Imagine sitting in a quiet doctor’s waiting room, the only sound the scratch of pens on clipboards as each patient fills out endless forms to update their health information.

Sterling Lanier ’95 is trying to change that with his company Tonic, where patients are handed iPads instead of clipboard when it comes time to fill out surveys.

Tonic, which Lanier calls “one big Lego set for healthcare,” is a customizable and interactive patient information system where all data is collected on a device, like a mobile phone or an iPad. The platform allows healthcare professionals to create any type of survey to send to patients’ devices.

Tonic, which was launched in 2011, is Apple’s preferred partner for patient data collection and currently serves 20 of the top 40 healthcare systems in the U.S.

Lanier got his start in entrepreneurship early, during his last semester at Duke when, as an English and history double major, he co-founded Cosmic Cantina at the same Ninth Street location where it stands today.

The California native said he and his co-founder, also a Duke student, decided to open Cosmic Cantina because there was no Mexican food available and nothing open late.

He used the same principles – assessing gaps in the marketplace – when he founded Tonic years later.

Lanier left the restaurant and moved back to San Francisco in 1997, and in 2002, after he graduated from UCLA’s business school, he founded a brand strategy consulting company called Chatter.

His next project, Tonic, was born out of a pro bono consulting project Lanier was working on for the University of California-San Francisco health system. UCSF wanted to figure out how to engage their patients when it came to healthcare. The system was issuing lengthy patient surveys to fill out on Scantrons, but their response rate was low.

Lanier threw out the idea to do patient surveys on devices instead, so that people could complete them while already using their phone or iPad.

UCSF loved the idea, but it was just that – an idea. “As a consultant, I was allergic to implementation,” Lanier joked.

But then a mutual friend introduced him to a tech guy who eventually became the co-founder of Tonic. Together, the two built a small demo, which UCSF bought and brought to health conferences. Quickly, word about this new data collection platform spread.

Now, Tonic is a 105-person team that creates the graphic that patients will see as they swipe through health-related questions on an iPad. Patients swipe next to a birthday cake to indicate their age, and images of coffee cups pop up to correspond with the average number of caffeinated drinks a person consumes in a week.

Tonic can be used not only for patient data collection, but offers one place for all information to be stored, right up to payment.

Lanier said that although entrepreneurship comes with “insane risks,” it also creates an excitement that makes him get up every morning.

He said he’s excited about Duke I&E because it promotes entrepreneurship to the undergraduate community. It’s best for entrepreneurs to start when they’re young, he said, because there’s more time to make and fix mistakes.

While Lanier was at Duke, he was discouraged from being an entrepreneur, and advisers tried to put him on a traditional career path. He said he wishes he had the resources that Duke I&E offers while he was in school. “A petri dish like this to take chances?” he said, gesturing around The Bullpen, Duke I&E’s space. “That would have been amazing.”

To learn more about Tonic, visit its website.

To read about more Duke Entrepreneurs, click here.

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