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Chesto Means Business

A big win for Leiden’s digital health efforts

(Barry Chin/Globe Staff 2017 files)

Can Boston become the premier global hub for the digital health sector, the way it has for biotech?

Jeff Leiden sure thinks so. The Vertex Pharmaceuticals CEO has watched the biotech industry’s prominence grow here during the past two decades. Vertex certainly played a key role in that growth. But Leiden might prove to be more critical to digital health’s success, if the sector follows a similar trajectory.

Leiden’s pet project is grounded in his advocacy work with the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership, a coalition of high-powered CEOs. A new digital-health-focused venture fund? Leiden was there, investing his money. State tax credits for angel investors? Leiden pushed for that. An incubator for digital health startups? Guess who played a starring role?

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The latest victory: Leiden and his team of digital-health advocates persuaded the organizers of HLTH to move the health care conference and the roughly 6,000 attendees it will bring to Boston’s Seaport in October 2021. The deal was signed within the past few weeks.

HLTH chief executive Jonathan Weiner says Leiden’s Boston team made a compelling case to leave Las Vegas behind. Weiner cited the region’s digital health ecosystem, along with the concentration of biopharma companies and VC funds. The contract is just for 2021, but Weiner is already figuring out how to bring the conference back to Boston in subsequent years.

From Leiden’s perspective, HLTH’s arrival bolsters his cause, and vindicates it. He envisions a weekend when the entire Seaport — the convention center, the hotels, the restaurants — is bustling with many of the sector’s most important players.

Leiden has been on this crusade for at least six years. As a doctor and a biotech CEO, he sees health tech as a nascent field, with time remaining for Boston to claim supremacy. The ingredients are here to pull it off: the teaching hospitals, the VCs, the universities, the big data and cybersecurity firms, all those drug companies.

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Leiden is the first to admit he wouldn’t get far without help. Top executives in a variety of industries pitched in. Boston may have an international reputation in health care, but it is a small town in many ways, where everybody seems to know each other.

At first, Leiden assembled a digital health group as a project for the Mass. Competitive Partnership. That committee eventually evolved into the Mass Digital Health Council, after the Baker administration became more involved. Leiden leads that nearly 40-person council, along with Mike Kennealy, Governor Charlie Baker’s economic development secretary. It is assisted by the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, a quasi-public agency chaired by Kennealy. More than 300 digital health companies have at least 1,800 open positions listed on the council’s jobs board today.

Some of the most important work has involved persuading rival hospitals and universities to cooperate. The council’s latest project: a network that would allow discrete sets of patient data to be shared across health systems in the state. Patients theoretically would benefit from this streamlining. But so would digital health businesses. Leiden says the group expects to submit a series of recommendations to the Baker administration next month. Some changes to state law may be necessary to fulfill this vision.

Not everything has gone according to plan. That VC fund only ended up investing in two digital health startups. Leerink Partners, now SVB Leerink, had been managing the Massachusetts fund, but wanted to take a more global focus, Leiden says.

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Then there’s that digital health incubator, formerly known as Pulse, run by the MassChallenge nonprofit. About 90 startups have benefited so far, a clear success for the competitive program. But it was moved from standalone space in the Fenway to MassChallenge’s headquarters in the Seaport, in part because of real estate costs.

And a report from the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council in February said more work needs to be done to beat Silicon Valley in the digital health race.

Although hard jobs data is not easy to find, Leiden is convinced his efforts are taking hold. His favorite success story: PathAI, a startup that provides artificial intelligence software for pathologists. (Leiden chairs PathAI’s board.) The 60-person firm could have moved to California, but stayed in Boston — for the venture capital and the mentorship.

This is how you grow an industry: one handshake at a time.


Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com.