Using human-centered design and piloting to help early-stage startups launch


NYCEDC (New York City Economic Development Corporation)


Rapid pilot test, study design, ethnographic research, semi-structured interview, innovation competition, convening advisory board

“Growing a digital health company is a complex and difficult undertaking, and the Network affords us a chance to prove our technology in ways not otherwise accessible to us at this early stage. As we gather pilot data to share with investors and potential clients, we’ll bring our product to the people who need it most much faster and with better insight than we ever could on our own.”

—Adam Kirell, Co-Founder, Bio-Trak Health

“The Digital Health Breakthrough Network will help advance technologies that could benefit thousands of New Yorkers. This program provides a pathway to success for many budding startups and will keep New York City on the cutting-edge of innovation.”

—Maria Torres-Springer, President, NYCEDC

“We’re elated to see dozens of startups in NYC going after worthwhile causes. It really confirms the strength of the City’s digital health ecosystem. Working with large, established players can be a challenge for small and developing companies, especially early-stage ventures. The lives of New Yorkers and people globally will be impacted by the research and development done here.”

—Stan Kachnowski, Chair at HITLAB


New York City Economic Development Corporation’s mission is to encourage economic growth in NYC. Its work promotes and grows quality jobs for all New Yorkers and cultivates dynamic, resilient communities across all five boroughs. NYCEDC invests in infrastructure to support community development, leverages city assets to promote innovation, and drives sustainable and resilient growth to make it easier for businesses to start, grow, and thrive in New York City. HITLAB operates the Breakthrough Alliance that helped make this study possible.


Getting off the Ground

Although early-stage digital health startups have countless opportunities to succeed in New York City, they often face many barriers as well. Many digital health startups begin when an individual with direct experience in healthcare — a professional, practitioner, caregiver, or patient — has a promising idea on how to transform the healthcare experience. But often, these ideas aren’t poised to effectively meet a clear health need. They end up supporting a mission that doesn’t quite align with demand from real end-users, investors, or the market.

On their own, it’s difficult for startups to pilot test technology, which requires navigating the bureaucratic processes of age-entrenched IT infrastructure or IRB approval to see how people in need engage with technological solutions.

Challenges aside, these startups have huge potential for success and scale. The healthcare industry is a leading sector in job creation in NYC and is full of unexplored opportunities for digital health to thrive. Spotting a high failure rate for health startups, NYCEDC turned to HITLAB to create a novel startup incubator that uses research to help the city’s startups scale.


City-wide competition

How do we identify the digital health startups with the most feasible products and the greatest potential for growth? Running a startup innovation competition gave us insights into which NYC early-stage startups would benefit the most from the Digital Health Breakthrough Network’s resources. Startups city-wide were invited to apply for the incubator in open application periods that occurred twice per year. HITLAB’s team screened each startup, using an evaluation matrix to determine which had the most potential. HITLAB then conducted interviews with the founders to make a selection.

Building a Network

After selecting the Digital Health Breakthrough Network’s first cohort, the HITLAB team convened an advisory board of industry experts to guide the program’s growth. The advisory board is composed of top innovation executives from major institutions in NYC. Taken together, this network allows startups to engage with their clinical end users while also gaining exposure and mentorship from digital health buyers and decision-makers. 

Advisory board, pilot testing, and partnerships.

Startups received a tailored pilot study of their product.  For most, this is the first time their technology will be used in a real-world setting. Studies are small-scale and rapidly deployed to get data quickly. The studies helped each founding team understand the feasibility of their product among their target customers, pivot their product to better align with user needs, and collect data to pitch investors.


Using research to pivot and scale.

The pilot studies conducted by HITLAB for the Digital Health Breakthrough Network revealed key findings on the success and opportunities of newly identified digital health technologies. The results helped the cohort identify areas for improvement and success, and present results to key investors and stakeholders. The validation provided by the pilot studies helped startups in the cohort continue their success in transforming the healthcare industry for the better. 

After nearly three years of the Digital Health Breakthrough Network, alumni have gone on to create more than 140 jobs in NYC and raise more than $195 million in venture capital funding.

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