9 Takeaways from Rock Boston Demo Day: Health IT Firms Up

San Francisco-based accelerator Rock Health had its first Boston Demo Day here in Cambridge, MA, on Friday. I came away with some thoughts, which I will share here. As usual, I was looking more for emerging themes in the field, and not so much trying to figure out exactly what each company is doing, or which ones will succeed or fail.

The health IT sector has been feeling a bit turbulent to me lately—maybe it’s just healthcare in general—but opportunities now seem to be crystallizing along a few promising paths.

1. “The silos of data fell yesterday.” That was John Halamka, the Harvard Medical School prof and Beth Israel hospital exec who has championed various health IT causes, talking about last week’s release of “meaningful use stage two” requirements for electronic health records. The upshot: healthcare institutions must allow patient summary data to be shared (with consent) with external applications and systems by 2013. In other words, look for a lot more interoperability between different health record systems, vendors, and products. “This eliminates a lot of the threats your business models had,” Halamka said, speaking in particular to the Rock Health startups presenting. “It’s a wide open marketplace.”

2. The virtual doctor’s office visit is near. One of the startup presenters, NoviMedicine, sold me on this concept. The company is starting by helping dermatologists diagnose and treat acne online. For certain maladies, simple communication and high-res pictures (available via mobile phone) should suffice, and a Web platform that connects doctors with patients who can log in and pay to be treated makes a lot of sense. Too bad for Boston that NoviMedicine co-founders (and brothers) Josh and Seth Spanogle are moving out of town, probably to Southern California.

3. Physical therapy will increasingly be done at home. Home Team Therapy, another startup, is using online video and gaming sensors (Kinect) to help physical therapy patients do their rehab exercises more effectively at home. The software also includes the usual complement of goal-tracking measures, social comparisons, and feedback to the therapist. The Cambridge-based startup is currently running a pilot in New York City.

4. Everyone’s trying to crack “mobile for health”—and they’re almost there. Several Rock Health Boston startups, including RxApps, Neumitra, and Reify Health, are trying to use mobile phones to help patients adhere to treatment plans, track their health and stress levels, and help medical experts gather data for research and clinical trials. It’s just a matter of time before someone breaks out of this sector with a big moneymaker. (See also local companies such as FitnessKeeper and Ginger.io.)

5. Stress maps could be all the rage. Imagine a map of your hometown, or your daily travels, color-coded with physiological data about how you’re feeling when you’re in various places. Now imagine your mobile phone could receive soothing text messages or invitations to play a relaxing game when you’re feeling stressed (or when you’re in locations correlated with stress). Neumitra, based in the Boston area, is trying to track the events that lead to feelings of stress and anxiety, using wearable sensors, and mitigate them with existing mobile apps. Think students, returning soldiers, expecting moms, golfers, even whole companies.

6. Can anyone diagnose Alzheimer’s before symptoms appear? A huge medical question, obviously. NeuroTrack is using an eye-tracking test developed and tested at Emory University that purports to predict the onset of Alzheimer’s within three years. If the early-diagnosis test is accurate, one of the immediate returns would be to help drug companies design better clinical trials for new drugs by recruiting the right patient populations.

7. Startups focused on a specific disease case are easy to grasp. Podimetrics has developed a home sensor that looks like a bathmat and detects diabetic foot ulcers, which often lead to amputations if undetected. (Diabetic patients often can’t feel the bottom of their feet.) How well the technology works and whether it addresses a big enough market is hard to determine in a short pitch—but at least you get what they’re trying to do. This is one example of what will probably be an explosion in home health-monitoring and sensing devices.

8. Investors are still moving relatively slowly in the sector. Just a feeling I get, but it seems like tech angels and VCs are still more apt to back more “proven” social-mobile or commerce plays than healthcare-focused startups. But as they get more familiar with health IT strategies, and a few winners break out, that will all change. Which leads me to…

9. Health IT is the new social media. Or Wild West, or whatever you want to call it. There’s a flood of opportunity here, and almost anything goes. It has taken a few years, but the opportunities are now becoming real. So when friends and entrepreneurs ask me what areas they should look to start a company in, health IT is probably at the top of my list. That’s partly because a lot of people don’t quite get it yet. But they will.

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Editor in Chief. E-mail him at gthuang [at] xconomy.com. Follow @gthuang

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