TMC at SXSW
As the South by Southwest (SXSW) Conferences and Festivals—a world-renowned convergence of creative content and new ideas in the music, film and tech industries—increasingly becomes the go-to place for health innovation, it comes as no surprise that the Texas Medical Center had a large presence at this year’s festival. Nine TMCx Accelerator companies participated in competitions and Texas Children’s Hospital collaborated with three other top children’s hospitals to host a pediatric pitch competition.
In its 23rd year, SXSW Interactive, the festival’s incubator of emerging technology and digital enterprise, hosted 19 different tracks that encompassed everything from sports, government, food, education, and health and medical technology.
“I remember complaining, ‘We’ve got rock stars coming for SXSW Music, we’ve got movie stars coming for SXSW Film, and all we’ve got for this Multimedia and Interactive thing is a bunch of geeks,’” said SXSW Interactive Director Hugh Forrest, recaling a conversation he had with his boss in the 1990s. “It’s a vast oversimplification, but in that space of time, between then and now, geeks have become rock stars.”
Although the prevailing zeitgeist of SXSW Interactive in previous years has been focused on social media, gaming, and retail and e-commerce companies, a new wave of emerging health care startups are thriving in collaboration with each other, trying to solve a slew of health-related challenges at SXSW’s second annual health care track. In addition to panel discussions with health care professionals and venture capitalists, SXSW Interactive featured several pitch competitions—including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Shark Tank-inspired HackMed Barracuda Bowls—that brought health technology and medical device ideas to the forefront of discussion.
“Every American knows health care has tremendous waste and is ripe for solutions that will create better outcomes, based on real data,” said Katherine Chambers, chief executive officer of current TMCx company The Right Place and MIT HackMed Barracuda Bowl winner. “In today’s world it’s a shame we have more solutions and tools as consumers in retail, travel, social engagement and educational models through technology solutions, but that health care is still playing catch up. Our health is the most personal and important thing we have, so shouldn’t technology play a strong role there to help us all live lives more fully?”
AOL co-founder and former CEO Steve Case emceed the second annual Impact Pediatric Health Pitch and welcomed founders of 10 startups to present their innovative solutions for unique challenges in pediatric health care to a panel of judges representing the nation’s top children’s hospitals, including Boston Children’s Hospital, Cincinnati Children’s, Texas Children’s Hospital and The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
One of the judges, Jennifer Arnold, M.D., medical director of the Pediatric Simulation Center at Texas Children’s Hospital, said she regularly sees the direct impact and value of cultivating a culture that encourages entrepreneurs to develop innovative products and solutions geared toward improving pediatric health care.
“Focusing on pediatric health and health care startups is critical to moving health care for our most fragile patients, infants and kids, forward,” Arnold said. “In a system where the focus tends to be on adult health care and innovation, the ability to support those companies willing and interested in focusing on advances in pediatrics is crucial. Without supporting their work, pediatrics will continue to lag behind in innovation.”
The products aimed at improving care for the country’s newest and youngest patients ranged from a voice-translation tool to help those with speech impediments and a screening software for child development, to an avatar-based nurse to help manage chronic conditions and a stabilization device for neonatal umbilical catheters. But it was New York-based Cohero Health’s asthma medication management platform that won over the judges and walked away with the $50,000 first-place prize, while TMCx alum Noninvasix, which was originally slated as an alternate finalist, came in second with its unique monitoring system for reducing cases of oxygen deprivation in infants.
“We are thrilled with the outcome of the competition,” said Noninvasix CEO Graham Randall, Ph.D. “Bragging rights are great, but I think the biggest impact for the company from the competition will come from the connections we’ve made. We now have connections to the top children’s hospitals in the country, and, after the competition, several of the judges asked how they could help Noninvasix.”
Eager to make sure his work was meaningful and impactful, Randall left Silicon Valley 15 years ago to earn his Ph.D. in biosciences from Baylor College of Medicine in an effort to develop new life sciences solutions for unmet needs in pediatric health and collaborate with like-minded and equally passionate individuals.
“I expect that most entrepreneurs in life sciences are driven by a desire to do good, by either improving patient outcomes or creating new efficiencies in the system,” Randall said. “Health care is the biggest economic problem in the country right now. We need entrepreneurs working on creative new solutions that will allow us to get spending under control, without compromising outcomes.”
Ultimately, collaboration across the spectrum of tracks and industries is at the heart of SXSW. Erik Halvorsen, Ph.D., director of the TMC Innovation Institute, said although exposure to other health care companies is vital to startup growth, creating meaningful interactions outside of health care to draw inspiration from and apply to their own ideas is critical.
“One of the secrets to effective innovation, and you see this across different industries, is when you find somebody doing something cool in an unrelated field, like in film or music or design, and you have that ‘Oh, wow’ moment, and think, ‘I could totally apply that to my digital health product or medical device,’” Halvorsen said.
“When you find those gems, new connections that arise as the unintended consequences of chance meetings and discussions, that’s when the magic happens,” he added. “People are trying to solve for some significant problems in health care, and they can easily get into the weeds with all the complexity, but if they step outside their comfort zones and explore what’s going on in unrelated fields like energy, entertainment, architecture and the arts, they might just find something useful and unanticipated that turns out to be a real game changer.”
Whether it’s coming up with innovative solutions to help people better navigate health policy, improve patient safety, mitigate the research translation problem or develop new medical devices that improve patient outcomes, the display of talent at this year’s SXSW Interactive proved that entrepreneurs, engineers and scientists have unparalleled ability to shape the future of health care through collaboration.
“I think the Texas Medical Center has a tremendous role to play in all of these problems, but the common element […] is that there are many opportunities for people who write software or for people who make hardware or for people who do technology in general to have huge impacts,” said CareSet co-founder and hacktivist Fred Trotter. “You can make a relatively small impact, relative to the whole problem, on any one of those problems, and you can save tens of thousands of lives. You can change hundreds of thousands of lives for the better.”