Rock Health, A New Incubator for Healthcare IT Startups, Names Its First Class

6/2/11Follow @wroush

The summer after her first year at Harvard Business School, Halle Tecco got an internship at Apple in Cupertino, CA, helping to evaluate mobile apps for the health and medical category of the iTunes App Store. “I was on the phone all day with big hospitals and healthcare organizations who didn’t put the love into their apps,” she says. “They were building things with a check-box strategy, and in my opinion they didn’t have much creativity or innovation.”

Sitting in the next cubicle over, by contrast, was a woman who worked on game apps. “She had a really colorful cube with people in and out all day long. It was like a party,” says Tecco.

Tecco felt that health-related mobile apps could benefit from some of the same fun and imagination going into games—and the idea stuck with her. She went on to found Rock Health, a new non-profit incubator in San Francisco that’s exclusively tailored for startups working on Web- and mobile-based healthcare technologies. And today Rock Health named its first class of companies, from a team using camera phones to diagnose ear infections to a startup dedicated to using social networking to prevent Type 2 diabetes. (For the full list, read on.)

I visited Tecco and Rock Health creative director Leslie Ziegler a couple of weeks ago at San Francisco’s Aberdare Ventures, one of the incubator’s founding partners, and got the whole story behind the incubator. With prestigious supporters such as the Mayo Clinic, Harvard Medical School, Microsoft, and Qualcomm and advisors like 23andMe co-founder Linda Avey and former MIT Media Lab director Frank Moss, Rock Health is on a mission to reverse the problem that Tecco’s Apple internship experience hinted at: the huge innovation deficit in the healthcare sector.

The barriers to innovation in healthcare are legion, Tecco acknowledges: the FDA’s fickle history of medical-device regulation, the red tape that makes it difficult to sell new technologies to hospitals, and the baroque complexity of insurance reimbursement systems, just to name a few. But “we view that as a huge opportunity,” says Tecco, who is now Rock Health’s managing director. “If we give an entrepreneur the resources and confidence to overcome those barriers, there is a huge arbitrage opportunity, because they are building something in a space that was uprecedented before.”

Tecco unveiled Rock Health to the world at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival in Austin in March, at a launch event that featured both Todd Park, chief technology officer of the Department of Health and Human Services, and Aneesh Chopra, chief technology officer of the United States. More than 350 teams sent in their applications before the April 1 deadline, vying for berths that include a $20,000 grant for each team, five months of startup mentorship from advisors, office space at Rock Health’s newly renovated startup digs in San Francisco’s Chinatown, and prototyping and testing support from the Mayo Clinic, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, and Harvard Medical School.

You can think of Rock Health as an aspiring Y Combinator for health and medicine. (Though Y Combinator itself, it should be said, has incubated health and fitness-related companies in the past; this winter’s batch included at least two, DrChrono and FitFu.) But Rock Health is also designed to help entrepreneurs with a history of success in more traditional technology companies make the switch into a risky and unfamiliar new field. As a comparison, a program I covered back in Boston—an executive retraining program designed by the New England Clean Energy Council to help turn IT executives into energy entrepreneurs—comes to mind. Says Ziegler, “We really want to attract the kind of people Y Combinator is attracting: bright people who are maybe a little scared of … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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