The Jet Pilot Entrepreneur Behind Benchmark Software (and the Zoo’s PandaCam)

One of the difficulties in writing about Tyson McDowell is knowing where to begin.

McDowell is the 27-year-old CEO and co-founder of Benchmark Revenue Management, a San Diego company that has developed financial management software designed to help hospitals handle billing and collection issues more efficiently. He has been an entrepreneur since he was 14, and helped invent the PandaCam at the San Diego Zoo when he was 18. Oh, and McDowell also is a pilot who flies an ex-Soviet fighter jet in his spare time.

At Benchmark, McDowell has created business management software that helps hospital administrators prioritize their most pressing billing issues. The company’s technology also helps hospitals monitor and analyze their revenue cycle and business workflow. McDowell explains that hospitals lose a lot of money from low collection rates, but with Benchmark’s software, they can “reverse-engineer” the billing process, enabling managers to increase their collection rates and bring more efficiency to business operations.

“Hospitals really don’t know what they don’t know,” McDowell says. “We save them money.”

McDowell calls himself “a passionate entrepreneur,” and that’s how he sounds, too. “We want to be the service provider to all healthcare administration,” he says. The young entrepreneur was just 19 when he launched Benchmark, which now has a dozen employees and counts seven hospitals as customers, including St. Joseph’s Hospital in Atlanta, GA. McDowell spends a lot of time traveling and training clients to use the software, as well as recruiting new customers.

After eight years, though, McDowell has been asking himself a recurring question: “Where should the company go from here?”

To help find some answers to that question, McDowell recently put himself and Benchmark onstage, by volunteering to serve as a business case study for a regular monthly meeting of the MIT Enterprise Forum in San Diego. After making a public presentation about Benchmark to the audience and a panel of local experts, McDowell asked if the time had come to sell Benchmark, or perhaps turn over control to a professional CEO and go off to concentrate on some other big idea.

The panel of experts told him their advice was to keep control of the company, to continue and hang on—and to come back in a year.
McDowell is a lively guy who founded his first company, a website design firm called 4th Dimension Graphics, when he was just 14 years old, carving out time for the business after school. The company, which later became Immersion Immaging, specialized in providing websites and software tools for what was then the new world of e-commerce, and even created some of the net’s first “shopping carts.”

But the business dried up after the dot-com bubble burst in 2000, which eventually led the young entrepreneur and his friends to develop the software that launched Benchmark.

McDowell also graduated from San Diego’s Torrey Pines High School in 2000. He says he applied to college—but he didn’t get in. So he became the chief technology officer and partner of a company called CamZone, which introduced popular live-stream videos to the net. One of the projects he worked on became one of most popular online video streams: the San Diego Zoo’s “PandaCam.” In January 2001 alone six million viewers around the world watched newborn panda cub Hua Mei via the “PandaCam.”

Later in 2001 McDowell co-founded Benchmark with three friends with the idea of bringing high-performance Internet applications to the healthcare business. McDowell says he gets a kick out of solving complex problems, and if hospital-revenue management isn’t a complex problem, then what is?

McDowell says he initially funded the company with “Visa and MasterCard, friends and family.” In 2004 Benchmark got $1.7 million from Navigant Consulting (NYSE: NCI), one of its partners. The company got another $1.8 million in March 2008 from Express Ventures, a fund operated by San Diego entrepreneur Marco Thompson.

McDowell also became an avid aviator at an early age.

Tyson McDowell pilots ex-Soviet fighter jet.

Tyson McDowell pilots ex-Soviet fighter jet.

He’s been flying since he was 12, and now pilots a deep blue L-39 fighter jet, made in Communist-era Czechoslovakia, which was decommissioned after serving for years in the Soviet air force. His wife Anjuli flies with him. McDowell has flown the jet in his buddies’ Hollywood B-movies (you may or may not want to check YouTube to see the jet in one of the clips from “Succubus: Hell Bent”), and even as a civilian contractor against U.S. combat pilots in training programs.

“Originally, I became an entrepreneur because I wanted to fly planes!” he says. “And there’s the complete freedom in both.”

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