New partnership aims to spark innovation at UCHealth

StartUp Health Colorado, which launched Nov. 16, brings together Anschutz Medical Campus partners committed to driving change in the health care system
Jan. 24, 2017
A large group of people sit in a conference room listening to a speaker.
The Nov. 16 launch of StartUp Health Colorado attracted a large crowd to the Krugman Conference Center.

Entrepreneurs are hardly strangers to the Anschutz Medical Campus, which rubs shoulders with a host of companies and researchers pursuing new and more effective ways to identify, diagnose and treat disease. But the spotlight now shines even more brightly on the campus as a hub for health care innovation.

The latest example is StartUp Health Colorado, which officially launched Nov. 16 with a gathering at the Krugman Conference Center on campus attended by several hundred people, including Don Elliman, chancellor for the Anschutz Medical Campus.

The venture is a partnership between StartUp Health, a national organization that aims to “transform health” through entrepreneurial initiative, and campus partners UCHealth, Children’s Hospital Colorado and CU Innovations.

StartUp Health, which launched in 2011, now claims a “global army” of some 370 entrepreneurs representing 172 companies, according to CEO Steve Krein, who spoke to the crowd.

“We are working together as an army to figure out what works and what doesn’t work in health care,” Krein said.

Digital dollars

It’s an army with significant resources, said Kimberly Muller, director of CU Innovations. The companies with StartUp Health, which are located in 42 states and 16 countries around the world, have collectively raised more than $650 million in financing to support health care innovation, Muller said. She noted that while CU Innovations – formerly the Technology Transfer Office – has been able to attract innovators with ideas for changing health care delivery and has registered some successes, the StartUp Health partnership greatly expands those opportunities, Muller said.

The CEO of StartUp Health speaks to a crowd in a conference room about health innovation.
StartUp Health CEO Steve Krein speaks to the crowd about the necessity for health care innovation.

“We have been able to spin out a few companies and we’ve been very successful on the therapeutic side, but the idea of the StartUp Health partnership is to connect to their funding mechanisms to advance more of these kinds of opportunities,” Muller said. “It connects the work we do in Colorado with the national and international scene. That’s the power of the network we are joining.”

StartUp Health Colorado has issued a “call for innovation,” to run through Dec. 9. The long-term aim is to commercialize 30 start-up companies over the next three years with new and workable ideas for improving clinical outcomes, quality and performance; the “patient experience”; communication with patients; and access to health care services.

Proving ground

The goal is to wed clinical expertise with entrepreneurial spirit and a willingness to “disrupt” established methods of doing business, said Richard Zane, MD, chief innovation officer for UCHealth and chair of the Department of Emergency Medicine at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. Zane sees StartUp Health Colorado as an “incubator” for new ideas.

“At minimum we want to develop viable products that fundamentally improve health care delivery and prove they will work,” Zane said. But simply showing that ideas can come off the drawing board and function viably in the real world isn’t enough. “They also have to improve care and solve a problem we believe needs to be solved,” he said.

The incubator role fills a much-needed niche, Muller said. She noted that while the drive toward health care innovation is exploding in Silicon Valley and other hubs on both coasts, sophisticated technology alone won’t solve the problem of integrating changes into health care, which is heavily regulated and has entered the digital age much more slowly than other industries, like travel and publishing.

“Techs don’t understand the inner workings of health care,” Muller said. “Being able to implement their ideas at the point of care is the missing link in everything that has been going on in the health technology world.”

Broadening the field

The Startup Health Colorado initiative also opens opportunities for the campus to form new relationships with major health care industry players seeking to evaluate innovations and make informed business decisions, Muller said. She noted, for example, that Janssen Research and Development LLC announced in early November a three-year collaboration with StartUp Health aimed at expanding Janssen’s connections with “digital health entrepreneurs, innovators and disruptors.”

StartUp Health Colorado is well-positioned to partner with Janssen as a clinical validation lab for start-ups that Janssen can partner with and/or acquire, Muller said.

The Nov. 18 launch party introduced the first entrepreneur selected by StartUp Health Colorado: Carm Huntress, CEO of Denver-based RxRevu, a digital product developed to help providers and consumers make informed drug choices with cost, clinical and research information.

Addressing the crowd shortly after the RxRevu announcement, Zane summed up the importance of clinicians and entrepreneurs bringing their different areas of expertise together in the service of improving health care delivery and helping patients.

He challenged the assembled to focus less on themselves and their products than on patients and families and future generations. “Patients deserve world changers,” he said. “What they don’t deserve is the current health care system,” which he described as “profoundly expensive, paralyzingly complicated and inefficient.”

For that reason, Zane added, “we want you to disrupt us and tell us that we’re wrong, and tell us, ‘this is how we think you should do it.’” He pledged that StartUp Health Colorado would open its clinical resources to entrepreneurs and provide a laboratory for testing new ideas. In turn, he urged them to view the work they do “through the lens of the patient.”

Innovation hub

In an interview the day after the launch, Zane noted that the University of Colorado CARE Innovation Center, which recently celebrated its first anniversary, helped to lay the groundwork for StartUp Health Colorado. The center is “dedicated to partnering with industry around finding digital health solutions” to improve performance, patient access and experience, quality, and safety, Zane said.

The center’s job is not to generate products independently but rather to partner with digital health entrepreneurs and inventors “to vet, optimize, socialize and eventually validate: their problem-solving designs in advance of deploying them in the real world of clinical care, Zane said.

“Programmers, engineers and entrepreneurs are not necessarily facile with health care,” he said. “Looking at a product through a provider or patient lens isn’t in the skill set of most engineers. The center’s job is to fundamentally change the way that engineers view their products and focus on the ways that people will use it. We want to prove it works or find out what needs to be done to make it work.”

To that end, the center calls on the skills of various subject matter experts as well as specialists in operations, implementation science, information technology, and informatics, Zane said. Thus far, it’s formed partnerships with a number of companies. Among them is AgileMD, which develops tools that assist providers making clinical decisions with evidence-based care pathways and order sets for a variety of conditions. The software is now embedded in many workflows in the Epic electronic health record at UCHealth, Zane said.

While Zane extolled the virtues of problem-solving collaboration between the health care industry and entrepreneurs, he emphasized that StartUp Health Colorado and the CARE Innovation Center are not looking to make UCHealth hospitals into labs for mad-scientist experiments for new products. The more apt comparison is a health care version of “Shark Tank,” with people being challenged to defend not only their ideas but also their principles.

The process includes meetings with CEOs, exploration of a company’s “narrative,” and its ethical stances, Zane said. Ultimately, he noted, the clinical service teams will decide what is important to implement and whether or not introducing a product will impede operations.

But while the rules of engagement for driving change are important, so too is the necessity for it, Zane said. The current health care system, edging toward consuming one-fifth of the U.S. economy while simultaneously becoming harder for many people to access, is “unsustainable,” he said. He believes the Anschutz Medical Campus and UCHealth have a rare opportunity to turn that tide.

“We have an unequivocal desire to be disruptive to the health care system and to embrace change and create our own path,” Zane said. “To do that, we must partner with industry to advance science. We need people and partners who are fearless and think differently.”

About the author

Tyler Smith has been a health care writer, with a focus on hospitals, since 1996. He served as a writer and editor for the Marketing and Communications team at University of Colorado Hospital and UCHealth from 2007 to 2017. More recently, he has reported for and contributed stories to the University of Colorado School of Medicine, the Colorado School of Public Health and the Colorado Bioscience Association.