MedNetworks, Co-Founded by Harvard’s Nicholas Christakis, Aims to Tap Healthcare’s Hidden Social Networks

10/27/10

A Facebook dashboard might be the first thing that comes to mind when we think of social networks. Yet the next big thing in social networking might be technologies that enable businesses to benefit from a deep understanding of existing social networks rather than creating them from scratch like Facebook. Newton, MA-based MedNetworks, for one, is betting on this trend through software that seeks to harness the power of existing social networks in healthcare.

MedNetworks recently spun out of the lab of popular Harvard University professor Nicholas Christakis, who co-wrote the acclaimed book “Connected” and was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people last year. The firm, which was incorporated in 2009, recently got off the ground with a $5 million Series A funding round from Boston-based Excel Venture Management announced in early August. Larry Miller—a physician and venture capitalist whose son introduced him to Christakis when his son was a sophomore at Harvard four and a half years ago—is the co-founder and chief executive of the company.

The startup takes a vastly different approach to the social networking business than some prior tech firms. For instance, the Cambridge, MA-based outfits PatientsLikeMe and Sermo have built online communities of people interested in healthcare for several years. MedNetworks, on the other hand, is developing software that maps and analyzes networks of people or clinicians that already exist. The plan is to then sell access to this social network mapping software to life sciences firms, employer-sponsored wellness plans, health plans, hospitals, and governments.

The company wants to enable its customers to use its deep understanding of the networks to improve the outcomes of, say, their efforts to market prescription drugs to doctors or boost the effectiveness of programs to get people to quit smoking. Its technology, not surprisingly, grew from Christakis’s academic studies, some of which have shown how the behavior of people in a network influence the health decisions of others in the network. We might even be making decisions, his work suggests, that are influenced by our friend’s friend’s friend, who we might not even know, Miller says.

In the medical field, a respected physician might have a greater influence on his colleague’s decisions on which drugs to prescribe than a study published in an academic journal. “It’s our thesis that these sources day to day are among the most powerful [influences] on physicians’ decisions,” Miller says.

For instance, the firm’s software licensed from Christakis’s lab analyzes pharmacy claims records and other healthcare data to map out specific networks of physicians. It then determines the unique structure of a community or network of doctors, enabling the firm to pinpoint the most influential doctors in the pack. This is useful information for, say, a drug company that wants to focus its marketing efforts on specific physicians whose actions might have a ripple effect among their peers. MedNetworks plans to offer a service that enables pharmaceutical companies to disseminate information through a network as effectively and efficiently as possible, Miller says.

For its consumer-focused business, the company is working on programs with Tennessee-based Healthways (NASDAQ:HWAY). Healthways is interested in using the technology to improve the results of an employer wellness plan, Miller says. This program will use MedNetwork’s software to figure out who are the sources of influence in groups of people who display some type of unhealthy behavior such as smoking. The theory is that getting these influential people to quit smoking could impact a wider population to break their habits. The firm will also look at how many sources of influence need to adopt a wellness plan to prompt others to follow suit. (Miller says his startup is also working with MeYou Health, a Boston-based healthcare social gaming subsidiary of Healthways, but he didn’t discuss details of that work.)

Nicholas Christakis, co-founder of MedNetworks. Photo courtesy of Harvard University.

Nicholas Christakis, co-founder of MedNetworks. Photo courtesy of Harvard University.

Miller, a founder and partner of Mediphase Venture Partners in Newton, told me he’d been searching for an opportunity to invest in a healthcare-related social networking startup several years ago when his son, who was then a sophomore at Harvard, suggested that he speak to the professor of a popular sociology class, Christakis, a physician and social scientist. Miller, a Harvard man himself, promptly called Christakis and the two began talking about commercializing technology from the professor’s lab.

“The talking lasted for a while,” Miller says, “but a bit over a year ago we thought it was time to stop talking and get something done.”

The two other co-founders of MedNetworks are Peter DeWan, a sociologist who worked with Christakis at Harvard, and Gerry Gallivan, a founder of other health IT startups in the Boston area such as PharMetrics, which was sold to IMS Health in (NYSE:RX) in 2005. Gallivan is also a former senior vice president of the New Jersey-based drug giant Merck & Co. (NYSE:MRK). DeWan helped develop the analytical methods that MedNetworks licensed from Harvard, Miller says.

While the startup describes its technology as revolutionary, there are other firms around the country that are trying to help drug companies improve their sales by offering analyses of doctor networks. For example, Santa Fe, NM-based Qforma offers its customers access to its database of the most influential doctors. Also, Community Analytics, of Baltimore, says it can analyze human networks for clients to improve their bottom lines. (Miller told me he’s aware of both Qforma and Community Analytics, yet he doesn’t think of them as a threat his six-person startup’s growth.)

“We’re interested in nothing less than world domination,” Miller said in a joking manner. On a more serious note, he added: “We’ve got a great idea and great technology. I won’t put too much pressure on myself, but we’ve got a pretty good start here.”

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