Cerner co-founder Cliff Illig shares his startup story with KU MBA students

Cliff Illig (in the plaid blazer) talking with audience members at Carnegie Building on 9th Street

Talking to a crowd of suited and pantsuited M.B.A. students, the biggest laugh Cliff Illig got Wednesday evening at the Carnegie Building came after a simple description of how he has fared in the risky, failure-filled world of entrepreneurship.

“It’s been OK,” he said.

OK? To the KU business students listening to Illig speak, that was riotous stuff — hilarious.

In 1979 Illig, who received his bachelor’s in accounting from KU, co-founded Cerner Corp. along with Neal Patterson and Paul Gorup. If you’ve heard of Cerner at all (and many haven’t, given that it is not a consumer company), you probably know that it has done quite a bit better than OK during its nearly 35-year life.

The healthcare IT giant has grown at a furious pace since its founders conceived it on a picnic table in Kansas City’s Loose Park. Cerner licenses its technology to thousands of hospitals and healthcare facilities worldwide. Of its 13,000-person global payroll, Cerner employs 9,000 people in the Kansas City area who make a combined $700 million in income, and the company has a planned expansion on the way.

Forbes recently put Cerner at the 13th spot on a list of the world’s most innovative companies. And federal incentives for doctors and hospitals to switch to digital recordkeeping systems promise strong growth for at least the near future.

Much of Illig’s talk was devoted to tracking his own and Cerner’s arcs of success. Today Illig is vice chairman of a major tech company’s board. Decades ago, before he even started college, he was smart and lucky enough to get into computers before they had a hand in nearly facet of the economy.

As a teenager, Illig was drawn to computers because they had a physical, tactile side to them in the punchcard days of the late 1960s. “My dad was looking for child labor when I was 13, 14 years old, so very early on I learned how to stuff cards in the computers he used for his business,” Illig said. As a high school student at Shawnee Mission East, he took one of the first computer classes ever offered in the district.

After his time at KU — which Illig glossed over with more understatement, saying he was mostly interested in “getting on with it” — he joined the consulting division of accounting firm Arthur Andersen, now Accenture.

Illig and Patterson started at Andersen within two weeks of each other. As Illig tells it, the two agreed on little. But they both knew they had no interest in advancing to their bosses’ jobs. So, on yellow ledger paper, they started brainstorming business models together.

At the time, the software industry was in its infancy, and healthcare recordkeeping was more or less in the Stone Age. They saw a role for themselves in bringing it into the future.

The Cerner story makes for a sort of startup fairytale. Neeli Bendapudi, dean of the KU business school, was among the rapt in Wednesday’s audience, saying “my heart soars” every time she hears Illig’s story.

Along with co-founding Cerner, Illig is one of the owners and brains behind soccer team Sporting KC, which, similar to Cerner, is wildly successful in an industry that doesn’t exactly have a wildly visible public profile.

Bendapudi said in an interview that she hoped having Illig come to Lawrence to speak with business graduate students would help them see that large-scale success can come to people sitting where they are now. “We need to showcase our own,” she said, “to inspire the students of today.”

Illig himself put out a small plea for the potential future entrepreneurs in the audience: “The environment won’t necessarily be hospitable” for starting a business, he said, but added, “You can’t be an entrepreneur without being fundamentally optimistic.”

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