Boston Healthtech Lab Links Startups with Hospitals, Bose, & Others

Pulse@MassChallenge, the new Boston “lab” for healthcare technology startups, revealed more details Wednesday about its strategy and how the program fits into a broader initiative attempting to make Massachusetts the world’s digital health hub.

The lab is run by MassChallenge, the Boston-based nonprofit that operates startup accelerator programs around the world. The lab’s inaugural session will begin in January and last through June 2017, which is longer than the typical four-month accelerators run by MassChallenge.

The lab will accept between 10 and 30 startups for its first session, program director Nick Dougherty says. The application period opened Wednesday.

The new digital health lab has many features similar to MassChallenge’s other programs. Startups will receive access to office space and mentors; connections with potential investors and customers; and cash prizes and other resources. Early-stage companies don’t give up any equity to participate.

But organizers aren’t calling Pulse@MassChallenge an accelerator. One interesting component that sets it apart from the typical accelerator is that each digital health startup accepted into the program will be matched with a partner organization—such as a hospital, insurer, larger tech company, or nonprofit—to achieve mutually agreed upon objectives by the end of the six-month session. This might include co-developing new technologies or applying a startup’s product or service toward solving a problem for the partner. (More on this in a minute.)

Ultimately, Pulse@MassChallenge intends to ease the commercialization path for digital health startups, Dougherty says. They often must overcome additional hurdles compared to the average tech company, he says, from navigating regulations around keeping patient data secure, to convincing sometimes slow-moving healthcare systems to buy their products.

Dougherty understands the challenges well: he co-founded a healthtech startup, VerbalCare, that went through the MassChallenge Boston accelerator in 2013 and was acquired last year.

“Digital health is not an easy place to work in,” Dougherty says in an interview. “There’s all this stuff you have to deal with, in addition to building your core product.”

Nick Dougherty speaks at the event Wednesday. Photo by Jeff Engel.

Nick Dougherty speaks at the event Wednesday. Photo by Jeff Engel.

Dougherty and others touted Pulse@MassChallenge to potential applicants at an event Wednesday at the Hatch Fenway offices in downtown Boston, where the lab’s 8,000-square-foot space is located. The event featured 10 “reverse pitches” in which representatives from partner organizations made their case for why startups should collaborate with them.

Some of the pitches, of course, came from healthcare companies and organizations. Franciscan Children’s wants to install remote patient monitoring devices to reduce clutter and noise in hospital rooms, as well as adopt telehealth technologies to enhance communication between patients and their family members. Vertex Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: VRTX) wants to explore new ways of capturing and utilizing health data to better understand the progression of diseases like Parkinson’s and multiple sclerosis, and perhaps improve drug development.

Other pitches came from companies and organizations outside of healthcare. Bose, for example, has developed wireless headphones that have a built-in heart rate monitor, and the company is interested in advancing its sensors and health-related features in its products.

Dougherty wants to ensure that both the startups and their partners get value out of the relationship. “I want us to demonstrate what collaboration looks like in digital health,” he says.

Pulse@MassChallenge is one piece of a larger digital health initiative announced in January and backed by the state, the city of Boston, the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership (MACP), MassChallenge, and stakeholders in healthcare, academia, and industry. Other components of the initiative include a nearly $26 million venture fund that will invest in healthtech startups in Massachusetts.

The initiative’s goal is to strengthen the state’s digital health cluster by providing more resources to local healthtech startups and building stronger connections between companies, healthcare providers, research institutions, and government.

Jeff Engel is a senior editor at Xconomy. Email: jengel@xconomy.com Follow @JeffEngelXcon

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