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Study praises tech, but has suggestions for how Massachusetts can become a digital health hub

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A mobile app to help recovering drug users stay clean. A digital platform to make ordering prescription drugs easier. Electronic health records systems that let you see lab test results on your phone.

Every day, it seems, the world of digital health care takes another step forward. No wonder a Goldman Sachs report predicted in 2015 that the market for such ventures could top $32 billion within several years.

But a study released Wednesday by the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council trade group says that Massachusetts, home to one of the most robust biotech clusters in the world, needs to do more if it wants to become a digital health care heavyweight.


The study, based on feedback from over 280 prominent business leaders, academics, and digital health care experts, provides no backup data but shares general findings. It says it will take work for the state to overtake Silicon Valley as the epicenter for digital health care.

“Across Massachusetts, digital health is positively transforming the life sciences from drug discovery to medical devices to diagnostics,” says the 10-page report prepared with help from Deloitte Consulting. But the state will not reach its full potential “until a foundational digital health ecosystem is strengthened and embedded,” according to the authors.

Among the obstacles: Massachusetts’ world-class colleges produce plenty of tech graduates, but a “digital health talent drain” causes many to leave for jobs in other states.

“One of the reasons people are leaving is there’s isn’t as much support here” for early-stage digital health care companies as there is for biotechs, said Luba Greenwood, a member of MassBio’s board of directors and an executive for the Google life sciences spinout, Verily, in Cambridge.

MassBio should create a mentorship program for digital health care startups similar to MassCONNECT, which matches seasoned life sciences professionals with young biotech and medical device entrepreneurs, says the report. MassBio plans to do just that by creating MassConnect.DH this year.


The study, titled “Making Massachusetts a Leading Global Destination for Digital Health,” also recommends the state approve a new legislative package to nurture a digital health care cluster.

The state has already done that for biotechs. Last June, Governor Charlie Baker signed into law a five-year, $500 million economic development bill for the life sciences sector, which renewed a similar 10-year, $1 billion, initiative that Governor Deval Patrick signed in 2008.

MassBio also suggests that digital health care ventures work with colleges, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and Northeastern University to make sure curriculums turn out graduates with the right skills for the sector.

The report broadly defines digital health. It includes everything from health-related software to mobile apps that patients can use to treat medical conditions. Last year, for example, Boston-based Pear Therapeutics and Sandoz, a division of Novartis, established a partnership to market an FDA-approved app for substance abuse.

Creating a digital health care hub in Massachusetts has been a goal of business leaders for some time.

Three years ago, a group of the state’s most powerful business leaders joined with Baker to form a 38-member state advisory council on digital health care. The effort featured a new $26 million venture capital fund and a pair of incubators for fledgling startups.

But of the 11 digital health care companies that raised more than $100 million in venture capital funding in 2018, six are based in the San Francisco Bay area, according to Rock Health, a San Francisco investment firm.


Two are based in Massachusetts — American Well and WuXi NextCODE.

Jonathan Saltzman can be reached at