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Many health systems have created teams to invest in startups and commercialize their own technology, either to scale it within their own institutions or offer it to others. But from the outside looking in, the process startups need to navigate can vary from one institution to the next.

Utilizing programs that work with healthcare startups to assess their technology and integrate it, as well as foster innovation from within, UnityPoint Health aims to ease this process as well as support its strategic priority of driving innovation in healthcare.

UnityPoint Health, a Des Moines, Iowa-based healthcare organization, is taking part in the MedCity INVEST Population Health conference in New Orleans May 22, where the role of startups in supporting healthcare innovation will be part of the conversation.

Matthew Warrens

Matthew Warrens is the managing director of innovation with UnityPoint Health, having previously served in a similar role with OSF Healthcare. In an interview, he highlighted how the group screens and works with startups.

The health system takes a few different approaches to developing a pipeline of startups for its initial screening. It uses informal relationships with accelerators like MATTER, Plug and Play, and Mass Challenge. It also works with Medical Alley, Sprint in Kansas City and BioSTL in St Louis.

But it’s also important for ambitious entrepreneurs to know the best way to reach Warrens.

“I get dozens of unsolicited pitches a day from LinkedIn and email, but I really prefer to be introduced to a startup through someone I know.”

An innovation team at UnityPoint Health meets weekly to determine which startups should get invited to pitch and which of their experts will need to be on hand, whether it is a neurologist or director of revenue cycle management. The innovation team are generalists, but the team also relies on experts within its organization when they need a deeper level of insight.

Founders and the leadership team for those companies are evaluated as closely as the technology they develop. Warrens said it’s common to meet with a team that has a good idea only for the organization to conclude it doesn’t have confidence that the team can scale the business. On the flip side, it has also met with great leadership teams that have a lackluster solution.

“The magic moment is when they have both. It’s a ‘no’ much more often than a ‘yes’, but it’s rarely ‘never’”.

Some factors that might produce a no beyond the previous reasons are a change in leadership, change in priorities, and other factors that startups have no control over.

There is an expression that’s born out of frustration from the way some institutions work with healthcare entrepreneurs — death by a thousand pilots or a program that never seems to move beyond testing mode for startups. For UnityPoint Health, Warrens says this is a non-issue — the kind of things some startups needlessly fixate on.

“At UnityPoint Health, we don’t do pilot contracts. When we work with a company, we already know what the scaling costs are and the scope of what we will do for scaling as well. Our goal isn’t to do the pilot to test the technology. We want to test the cost with decision makers. It’s really about change management.”

The group always goes into a pilot with a solid plan — including implementation, communication, and how it impacts clinician workflows and patients. The goal is to change clinical workflows as little as possible. Warrens refers to it as developing  “a culture of change management”.

Although UnityPoint Heath’s’s startup program is only halfway through its first year, it is currently doing three pilots across its nine geographic regions. It hopes to complete six by end of year and seeks to double that figure in the second year. It tries to avoid running multiple pilots in the same region at the same time.

As for the specific needs UnityPoint Health is looking to address, Warrens says this year, they are interested in technology for care management, behavioral health, and the patient experience.  

Warrens also shared some of what he has learned from the experience of working with startups.

“The key to creating speed-to-value of this work is you have to have a dedicated, experienced team to manage this — a venture team, an internal commercialization team, and a strategic partner team that helps deploy those solutions.

At UnityPoint Health, we work closely with dedicated clinical resources teams, and our innovation department can pay fees  to get pilots started. The following year, the innovation budget will be refreshed to take on more pilots.”

It’s also important to work with the IT team to ensure there are enough hours to assess the technology of startups and internal innovators. The group reserves IT hours on an annual basis to help with implementation and integration of these solutions, even though they may not know what the actual products will be in the planning cycle.

As for specific advice for startups, Warrens has this to say: Spend less time on the pain points in healthcare your company seeks to address and more time on the technology you have developed. He would also extend that advice to pitch competitions.

I’m always surprised how much time a startup spends describing what the problem is. We already know what the problems are, so tell me more about your innovative solution.”

Photo: zhaojiankang, Getty Images



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