The University of Massachusetts Boston is playing host to the latest entrant in a growing field of entrepreneurs helping others create cutting-edge health care businesses in the area.
The university’s Venture Development Center has teamed up with MD Idea Lab to establish a new entrepreneurial resource that resembles a business incubator within an incubator — specifically targeting early-stage firms that are developing information technology products for health care.
MD Idea Lab was founded by a tech-savvy physician and a partner with experience in helping businesses get off the ground. Though it leases space inside the much larger UMass development center, MD Idea Lab is a separate, for-profit entity working with its own entrepreneurs to nurture new businesses.
William Brah, executive director of the venture center, said he had heard about preliminary plans to form MD Idea Lab and ended up inviting the two founders, Dr. Stephen Fitzmeyer and John Hayes, to open their shop at UMass Boston last June.
“Who knows if it will work?” said Brah, whose own venture center is nearly four years old. “A lot of people are experimenting with how best to help entrepreneurs within health care.”
MD Idea Lab’s focus on IT health care products complements UMass Boston’s attempts to promote development of more traditional drugs, medical devices, and other clinical products for health care, Brah said.
“They get to use all the facilities, just like every other company who comes through here,” said Brah, whose center provides about 25 companies with conference rooms, lab space, kitchen facilities, and other amenities often associated with business incubators.
MD Idea Lab does not automatically provide seed money for companies that it works with at UMass Boston. Instead, it offers expert consulting services and working space, for a set fee, whether a firm ultimately lands venture funding or not.
But the goal is to connect promising entrepreneurs with angel investors. MD Idea Lab hopes make money from its equity interest in developing firms, acquired in exchange for the early-stage technology and business support.
“Our target market is genius doctors with great ideas for products but who don’t have a clue how to start a business,” Hayes said.
The concept for the lab was developed by Fitzmeyer, who once worked as a director of Web engineering at a publishing company before deciding to become a physician at the age of 40. After getting his medical degree in Britain, Fitzmeyer worked in fellowships at Boston Medical Center and the VA Boston Healthcare System in Jamaica Plain.
Fitzmeyer, 52, is a “physician informaticist,” a relatively new breed of doctor who specializes in sifting through reams of medical data for possible clinical and operational applications within health care.
“There’s a whole circle of data that’s not being effectively used to improve medicines and health care delivery,” he said.
Last year, Fitzmeyer teamed up with Hayes — the past founder of a number of start-up ventures, including Geek Offices, which provides shared co-worker office space for small firms in Cambridge and Newton — to open MD Idea Lab.
MD Idea Lab has worked with three young companies trying to develop digital health care products. One firm, Momedx Inc., a Cambridge developer of apps for physician-patient communications via mobile devices, has received $160,000 in angel investments arranged through MD Idea Lab, which opened shop last year at UMass Boston.
“It’s about meeting the right people at the right time,” said Yuri Ostrovsky, founder and chief executive of Momedx. “They knew about the medical and tech sides of business – and they put me in touch with potential investors.”
But MD Idea Lab and UMass are hardly alone. Two other health care-related entrepreneurship facilities were recently launched in the Boston area, known for its rich array of leading medical institutions, pharmaceutical companies, and biotech businesses.
Last summer, San Francisco-based Rock Health, founded by a Harvard Business School graduate, partnered with Harvard Medical School to run a “pop up” incubator and accelerator program for seven local companies that specialized in developing products for health care. The companies each received about $20,000 in seed money, as well as work space and mentoring and networking assistance.
Though a nonprofit, Rock Health’s summer program was underwritten by sponsors that included Genentech Inc., Nike Inc., and the Mayo Clinic.
Rock Health has no plans to run a similar summer program in Boston this year. But a Harvard official said the medical school and Rock Health were talking about a more long-term relationship.
“We’d be happy to work with them again,” said Ed Coburn, director of the health media group at Harvard Medical School. “There are tremendous opportunities for improvements in health care through technological advances.”
Another recent health care start-up program involves Healthbox, founded in Chicago, and its local partner, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts..
Like Rock Health, Healthbox provides seed money to early-stage health care start-ups, in addition to providing them with working space and other assistance in Cambridge.
Unlike Rock Health, Healthbox is a for-profit entity, ultimately aiming to make money by taking equity stakes in promising companies.
Healthbox and Blue Cross Blue Shield plan to run a similar start-up program for health care entrepreneurs this spring in Cambridge.
Dominique Pahud, director of innovation and networks at the Kauffman Foundation, a Kansas City nonprofit organization that researches and promotes entrepreneurship, sees a nationwide trend of investors and entrepreneurs trying to find ways to make health care more efficient and affordable. Improvements in health care information technology are considered an attractive area for many investors, he said.
In particular, the Boston area is a “natural fit” for ventures like MD Idea Lab, Rock Health, and Healthbox, considering the region’s worldwide reputation as a center for cutting-edge medical research and talent.
“It’s kind of fascinating to watch,” Pahud said of numerous efforts across the country by higher-education institutions, for-profit companies, and others to foster health care entrepreneurship.
“Boston is one of the big health care hubs in the country. There’s a lot of excitement, investment, and interest in this field right now.”