Hacking Health: What Does It Take to Build a Med Tech Ecosystem?

Regional healthcare organizations, IT experts, clinicians, and entrepreneurs will spend the weekend at TechTown Detroit for the third annual Hacking Health event, which is designed to break open silos and inspire new collaborations between med tech innovators on both sides of the Detroit River.

Attendees of the weekend hackathon, hosted by TechTown and Ontario’s WEtech Alliance, will work together to create new apps facilitating patient-centric care and solutions to public health challenges.

Hacking Health is meant to be a companion event to February’s MedHealth Summit, which drew more than 300 participants to Detroit from Southeast Michigan and greater Windsor, ON. At the summit, keynote speakers and panelists covered topics such as how to build health tech ecosystems, startups pitched investors and met potential customers, and future collaborators spent the afternoon networking. Paul Riser Jr., TechTown’s manager of technology-based entrepreneurship, and his fellow event organizers also looked at what the region’s med tech cluster does well and how it stacks up to other regional clusters.

“Healthcare systems are able to intentionally engage with the startup community at these events,” he says. “The med tech environment regionally has a compelling story to tell, especially cross-border. That’s a huge differentiator—we have two different healthcare systems with totally different regulatory structures.”

While the Detroit-Windsor region might provide a unique proving ground to healthcare technologists, it’s a startup ecosystem that, despite growing quickly, is still fairly nascent. Vijay Chauhan, who leads the GlobalSTL initiative for BioSTL, an organization dedicated to nurturing the St. Louis biotech community, spoke at the MedHealth Summit in February. Riser was put in contact with Chauhan through the U.S. Small Business Administration, which wanted to connect people in healthcare to share mentorship and best practices.

Chauhan said he saw parallels between his community and Detroit-Windsor: a major city determined to shed its Rust Belt legacy, a motivated ecosystem open to collaboration, strong universities and healthcare systems, and service providers such as TechTown and WEtech willing to act as conveners.

“What I saw was a really nice community process playing out,” he said in a phone interview after the MedHealth Summit. “The desire to transform Detroit’s economy was very palpable in that room. It was very mission-oriented—it didn’t seem like people were just there because it’s their job.”

Chauhan said the University of Michigan’s participation in the summit was a good sign, as it’s “such a powerhouse of healthcare infrastructure and innovation.” He also sees transformative potential in dedicating resources to studying and improving public health, as Wayne State University’s medical school is increasingly doing.

A key factor in the success of St. Louis’s biotech community, he added, is Bill Danforth, chancellor emeritus of Washington University and founding chairman of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, which played a leadership role in building the city’s entrepreneurial infrastructure. Chauhan said Danforth established the center after he saw lots of new medical innovations coming out of the state’s universities, but nowhere locally to develop them.

Danforth ended up playing the role of a “massive convener” who took a selfless approach to building the med tech ecosystem, spending about 10 years behind the scenes coordinating efforts between entrepreneurs, private industry, government, and academia.

Chauhan said he’s not sure if a Danforthian coordinator is the key in every region, but he feels it definitely helped to prevent “little fiefdoms” from taking root and resulted in a more egalitarian process. He also credits Danforth’s support staff for their work “quietly, systematically” building the community. For nine years, he said, there was no website or any other online presence alerting the public to the work being done behind the curtain.

“To fully leverage that bet is the other half of the story,” Chauhan said. “It would be interesting to see if there are other surrogates that could create a similar outcome, but the challenge with the Detroit region is its scale—that’s a big footprint. I couldn’t get a sense [at the MedHealth Summit] of how one breaks through the noise to build critical mass. It’s easy for things to take off, but how do you grow and sustain over time? I felt like there was a lot of good mid-level engagement at the summit, but you probably need more high-level leadership involved.”

He suggested Bill Ford, executive chairman of the Ford Motor Company, as someone who might be able to serve as a “massive convener” in the Detroit-Windsor region. (The Henry Ford Health System is also connected to the Ford family.) Another source of leadership could be local entrepreneurs who have experienced a lot of economic success, or maybe a sizable exit. He wondered what would have happened, for instance, if Michigan’s governor, Rick Snyder, had chosen entrepreneurial service work instead of politics after the tech company he worked for, Gateway, was acquired by Acer in 2007.

“You want to look for a ‘what to do next’ kind of person,” he added. “Governor Snyder might have been more effective in a [convener] role like this than he has been as governor, but it’s ego-gratifying to run a whole state.” Chauhan said that one can only go so far to change a system or build a community from inside, and sees talent retention and attracting expatriates back into the fold as major components of growth. (A returning resident from a well-established med tech ecosystem might be the ideal person to lead ecosystem-building, he added.)

Riser describes the injection of energy and capital provided to St. Louis by Danforth as “awesome,” and feels the New Economy Initiative’s decision to sponsor Hacking Health and the MedHealth Summit is a similarly catalyzing action that will lead to “leveraging synergies” in the future. The Detroit-Windsor region already does a good job at building and investing in startups, getting academia involved in startups, and collaborating, he says. One challenge still remaining? Getting the word out about regional success stories, he says.

“How do we tell the collective story so we’re a destination and not just flyover country?” Riser asks. “As we start to scale, it won’t be one or two big things that make a difference, but a lot of little things. There’s a lot of neat stuff happening in 2017.”

Riser is looking forward to seeing the apps come to fruition at Hacking Health. Registration is free, and participants can bring a pre-selected team with them or form teams at the event. Attendees are encouraged to post their ideas ahead of time to get participants thinking of potential solutions. Riser says people can also come to the hackathon without an app idea or team and get matched up with other participants on Friday night.

“I think this year’s Hacking Health event will be the best yet because we’re building off the momentum of the summit and previous hackathons,” Riser predicts. “We’ll be even more informed and united. It’s a low risk, low barrier-to-entry event where anyone from student to CEO can find value.”


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