Part I: Go Edupunk - All Healthcare Incubators NOT Created Equal

Blogger's Note: This week Health Management Rx will feature a series of posts taking a closer look at incubators in the healthcare, eHealth, HIT, and Health 2.0 spaces.

"The love of things ancient doth argue stayedness, but levity and want of experience maketh apt unto innovations."


It's been awhile since I did a glass-half-full post.

Reading the latest debate on 'Health 2.0' (Vijay Goel gives an analytical overview here, while Ted Eytan sums it up concisely here) and biting my lips over PHR offerings on the market (I'm not using ANY of them, and I'm prime e-patient territory) provides more than enough incentive to look at the glass and see half empty.

It seems like we keep circling around the central issue - which is not, in fact, the definition of Health 2.0, or whether or not it's cooked.

The central issue if we really want to change healthcare? How to encourage HIT and mHealth innovation from research to implementation. And where to find the bucks to build/run the wonderful world of next-gen applications.

Enter incubators - stage right.

Monetizing knowledge, capitalizing on the energy of design teams in a manner that permits open-source, open-platform development, and the nightmare business model and IP debates involved might influence one to take a night on the town, spending time/money on best pick of a bad B-grade movie rather than dreaming up ways to change healthcare.

But last week I attended RWJF Project HealthDesign incubator demo day. I watched watched as nine amazing teams, representing a cross-section of academia, entrepreneurship, and tech, presented PHAs (personal health applications) based on a common platform developed by the very talented Samuel Faus and his team of 4 at Sujansky & Associates.

Reread the graph above. Slowly. Operative words:

1. PHAs (not PHRs). Trend: Someone builds the common platform (ex. Twitter) and a myriad of companies and individuals build apps (or widgets, ex. Twhirl, Summize, not Twitter Search).

2. Common platform. Trend: Someone has to bite the bullet and develop a 'public good' or open source platform that encourages the growth of semantic interoperability for multiple apps. This means you don't OWN the apps that will populate your platform - if you've done it right they spring up like clusters of mushrooms, breaking through dirt in unexpected new places. However, even if you don't 'own' the apps, you might 'lease' them space on your platform. Check out the plethora of Health apps springing up for purchase by happy IPhone owners.

3. Team of 4. Trend: Microteams. It doesn't necessarily take massive multinational teams like the Wikipedians to develop real-world healthcare innovations. As we've found in the Nexthealth crew, a small, tight team buzzing around a central mission and bringing in innovators from all over the world can be extremely effective in designing and implementing solutions, especially if they move from thought to action lickety-split.

So why talk about incubators?

1. There's not much in the blogosphere (yet) connecting separate incubation shops, even though, as we'll see this week, there are several very interesting HIT/eHealth/Health 2.0 examples.

2. I have a particular soft spot for incubators.

This story might help explain why I'm so interested in geeky tech and VC news. And why I'm so keen, often without monetization (read: not being paid) to connect the two worlds (startup tech+startup health).

By the time I hit 20, my uncle Craig, role model, sometime boss, and successful entrepreneur a few times over, was an active angel investor in the DC area.

Several times he'd field me a firm's prospectus - this was nothing new. He'd been throwing these things at me since high school because he knew:
  • I was a geek;
  • I'd need the experience later (even though I was set on being a poet at the time), and;
  • (God bless him) I might as well mess up big when he was the only one answering questions so I'd get used to falling flat on my face and bouncing right back up.
One of the prospectuses I told him I liked? Yeah. A little company called "Honest Tea." I don't think he bought in. Live and learn.

That gig later helped me get a summer internship (2000) with Cal Simmons and John May, the authors of "Every Business Needs an Angel."

At the time, Cal was operating a tech incubator called ASAP Ventures in northern VA, and I spent meeting time hanging out at the offices securing launch party sponsors and suggesting dumb themes like "the color blue" because it "smells like first place" (what can I say, I was 20, and yes, unfortunately I still have a fondness for cheesy themes).

Why does this matter?

I remember the smell of the place, the logoed tins of mints that were party swag announcing to visitors the current residents of the incubator. I remember hearing about successes (and failures) while touring the open office space where a few businesses camped.

And I remember thinking - so. Incubators. This is how it starts.

And often, incubators are instrumental in how it continues...

Business and nonprofit incubators can be remarkably successful - "87% of incubator graduates stay in business." (If you've got other stats, please consider editing this Wikipedia entry).

Look at some of my favorite examples OUTSIDE of healthcare tech: TechStars, the Knight News Challenge, etc.

Incubators can get things started in healthcare too. Project HealthDesign is doing a damn good job of showing us the way.

Tomorrow, using the RWJF Project HealthDesign demos, and our Nexthealth experience, as an example, we'll take a look at when incubation in healthcare works.

The rest of this week, look for more general info on incubators, when they DON'T work in healthcare, and why it should be a sector goal to see a Health startup or 3 at TechStars next year.

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