You can learn a lot about doing great science, building big companies, and even living a healthy life, by listening to the right group of people.
Of course you also have to do stuff yourself—not just listen—but getting exposed to the right ideas can’t hurt. And those ideas (and people) were in abundance at Tuesday’s Xconomy Healthcare Summit 2015 at the Broad Institute. From entrepreneur-scientist Tillman Gerngross to medical leader Lynda Chin to corporate star Doug Williams, the program covered the entire spectrum from cutting-edge science to clinical collaborations to patient care and health IT systems.
Even across such a wide range of topics, a few common themes surfaced throughout the day. They are as applicable to daily life as they are to innovating in the complex and ever-changing world of healthcare:
1. Focus on important problems. Easy to say, very hard to do. Gerngross, from Dartmouth College, noted that early in his career he spent a lot of time “chasing too many problems that weren’t important.” Scientists tend to fall in love with their own science, he said, and that can distract them from making a big impact. “Figure out what problem to solve and then crush it,” he said.
2. Build deep relationships. Polaris Partners’ Terry McGuire talked about developing partnerships with entrepreneurs that last through good times and bad. (Not every startup he’s built with Gerngross has succeeded.) With any company or relationship, there will be problems and disagreements to work through. A failure doesn’t mean the end of a relationship, McGuire said, but not being willing to deal with a failure likely does.
3. It’s all about the data. For years, we’ve been hearing about the power of sharing medical information across networks. The process seems to be coming to fruition, albeit slowly. Chin, from the University of Texas System, talked about a dedicated network for sharing health records securely and privately. Protecting the data is more of a business barrier than a technological challenge, she said.
Meanwhile, IBM Watson Health’s Kathy McGroddy-Goetz told a personal story of her cousin Ted’s battle with cancer, and how he was able to convene a network of experts to advise him on which clinical trial to enroll in. A goal with Watson is to provide that level of expertise on-demand to help both doctors and patients—and do it for “every single patient.”
4. Two steps forward, one step back. Healthcare entrepreneurs are on the leading edge, but the industry moves at its own pace. PillPack’s Elliot Cohen said regulations around advertising online were a “pretty serious early hindrance” to his pharmacy business, but in the end “it’s better for the consumer.” CoPatient’s Rebecca Palm said, “When you get into health IT, no one tells you how much paper you have to embrace.” Wellframe’s Jacob Sattelmair said his company has had to build its credibility with big health organizations, and sales cycles can be six to 18 months long. And HealthMyne’s Rock Mackie made an analogy with self-driving cars: just as some automated features like lane-warning systems are appearing on the way towards full-blown robotic vehicles, digital health companies are going after the complex healthcare market piece by piece.
5. Do more, faster. MIT biologist Leonard Guarente’s company, Elysium Health, is trying to blend the deep science and rigor of drug development with the speed and accessibility of consumer tech. He’s going after the multibillion-dollar market of nutritional supplements using a direct-to-consumer model. “We have to be careful about what we claim,” Guarente said. But his goal is to shave the time to market from 10-plus years for a drug to just a year or two for Elysium’s supplements.
Bottom line: the healthcare industry is getting closer to its perennial goal of “patient-centered care,” through a mix of technologies and personal-health initiatives. Boston Children Hospital’s John Brownstein predicted that the vision will become a reality over the next decade. But in order to get there, he said, “hospital workflows are going to have to change.”
Photo (left to right: Mike Putnam, Rebecca Palm, Jacob Sattelmair, and Elliot Cohen) by Keith Spiro Photography