, the supply chain suite, for example, large warehouses, to the front-end, which were the shopping cart systems for end users. This was especially important from an ERP, Enterprise Resource Planning, perspective. So we connected the supply chain suite with the front-end, and made it a completely seamless e-commerce engine for people to find the information and products they needed and seamlessly order them. We got rid of the process of an end user having to call us, look for the periodical they needed, and then place the order with an agent. The end user could just click on it, automatically place an order, and then a physical document or brochure would come to their doorstep.
Then in Web 2.0, the whole concept of getting anything physical went away unless it was really essential. And that’s when we designed websites that were completely integrated with e-commerce engines so that you could read the information itself online, on desktop or mobile.
The reason behind this kind of technology integration was to serve the mission of the organization and the customer: how do these emerging technologies help constituents reach their goals? And from the perspective of the federal agencies we work with: how do we help the end constituents’ missions?
AI-Vets: Small company, big vision. AI-Vets brings the agility of a start-up to the largest and most complex challenges facing the federal government. Contact us to discuss how we can help solve your greatest mission-critical challenges.
Scaling systems integrations to meet end-constituents needs
Your work with both Lockheed Martin and Leidos is directly linked to what you do at AI-Vets, because you’re working with a lot of the same government agencies.
One hundred percent. As a matter of fact, when I describe AI-Vets, my elevator pitch to customers has always been: You know what Lockheed does. You know what Leidos does. We are a miniature version of that. They are large systems integrators, and we are the small systems integrators collaborating with them to help constituents reach the government to meet end users’ mission needs.
From the start of the business at AI-Vets, James (Co-Founder and CEO, James Cavin) and I have continuously worked with these large companies to leverage technology to automate our customers’ processes. This is exactly what we are doing now with the Department of Veterans Affairs, in the modernization of their technologies. We support the digitalization of their systems to reach veterans much more efficiently, so they can access all the services they’re looking for from the VA.
We have already talked to James about that fateful moment when you met at a conference in San Francisco and started talking shop. As you stayed in touch with James and thought about building an organization together, what was your vision?
So at the time James and I met, right around 2009, 2010, Web 2.0 was fully in force. And around the same time, President Obama was trying to launch Obamacare, or the Affordable Care Act. The attempt to sign up millions of people for Obamacare was a major technical challenge, and the Obamacare websites all failed miserably when they initially launched. I was still at Lockheed Martin at that point, looking at these challenges.
In my work at Lockheed, we were constantly leaning toward the Left Coast, if you will, for technology innovation, and how we could leverage technology to meet the government’s challenges. Interestingly, when these thoughts were crossing my mind, that’s exactly what the White House was thinking too, and it was at this time that Obama went to Silicon Valley and started soliciting companies to help with the launch of Obamacare and the technology infusion they were looking for within the government space. This was a top-down approach, and I was thinking of a bottom-up approach: what if you bring in the programmers, the developers who can help with the innovation, with the emerging thought process that’s needed to address some of these challenges? So at the time that idea was in my head, I was attending a lot of conferences, and one of those was the Cisco conference where I met James.
At that time, Mohana (AI-Vets Co-Founder and CTO, Mohana Suggula) and I were engaged with each other through our work with Lockheed Martin, and we used some of Mohana’s Silicon Valley resources there. We thought, what a wonderful idea if we can start something small and leverage the emerging technologies that are available in the Valley and bring these innovations to the government’s mission. So we all had that same thought process.
Then, with James’s knowledge on the networking side, his understanding of Cisco switches, and his background as a service-disabled veteran and member of the Cherokee Nation, coupled with my background in application development and my domain expertise in healthcare, it was a perfect storm for us to say, okay, this is a great idea.
AI-Vets brings high-level thinking to the most complex government problems
So, the government’s mission of healthcare was fundamental in founding AI-Vets.
Exactly. And around the 2016 time frame, when Lockheed was looking to sell IS&GS, Leidos bought it. Since both Lockheed and Leidos had healthcare practices, suddenly it became a $2 billion healthcare group. We were supporting some really mission-important projects in the government space, like the National Cancer Institute and Frederick Labs, which is a “moonshot,” if you will, to solve the challenge of cancer across the globe. And, in my role as CTO at Lockheed Martin, I supported both organizations in understanding these bigger challenges.
We were also doing electronic health records (EHR) transformation. Leidos helped convert the Department of Defense’s AHLTA (Armed Forces Health Longitudinal Technology Application) to the Cerner EHR. (Cerner was subsequently acquired by Oracle.) So I cut my teeth on that project. Veterans Affairs has continued to use their VistA application (Veterans Health Information Systems and Technology Architecture), and they were also looking for conversion and modernization of their electronic health record system. This is where we provided white papers to the White House to offer help with the conversion, because we were already doing it for DOD (the Department of Defense). So I got involved in a lot of those high-end strategic projects as part of Leidos. And then in 2017, when we started AI-Vets, we began supporting large organizations in their electronic health records transformation roadmap. AI-Vets is extremely successful in helping to leverage these cutting edge technologies to fulfill the government’s mission.
Another classic example of our reach back to Silicon Valley to fulfill the government’s mission is our consultation on Salesforce for Medicare/Medicaid implementation. Through one of my connections, we were able to identify a person in San Jose who was one of only six or seven people across the country with the expertise for such a high level Salesforce certification. We identified her, literally, in a matter of a couple of hours, and presented her to the client. She was able to consult with them and say, “These are the challenges; these are the things that you need to be looking into when you’re implementing Salesforce for Medicare/Medicaid.”
So that work gave me a lot of joy, because we gained a lot of credibility, and it propelled our mission and motivated us to do more of this kind of collaboration. So we created an ecosystem in Silicon Valley under Mohana’s leadership. He periodically holds a lunch or happy hour with all the techies, the folks who never want to shut our brains off. We are constantly thinking, “How can we leverage this technology to address some of the big, complex challenges?” We gather people from Apple, Intel, Microsoft, AWS, Cisco, and many other companies in the Valley. We’re able to put our brains together with this informal group that we created to discuss some of the challenges that the government is facing and what the commercial enterprises have already been doing to address them. We can then vision solutions through the proposal process when we bid for government contracts, and can utilize that reach back to find the right people to work on these solutions.
It’s like your own little think tank that you’ve put together.
There you go. Our own little think tank with our Fellows and Senior Fellows, the big brain people to come up with solutions for the challenges.
You’re obviously really excited about the work you do. You have a lot of passion for it.
You bet! I mean, that’s what drives me every day. Recently, I went to a football game with one of our customers, and we were talking about all the new technologies that are coming out of Intel Corporation. (Intel is one of our big customers.) We talked about Intel’s emerging technology, whether it’s their latest CPU (central processing unit, a chip often called the “brain” of a computer) or GPU (graphics processing unit, a processor capable of many simultaneous computations). We talked about how these new iterations could be used in a FEMA environment for federal emergency management. Since people nowadays are always glued to their computers and they’re not watching TV or listening to radio, what if FEMA could send these emergency alerts to desktops or laptops, so that the person in harm’s way gets the information to get to safety? So we are looking at the technology within Intel’s vPro chip. And this can be embedded in a massive number of laptops. So you could potentially send a message through that vPro technology that will alert on the monitor saying “Hey, a tornado is coming your way or a wildfire is coming your way.” So those are the technologies that get me really excited: technologies we can use potentially to save lives.
AI-Vets is a Native American owned and Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Small Business (SDVOSB). We’re passionate about leveraging our platform for suicide prevention among veterans and Native Americans. Veterans commit suicide at a higher rate than the general population, and we find it very hard to see that American Indian and Alaska Native veterans commit suicide at even higher rates. We participate in a lot of technology challenges with the National Artificial Intelligence Institute within the Department of Veterans Affairs. We also work with the Native American community in Oklahoma. James and I consider this issue very close and dear to us.
Getting to know Mahesh Kalva
AI-Vets is doing such important work, and the mission is obviously such a big part of your life. Do you find ways to unhook from it?
I’m a biker. There are a lot of tracks around where I live, so it’s easy to get on the bike for local rides. I play racquetball as well, and I keep trying to become a good golfer…so those are three things that I like to do. I also travel a lot. We have work internationally, but I also have an older parent in India, so I try to take care of her as much as I can from 10,000 miles away. It’s hard, but we do what we can. So these are the things outside of work that keep me busy.
I have two daughters, and the eldest graduated from Carnegie Mellon and works for the federal government, as a matter of fact, for the Department of Defense. She works in international relations and cybersecurity. That gives me a lot of joy. My younger daughter graduated with biomedical engineering from Boston University, and interestingly, chose the healthcare route.
She works for a healthcare company that builds CT scan equipment. So it’s really exciting to see my daughters doing mission-centric work as well. And, of course, my wife keeps me busy with the “honey-do” list that just keeps growing.
It’s okay if the “honey-do” list never ends, because that means you still have ways to take care of each other. Thanks so much for your time, Mahesh. It’s great to talk with you.
Likewise. Thank you.