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Former Athenahealth, RelayHealth Leaders Form Startup Maria Health, with Venrock Headlining Investor Group

Xconomy Boston — 

A powerful anecdote about the ills of U.S. health care this past election season was about President-elect Barack Obama’s mother, who struggled to navigate the medical system while suffering from cancer, which eventually killed her in 1995.

I was reminded of this a few days ago when I talked to Anshul Amar, chief technology officer of Maria Health, a stealthy San Mateo, CA, startup developing a service with online tools to help patients manage their health care. We at Xconomy don’t usually write about tech firms outside of our three main coverage areas (Boston, San Diego, and Seattle), but Maria has generated sufficient buzz here in the Boston market to justify a post.

Why the buzz here in the Hub? For one, Maria was co-founded early this year by Todd Park, co-founder and former chief development officer of Watertown, MA-based health-care software firm Athenahealth (NASDAQ:ATHN). Park, a board member of Athenahealth, stepped down from his full-time post there earlier this year, not too long after the company raised $113 million in its September 2007 initial public offering. The other co-founder of Maria and the young firm’s CEO, Giovanni Colella, is a former chief executive of another notable health-care IT company, RelayHealth, based in Atlanta.

According to Maria’s cryptic Web site, the firm also has on staff former employees of Internet giant Yahoo! (NASDAQ:YHOO), but Amar declined to name names.

Maria has pretty well managed to stay off the press’s radar—other than brief mentions in recent stories primarily on Athenahealth in the Washington Times and health-care IT blog HisTalk—and Maria’s Amar told me that the firm plans to keep most details of its technology and service under wraps until sometime in 2009. Amar would not say much more on the topic than the following:

“We do think that there is room for consumers to have help (with) the burden of managing health care complications…I would certainly say that we see an opportunity to make health care simpler for consumers.”

Amar calls Athenahealth—which provides Web-based software as a service to help medical clinics manage billing, collections and patient health records—a “very important inspiration” to Maria. In fact, Amar was an architect for Athenahealth and one of three developers of athenaNet, the Web application that supports the services the firm provides.

Whatever Maria is doing, along with the cache of its founders, was compelling enough to attract investments from venture firm Venrock and, yes, Athenahealth. Amar says the firm is keeping the particulars of its finances to itself, but he says that there are backers other than Athena and Venrock. It’s also noteworthy that Bryan Roberts, a managing general partner at Venrock, led the firm’s early investments in both Maria Health and Athenahealth, where he serves on the board of directors. Amar told me that Jonathan Bush, Jr., co-founder and CEO of Athenahealth, does not have a role at Maria. (It’s a bit out of context to mention, but I’d feel remiss not to note that Bush and outgoing President George W. Bush are cousins).

John Hallock, a spokesman for Athenahealth, says that the company invested about $250,000 in Maria but notes that it was the first investment it has made in another firm. “It’s a strategic investment,” Hallock says. “If we do invest in another company, we want to make sure that those companies have a real impact on the…delivery of health care.”

Maria Health is named after CEO Colella’s mother, who Amar says faced the challenge of managing her health care and medical bills before she died a few years ago.

Sadly, that sounds all too familiar.

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  • Steven Wardell

    There have been lots of little glimpses of Maria Health in the press but this is the first good overview I have seen.

    I have heard that Maria Health parallels AthenaHealth in that Maria Health will provide tools to patients / consumers to help them make full use of their benefits, to track their care and payments, and to get reimbursed easily (a lot like what AthenaHealth does for physician practices).

    It makes sense to solve the many problems patients face with their benefits and payments one time excellently and capture it in a rules system for use by everyone else who is a member of the network (which is what AthenaNet does).

    How will they make money on patients / consumers though? Ads? Freemium? A small piece of the transaction? A small piece of the incremental benefit they create for users?