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Why it's the best time in history to be a healthcare entrepreneur

Zen Chu

Now is the best time in the history of the world to be a healthcare entrepreneur, and those with fresh eyes on healthcare problems -- young health professionals along with patients, engineers, designers and entrepreneurs -- are able to make large and rapid clinical impact.

As healthcare reform changes the way we pay for medical products and services, today's clinicians and health professionals are entering the field amid fundamental transformation and new opportunities. Government and the private sector are adopting new models of measuring healthcare value and quality -- along with new payment models to bend the cost curve. Hospitals and insurers finally have stronger incentives to invest in new technologies for preventative care and efficiency. Pharma and large med tech firms have pruned their own R&D efforts while partnering with smaller nimbler companies. These tectonic shifts favor smaller more agile companies to design new solutions to fill these gaps.

While NIH and government science funding is waning, new funding sources are enabling the testing of new solutions and business models. Funding sources for healthcare startups have expanded beyond traditional venture capital to powerful angel investor networks, venture philanthropy, and crowd-funding by engaged patient communities. Beyond the established healthcare markets, a new global middle class is driving demand for existing healthcare products and new services in emerging economies.

Amid these tectonic shifts in healthcare globally, medical students, young health professionals, engineers and patients have a unique ability to be healthcare entrepreneurs. They're on the front lines of healthcare delivery -- working inside hospitals and healthcare facilities -- everyday. As new clinicians navigate antiquated workflows, artificially expensive products, and entrenched habits of both clinicians and patients, they're asking an innocent question: Does it really have to be done this way? That simple question opens the door to redesigning products and services that existing hospitals, academic medicine and industry have failed to address.

Inspired by the rise of Silicon Valley lore and the social impact of new technologies, young health professionals now view startups as a vehicle for meaningful impact. A clinician's impact has traditionally been limited to the patients she can touch with her own two hands. New technologies such as sensors, medical devices, diagnostics, software, mobile applications and services enabled by these technologies hold the promise of "scalable medicine." New inventions that economically improve diagnostics or simplify treatments result in scaling medicine beyond our doctor shortages and amplify a public health impact.

But clinical insight is insufficient. For a new solution to make a real world impact on patients, it requires proof of clinical efficacy, a sustainable economic model, a willing buyer and a team that can bring it to market. Most health professionals cannot succeed as healthcare innovators alone. They have been selected and trained in ways that dampen creativity and entrepreneurial muscles. Especially in the USA, most clinicians lack an understanding of payments and costs to drive the business model insight to match the clinical insight of a new invention or process. Hierarchical training, poor hospital management, glacial reimbursement changes,  and fear of liability are just a few of the factors that breed a culture where superior solutions can fail to be adopted even when the evidence supports it. Often a product that works well in the US or European healthcare system fails when transplanted to a lower income country and needs to be re-engineered for the local clinical context.

Enter the Healthcare Hackathon -- a process, toolset, and gathering which accelerates the creation of teams and solutions to tackle the complexity of healthcare's toughest problems. Over the past three years, the H@cking Medicine Initiative at MIT has held more than a dozen events on four continents, in partnership with the Harvard Medical School teaching hospitals and leading healthcare institutions around the world. Hacking culture -- meaning clever exploration and engineering -- has a long history at MIT and is now being adapted to healthcare challenges.

Through these hackathons, our teams and faculty have honed a process to identify and validate unmet medical needs while assembling diverse teams to tackle solutions with both clinical impact and a sustainable business model. Our health hackathons bring clinicians together with entrepreneurs, engineers, and designers to collaborate openly in events that span a few hours or an entire weekend.  Most important, more than 200 teams have formed to taste the entrepreneurial process and tackle a complex health problem, resulting in dozens of teams continuing after the events and a handful of venture-financed start-ups formed around reinventing solutions to problems such as medication compliance, patient scheduling, and lab report delivery.

On the weekend of March 14-16, we're kicking off a Grand H@ckfest at MIT's Media Lab, in partnership with the Kauffman Foundation and a few leading healthcare institutions. Healthcare leaders will present some of their biggest problems, in an effort to identify testable solutions and fundable teams in a single weekend. Tracks will encompass telemedicine, health info tech, rare disease diagnosis, diabetes, and global health.

I'll serve as eMed's guest editor in the run up to the event, previewing themes and ideas that we teach at H@ckingMedicine events, our MIT Healthcare Ventures course, and at the upcoming H@ckfest.

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