10.10.10, Entrepreneurs to Tackle “Wicked Problems” in Healthcare

Xconomy Boulder/Denver — 

If you’ve talked to Tom Higley lately, you know the Denver entrepreneur is passionate about his newest endeavor, 10.10.10. You know Higley has great hopes that the 10 entrepreneurs coming to Denver next week will, after 10 intense days studying 10 “wicked problems” related to health and healthcare, come up with ideas for companies that could help solve them.

You probably also know that even with the start of the big event set for Monday, Higley still hasn’t found just the right word to sum it up—but we’ll get to that later.

In one light, what 10.10.10 is about is right in the name, with all those 10s. It brings together 10 entrepreneurs with track records of success who are qualified to lead startups that could attract venture capital investors. They’ll spend 10 days in Denver. During that time, they’ll study 10 problems that have significant social impact but are problems entrepreneurs and private companies can address. The goal is the entrepreneurs will come up with a few ideas for viable startups that can be funded by investors and make significant profits in the long run.

If they like an idea well enough, they could leave 10.10.10 the founder and CEO of a new company—one that a few years from now could trace its success back to those hectic days in Denver.

“Ultimately what we want to see is funded companies, we want to see solutions to wicked problems, and we want to see return on invested capital, and that of course will take a little while to assess,” Higley said.

The key to getting those companies rolling is picking the right problem. In one of 10.10.10’s unique twists, the entrepreneurs coming to the event aren’t coming with ideas of their own. Instead, Higley and his team have been working with experts to come up with the 10 problems they will present Monday during an event at the McNichols Civic Center Building in Denver. It starts at 2 p.m.

The ideas were whittled down from more than 100 submissions, some coming from well-known nonprofits such as the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Colorado Health Foundation. Experts researched the issues to see the scope of the problem and potential opportunities. “Problem advocates” will pitch the problems to the prospective CEOs, outlining why the proposals should be their focus. It’s up to the entrepreneurs to select the problems to work on, what approach they might take, and whether it’s an idea they’d like to build a company around.

That last part is very important.

“Not every wicked problem is susceptible to a solution from a startup,” Higley said. The problems were chosen with that in mind, as issues like market potential and the speed with which an idea or technology could make an impact were weighed when the problems were selected.

10.10.10 decided to look at problems affecting health and healthcare because there’s no shortage of problems. It’s a broad enough area that the problems run the gamut from everyday challenges that affect one person’s wellbeing to those that could create global public health crises.

“We picked health because it’s a big tent.… This isn’t only about healthcare, it isn’t only about pharma, it isn’t only about a particular niche,” Higley said. “It’s about a wide range of problems, and some of those are right in front of your face.”

Higley also believes technology like smart devices could have a revolutionary impact and that investors are ready to place bets.

Higley said 10.10.10’s entrepreneurs are “an unusually diverse set” with people coming from outside the health and healthcare industries. They’ll work with what 10.10.10. calls validators—about 20 people who do have deep knowledge about the industries—to brainstorm and test ideas.

With those different facets and a unique approach, it’s hard to succinctly describe just what 10.10.10 is. Higley—who has been working on this idea for more than two years—admits with a chuckle that even he doesn’t quite know.

“I can’t even tell you what category we fit in,” Higley said. “We’re still waiting to invent the category.”

Higley makes clear 10.10.10 isn’t a startup accelerator or incubator. The hope is to catalyze ideas and move forward quickly, but the entrepreneurs won’t be coming to Denver with co-founders, and there isn’t a focus on building entrepreneurial skills and connections to investors. As the CEOs are “market-tested talent” with the right experience, they won’t need that, Higley said. They’re also free to start companies outside Colorado.

And while 10.10.10 is organized as a nonprofit, it is not a think tank or advocacy group, although it works with them.

Instead, Higley said the event combines the wide-open nature of startup weekends, the intense pace of hackathons, and even elements of personal development retreats as the entrepreneurs try to discover what’s next for them and find something they could spend the next five or 10 years of their lives working on.

Finding the right second act is something Higley knows about. He was a key player in Colorado’s biggest success story during the late-1990s tech boom. Higley was CEO of Service Metrics, a startup that measured website performance. Within 18 months of its founding, Service Metrics raised $15.5 million and attracted the attention of Exodus Communications, which bought the startup in 1999. The price tag was $280 million, but it was an all-stock deal. That actually worked out for the best—by the time the lockup period ended, the stock was worth more than $1 billion.

Exodus was a casualty of the ensuing tech crash, but by then Higley moved on to StillSecure, a software and security startup. As Higley writes in this blog, the result was not as good, and in retrospect he wouldn’t have taken that route. But the experience did teach him about the difficulties entrepreneurs face after having a big hit and need to figure out what’s next.

It should be a few years at least before Higley has to worry about his next move. The plan is to host three 10.10.10 events each year, rotating between Denver, Boston, and San Francisco. For the first few years, Higley said the focus will be on health, but over time he plans to branch out to other areas.

It will take some time to know if his idea really can create startups able to deliver world-changing technologies and profits for investors. In the meantime, Higley has a more modest goal of making 10.10.10 into a sustainable event that entrepreneurs, issue experts, and investors want to be a part of.