Atlas Research CEO Robin Portman Builds on Innovation-Obsessed Culture to Meet Health Industry Challenges

Robin Portman, president and CEO, Atlas Research

Robin Portman, president and CEO, Atlas Research

Atlas Research is a “big small” company — agile like a speedboat.

That unique combination is what recently drew Robin Portman to join the government services consultancy as its president and chief executive officer, long after she’d already carved out a niche as a health care leader working for such industry heavyweights as Booz Allen Hamilton — 22 years, in that case, as an executive vice president — and more recently, as director of strategic innovations at Georgetown University School of Nursing and Health Studies.

It was at Georgetown Portman came to know one of Atlas’ co-founders, Dr. Ryung Suh, who also serves as an associate professor and chair in the same department where Portman had spent the previous two years. While Portman had known Suh (and Atlas) through previous partnerships while at Booz Allen, she became more familiar with Suh, a West Point graduate and doctor, as well as Atlas co-founder Mark Chichester, during her time at Georgetown. Both had a CEO search brewing, and soon settled on Portman as the right candidate to take Atlas Research to the next level — in the health care and technology services space, specifically.

Settling into her new role, Portman is, “having a blast,” she says, heralding the company for its “agile, speedboat-like ability.” That nimble approach, she says, will make all the difference in the year ahead, as the company cements its reputation as an “innovation-obsessed organization,” offering strategic advisory and applied research services to federal health and social service agencies.

“The key to any innovation is the ability to fail quickly — and experiment without a lot of costs,” Portman says. That’s where Atlas’ unique strengths come into play, she says.

Those strengths, Portman says, span Atlas’ ability to be inclusive and diverse, as well as agile and nimble. Underpinning all those elements is the benefits of company size — roughly 230 employees, located not only at Atlas’ Washington, D.C., headquarters but at client sites along the West Coast, as well as in cities such as Denver, New Orleans, and Dayton, Ohio.

“We are like a speedboat — we can pivot quickly to predict and respond to technology demands, unlike larger aircraft carriers that have legacy commitments,” Portman says. “Because of our size, we can move with speed and decisiveness to respond to market pressures and demands to decrease costs, increase quality of incomes, as well as adopt new models that haven’t been tried before — all these market pressures are screaming for market innovation.”

Atlas aims to bring such innovation to priority populations, such as veterans, as well as minorities, women and the homeless. That work is “near and dear to my heart,” Portman says, as is a focus on client-centered delivery models —in this case, those that build on Atlas’ capabilities across research and evaluations; data management strategy; technology and analytics; and health care modernization.

The need for these service areas, Portman says, couldn’t be greater.

“I believe that the health industry — and health, in general — has a lot that can still be leveraged from an innovation perspective; it is a place that is really ripe for inclusion of other industry breakthroughs that could be brought into the health care industry,” Portman says.

That focus currently takes center stage through Atlas’ participation in programs such as the “Choose VA” initiative, an internal- and external-facing VA campaign Atlas is helping to lead, in partnership with the global public relations and communications firm Burson-Marsteller, to promote understanding among veterans about how VA can support their health care needs; and among potential recruits about ways VA is a desired place of employment.

Atlas is also involved with VA’s “Choose Home” initiative — a “moon shot” effort led by Secretary of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin that seeks the development of adaptive technology innovations and integrated community services so veterans can remain in their homes rather than have to move into a nursing home or other type of rehabilitative institution.

Central to Atlas’ assistance with VA effort is its focus on fostering innovation through strategic partnerships with industry and nonprofit colleagues. In that spirit, Atlas has partnered with the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown’s Bill Novelli, a former AARP CEO who currently oversees an Aging Well hub at the university. Atlas also partnered with a high-tech startup, Amida, to create a data-focused pilot for streamlining veterans’ benefits adjudication. In addition, Atlas has teamed with the nonprofit PsychArmor Institute to provide online training focused on mental health issues impacting veterans and those who care for them.

“These efforts continue our legacy of cultivating key relationships that we have across industry and our client space, particularly in Health and Human Services and the Department of Veterans Affairs,” Portman says. “We are broadening that presence now to [reach]other important potential clients and target markets, such as the Department of Defense.”

A key step in that effort — beyond innovative and unique partnerships — is fostering a “client-focused leadership team,” Portman says. Equally essential, she adds, is “encouraging an innovative culture with less hierarchy.” Portman has been especially busy on this latter front.

“We have literally flattened our organization over the last few months, and we are creating leadership opportunities at all levels,” says Portman, who stresses the importance of recruiting individuals beyond traditional management and consulting environments, and pairing them with colleagues from equally diverse backgrounds. The benefits of such team pairings go back to that speedboat analogy.

“The value proposition [we offer]for someone, once they’re onboard, is, ‘If you are willing to jump in the speedboat with us, we’ll give you leadership opportunities that you wouldn’t be able to get if you jumped on one of those bigger aircraft carriers,” Portman says.

That agility fuels Atlas’ focus as it heads into 2018, in areas such as greater industry participation.

“You’ll see us participate in industry forums; leading (and convening) thought leaders; and organizing events focused on using innovation to address critical health problems and challenges for us in the sector,” Portman says. “This is going to be a key investment area for us.”

And with a new CEO at the helm, it’s full steam ahead.

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