On December 1, 2014, thought leaders from across the country and around the world gathered in Columbia University’s iconic Low Library to attend the first annual HITLAB Innovators Summit.  The majestic setting, whose hallowed halls have been a knowledge repository for hundreds of years, seemed apropos as scholars and entrepreneurs began sharing their thoughts on the past, present, and future of healthcare technology. 

And thoughts abounded! The event kicked-off with a workshop led by Cole Fox, co-founder of ProtoHack, who explained how “hackathons” solve problems and launch ideas. He offered great advice and resources for health startups, such as focusing on one problem to solve, “using the simplest way.”

Dr. Abdulrahman El-Sayed, assistant professor of epidemiology at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and HITLAB Innovators Summit chair, then officially welcomed the crowd with a poignant yet motivating speech on the deep inequities in healthcare, both global and local, and the importance of addressing them with collective action. He described how innovators are tackling these issues—with mobile phones and big data, for example—and urged attendees to focus on preventing and solving public health issues.

Keynote Speaker Dr. Robert Kelly, president of NewYork-Presbyterian, offered a wonderful overview of external forces affecting healthcare delivery today, and how the marketplace is changing. For example, businesses are pushing healthcare costs back on employees, with major implications for all of healthcare. Also, hospitals (physicians too) are banding together to increase their leverage with insurance companies. At the same time, patients are increasingly empowered by access to healthcare articles and technology. Such changes have created a movement toward population health and hospitals are now reinventing care delivery.  Dr. Kelly added that innovators are sorely needed to help both patients and physicians sort through the flood of information available to them.

Several themes emerged during the Summit, including the reinvention of healthcare, the value of empathy in research, the importance of value propositions for startups, and the need to focus on both patients and populations to improve public health:

·         Dr. Ted Witek, distinguished fellow at HITLAB, discussed drug development and innovation. He said innovators must improve the process, increase integration, and create therapies for health and happiness.

·         Dr. Sumu Sethi, global studies leader at Roche, explored “design-thinking,” a human-centered approach to innovation. She emphasized the importance of empathizing with the end-user, defining the problem you are trying to address, and testing your solution.

·         James Sweeney, co-founder of Tangramcare, addressed the past, present, and future of medical innovation. It’s a high risk, high reward industry, with reimbursement driving innovation strategy. He discussed embracing the patient, and the move toward totality of care vs. episodic care.

·         Jeremy Sohn, managing director at MPM Capital, gave tips to innovators looking for investors. How much revenue will your idea generate for the investor, or how much will it save? Startup founders need to keep an exit strategy in mind, as well as whether their product is the right fit for their investor.

·         Harsha Murthy, managing partner of Consummate Capital, stressed the need for entrepreneurs to span divisions within the healthcare industry. He described the struggle to find value in healthcare technology, and advised innovators to be clear on how their technology works and improves health.

·         Unity Stoakes, co-founder of StartUp Health, told attendees “we’re living through a moment of creative destruction in healthcare,” a time of reinvention. Four conditions are converging: health reform, an aging population, the digital revolution, and a golden age for entrepreneurs. “Every device in your life is becoming a healthcare device.”

·         Doug Hayes, executive director of Blueprint Health, said startups are being taken more seriously than ever before, and are solving real problems. They are now working with large institutions, although as they engage, disparities in risk tolerance and expectations arise. He urged hospitals to build better “on ramps” for entrepreneurs, and stressed the need for “empathetic selling.”

·         Gati Dharani, senior associate director at Boehringer Ingelheim, discussed the rise of consumerism, explaining how it’s driving development in healthcare.

·         Dr. David Gruber, managing director at Alvarez & Marsal, asked attendees, “What’s the value proposition?” Common sense is needed in product development, because hype often exceeds reality. Dr. Gruber said too, “Creativity is not enough; you have to execute.” He, like several other speakers, described the benefits of “disruptive innovation” in healthcare.

·         James Major, Esq., senior fellow at HITLAB, explored whether patents inspire or hinder innovation. His answer: patents likely inspire the creation of innovative products, but may well hinder their diffusion in the marketplace.  “Cease and desist” letters, for example, can “make an innovator think twice about bringing an innovation to market.”

·         Dr. Anitha Moorthy, technical advisor at Grameen Foundation, returned to a now familiar theme—the benefits of using a human-centered approach when designing mHealth tools for frontline health workers. Grameen used a participatory approach with both end-users and government as they worked in Ghana.

·         Sharon Suchotliff, vice president and director of engagement strategy at Saatchi & Saatchi Wellness, presented initial results from her company’s study on women, wellness, and technology. Perhaps surprisingly, women are not using wearables as often as men to improve their health; they’re using apps. Why is this? Saatchi & Saatchi decided to explore female attitudes toward wellness and discovered that for women, it’s an all-compassing term, including physical, emotional, and social elements.

The Saatchi & Saatchi study provided a jumping off point for a panel on women in the health tech workforce. Lexie Komisar (associate director, digital health & innovation, Clinton Foundation’s Health Matters Initiative), Sara Holoubek (founder of Luminary Labs), Dr. Wen Dombrowski (physician executive), and Kate Ryder (founder of Maven), launched into a spirited discussion on both obstacles and opportunities facing women in the industry. Women have tremendous potential in tech, and should be considered agents of change.

Last but not least, attendees eagerly watched as five HITLAB World Cup finalists offered their amazing ideas to a renowned panel of judges. The audience was truly inspired by each and every presentation, all of which have tremendous potential to improve public health:


·         Grand Prize Winner

o   NVS Technologies, bringing molecular diagnostics to the point-of-care marketplace, greatly expanding its reach and value

·         2nd Place Winner

o   Careticker, tracking and incentivizing caregivers for providing quality care at home

·         3rd Place Winner

o   Owned Outcomes, enabling discharging clinicians to help patients get well quickly and stay well at the lowest possible cost outlay

·         Honorable Mentions

o   Touch Surgery, allowing surgical students and specialists to practice surgery at their own convenience using a free iOS and Android-based simulation app

o   Psious, using hyper-realistic virtual environments in a mobile-based technology to treat anxiety disorders through gradual exposure

Clinton Foundation's Health Initiative Matters also awarded its Community Innovation Award to Healthify, helping health plans and at-risk providers address the social needs of their population.

Last year’s grand prize winner AdhereTech, represented by Josh Stein, CEO, as well as semifinalist MediSafe, represented by Omri Shor, CEO, both described how the competition helped propel their companies forward to success. And we believe all five 2014 finalists will have similar results, most especially helping patients, caregivers, and administrators in their quests to improve health.

All in all, we were thrilled to provide a platform for a wide array of stakeholders, who spent an inspiring day exchanging ideas and forming collaborations. As we’d hoped, we made a real impact, and can’t wait for next year’s HITLAB Innovators Summit!