This old thing? The merits of a different kind of conference.
You sip your coffee in a paper cup and check your watch. The speaker moves at a dizzying pace from one buzzword to another. His PowerPoint slides are impressively trendy. You try to translate the tech jargon into real words. What was he saying? Something about connectivity? Or was it a platform? Or a user interface? It all starts to run together…your focus shifts to the watery coffee in your hand. The paper cup is branded –with a –a –a “marketing integration solutions company?” You begin to wonder what that exactly means –marketing integration solutions….and your mind wanders off from Tech Guy…
With conferences abounding in the business, healthcare and technology, the HealthTech Venture Network Conference (HTVNC) is going to try to do something different with its annual flagship event this September. It’s going to try to expand the space for healthtech by kicking open some perspectives and trying to break out of the insular mold of industry conferences.
The HealthTech Venture Network Conference was born out of a desire to create genuine collaboration in health and technology. The founder of HTVNC, Dr. Kingsley R. Chin, (also the CEO and founder of the healthtech investment company, KICVentures) brought his portfolio company, SenseDriver Technologies, to the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last year. SenseDriver’s technology SenseHUD –a safe driving heads up display –received glowing reviews and lots of attention. But what did that do for the company?
Amaru thinks the feedback from a diverse, real-world crowd is ultimately more helpful in shaping his product and business strategy.
Michael Amaru, Co-founder of SenseDriver Technologies says, “It wasn’t a surprise –but we got great feedback at CES, and that can make someone go, ‘Oh my gosh, this is going to be a huge hit!’ But you’re at a consumer electronics show where people are going to be going gaga over gadgets. But if you get out into the real world and put your product in front of a mom or a young professional, or a cab driver, then you’re not locked in a start-up world bubble.” Amaru thinks the feedback from a diverse, real-world crowd is ultimately more helpful in shaping his product and business strategy.
With all the tech people, entrepreneurs, physicians, and CEO’s interacting with people of their own kind at their respective and separate gatherings, it’s no surprise that industry conferences can become too narrow for their own good. HTVNC proposes that the CEO needs the fresh perspective that a medical student can bring to healthcare; the startup entrepreneur needs the viewpoint of the surgeon; and the experienced investor can learn more about his financial strategy by understanding the scientist’s latest breakthrough. HTVNC wants to foster the collaborations that stem from the intersection of different perspectives and specialties.
Amaru notes that solutions for medicine do not always come from the medical world. “With HTVNC’s diversity, we can start drawing parallels between devices that we hadn’t even been considering in our own industry. Having medical minds on the panel can help you see what your entertainment device might contribute to the medical field. This actually happened to me with SenseHUD. In working closely with the Founder of HTVNC, Dr. Chin, we see a very promising medical use for SenseHUD that we wouldn’t have seen. It’s stuff like that that can happen at HTVNC.”
HTVNC embraces the diversity of industries and ideas, because new connections are born when two disparate ideas come together and form something new.
Event organizer Nick DiBella echoes Amaru’s sentiment, “HTVNC embraces the diversity of industries and ideas, because new connections are born when two disparate ideas come together and form something new. Sometimes you can get so far into your industry or your idea or your hardware or technology that you stop thinking outside the box. When a doctor looks at a piece of technology, she views it differently than the designer views it. She brings her experience to bear on what that technology can do in her hands or in a patient’s body with all the practical ramifications of the O.R. that are removed from a designer or entrepreneur’s mind.”
The event’s speakers reflect its diversity and cover a wide variety of topics, including the connected operating room, online platforms in healthcare, medical devices, 3D printing, fitness & technology, wearables, raising start-up capital, the connected automobile, and robotics.
It’s also about expanding the way people think and collaborate in healthtech… about investing in a next generation of people and entrepreneurs.
Dr. Chin thinks big when it comes to his conference’s mission. He tells me that HTVNC is about providing a space for sharing and honing ideas, but it’s also about expanding the way people think and collaborate in healthtech in the first place. For him, healthtech isn’t just about the technology, it’s also about investing in a next generation of people and entrepreneurs.
As a way of putting his convictions into practice, Dr. Chin created ELEVATE –a “Shark Tank” style competition where entrepreneurs give a thirty second elevator pitch to a panel of healthtech experts and investors. It adds an element of fun to the conference, (the winner takes home a cash prize and receives strategic consulting support for their business), but more importantly, it’s a way to give young entrepreneurs a leg up by exposing them to potential investors and by helping them refine their pitches.
In his forthcoming autobiography Prove Yourself, Dr. Chin explains his commitment to investing in entrepreneurs, “It is through supporting other entrepreneurs that I can have the broadest impact on changing the world, rather than through any direct philanthropy with my own money. What use is it to give a man a fish? The next day he will need another. Long-term, sustainable philanthropy comes from teaching people to fish, by providing knowledge and support to grow businesses.” ELEVATE is one way to educate entrepreneurs about effective pitches so that their budding businesses aren’t squelched before they have room to grow.
If you’ve ever listened to NPR’s This American Life Episode “It’s Not the Product, It’s the Person,” you know that even a poised, seasoned veteran of the professional world like Alex Blumberg of Planet Money gets the jitters while pitching to investors. The episodechronicles Blumberg’s entrepreneurial adventures in creating a podcast startup. It’s painful to listen to his stumbling, rambling pitch to investor Chris Sacca (a billionaire who invested in Twitter, Kickstarter, Instagram and Uber). During Blumberg’s train wreck of a pitch, Mr. Sacca tells Blumberg: “You gotta tighten up your story” and, “What you haven’t given me is an outline of your story.” Eventually, Mr. Sacca, tires of trying to course-correct Blumberg, and graciously takes over the pitch altogether. He astounds Blumberg by rattling off a confident, concise version of what Blumberg’s pitch should sound like.
At the end of the episode, Blumberg laments, “This was my big chance, a huge Silicon Valley investor with enough money to snap his fingers and get me started on my new life, and I’d blown it.”
As Blumberg would tell you – pitches are difficult. And you have to be ready for them. ELEVATE is an opportunity to practice, with an actual incentive at the end of the experience (the cash prize), but it’s also Dr. Chin’s way of preparing entrepreneurs for that life-changing two minutes when they step into an elevator with Chris Sacca.
The Right City, The Right Time
The Boston HealthTech Venture Network Conference’s energy reflects the broader kinetic movement of a city trying to figure out its place in healthtech. Many predict Boston’s influence in the field will be significant. Its healthtech scene is already buzzing with startups and with the energy and belief that with enough willpower it will be a great contender.
The idea has its merits. Boston is a powerhouse in pharmaceutical and biotech, with over 500 companies peppering the area. Governor Deval Patrick is widely credited with securing Boston its place as the nation’s top hub for biotech during his recent eight-year term in office. His promise of $1 billion dollars earmarked for the life sciences came at a time when the San Francisco Bay area was threatening dominance in the biotech market. Many believe his policies helped catapult Boston into the nation’s first position as a biotech hub.
Now the healthtech industry is looking to make Boston a hub of its own. The Massachusetts Competitive Partnership is a group of sixteen chief executives and business leaders looking to use their influence to channel investment into Boston’s healthtech industry. It’s the private sector’s smaller attempt to do what Governor Deval Patrick once did for the life sciences.
The group also hopes to create mentorship opportunities for entrepreneurs and increase space for start-up incubators.
The Boston Globe reports that, “On the money front, the group is pushing for a tax credit to persuade angel investors to provide seed money and is working with Leerink Partners to set up a private equity fund that would invest in Massachusetts-based digital health companies.” The group also hopes to create mentorship opportunities for entrepreneurs and increase space for start-up incubators.
“We really think this has a chance to have Massachusetts at the top of the food chain if we do it right,” Bill Swanson, chairman of the partnership told the Boston Globe.
The private sector isn’t alone in its initiatives to grow healthtech. In his first State of the City address, Boston’s Mayor Marty Walsh laid out several initiatives that would help healthtech in Boston continue its trajectory of growth. Walsh proposed several housing initiatives that would help keep residential rent in the city affordable for low and middle income families and allow graduating students to stay in the city, a move that might persuade more owners of healthtech startups to stick around after graduation. 
Walsh appointed a “Startup Czar” whose job is to encourage and support entrepreneurial efforts in Boston through StartHub.
Perhaps most significantly, Walsh appointed a “Startup Czar,” whose job is to encourage and support entrepreneurial efforts in Boston through StartHub –a regional program aimed at helping entrepreneurs in the city. Skeptics of the quirky title and the young Czar (a 25 year-old Boston College graduate without much experience in the startup world) wonder what impact an inexperienced “Startup Czar” might have on a city as big as Boston.
But Walsh’s initiative shows a movement toward making City Hall processes for startups easier –certainly a good thing. Walsh has also been a stalwart embracer of technology in his own government –appointing a Chief Digital Officer, Lauren Lockwood, to strengthen the citizens’ digital experience with government by revamping the City’s digital assets. Walsh’s efforts to provide real-time data for construction, zoning, and licensing and his push for analyzing big data to improve city systems are all a part of his drive to make Boston (in his words) “the nation’s most digitally connected city.” Walsh even tracks his own schedule through a digital screen in his office that maps the frequency with which he’s visited each Boston neighborhood in the past month.
Mayor Walsh and the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership aren’t making too much of a leap to envision a future for Boston as a healthtech hub. Boston is home to several of the most prestigious STEM schools in the world, as well as the finest hospitals. Mass General, Boston Children’s and Brigham and Women’s make the U.S. News and World Report’s honor roll for top hospitals in the nation each year. For nineteen years straight, Boston has secured the most NIH funding of any city.  Massachusetts companies reportedly raised 4.2 billion in venture capitalist funding last year. And startup incubators like Greentown Labs, Cogo Labs and MassChallenge are springing up across the city. Boston’s annual TechJam –a gathering of Boston startups -ballooned from a modest gathering in 2014 to a major event that encompassed Boston’s City Plaza in 2015. All these factors constitute some key ingredients for making Boston a healthcare and innovation hub.
Boston in particular stands out as an intellectual capital, retail stronghold, technological metropolis, and healthcare hub.
The corporate world is also recognizing Boston’s position in healthtech. CVS just chose Boston as the site for their first Digital Innovation Lab -a corporate hub that will emulate a startup culture focused on digital innovation in healthcare.  In a recent editorial, Brian Tilzer, the Chief Digital Officer at CVS Health, explained Boston’s attraction, “…Boston in particular stands out as an intellectual capital, retail stronghold, technological metropolis and healthcare hub….That’s why, now, more than ever, health-focused companies –from well-known players to startups –are flocking to the Greater Boston Area to hire from the city’s rich talent pool.”
Despite all these positive indicators, there are still significant challenges to surmount for Boston –and for everyone- working in healthtech. Boston-based physician and entrepreneur Niels Rosenquist questions if the industries of healthcare and technology are even able to work together. He sees cultural and economic barriers in medicine and technology including their access to funding. NIH grants, the traditional funding for medical research, can take a minimum of six months to a year –an amount of time that the fast-paced digital world doesn’t have. He notes that the intellectual property relationship between academia and industry can be chilling, HIPPA laws a nightmare for e-health, and the medical field’s often contradictory interests (physicians, patients, insurance companies, and hospitals) can prove less than collaborative.
The Biomakers Consortium stands out as an entity attempting to collaborate amidst a tricky landscape. The consortium’s shareholders come from the diverse fields of insurance, medicine, academics, and healthtech. The collaborative is a step in a direction toward overcoming the competing interests of different fields in pursuit of a common goal: the advancement of biomarkers. While it’s met with considerable success, its great intentionality in governance belies the truth that it’s an endeavor fraught with potential pitfalls. Collaboration –however essential –is not easy.
Fortunately, Boston is used to creating solutions for complex problems. It has historically been a city that invests in technological innovation. In the 1800’s Boston investors backed the building of the nation’s railroads and invested heavily in technological forerunners AT&T and General Electric. As its industries and population grew, they threatened to bust the seams of Boston’s geography. The city could not physically accommodate the size of its growth. So Bostonites decided they would literally move mountains to make expansion possible. They quarried hills and filled mudflats, rivers and marshes with land to expand into the Back Bay and South Boston –creating new territory where there was none. They used innovation and sheer will to exist in new spaces.
In a small way, the HealthTech Venture Network Conference is participating in Boston’s legacy of opening up space for innovation and entrepreneurship. HTVNC hopes to generate the conversations that lead to beneficial collaborations and move healthtech forward through unexpected partnerships.