This interview comes to us courtesy of Damon Davis in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. HHS is a founding partner of the Health Data Consortium.
HHS continually looks to the startup community for new and novel ways entrepreneurs and innovators are using data. In this interview I spoke with Halle Tecco, co-founder of Rock Health about the opportunities for start-up companies in health care as technology advances access to data fuels new products. We also discussed the importance of women in health tech and why Rock Health started the XX in Health program.
Q: Tell me a little bit about why you started Rock Health and the organizations you incubate.
A: I started Rock Health in 2010 with my Harvard Business School classmate Nate Gross. I came up with the idea after working at Apple where I recognized that the quality of the products that were being developed in the healthcare sector weren’t quite as creative and robust or unique as some of the other segments of the business, so I thought that there was an opportunity to really recruit great talent to healthcare that were otherwise not welcomed into the industry. And while healthcare is one of the largest industries, it hasn’t necessarily been entrepreneur friendly: it’s been very siloed and I think the tech world has been very siloed. So we really wanted to figure out a way to bridge these two worlds to use technology to disrupt healthcare. If we believe that technology can help solve some of the problems of rising costs, system inefficiencies, and medical errors then we need to make sure that we’re recruiting the best technology people and the best minds in health care to the table together. Nate and I really took a deep dive into entrepreneurship to learn about who was starting digital health companies. What were their support systems? What were the biggest barriers? From that we came up with the idea of Rock Health, and the need to bring everyone to the table from medical professionals to investors and technical talent. We ended up launching before we graduated because there was so much great momentum in the space.
We’re structured as a non-profit, so we do have a mission to educate and support innovators in the health care space. Our non-profit status allows us to work with numerous hospitals like, UCSF, Kaiser, Mayo Clinic, and Harvard Medical School amongst others. We have a number of great corporate partners that fund a lot of the work that we do. In addition to incubating, we put out a lot of reports that are meant to educate innovators and those curious about the space. We make sure the information we publish is accessible and delivered in a way that is educational and entertaining. Our recent report on demystifying the FDA has been our highest viewed report. So we know people are reading the content and hopefully using that to build their innovations.
Q: Since 2010 Healthcare technology has become far more pervasive in healthcare. Tell me about the opportunities you see for health care companies during the digital age of health data.
A: Consumer demand for innovative services is evident. Most Americans have a wireless connection and reports indicate that a majority of consumers are interested in medical self monitoring devices and video conferencing for follow up visits. As you know, doctors are becoming big users of health IT, so the technology is there and the hardware is a great platform for the delivery of software tools to both providers and patients or consumers. The changes in the technology landscape are allowing us to bring innovations to health care, but I think you’re right, things have changed so much in the three years that we’ve been working on this.
Regulatory changes are creating tons of new opportunities – obviously the Affordable Care Act is shifting incentives so everyone is trying to uncover where the opportunities lie. With the health insurance exchanges we’re seeing the insurance companies showing more interest in trying out new ideas, becoming less risk averse, and they’re more excited about working with startups. We’ve had tons of our startups work with the payers which has been excellent. A lot of that willingness to collaborate results from pressures from the insurance exchanges to start competing based on quality and the services they offer, making the incumbents more welcoming to innovation.
Then there activities focused on moving the system from paying for value instead of volume, which is where technology can really grant acccess to information at your fingertips. The spending on health IT has been great for larger EHR companies, and not all of them are as open as they should be but that’s another story. Still, the ability to get the patient, data about the disease, or data that moves us more towards personalized medicine so that we can provide better care while ultimately reducing costs, reducing readmissions, etc. – all of these are products of what’s changing in DC, and I think Obamacare has been really positive in terms of opening up new opportunities for entrepreneurs.
Q: On a more personal note, historically this is an space that has been led by men, so as a leader in this space, what advice do you give to other women regarding their ideas for entrepreneurship, tech development and the opportunities and challenges for women in the health and tech arena?
A: Well, we have a group within Rock Health that is committed to promoting leadership among women in health called “XX in Health“. In 2011 we noticed there were very few applications from women and the ones we received were not as strong as we would have liked. So we wanted to figure out what we we could do better. Were we not as active or vocal enough in the circles that women were paying attention to? Were we marketing to men? My team was made up of 6 women and one man, so we weren’t really sure what we were doing that wasn’t attracting enough strong female leaders to apply.
So we started hosting monthly dinners to bring together women in what was mostly a recruitment event. We wanted to connect women with more senior women in health care to motivate them to become entrepreneurs. Over the next year that group grew from just monthly dinners where women would convene to talk about the challenges of being a working woman, to a retreat that is more of a participatory conference where the women share very raw, deep emotions, and we encourage people to be open about their journeys. You really don’t get the opportunity in business to show your feelings and talk about your struggles; you always have to put on your strong face. I do think that it’s very important to be professional at all times. But it’s also impoprtant for us to offer one day a year when they can just relax and share what they’re really feeling and the burdens they may feel of being a single mother, being a caregiver, or not climbing the ladder as fast as you’d like – whatever it is about being a woman, or just about being a person in health care.
The events have been outstanding. The next one, our third retreat, is in Washington, DC on June 2, the Sunday before the Health Datapalooza.
As a result of the program we’ve definitely seen more women apply to Rock Health. We haven’t reached a 50/50 split of men to women but we have many more female leaders in our portfolio.
In the XX in Health program we’re starting to identify the barriers to women’s advancement so that we can either help remove them, or help women identify and overcome them. Often there aren’t a lot of female role models up at the top of an organization. So one of our goals is to showcase some of the women who have made it so they can inspire other women, because if you don’t see people that look like you at the top how can you ever internalize that you can get there? It’s important to make sure that women who are more junior in their career but are emerging leaders have access to these women who have made it.
We’ve seen that while the XX in Health group is growing it’s also supporting Rock Health and ensuring that we’re able to attract women.
Q: What excites you about the future of health care as you see start ups?
A: Well, I love my job. I get up every day so excited for the endless amount of work that we have ahead of us. Thinking about what’s happening in the ecosystem this has absolutely been a watershed year for us, and having access to the large players and and stakeholders has never been as fluid as it is today. I remember three years ago we were begging these large organizations to see the vision and trying to get them to understand where I was going with this crazy idea. Now we have these same large institutuions coming to us for information on trends, what’s around the corner or what’s happening next, and they’re more open than ever to innovating and working along side these smaller companies. That to me is tremendous progress in a very short time, which means it will get easier for these startups to scale and distribute their ideas.
What gets me excited about digital health is definitely health data. I’m definitely in the learning phase but I think about how are we collecting this data? Some of the neatest products that I’ve seen come through Rock Health or get funded in the space are those that are collecting data in new and novel ways. We’re moving from a place where we only get care episodically when things go wrong to a place where we’re collecting this data continously which is so excitting. We’re seeing tools that allow us to continue to monitor ourselves then predict problems before they occur which hopefully reduces some of the high cost hospitalizations that happen when you don’t have that data.