Pediatric Pitch Day Highlights Kids’ Health Innovation at SXSW

For many entrepreneurs, there is a moment when all the work, planning, hope, and praying comes together to set the business’s growth to warp speed.

For Kezia Fitzgerald, who founded CareAline, a Boston maker of a cloth sleeve that securely hides intravenous lines and prevents kids from tugging or pulling them off, that moment could very well feature this year’s South By Southwest Festival when she got a very prominent customer: billionaire IT entrepreneur and investor Mark Cuban.

“I was really surprised; it just caught me off guard,” she says of Cuban’s order. “You prepare for the technical questions: the cost of things. How much do you sell it for? I’m not expecting, ‘I’m going to buy something from you.’ ”

Cuban ordered 1,000 of CareAline’s sleeves as long as they could be branded with the logo of the Dallas Mavericks, the NBA franchise he owns. That’s a hefty order considering the company had previously sold 4,000 of the sleeves in total since its founding. About 20 percent of its sales have gone to around a dozen hospitals. The bulk CareAline’s customers find the company on the Internet through word-of-mouth.

“This opens (the product) up for other sports teams,” Fitzgerald says. “But it also makes it more than just something that’s medical, but also something fun, especially when you’re dealing with kids. This becomes something they want to wear.”

Fitzgerald, who invented the sleeve following the diagnosis and treatment of her newborn daughter’s Stage 4 neuroblastoma, heads one of 10 medtech companies that presented at the pitch day for the Impact Pediatric Health event last week. (I shared the emcee table with Cuban.) Tragically, Fitzgerald’s daughter, Saoirse, passed away in 2011, but she decided to pursue the company anyway. I spoke to her Thursday as she and her husband Mike were driving back to Massachusetts after winning the top prize in the three awards presented, one from venture capitalists, a second from hospital executives, and a third from Cuban himself.

Cuban says he decided to purchase the sleeves because he thought it was “a great opportunity for the Mavs to help those in need in our community.”The company’s products, Cuban says, “also dovetails nicely with a new product the Mavs are partnering with that was designed by Luke Lange,” a young cancer patient whose street-wear T-shirts and pants can be worn instead of typical hospital gowns. “Luke designed clothing that opens to enable a patient to expose a chemo port and then closes back up so you can walk out of the hospital with the same clothes you wore in,” Cuban says. “CareAline solves a similar problem. So it was a nice complement.”

The awardsFor Brian Lang, who put on the pitch event, healthcare entrepreneurs have largely overlooked the opportunities in children’s health, despite the fact that it is a large market. The pediatric health market represents a significant part of healthcare spending, with about $87.9 billion spent in 2010, according to the Health Care Cost Institute in Washington, DC. Americans spend more than 31 percent of healthcare dollars on infants and toddlers. But only a fraction of healthIT or biotech companies focus on devices or therapies for the youngest among us, Lang says.

One obvious difference between the healthcare needs of kids versus adults is, say, a minimally invasive device for children must be physically smaller, Lang says. Another is that different drug formulations must be created because children’s increased metabolism affects absorption in unexpected ways.

At last week’s pitch event, many of the companies that presented were firmly on the wearables/big data bandwagon, sensors that tracked pregnancy or newborn sleep patterns. During the question-and-answer sessions, Cuban frequently zeroed in on exactly what each company was providing that was new or innovative. In some cases it seemed that the entrepreneurs were creating a problem they then were trying to solve, Cuban says. “I didn’t see any products that were market-changing,” he says of the data-collecting wearables. “They all faced a ton of competition.”

One obstacle to innovation that Cuban particularly jumped on was when many of the entrepreneurs said it was difficult to persuade hospital executives to work with them in uploading data into the cloud. “Seriously? You guys still aren’t comfortable with that,” he quipped to applause from the crowd.



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