A leadership change at Pathfinder Health Innovations will allow its co-founder to focus on research that could change the lives of children and adults with autism, said Jeff Blackwood.

Pathfinder announced Tuesday its board had appointed Tina Youngblood as chief executive officer, succeeding co-founder Blackwood to lead day-to-day operations and the strategic direction for the Kansas City-based health tech firm. Blackwood has transitioned to serve as executive vice president of corporate development.

“I’m eight years into it now, and I wanted to make sure I kept the passion necessary to keep the company going,” Blackwood said. “I didn’t want to get to the point where I wasn’t doing what I should’ve done for the company. I talked to the board earlier this fall and we decided it’s probably the right time for us to find someone who can help us organize and lead us to the next level.”

It’s the best move for the company, which aims to improve individuals’ social lives through software tools that support Autism Spectrum Disorder therapy, he added. Blackwood’s new role will see him building and fostering partnerships, as well as allowing him more time to lead research initiatives for Pathfinder, he said.

Working with the Kansas City Area Life Sciences Institute, for example, the company currently is trying to align genetic information with behavior data in the Pathfinder system to potentially identify sub-types of autism, Blackwood said.

“Autism is a huge umbrella that really has a number of distinct disorders rolled up into it, but researchers haven’t had the information necessary to really adequately divide that down into sub-types that could lead to better treatment for those individuals,” he said. “So the hope is ultimately what we can do is, as soon as a kiddo is diagnosed with autism, we should also be doing genetic testing at the same time to determine: OK, what type of autism do they have? How are they going to react to medication? How are they going to react to therapy treatments? And what’s going to be the best path for this particular kiddo? Instead of just looking at all kids who happen to be diagnosed with autism.”

It’s about an individualized medicine approach — a passion for Blackwood, he added.

“The brain has the most plasticity between the ages of 2 and 8 years old, so it’s when these kiddos first get diagnosed that we have the highest chance of making impactful treatment for them,” Blackwood said. “That’s not to say that you can’t continue to treat the individual throughout their life or continue to see improvements from them, but there’s this window where we can make the most advances if we simply approach it in the best manner for this individual.”

Pathfinder’s leadership change comes as the company emerges from rebuilding its software after acquiring Phoenix-based Ensure Billing in 2016, he said. The firm launched a new product in January that Blackwood called a game-changer for autism therapy centers.

“I’ve been extraordinarily proud of how the company has advanced, but I also recognize that there’s more that I could be doing,” he said “This research project with the Kansas City Area Life Sciences Institute, for example, was something we could have started a couple years ago, but we just haven’t had the resources or bandwidth to do it.”

“Now that we brought Tina on board — and Tina is an experienced, passionate leader of companies — she’s going to help take the operational part, so I can go back and focus on these things that I think are going to be impactful, like the research initiatives that we’re doing,” he added.

Youngblood spent much of her career in C-suite leadership roles, according to Pathfinder. She was most recently the chair and CEO of Spencer Re, a niche reinsurance business serving franchised auto dealers. She also spent 10 years at Zurich Insurance where she held several management positions, including being the first woman to be named president of programs and direct markets, Zurich’s largest business unit in North America.

“I am thrilled to join the Pathfinder Health Innovations team and to lead the organization through its next growth stage,” Youngblood said. “This is the perfect opportunity for me to combine my experience in growing businesses with my passion for helping people with special needs.”

Pathfinder’s CEO search began at the end of November with a confidential posting, Blackwood said, eventually netting more than 700 applicants for the job.

“It got to the point where I was looking at some of these resumes are saying, ‘Holy cow! How does this person want to work for our little company?” he said. “But that’s what we got. We got the best of the best through this process.”

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