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 health entrepreneurship, but because we provide the resources and the mentorship, perhaps it becomes less scary.”

The long resumes that some of the Rock Health teams bring with them testify to the incubator’s success so far in attracting veteran technologists. Here’s a rundown of the eight Rock Health teams announced today, with summaries of their technologies and their founding teams’ backgrounds. (Three more unnamed teams remain in stealth mode.) The descriptions here, which are based on documents provided by Rock Health, are vague in spots, but that may be understandable, given that these companies are just at the start of their journeys. Watch this space for fuller reports as the Rock Health companies mature.

BrainBot—Brain monitoring technology for individuals, designed to help with stress management, meditation, or attention problems. Founders: Rohan Dixit (Harvard-MIT-MGH Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging, Stanford Medical Center, Northwestern University cognitive neuroscience), James Levy (Google, Stickybits, Northwestern University).

CellScope—Smartphone camera attachments for at-home diagnosis of ear infections in children. Founders: Erick Douglas (Tweed Networks, United Nations Industrial Development Organization, UC Berkeley bioengineering), Amy Sheng (Medica Corporation, UC Berkeley bioengineering), Scot Strube (Orrick, Wilson Sonsini, AT&T, UVA School of Law).

Genomera—Crowdsourcing platform for consumer-managed open health studies. Founders: Greg Biggers (Xing Technology, Experts Exchange, Vantive, Responsys, Chordiant), Jonathan Zempel (Solis Design, Macromedia, IBM), Raymond McCauley (Illumina, Solexa, Ingenuity Systems, QIAGEN/Rapigene, Singularity University).

Health In Reach—A transparent marketplace where patients without employer-sponsored healthcare plans can evaluate doctors and dentists based on their experience, reputation, and prices, and obtain group discount rates. Founder: Scott Sangster (Tech Coast Angels, Walt Disney Internet Group).

Omada Health—An Ideo spinoff using social networking principles to aid patients at risk for developing diabetes through sharing of data from connected-health devices. Founders: Sean Duffy (Harvard MD/MBA, Medgadget.com, Ideo, Google, Excel Everest), Adrian James (Ideo, Stanford mechanical engineering), Andrew DiMichele (Lattice Engines, Columbia computer science).

Pipette—Smartphone and tablet apps that give doctors easy-to-read reports on their patients’ health progress, featuring automatic identification of critical patterns and outliers. Founders: Ryan Panchadsaram (Microsoft, Salesforce.com, SeventyK, UC Berkeley Industrial Engineering and Operations Research), Jimmy Do (Microsoft, UC Berkeley computer science).

Skimble—Healthcare and fitness apps for the iPhone, iPad, and Android devices, including two successful titles, WorkoutTrainer and GPS Sports Tracker. Founders: Gabriel Vanrenen (Flurry, Wily Technology, Dartmouth computer science), Maria Ly (Google, Flurry, Cypress, University of Waterloo computer engineering).

WeSprout—An online community designed to help parents find resources for decision making about their children’s healthcare. Founders: M. Jackson Wilkinson (Posterous, LinkedIn, Viget Labs, Bowdoin College music and philosophy), Keith Muth (Corporate Executive Board, Viget Labs, Army.mil, James Madison University interactive media).

To win admission to Rock Health, companies had to have at least one software developer on board, and be self-funded or angel-backed, with no venture funding in the bank. Non-profits were excluded. “Other than that, we cast a really wide net,” says Tecco. “The way we phrased it was, ‘We are looking for product-centric solutions to healthcare inefficiencies.’ We’re not looking for services, or medical devices, or biotech. We’re looking for products that can be used to improve healthcare and scale and become successful businesses.”

Rock Health’s first term will likely end with a Y Combinator-style “demo day” in November, according to Tecco and Ziegler. Will all 11 companies have proved they have scalable business models by then? Perhaps not—but because Rock Health is a non-profit and doesn’t require an equity stake in its startups the way most other incubators do, the pressure being placed on the entrepreneurs to do so won’t be quite as great.

Tecco says that Rock Health’s real mission isn’t necessarily to launch companies, but to carve out a bigger place for Silicon Valley-style thinking in the healthcare sector. “If we can bring in really smart people and give them a playground in which to experiment about healthcare, learn more, and build strong relationships, then if their ideas don’t work out, I don’t have equity; either way, I’m happy,” she says. “Our end goal is really to hone innovation, expand the dialogue to more diverse thinkers, and get more technical expertise thinking about these problems.”

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

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