How Boston has Transformed Itself into a Powerful Digital Health Ecosystem

August 3, 2017

By: Taha Jangda

As far as healthcare goes, Boston has historically focused on biotechnology, life sciences, and pharmaceuticals. Until a few years ago, digital health wasn’t a big talking point in the Boston healthcare scene. After a multilateral initiative launched in 2016, however, Boston wants to be regarded as a national leader in digital healthcare investment and activity.

In January 2016, a coalition of leaders including Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, and industry executives announced an initiative to invest in digital health. From the beginning of the initiative, Baker and other key stakeholders envisioned a future in which Boston would be a national epicenter for digital health innovation.

Boston already had many of the key elements in place for its digital health goal, including top-ranked universities and hospitals, venture capital investment, and a thriving startup culture. There was an opportunity to capture a portion of the enormous, growing digital health market (estimated to be worth more than $32 billion over the next decade). Doing so, the government hoped, would drive job creation across the Commonwealth while simultaneously advancing patient care and lowering the cost of healthcare.

The call-to-arms revitalized the ecosystem and today, there are more than 300 companies related to digital health in Massachusetts.

Government support

The government has formed public-private partnerships to encourage digital health activity statewide.

A great example of public-private collaboration is the recent government initiative to invest $250,000 in two digital health innovation labs, PULSE@ MassChallenge and Baystate Health’s TechSpring. Both of these innovation labs make it easier for digital health innovators to connect with strategic partners, talent, and advisors in the greater healthcare ecosystem.

“Instead of it taking the traditional six to 12 months to kick off a pilot, health systems are kicking it off in six to 12 weeks, sometimes even faster,” said Nick Dougherty, Program Director at PULSE. “It speaks to the excitement of the community to solve some of these big problems.”

In November 2016, Gov. Baker also created a 33-member Digital Healthcare Council to ensure that the economic development from the digital healthcare vertical extends throughout the state.

The council includes prominent leaders from government, industry, and medicine such as Jeff Leiden, president and CEO of Vertex Pharmaceuticals; Joel Vengco, president and CIO of Baystate Health; Laurie Leshin, president of Worcester Polytechnic Institute; and Atul Gawande, surgeon, digital health innovations lab executive director, author and New Yorker columnist. It is primed to act as a link between public and private sectors and to serve the healthcare community through reform and progressive initiatives.

University activity

Another core component of Boston’s thriving innovation is the top talent coming out of MIT, Harvard, and Boston University and feeding into the ecosystem. Massachusetts has a significant brain drain problem and is one of the only coastal states that loses more college graduates than it attracts. It will take time for data to show whether the trend is truly reversing, but anecdotal reports from individuals in Boston’s ecosystem indicate that software engineers, entrepreneurs, and inventors that once flocked to Silicon Valley are now choosing to stay in Boston and greater Massachusetts because of the opportunities present.

The universities also provide opportunities for cross-sector collaboration, such as in the MIT Hacking Medicine hackathon. Each year, MIT Hacking Medicine brings together engineers, doctors, and designers in a competition to create disruptive healthcare and medicine solutions. Hacking Medicine has run more than 70 health hackathons in the U.S. and abroad, produced more than 25 companies and generated over $150 million in funding.

“Boston is the best place in the world to be launching and building healthcare companies. It is truly an international crossroads where health policy, cutting edge research, and new tech are converging to transform medicine,” said Zen Chu, MIT Hacking Medicine cofounder.

Health system collaboration

Boston is home to many prominent hospitals. Although both hospitals and digital health startups seek to improve healthcare, collaborations between them aren’t always easy. In Boston, however, health systems like Brigham and Women’s, Massachusetts General Hospital, and Boston Children’s Hospital have created processes to connect with digital health startups and facilitate the review and onboarding of proposed pilots and research studies.

“There are new startups being formed every day, and as an organization, we can’t meet them all,” said Adam Landman, CIO at Brigham Health. “We have developed a basic screening form and process, and we also rely on our relationships with digital health community accelerators, venture firms, and other vetting partners to help us stay informed and connected with the best up-and-coming solutions available.”

Brigham and Women’s hospital has also launched a digital innovation hub called iHub that works with clinicians, researchers, and staff to accelerate and commercialize digital health ideas.

iHub also partners with industry innovators to match digital health solutions to hospital-identified challenges and hosts hackathons, monthly research forums, and other innovation events. As an example, iHub worked with Dr. Hadi Shafiee who developed and validated a point-of-care assay to assess male fertility. iHub helped develop a prototype for a connected device that allows patients to perform the test at home. Shafiee is currently spinning out a new company to commercialize the technology.

In 2015, an iHub hackathon led to Herald Health, a smart notification platform that delivers critical patient data in real-time via pager, phone, or email to help providers make decisions. Herald Health is currently piloting at Brigham. Through PULSE@ MassChallenge, Herald Health continued its success when they matched with Cerner and Boston Children’s Hospital to collaborate during the PULSE program.

At Boston Children’s Hospital, Chief Innovation Officer John Brownstein said in an interview with Children’s Hospital that the future of hospitals is “all about digital transformation” and that creating the digital health experience for patients is his top priority.

Brownstein also noted Massachusett’s “amazing investment in digital health,” and the plentiful partnership opportunities available between health systems, venture capital communities, and government entities. Those types of partnerships, he said, can help hospitals innovate without investing a huge amount of resources.  

Boston Children’s Hospital has grown their innovation team from 10 to 50 employees, and they have also launched their own innovation accelerator. The accelerator has successfully spun out three projects into healthcare startups that have raised more than $13 million in venture funding and has engaged in successful collaborations with tech giants like Apple, Uber, and Google.

Dana-Farber Cancer Institute also recently hired Lesley Solomon for a newly created position as Chief Innovation Officer. Solomon has been a force for innovation in Boston and nationwide — with previous roles at iHub’s executive director and director of innovation and strategy for Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

Venture capital shifts

Venture capitalists have also played a significant role in Boston’s surging digital health ecosystem. The VC community has responded to the shift from biotech and pharma investment to a more comprehensive portfolio that includes digital health. Some examples that underscore this shift include:

• In 2015, $378 million was invested in Boston-based digital health startups;

• According to MobiHealthNews, in 2016 the Boston metro area came in second after the San Francisco Bay area for digital health deals, totaling $966 million across 33 deals; and

• In 2016, a group of Boston business backers launched a $26 million venture fund, the Massachusetts Innovation Catalyst Fund, and accompanying incubator dedicated to digital health startups

Collectively, Boston has created one of the most robust, thriving healthcare innovation ecosystems in the world. In doing so, they have also demonstrated a replicable, multifaceted model for growing a successful digital health ecosystem.  

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