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Innovation Economy

Entrepreneurial spirit just a start to ‘disrupt’ health care

Fans of the reality TV show Shark Tank love to watch investors Mark Cuban and Daymond John make entrepreneurs sweat after they’ve delivered their pitches for money.

Less famous are the sharks who will circle Brigham & Women’s Hospital in Boston Monday for an event called Pilot Shark Tank. They’re doctors and nurses like Calum MacRae and Karen Conley, and they’ll be offering something that may be more valuable than money: a chance for health care entrepreneurs to pilot-test new technologies or services in their departments.

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Over the last two years, Boston has seen a surge of hackathons, accelerator programs, innovation showcases, and other events designed to bring t-shirt clad entrepreneurs closer to physicians in lab coats. And that has produced a bumper crop of small startups with ideas for applying technologies such as smartphones, sophisticated data analytics, and Google Glass in the health care sector.

But entrepreneurial eagerness will only get these companies so far: Health care professionals are insanely busy, and not many have time to meet with a dozen startups proposing similar solutions to a problem. Entrepreneurs also must navigate hospital bureaucracies, including review boards that must approve research and clinical trials for anything new. Software products face particularly intense scrutiny because of security and privacy issues.

“The biggest gap in the innovation ecosystem isn’t funding,” says Lesley Solomon, director of strategy and innovation at Brigham & Women’s Biomedical Research Institute. “It’s the ability to pilot and get feedback and get thoughtful input from clinicians. It’s never going to be an easy process, but with the Pilot Shark Tank, we wanted to create an easier way to pilot within the Brigham.”

In addition to organizing Monday’s event, Solomon helped put together the hospital’s first weekend-long hackathon event last September, which brought together 150 entrepreneurs, students, and hospital employees to work on 17 different projects related to topics such as managing chronic disease outside the hospital. A handful of the projects, proposed and built over a few days, developed into startups.

Hospitals have always played a big part in Boston’s innovation economy. But traditionally, they licensed their scientific discoveries and patents to startups or larger companies. Often, those companies would recruit department heads and other medical experts to serve on advisory boards. Occasionally, docs would launch companies of their own.

The new approach is less formal, a lot more like inviting a bunch of friends over to help prepare a dinner party. At last year’s Hacking Pediatrics event at Boston Children’s Hospital, for instance, a pediatric gastroenterologist, a nutritionist, and a handful of techies and business people came together to create a project that would help families find recipes that address food allergies or health issues like celiac disease.

That project, originally called RightByte, won the $3,000 top prize at the event, and is evolving into a company called Kindrdfood (pronounced “kindred food”).

Some hope all of this entrepreneurial energy can be focused like a proton beam on some of the biggest problems in health care, like knowing more about what patients do between office visits, or reducing costs.

“The medical-academic-industrial complex is failing health care today,” says Zen Chu, an entrepreneur-in-residence at MIT and founder of the H@cking Medicine program there. “When you look at metrics in the US today, in terms of cost and quality, it’s just failing. But great things can happen when you bring in fresh eyes from outside of health care, combined with people on the front lines.”

At Brigham & Women’s, Solomon says that as health care reforms increase pressures on hospitals to control costs, they are searching for new efficiencies. But with so many startups pitching mobile apps and cloud-based software, evaluating which ones are worth experimenting with can induce cephalgia (aka headaches.) “Often there are 10 companies with the same idea, and we have to figure out which one we should be testing,” she says.

Making it through that filter presents a real challenge for startups, which must collect data that proves their products can make a medical or financial impact. Jacob Sattelmair, chief executive of Boston-based Wellframe, says that having both an administration and clinical “champion” inside organizations like McLean Hospital and South Shore Hospital has helped him get collaborations going.

Wellframe sells an online system to help doctors deliver guidance to patients with on-going conditions like mental illness.

There’s also the issue of money to fund research studies, recruit patients to participate, and analyze data that could eventually be published in a medical journal. “Big companies have budgets for all of that,” says Yechiel Engelhard, chief executive of Cambridge-based GeckoCap. “But even $50,000 or $100,000 is real money for a startup to spend on a clinical trial.”

GeckoCap, which makes a small wireless device to monitor a child’s use of an asthma inhaler, began at a hackathon event at MIT two years ago; Engelhard says that children will finally begin getting devices to test “in the next few months.”

Nick Dougherty will pitch his startup, VerbalCare, on Monday at the Pilot Shark Tank. It aims to improve communications between patients and caregivers. The Franciscan Hospital for Children in Boston is already testing the system.

But Dougherty acknowledges that the mortality rate for startups in health care will be higher than other industries.

“A company like Snapchat can throw something into the App Store and get a ton of downloads,” Dougherty says. “That isn’t possible for us. If we start a dialogue with doctors today, we’ll be lucky to have a contract in hand in a couple of quarters.”

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